Public perception – and reactions – to activity during pregnancy

Walking from the backpack cubbies into the climbing gym has become an avenue of double takes, elbows and the ever-subtle chin-point.  If the slightly rumpled, chalk-dusted, lithely muscular patrons of our climbing gym managed to take in my strange-looking body harness without pause, my now 25-week pregnant belly is impossible to ignore.  I admit – what I see as a deliciously round belly poking out is a striking contrast to the (also delicious!) rippling abs that I see all around me at the gym.  When my husband, sister and I walk up to the ropes dangling from the ceiling, I garner skeptical

Sporting my awesome gear!

looks, and when I tie in and start up the wall, people literally nudge each other and point. This last week, my sister informed me that a fellow had even pulled out his camera and shot photos of several of my climbs while she remained resolutely cool and focused on belay (certainly, she wasn’t giggling about it!). My husband grins at the gapers, openly supportive of my climbing.  Some people are frightened, glowering disapprovingly as I stretch out and start a climb; some have muttered comments about my (or my husband’s) irresponsibility, that I am endangering my baby’s health, and have even commented obliquely that they wished the gym would cater only to ‘serious’ climbers.  Others have grinned, inquired about my pregnancy, and offered cross-training advice or tricks to compensate for the rapid change in my center of gravity I’ve experienced.  Most climbers, after the initial eye-widening, maintain their too-cool demeanor and ignore our little group after we show general competency, the safety and functionality of the body harness, and the caution I take on climbs.
Running has had a similar range of reactions.  I’ve had everything from blatant “Hey Lady! You shouldn’t be running, you’re going to tear out your uterus!” shouted at me from across the road to small smiles and thumbs up sent my way.  Women pushing jogging strollers nod sagely at my belly and me and then pass on with their own wriggling, waving cargo, leaving me wide eyed and thinking “Oh My Goodness…I’m going to have one of those in a few months!?!”  At the gym, the trainers offer sporadic advice to me as I have modified my usual lifting routine, and the cadre of old men who are usually there when I lift have become accustomed to me, and ask how “the little one” is doing.

I have never felt more self-conscious about exercising or my exercising physique in my life.  I know part of this is a mental hyper-awareness of my own changing body, but I also feel that the obvious pregnancy offers something “different” for the other exercisers to marvel at.  We athletes and active folks recognize each other: ranging from skinny to chubby, fast or slow, high-tech or low-tech, we fit a general appearance; now that I am obviously pregnant, my body now offers something radically different, so while runners/exercisers glaze over their “normal” fellows, their gaze hesitates on me, the anomaly.  I “get” the looking at strange people (as awkward-looking as he is, how can you not admire the “flightless bird” for getting out and exercising?), but the sudden freedom people seem to feel to comment on my pregnant status has caught me off guard.

On one hand, the advice from moms and dads welcomes me into what has so far been a “other world” of parenting. I love hearing stories my mom, family and friends have about their pregnancies: pregnancy a very deeply personal journey for each woman, and I find myself wanting to share it with people.  While I appreciate and enjoy the encouraging words and wacky advice (this guy stopped John and me in Costco this weekend and we were assailed with what seemed like a half hour of finger wagging and  “and then ya gotta do this ____, ya jus’ gotta….” before we could escape). I even giggle when I catch the startled look people get as they correct their initial assumption of “fat-belly” to “baby belly;” I don’t understand the need to verbally express hostility, anger or to vocalize cutting judgments, whether it’s by berating me face-to-face or making snide, sideways comments to their exercise partner.  Similarly abrasive comments about non-pregnant people is not socially permissible, so what is it that makes it acceptable to comment on a woman’s pregnancy – be it her weight change, size or shape of belly, activity she’s pursuing, or what she’s eating for lunch? Is it an insuppressible urge to pass on historical or cultural knowledge? Is it some evolutionary compulsion to keep pregnant women safe, thus being vocal about their activities? Is it seeing a pregnant woman doing something different from what is more familiar or that he or she were warned against during their own pregnancy? a need to impart advice from one’s own experiences? flat-out fear-mongering (if you jump off the curb your baby and brain will fall out!)?  I have no clue.

