Two weekends ago, my husband, toddler, and I went to Target for the week’s groceries. In recent weeks, Josh has made this trip either alone or with just our son while I stay home and rest. He does this because walking and standing and even sitting upright for longer than ten minutes wears me out now, because I’m pregnant with twins. He does it because he is a good partner and father.
This particular day, for whatever reason, I thought I was up for the trip. I think I just wanted to spend more time with my family after a busy few days. (We had just bought a minivan, which involved several hours at a dealership over three days, but that’s a whole other story.) Within five minutes of standing in line to return some items at customer service, I was uncomfortable, light-headed, a little breathless. I started doing some really unflattering stretches, resting my forehead on the cart handle and bending forward with my butt sticking out to take some pressure off my back.
Josh suggested I ride one of the motorized carts.
We’ve had this conversation before. He knew what I was going to say. I didn’t think other people would think I should be riding a motorized cart. That probably sounds a little stupid, but it’s the truth. I would have felt embarrassed riding one because I am only pregnant, because women who look as pregnant as I do still manage their own shopping without sitting down, because nobody can tell from looking at me that I am carrying twins — that my blood volume is even higher than a “normal” pregnant woman’s, that my resting heart rate these days is around 110 beats per minute, that my hips slide in and out of alignment regularly, and that thirty minutes of being on my feet usually requires hours of rest for recovery. I know these things. I knew that using the motorized cart was justified and, frankly, the wisest choice. I did consider it…
Instead, I compromised. Theo wanted to ride in the huge cart with the side-by-side double kid seat attached behind it. I thought, When I feel tired, I’ll just perch on the empty seat for a sec. Problem solved.
Cut to: the bread aisle maybe ten minutes later, where I could do little more than shuffle my feet, and that dizzy feeling that usually requires me to lie down came over me. I sat in the tiny kid seat, far too big to wedge my back into the curved plastic, my feet braced on the bottom rack of the cart so I wouldn’t slide out. I alone exceeded the weight limit for two children. I would say I didn’t care, but of course I did; I just couldn’t do much else. And so my husband pushed that massive cart with me and our child up and down aisles, and I wished for invisibility.
Was this more embarrassing than if I’d just ridden a motorized cart? Yes. Yes, it was. Especially when my toddler jumped ship as we went down the main aisle and nearly got his leg run over, and Josh stopped pushing us to scoop him up and comfort him, and I had to decide whether to de-wedge myself or keep sitting there, in everyone’s way, a grown-ass woman expecting to be ferried around by my husband.
Generally, I dislike the idea of pregnancy as a disability. Partly, I think the idea comes from bad workplace policies regarding accommodations and job protection for pregnant people, which sometimes fail on their own and require women who need something like light duty to get it through the Americans with Disabilities Act instead. In a “normal,” uncomplicated pregnancy, women are typically encouraged to remain active and exercise. They are capable of most everyday activities. Pregnancy itself does not make them helpless creatures who need to be cared for by others. (Of course, it’s nice to care for pregnant people, in a not-pushy way.)
When I was pregnant with my first baby, I had some shortness of breath and late-pregnancy back and groin pain, but these things didn’t keep me from fulfilling my duties as a college instructor, on my feet for an hour while I lectured. They didn’t keep me from walking at a mall on my due date, hoping to jumpstart labor. I had an uncomplicated pregnancy with an energetic second trimester and very few limitations on what I could physically manage, as many women do. It’s those cases where treating pregnancy as some kind of disability makes no sense. By that I mean: strangers voicing disapproval of a pregnant person’s activity level, or insisting she sit down instead of mingling at a gathering, or remarking that she must be exhausted with no evidence of fatigue, or taking items out of her hands without asking if she’d like some help. For those pregnant people who feel more capable and more empowered through the process of gestating a human in their bodies, these forms of monitoring and “helping” by others can feel infantilizing. I bristle at the generalization that pregnant bodies are necessarily less able, even though its true that many tasks are more challenging, like shaving your legs; because in other ways, pregnant bodies are also more able, more flexible, more powerful. And the more we treat them as only limited, the less I think we honor that other side of pregnancy and the more we discourage pregnant people from believing in their body’s ability to gestate and labor and give birth.
