The Post-Partum Body

Simon_First Smiles_December 2015

Above: The Reason Behind My Six-Month Leave

In January I returned to training after a six-month maternity leave. I was fifteen or so pounds heavier than what I had been pre-partum. I had a poochy stomach, and I had fat where I used to have muscle.

I was afraid that I would neither regain my shape nor my technique. It was my third pregnancy. I was old. I was tired. I might never recover.

On one hand, I want to live with my post-partum body, partly because our society despises it. Conversations following birth revolve on how quickly you return to your pre-partum weight. “When did you fit into your jeans?” we women ask each other. When my newborn was one week old, women (always women) ran their eyes along my midriff as if to assess where I could be slotted on the post-partum weight-loss continuum.

The female body and the maternal body continue to be central topics of gender wars. Some artists are trying to re-value the mother’s form. Jade Beall’s stunning book of photographs of mothers, The Bodies of Mothers, counteracts cultural body shaming and creates a media platform on which mothers can see reflections of themselves. I’m grateful for this and others’ attempts at exhibiting and appreciating the real maternal body.

I’m enjoying my own. I’m proud of what it has done (given birth) and what it’s doing (breast-feeding.) My son is growing from drinking breast milk only—the female body’s ability to nourish another body is a feat that continues to astonish me.

On the other hand, I miss my athlete’s body. My first Sensei used to talk about the pleasure of experiencing a freedom of movement that comes from having a strong, thin body. I worried about the impact of his words on students who were not rail thin or those who had eating disorders. But lately, as I’ve been losing weight and rebuilding muscle, I find myself remembering his words and partly agreeing with him.

In January, I returned to the dojo with my seven-year-old son. Each Saturday, I drag my transition-shy boy out of the house, into the white glare of the winter sunlight and, recently, into air sparkling with silvery snow motes.

Once we’re in the community centre’s gym, my son starts smiling. He loves karate. In the dojo, he doesn’t experience any of the mild behavioural challenges he faces at school. The instructors are strict but not intensely so. He adores them, in particular one of the men, who feigns to come at him with devastating punches. Once again, I’m faced with the gendered nature of experience: My son reacts better to male teachers than female teachers.

As for me, I’m finding the return to being a karate-ka slow. I had a complicated birth and my lower back and pelvis continue to recover. A weakness in my left leg is preventing me from kicking properly. But everything is improving. And I’m re-experiencing the sheer pleasure of being able to move again, the ecstasy of kicking and jumping.

Regaining my past athleticism is necessarily slow. I will continue to breast-feed my infant. Like the philosopher and feminist Lauren Bialystok, I find breast-feeding both instinctive and wonderful and have no intention of sacrificing it on the altar of body image. And I won’t be attending more than one karate class per week this year. I want to spend time with my baby and with my other children. Instead of class, I go to the gym, and supplement my training with yoga classes, which are shorter than karate classes and more suited to my tightly-packed days.

I’ll live with, and sometimes appreciate, my jiggly body. To hell with those who run their eyes along my maternal curves and bite their lips in judgment. I want my relationship to my post-partum body to be a personal one. I want the link between self and body to play out not on the public stage but in the private realm.

Mama, Again

My lifestyle gradually changed, and I no longer considered running the point of life. In other words, a mental gap began to develop beween me and running. Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love. (Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.)

The above quote somewhat captures what I’ve been feeling, but not quite. I have been experiencing the mental gap Murakami speaks of, and this chasm lies between me and karate. On the other hand, outside circumstances have deepened that breach.

Still, in keeping with Voltaire’s caution that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” I’ve decided to leave Murakami’s quote at the top of today’s entry.

What has happened is that I’ve become pregnant with my third child. Here are some of the things I’ve discovered the third time around:

  1. The first few weeks of a middle-aged pregnancy can be physically horrendous. In the beginning, I start to experience debilitating headaches that force me to go to bed at six p.m. every evening. I experience an unfamiliar nausea. One morning, my nine-year-old comes down to the kitchen in time to hear me retching in the kitchen sink. “What’s wrong?” she asks. Since I don’t want to tell my kids about the baby until the risk of miscarriage has abated, I lie to her. “A bad cough,” I say.
  2. By the sixth month of pregnancy I can no longer do karate spinning back kicks. The execution isn’t bad but once the foot is out there, it refuses to return smoothly. I lose my balance. Besides, I look ridiculous, tilting forward with my enormous belly—which is already a kind of shelf I can rest my tea cup on—then returning like a weeble wobble.
  3. After a karate class, everything hurts. My pelvis feels like someone has beaten it with a stick. My feet ache. My legs go into spasms for the next twelve hours. After a class, I come home, collapse on the couch, and can’t get up for at least an hour. The house starts to fall apart. I neglect my evening tidy-up. In addition, since we’ve emptied the kids’ rooms in order to paint them (what was I thinking?), we spend our time climbing over boxes of books and stepping on Lego toys.
  4. On the other hand, after a class, my mood is excellent. All things considered, I decide to continue my training.

The decision to train until the end of my pregnancy (which I did with my first two pregnancies) is scuttled by month six, during which I start to experience contractions. “It’s too early,” my physician husband says. “You really don’t want to give birth anytime before thirty-two weeks. Twenty-four weeks is bad.”

“How long do I have to wait?”

“Thirty-six weeks is best.”

When I go to my regular medical check-up, my O.B., an always-smiling woman in her mid-forties, asks me to consider “taking it easy.”

I tell her that in order to compromise that morning, I chose to walk rather than bike the three kilometres to her office. She looks at my feet. “At least you have good shoes.” She adds, “none of my patients are doing what you’re doing.”

I tell her that I intend to teach my last karate class the following week. The decision to stop teaching is based somewhat more on an emotional need rather than on practical considerations. I’m starting to feel embarrassed about my failing technique. I mourn the loss of my high side kicks. I have always been proud of my ability to keep my balance, a skill that in the last few weeks I’ve misplaced entirely.

But there are also practical considerations. Because the already-large foetus is constricting my lungs, I can no longer demonstrate a particular move and speak at the same time. I lose my breathe and become dizzy.

I’ve enlisted other advanced belts to help me, and they do. We take turns demonstrating and teaching. In the end, however, I have to concede that teaching is no longer possible. I find a talented and dedicated purple belt to take my place for the next year.

But quitting teaching turns out not to be enough. By the seventh month, I’ve gained 27 pounds, and it’s getting hard to haul myself around the city streets, let alone do karate drills. I’m also much older than I was during the first two pregnancies, and I feel the aches and pains of this pregnancy much more acutely. I experience insomnia, congestion, and a myriad of digestive issues.

On the advice of my O.B., I leave karate and switch to less dynamic sports: walking, swimming, and yoga. These challenge me but don’t knock me out the way karate does. The exception is when I take long hikes with my family. During a visit to relatives in Europe, my family and I hike twelve kilometres through Basque mountains in northern Spain. In the summer heat. In the afternoon. It takes me several hours to recover from the hike, and I concede to myself that I’ve overdone it and promise myself to walk for shorter distances.

I mourn the loss of karate. I miss karate’s dynamism. I miss feeling competent at a sport. I also miss my community of students and teachers.

A fellow instructor points out that this enforced break will encourage me to develop the mental aspect of karate training. He’s right, and I do find myself being able to draw on previously undiscovered mental resources. On the other hand, my general mental state is suffering. I’ve gone from a lifestyle involving rigorous exercise to a relatively quiet lifestyle. I’ve started to lose my patience. I dial up my participation in other sports in the hope that being more active will help me keep my temper. After all, I tell myself, it’s not fair to lose my patience with my existing children for the sake of the unborn child.

I cling to the fact that all this is temporary. The baby will be born, and after a few months, I’ll be able to train again. But I’m frightened: I’m getting older. What if I can no longer regain the type of physical fitness I had in my thirties? I re-read Haruki Murakami ’s memoir, What I talk About When I Talk About Running. His enumeration of his aches and pains, his expression of a sense of time’s passing and of his grief at becoming older—these comfort me.

During my seventh month of pregnancy, my husband and I take our children on a seven-kilometre hike in Northern Ontario. I huff and puff my way up a muddy trail. It’s so challenging that I become grumpy. “I’m not sure this is what Dr. M. had in mind,” I tell my husband. “When she told me to take it easy.” But it is a beautiful hike, through evergreens and birches. There are mushrooms I’ve never seen before: fiery red button ones; large, yellow flat ones in the shape of stingrays; bulbous brown ones that I tell my children are Smurf houses.