As an active pregnant woman, I greatly appreciate the supportive, helpful or cheerful comments, and yes, even the wacky advice. Negative comments are not helpful at any time, and now that I find myself to be especially self-conscious about my changing body, I have to wonder about the social mannerisms that prompt people to vocally criticize my person and activities.  I would offer the thought that each woman and each pregnancy is unique, each being able to make activity level decisions (with her doctor!) on an individually informed basis.  I would encourage women who are choosing to exercise mindfully and happily to let the critical comments roll off of them with the knowledge that the commenter is uninformed, out of line and socially ignorant.

Just as with pre-pregnancy running, exercising is a time for me to connect and converse with my physical body and its capabilities; while the tone of this brain-body running “conversation” may have changed (less of the hard workout mentality),  I still enjoy talking to and assessing my changing body, and am glad to find the mental peace I gain from these exercise sessions keeps me calm, confident and functioning in the rest of my life!


Thanks again to Brooks ID and Powerbar for their continued support!

14 thoughts on “Public perception – and reactions – to activity during pregnancy

  1. Neyda

    Having an accent, I ran into a lot of that in NM!!!!! Everybody seemed to want to give me their two cents as to how to lead my life, esp. as soon as they found out that I was from South America. After a couple of years in Albuquerque, I finally got used to it. But, initially, it would drive me *CRAZY*. There were the harmless (but annoying) comments such as a time that I was stretching at UNM’s gym, while someone approached me and told me that she thought what I was doing was offensive and that I should do it in private. There were also things that were more troublesome, like a doctor trying to push me to take birth control, because “I would get myself pregnant, before finishing college,” mind you that I had two BS’s, and MS, and I was finishing a PhD. But, I was hispanic all the same, so I needed to be kept from having 14 kids or stretching my hammies in a provocative way…

    1. magdalenadonahue

      “stretching my hammies in a provocative way…” Awesome. yes, as a gym goer who usually avoids all eye contact or socializing, the sheer number of people who want to stop me in the middle of my workouts, chat a bit, offer advice (good or bad), and somehow feel licensed to touch my belly is shocking and just plain weird! I guess I am usually oblivious, but the connection of social manners (or lack thereof), physical fitness and gender is newly fascinating to me.

  2. I saw my wife go through this (she exercised almost to the end of her pregnancy). What is it about pregnancy, a super intimate event, that makes you “public property” all of a sudden? And, BTW, it will not stop. the commentary continues for at least the next few months after having the baby. Everyone has opinion/advice on how to properly handle/feed/clothe/etc your baby.

    But, I can tell you this, these many years later my wife laugh (a lot!) when we recall some of the things that happened – so consider it all fodder for future Thanksgivings!

    Keep it up (and this blog – you are a great writer!)


    1. magdalenadonahue

      Thanks! We’re already laughing about the guy who told us the gym was for serious climbers only…but some other comments will take a little time! I’m so glad you enjoy the blog – thanks!

  3. I can totally relate to this! I wasn’t ready for it on the first pregnancy, but I was on the second- I just ignored it, or occasionally, when I was feeling extra sassy, replied with some sharp-tongued response! What I was NOT prepared for was that on the third pregnancy, people started judging and commenting on our family planning choices. I had comments such as “Did you TRY for this? WHY?” and even more appalling- “You DO know what causes this to happen, right?” ACK!!! People give themselves way too much licence to say whatever they want about pregnant women and the choices they make. KEEP THAT BUN ON THE RUN and let the rest go….thanks for writing! I enjoy reading…

    1. magdalenadonahue

      Wow – the progression of comments is interesting (and appalling!). Thanks! I do intend to keep on running! (and, keep on reading!)

  4. I’m sorry people have been so vocal! I’ve realized since having children how vocal people are about their opinions if you have children. I’m with you and I don’t understand why others feel the need to abrasive and cutting to others, even if they don’t agree with what you’re doing. I’ve had people lean out of windows as I pass by with my stroller, yelling profanities because I wasn’t walking on the sidewalk or a lady telling me I was stupid because I was letting Lilly ride on the end of the grocery cart. My best guess is that they feel like another life is dependent upon your decisions–but they forget to consider that you are a competent adult that knows her own body and her own baby better than anyone else does, and IS already considering the baby’s safety. I’ve also had friends relate comments like the ones Kirsten shared.

