Pregnancy and Body Image in the (still!) 20-Something Grad Student

September 10, 2011 § 9 Comments

I have just nine days to claim that I am still a “20-something.” Sure, I went kicking and screaming into this decade, terrified to lose the hard-won title of “teen.” And now? Now I’m clinging desperately to the last nine days of 29. In the meantime, there will be celebrations and hoopla, but I’m still digging my heels into the ever-shifting earth, gritting my teeth against reality, and squeezing my eyes shut to the truth. On September 20th, 2011, I will turn 30.

As I reflect on these last nine days, I’m struck by some very real disappointments. When I was eighteen, I had made a plan. I decided that I would pursue my PhD in English so that I could become a world-famous scholar. (Little did I know what that job really meant.) I would graduate with my PhD in English (with honors and utterly hyper-involved in committees and other CV-building activities) before I turned 30. In fact, I determined, it would be possible and highly probable that I would graduate with my Master’s in 2006 (done!) at the age of 24, and then I would graduate with my PhD in 2010 at the age of 28. Silly, adorable girl. I had heard tell of some true scholars, masterful experts in their fields, who had completed their doctoral degrees in four years’ time. I would be one of those overachievers. Easy-peasy. I had also decided that I would begin my family prior to turning 30. I would already have two children, the oldest around the age of 2.

It’s an adorable, pie-in-the-sky fantasy, isn’t it? (The worst is that not one person told me I was naive, that I was underestimating the work load and overestimating my ability. Where were the cynics when I needed them? Was everyone truly just watching, waiting on the sidelines to see if I actually would do it?)

Between the ages of 22 and 29, I gained 80 pounds. (If you go further back…to the ages of 20 and 29, it’s a gain of 100 pounds.)

The weight fluctuated, as weight often does, so that I would lose loads and then gain it all back with interest. As an undergraduate, I dated twice. The first (2000-2001) was an utter disastrous mistake. He knows he was a mistake because I informed him of that the night I ended it. He warped my mind, my self-perception, left me shaken, confused, and insecure. The second (Spring Break of 2004) was a fling. He kissed me in a way that made me tingle and made my heart race. But he was as dull as dishwater; he wasted my limited cell phone minutes with hours of one-sided conversation…all from my end of the line. I also suspected that he had limited brain matter, so I quickly grew bored of him in a matter of a week. I lied to him on the day that I ended our little dating experiment, telling him that I had definitely been accepted into an out-of-state Master’s program. (I had only been wait-listed and was in the heart-rending process of begging my way in.)

I dated no one during my Master’s program. I put my head down, convinced myself I was unloveable, and dedicated myself to my plan of scholarly pursuits. (I figured if I could at least get the doctorate before 30, then I wouldn’t need the family portion of my plan to see fruition.) My weight steadily increased (except for a couple of months here and there of intentional weight loss), and I knew I was ugly and undesirable. I developed feelings for a fellow Master’s student, but he failed to notice me. I knew it was because of my weight. I entered my PhD program confident that I had lost all opportunity to find love and fulfill any dream of becoming a young-ish mother and scholar, so I stopped looking with interest. Robert came around in January 2007, and that history has been fairly well-documented. I continued to struggle with my appearance, so utterly confused as to why this man found me not only physically attractive but also worth expressing love to.

When I was sixteen, I told myself on my darkest days that it would get better when I was married. When I knew someone was voluntarily linked to me, I would feel better about my appearance. I wouldn’t care so much about my weight. And then a decade later, as a twenty-six-year-old fiancée, I told myself that pregnancy would cure me of my body image issues. (You’re supposed to look fat when you’re pregnant, right??)

As a twenty-nine-year-old four-month pregnant wife (who still doesn’t have a doctorate to speak of, and who is nine days away from 30), it slowly has dawned on me that I may not be curable. I may never feel confident about my body. As I lay in bed beside my husband who rubs my expanding abdomen, I try to hear his voice over my own. I try to hear him telling me that I am beautiful, sexy, extremely feminine. The din he unwittingly competes against rumbles on that I am fat, disgusting, ugly. That I don’t even look pregnant…just fatter.

The worst of it is that this is my first pregnancy, so I have no idea where this dialogue has come from. I certainly hadn’t spent years perfecting the self-loathing pregnancy track in order to destroy my confidence as I grow our baby. (And, as a side-note, I should clarify that, in utter and unabashed paradox, I am thrilled to see the swell of my abdomen because it means the baby is growing. Have I become so detached from my body?) But it strikes me. These aren’t my words. These aren’t my original thoughts. I am not that creative.

