As a husband who managed to sneak in a few catnaps during my wife’s 25 hours of labor, I’ve always had respect for her ability to endure the trauma and stress of pregnancy. But never did I truly feel Iris’ pain. Not until I strapped on an “empathy belly” for a weekend.
This flak-jacket-style device, filled to capacity with 20 pounds of lead weights and swishing water — not to mention a pair of big foam breasts — is designed to allow men to “experience” the ninth month of pregnancy.
It’s a staple of childbirth classes at many birth centers, including Huntington Memorial Hospital in Pasa-dena, Calif., where Ann Meier, who coordinates the perinatal health education program, stores the outfit in a milk crate and carts it around on wheels.
Beware of the Belly
I decided to wear the belly, a “pregnancy simulator” marketed by Birthways Inc. of Vashon Island, Wash., out of personal and reportorial curiosity. How do women feel when they’re pregnant? Is it that great? That bad?
I was apprehensive when I dropped by Huntington Memorial to “get pregnant.” I nearly backed out altogether when Meier handed me an ominous informed-consent release to sign. The document included these warnings: When wearing the belly, don’t bounce, jump or run (hey, no problem), don’t wear high-heeled shoes, and immediately discontinue use if you feel dizzy. (Wait a minute — this thing doesn’t make you pregnant, does it?!)
In a typical childbirth education class, according to Meier, a handful of men gamely gear up and, in 15 minutes of use, clumsily attempt to pick up socks, tie shoes or lie on their backs. “They say, ‘No problem’ until you ask them to do something,” she says. “Then it’s, ‘Oh, my God.’ The biggest reaction is surprise.”
In our household, the biggest reaction of surprise came from my wife, who, 19 months after having given birth to our second daughter in a remarkably brave delivery, said she couldn’t believe I was planning to test out a borrowed belly. “Are you crazy?” Iris asked.
Our 4-year-old was less skeptical. And considerably less interested. She was too busy watching cartoons even to notice until I walked past the TV screen. I explained to her that I was participating in a work-related experiment to learn what it’s like to be fat. No need to confuse her about gender issues. We already live in Los Angeles.
Our 19-month-old looked on with a quizzical stare. Then she got that dreamy look. The one she gets when she’s ready to nurse.