    You are doing great, Mags! I enjoy hearing a little about how you are doing!

  5. Can I add that I was walking right next to the sidewalk and the people were yelling out the windows of their home, not a car that I was blocking.

  6. Intresting stories. One detail. I confess that I have interfered with someone else’s pregnancy (shame on me!) but I felt it was justified. This lady I worked with smoked throughout her pregnancy. more than once Inchallenged her to change her habits. Alas to no avail. Unfortunately her kids (predictably) some lung problems, asthma etc. of course this is not the same as the out-of-the-blue comments, esp. Some of the really snarky ones you guys reported…but then again maybe it is?

    1. magdalenadonahue

      You raise a good point – and it’s part of what is so intriguing to me: if I saw a person walking recklessly down the middle of the road, I would hope that I would stop and help them to the safety of the sidewalk, an obvious thing to do for safety’s sake; following this thought, if I saw a woman smoking and pregnant, would I point out that her choice to smoke while with child was not safe? It’s a very interesting line to try to see what is acceptable interference, and what becomes malicious/critical/nosy. The transition from helpful comments or considerations to outright rude is a very fluid boundary, and I’m sure varies with every woman and her sensitivities!! It’s a new realm of thought for me though, and interesting to reflect upon my own sensitivities and willingness to embrace the comments of others. A learning experience all around!

  7. sarahgovil

    I have been having issues with this in my pregnancy so far. It’s really annoying. I don’t really care what people think (and so far they have been 100% wrong), but I just don’t want to hear it.

    The only acceptable interference is that made by a women’s clinician. That woman who was smoking throughout her pregnancy may have cut down a lot from her pre-pregnancy intake. You don’t know that. She may be so addicted that quitting is very difficult. Cigarettes are more addictive that heroin! Or she might be just plain irresponsible. But is it ok for you to judge even? Probably not…

    1. magdalenadonahue

      Sarah, I totally agree with your thoughts that the best avenue for “interference” with a persons’ lifestyle (such as smoking) is through their clinician, just as the clinician is probably the first resource you should turn to for advice on exercise during pregnancy.

  8. I, too, had an extremely active pregnancy up until 10 days before delivery when my doctor put me on couch rest (hypertension). I worked out at home in the mornings, mostly on my spin bike since knee troubles and bladder pressure starting at week 16 limited my running, and then went to the gym most weekday evenings to lift or swim. All of the gym regulars knew me and watched my pregnancy progress and were fairly respectful–some even seemed awed–but when new people would see me, I could read what they were thinking and just tried not to make eye contact. Meanwhile, we had conceived through IVF so had they known that I pushed my limits a bit during that and the first trimester, they probably would have been even more appalled.

    I was shocked when I ended up having to have a C-section–not my intention at all, of course–but I truly think being in shape helped my recovery immensely.

    In the 15 months since having Hannah, I have also been the recipient of the comments in grocery stores, whether it’s because Hannah is playing with a cucumber wrapped in plastic (“Do you want her to choke???”) or because she accidentally knocks down an orange off of the beautifully-stacked pile (“I don’t think you are paying attention to your daughter.”). I’m all for helpful advice, but people need to mind their own business when they see somebody doing something that they may not choose to do themselves.

    1. magdalenadonahue

      I’m glad to hear from someone who had a “surprise” c-section – another way that the best laid plans (for birth, or otherwise!) can go astray. I’m also glad to hear that your recovery was quick and your fitness helped in that regard; it’s a good motivator to stay fit throughout the entire pregnancy! I’m hearing a lot from moms who’re letting me in on the fact that the comments don’t stop upon giving birth – something I’m going to have to get used to once the “little one” arrives – yikes!! ps: after reading your post, I now am going in search of cucumbers to add to my lunch – they sound delicious! 🙂

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