I won’t lie: I’m terrified of the first few months after birth. Those months during which you have so little time for yourself, and what little time you do have you experience as though you’re in a fog. How will I train? How will I write?

I am now in my eighth month. This week, I handed in my completed manuscript of short stories to a potential publisher. There’s nothing left for me to do but wait. A few weeks ago, I wrote a draft of a graphic novel. Since I have to wait for my illustrator to complete another project before she illustrates my text, I’ve started writing a novel that has been tugging at me for years.

Now, I’m thinking that blogging, writing a novel, and raising three kids while running a household might be overly ambitious. But who knows? Perhaps those mental resources my fellow karate instructor spoke of will continue to kick in, after all.

Pregnant Karate

It was the fall of 2008, and I was five months pregnant with my second child. I was on Bloor Street, running an errand on my bicycle. It was just before three in the afternoon. Cars honked, pedestrians jay-walked, and drivers rushed to find parking so they could run their errands before three p.m., when parking meters expired. I rode carefully, training my eyes on the driver seat of each parked car, wary of car doors that might suddenly open. Without warning, a large, white sedan pulled up in front of me and cut me off. Fortunately, because I rode slowly, I avoided slamming into it, with only a minimal amount of wobbliness.

Still, I was shaken. And when I’m shaken, I tend to speak up. Using my feet, I propelled myself up to the driver’s window. The driver was in his late sixties, with white hair and a mustache, who looked like a kindly, elderly European man, the kind you might find playing Bocce in a local park. I put on my most pleasant expression — what I consider my teacherly expression, left-over from my days as a university instructor, and meant to be stern but informative. I considered removing my helmet so as not to appear threatening, but changed my mind: being on a bike with a large belly, I was precariously balanced. A miscalculation on my part might cause me to topple over.  I gestured for the driver to roll down his car window.  He looked up at me. I smiled encouragingly. He locked the door and gave me the finger.

I have to admit that at that time, I was a poor Karate-Ka i.e. I hadn’t mastered the ability to keep my temper. (Actually, I still haven’t conquered this particular challenge.) “You almost ran into me!” I yelled. I looked around to see if anyone had witnessed his crime. A middle-aged woman watched from the sidewalk. “He cut me off!” I said to her.

“No, he didn’t,” she said. She looked at me. “I’m a driver. I know all about you cyclists.”

I stared at her. “I’m a driver too,” I said. “We need to share the road.”

I knocked on the driver’s window. “I’m pregnant!” I said.

The woman pedestrian spoke up. “That’s right,” she said. “You’re completely irresponsible, bicycling while pregnant.”

Flash forward to a karate class taking placed one week later. I was in front of the class,  demonstrating a kata called Ken-Zaki Sho Dan. Like all katas, the kata involves a series of block and attack sequences meant to mimic a real defense situation. This particular kata also requires the martial artist to perform three jumps. I was coming up to the first of three, and had to decide whether to jump. Up until just before the first jump, I was uncertain. Sensei and thirty of my colleagues — men, women, children — watched. As I went through the blocks and punches, they were quiet. All I could hear was the rasping sound my Gi sleeves made when they came into contact with my body.

I thought about people wondering if I was going to jump. I imagined there was something censorious about their thoughts, just as there had been in those of the pedestrian stranger, who had spoken so vehemently against me bicycling while pregnant. I hesitated. As I approached the jump, my intense focus — and sheer momentum — took over. I jumped. High. I landed in a solid kiba datchi stance, my arms crossed in front of me in an X-block. I moved forward, completed the remaining two jumps, and finished the kata with a final flourish of the arms, a double upper block. I bowed. The class clapped. The baby kicked, assuring me that everything was well. As indeed it was: both baby and I were fine. A middle-aged man, a friend, approached me. “I was watching you,” he said. “I wondered whether you were going to jump.”

In her book Bad Mother, Ayelet Waldman notes that mothers in particular are prone to being watched by other people. Yes, mothers are often watched; we are all being watched. My bicycling encounter and my dojo demonstration are analogous to many of the activities I engage in regularly, such as karate, parenting, and writing. In each case, you balance your needs and those of others; your perspective and that of everybody else. You encounter other people’s approval or censure. This is what life is about, then: whether raising children or practicing a sport (or, indeed, writing a blog), you’re doing your best to balance your desires and those of others and, almost always, you’re doing this in front of an audience.