No, these are the words of the world around me. These are the values of the society to which I succumb while I attempt to work my way through a brand-new physical experience. In the beginning, Robert and I had agreed that I would lose enough weight to feel confident (we guessed around 130 pounds, which would bring me to a weight of 135, comfortable for my 5’3″ frame). And last year, when I wasn’t writing, I began that progress and lost 40 pounds. And then gained it all back plus an additional twenty. I knew I couldn’t ignore the drumming in my head any longer, the pounding against my skull that begged “babybabybabybabybabybaby.” At the beginning of the year, far from my pre-pregnancy weight loss goal, I gave voice to that drumbeat. Robert was concerned because he knew what I saw when I looked in the mirror. He knew that I would only gain more in order to grow a healthy baby. He worried about whether or not I would enjoy the process of pregnancy.

He was right to worry.

Although I am enjoying (most of) the new sensations that accompany pregnancy (this week I am confident that I have felt the baby squirm at least once a day), I am not enjoying the changes in my own body. I lamented last night that I did not understand how my pants could get so tight that I couldn’t fasten them (typically a sign of at least 8-10 pounds gained), yet I’m still one pound under my pre-pregnancy weight. How could it be that my total pregnancy weight gain is -1 pound, but I’ve already started to wear waist-band expanding contraptions on my pants? To my great frustration, I cannot reconcile my logical brain (“the baby is the size of a navel orange, and your uterus is the size of a cantaloupe…your pants will not zip up over that”) with my emotional brain (“but…they fit fine last week!”)

And, as I said, I realize they’re not my words. They’re the words of this ass-backwards, utterly mind-fucking society. Just look anywhere and you’ll see messages of doom and gloom for the woman who gains weight throughout her pregnancy, whose belly swells.

On July 28th, this year, the Today Show aired a segment where they examined a growing trend of anxiety-related weight problems with pregnant and just-post-partum women. If you’re not familiar, please take a moment to watch it, here:

On July 28th, I was 11 weeks pregnant. I was gripped with anxiety about losing the pregnancy, despite a healthy ultrasound just sixteen days prior to watching this segment air. I had lost 11 pounds since becoming pregnant. (Utterly unintentionally, but I was delighted.)

I immediately felt guilty. I am one of those women who is worried about gaining too much during her pregnancy because I am already so very obese. Dr. Nancy chides those who are concerned about weight gain, telling us to focus on the fact that we are actually capable of conceiving when there are so many unfortunate women who struggle. I wanted to dig a hole and hide into it. Where was my compassion?

In the seven weeks since that time, I’ve found myself still just as anxious about my weight and appearance as I was on July 28th. How could I not have gotten the message? What was wrong with me?


"Wow! Victoria Beckham Debuts Slamming, Size-0 Post-Baby Bod." From US Weekly, 9.3.11. Posh Spice lost all of her pregnancy weight before her baby was 8 weeks old.

(image courtesy US Weekly)

And this:
Jaw-Dropping Post-Baby Bods!” from US Weekly (a whole gallery of celeb moms who lost it all in an incredible amount of time.)

And this:
Hollywood’s Hottest Moms” from InStyle (another gallery of svelte post-baby celeb moms; gives the impression that the only way to be a “hot” mom is to be wafer-thin and runway-ready.)

And this:
Hey mama! Post-baby body secrets of celebrity mothers” from New York Daily News (apparently one of the best ways to “lose weight” is to breastfeed. Except when you realize that breastfeeding mostly just shrinks the uterus back to its pre-pregnancy size by releasing a specific hormone. Sure, it burns some calories, but it can’t combat poor nutrition.)

But I’m not the only one! Read this interview with new mom Elaine Schoch on MSN Health
Celebrity mamas fuel post-baby body blues

These are the images that bombard me when I turn on the television. When I go grocery shopping. These are the tales of weight-loss victory I hear in the waiting rooms of my OB. On the radio when I drive to work.

I know not to lose weight during my pregnancy. I also know that as an obese woman, I should not gain too much weight. I’m proud of my -1 pound of gain in the past seventeen weeks. But I don’t intend to keep it up. I intend to gain only when I need to…and hopefully, that gain will primarily come from Baby Hab. In the meantime, I do feel confused and frustrated. As a woman who has spent most of her adult life despising when clothes begin to feel tight, I am not sure how to feel when the numbers on the scale don’t indicate a gain but when the pants won’t zip.

I don’t fit into any maternity clothing because they seem to be mostly designed for already small women who just happen to get a little pooch. I’ve been seeing a change in my actual body composition…my upper legs are a little bit larger, my ass is certainly more spread out. And, of course, my abdomen is beginning to swell. Not fitting into the clothes meant for women who are purposefully expanding is disheartening, humiliating, and degrading. I begin to worry that nobody will know that I’m pregnant. I have been purchasing clothes that are simply a size larger than my pre-pregnancy size. Nothing I have purchased falls into the “maternity” category. Nothing shows off the increasing swell in my abdomen. And I’m not sure it ever will.

These are my insecurities. And sources of deep confusion. As well as guilt. I realize what an ironic blessing it is that I even have the ability to complain about the changes in my body.

I wonder if it will change…or when it will.