So, when I declined the motorized cart at Target, I guess I was thinking of my pregnant body the way I think of a typical pregnant body. I was thinking that I didn’t want to signal to others that pregnancy is a disability. I didn’t want people to think I was just lazy and using a tool meant for people who “really” needed it. But I wasn’t thinking of my actual pregnant body.
My actual pregnant body requires a lot of rest. It requires extra time and extra effort to do simple things like rolling over in bed and walking from the living room to the bathroom and getting to and from the floor to change my son’s diaper. There are two babies in there, both of whom kick me when I try to sleep on “their” side. Every symptom I’ve had has been more extreme and started sooner than with my singleton pregnancy, like 24-hour nausea by 5 weeks. I was in maternity pants by 6 weeks. I had groin pain and pelvic pressure at 16 weeks. At 22 weeks, I was measuring 30 weeks along. I kept expecting the fatigue to lift in my second trimester; instead, I sit or lie down almost every hour of the day to ward off dizziness, pain, and contractions. Doctors consider my pregnancy “high risk,” and many resources about multiples pregnancy emphasize complications and restrictions. Listening to my body, within this context, makes me concerned I might push myself so hard I end up with mandatory bed rest.
I don’t want to treat my body like it needs extra care because I have been 25 (now 27) weeks pregnant before without needing extra care. That’s seriously the logic at work here. I don’t want to acknowledge my limits because I don’t think I should have them. At least not yet. Kind of like how at 29 years old I was pretty bummed about having some gray hairs because I was in my twenties, but at 30 I thought, “Well, at least I’m 30 now. I’m old enough.” I would probably accept my limits better if I were 35 weeks along instead of 27. Even with a singleton, by that point, it’s common to get worn out easily. Instead, I count the weeks down and wonder if I’ll still be able to drive or if I’ll be on bedrest in another month. I am constantly weighing my need to be mobile and social against the fear that over-exertion will push me into even less mobility, into isolation. I am heartbroken about how my body has restricted play with my son and, at times, my ability to keep him safe.
I have never had a long-term disability or chronic condition. The closest I’ve experienced was a year of pelvic pain after my first birth, which was certainly debilitating at times and affected my daily life. It has resurfaced with this pregnancy, compounding my other twin-centric symptoms. But that year it passed eventually, just like pregnancy passes. I know I will regain the basic mobility and physical abilities I’ve lost. Psychologically, that makes a big difference. Those with life-long ailments or progressive diseases don’t get to expect a time when their body will morph back into what it once was. Maybe that’s why I hesitate, in front of other people, to show the ways my body is weak right now. It feels like I’m laying claim to an experience I haven’t really earned, like someone with the flu expecting to fit in at a cancer group.
And yet, I have these new limits. And ignoring or hiding them doesn’t make them go away. It’s such a strange place to find myself. I still think of pregnancy as a phase of power and possibility. I am envious of other pregnant women who still work and clean their houses and do their grocery shopping. I don’t want to complain about my pregnancy, and I don’t want to need help. I want to just be proud of the double time my poor body is managing to do, to be grateful that aside from my ailments, my “high risk” twin pregnancy has included no serious health complications for me or my babies. I want this, but it’s a perspective I struggle to keep. Sometimes, I just want to hear someone say, “You’re doing great, but man, I bet it’s hard.” Often, I hear things like, “You’re gonna be huge. I bet you’ll end up on bed rest.”
I know this is all about acceptance. I need to stop worrying that people will think I’m lazy or exaggerating. I need not to expect or hope for understanding. I’m the only one who experiences my body. I am the one who knows best what it feels like and what it needs. And you know what? It’s doing a good job.