The trip to the bathroom that changed my life

August 11, 2011 § 32 Comments

Robert and I walked through the door, herding our love-deprived cats out of the way, heavy bags in hand. (A quick side note: the cats were totally not love-deprived–they had been well cared-for over the weekend while we were away. Thanks, sister!) We unloaded our arms, loved on the cats for a moment, and chomped our way greedily through the Publix subs we had picked up on the way home.

My bladder couldn’t stand it any longer. Robert likes to call me a camel–I can hold it like a damn champion. It started in grade school when it dawned on me just how gross the school bathrooms were, and just how much I preferred the cleanliness of our toilets at home. My strength only increased as I grew older and developed even more finely my disgust for urine-sprinkled seats, poorly-flushed bowls, and questionable wet flecks on toilet handles. Because of this extraordinarily strong bladder I have trained, I sometimes miss the early cues and warning signs…leaving me in an incredible lurch when a visit to the bathroom is not only necessary but immediately imminent. On this particular evening, the night before Robert’s 28th birthday, I found my bladder beginning to send uncomfortable urgent signals to my brain. I shot up off the couch and announced probably too loudly, “I have got to pee!” (As though I had been physically restrained by Robert. He shook his head and gave me an amused smile. He hates it when I wait until the absolute last minute before the need to go becomes an emergency.) I ran to the bathroom.

On the way, I had a thought.

While I sat on the toilet, I decided to keep myself occupied. I put my urine to work.

And then I counted to one-hundred twenty while I washed my hands.

I glanced over to my right and knew just then: this trip to the potty wasn’t going to just be any ol’ trip to the potty. This was the trip to the potty. The one I’d remember forever. The one that took place at 7 p.m. on June 5th.

The one where I found out that I was pregnant.

The positive sign was faint–I hadn’t missed my period yet. But it was there. Boy, was it there.

I grinned. I whispered, “Oh my God….” I laughed.

I grabbed the stick (wiping it off to make sure it wasn’t gross), snatched up the instructions, and walked back to Robert. I tried to hide my smile so that I didn’t give the surprise away. I handed him the instructions and the test, and he responded, “What am I looking at?” I laughed and pointed to the results indication on the instructions. His eyes lit up, and his grin rivaled mine.

“Happy birthday to me,” he laughed.

We hugged, cried, checked the test over and over.

But there it was, plain as day: we were going to have a baby.

I’ll be honest, friends. I took six home tests. On July 12th, I had my first prenatal appointment, which included another urine test. So technically, I took seven pregnancy tests. They all came back positive.

Baby Hab. is due on February 16th, although I’m hoping for Valentine’s Day. 🙂

I’m 13 weeks along, as of today. My absence from the blog can be explained by my overwhelming need to wait to make my online announcement about Baby Hab.’s conception. Robert and I told our parents and siblings on June 18th, and we called the rest of our extended family (grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins) on Father’s Day the 19th.

When I had to change my graduation plans on June 21st, I realized that I would have an incredibly difficult time not writing about my pregnancy before I intended to. So I decided to take an unannounced hiatus. In that time, you all have been incredibly supportive and sweet. Many of you have contacted me through comments to check on how I’m doing (great!), and a few of you even e-mailed me privately to extend a word of encouragement. From the bottom of my heart: thank you.

You may or may not recall from the June 21st blog post about graduation that one of the reasons I listed for slowing down was so that I wouldn’t cause any harm to my body. The baby is why. I didn’t want to endanger my pregnancy for the sake of attempting to meet this impossible new deadline. I know I’ve made the right decision.

So, to answer the potential questions I think I can rightly anticipate:

1. I’m feeling better now than I had been earlier. Around my fifth week, I started experiencing morning sickness and motion sickness. (By the way, that term “morning sickness” is a damn filthy lie. My nausea lasted all day long.) I never actually vomited, but every day I felt like it was imminent. These past few days have improved. My hunger pangs don’t feel like hunger, though–it’s just increased nausea. It’s incredibly difficult to force yourself to eat when you’re afraid you’ll be sick. (Today, though…blech. I woke up feeling really yucky. I’ve pretty much just kept myself on the couch today.)

2. My energy dropped down like you wouldn’t believe. I couldn’t keep my eyes open most of the time. Lately, though, I’ve started to feel my energy start to pick back up. I still knock out around 2:30 and sleep for about ten minutes (deeeeep, dream-filled sleep), but I spend most of my days awake now.

3. I haven’t written much on the dissertation. I’ve got almost 20 pages of writing on the last chapter, but I have really pumped the brakes. And I don’t feel guilty about it. At this rate, I’ll probably defend sometime in September, which is well ahead of the deadline to graduate in December. (Oh…I’ll be eight months pregnant at graduation, ha….)

Okay, that’s about all I can think of–please feel free to ask any other questions as they come up! 🙂 I’ll either answer on the blog, or (if it’s of a more personal nature) I’ll contact you privately.

Thanks again for your continuing support. I’m thrilled to be back.

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