In a typical childbirth class, a handful of men gear up and clumsily attempt to pick up socks, tie shoes or lie on their backs.
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.
It Only Hurts When I Laugh To simulate pregnancy, the water-weighted vest comes with two 7-pound lead balls that represent fetal limbs and a 6-pound weight to put pressure on the bladder. At full weight, I had difficulty breathing, walking around and relieving myself. The belly also guaranteed a flood of jokes.
“Time for your 10 p.m. snack,” Iris said, recalling her own predilections. “You want peanut butter on toast? Shall I get you your copy of What to Expect When You’re Expecting?” Unfortunately, it was also difficult to laugh.
At bedtime, I lay down on my left side, at Iris’ suggestion. But after 90 minutes of discomfort, I was still awake. Then it dawned on me. “I could wear this all night and hardly sleep, just to prove I can do it,” I thought. “But that would be the macho thing to do. Why should I be acting macho when I’m nine months pregnant and wearing C cups?” I unstrapped the belly.
Call it morning sickness, but when the sun rose, I decided to put the vest back on and venture outside. “Don’t use the belly frivolously,” the warning tag admonished. But no, I had a social experiment — beyond empathy — in mind.
Bellying up to the Beach
I’ve always thought that if Jesus Christ were to walk down the Venice boardwalk, no one would look twice. So what would be the reaction, I wondered, to a pregnant man?
Seeking to avoid injury, I decided to go half-pregnant, or, more accurately, about five months pregnant. I removed the lead balls and bladder, decreasing the weight to 16 pounds. I also removed the breast foam so I was down to, say, an A or B cup.
Arriving in Venice with my family about 10 a.m., I buttoned a shirt over my watermelon-size stomach and slowly walked through the crowds, past outdoor massage tables and purveyors of belly chains. No one looked twice.
We walked for what seemed like forever to a restaurant a few blocks away. When we arrived, my mouth was watering. “I’ll order a full breakfast,” I decided. “What’s a few more ounces when I already weigh so much?”
Then the kids began acting up. This time, only one of us could do anything about it, and in my bloated condition, it wasn’t me. As Iris chased our 19-month-old, our 4-year-old knocked down the baby carriage.
Empathy at Last
I looked on as if I was watching a bad movie, but I felt too uncomfortable and weighted down to help. As we waited for our order to arrive, my mind turned from the food to the sweat dripping down my brow. All I wanted was for breakfast to arrive, not so much so I could eat but so I could get back home.
After eating our sausage and eggs, we headed slowly back down the boardwalk, where we saw a middle-aged man flying a kite attached to a fishing pole.
“OK already,” I thought. “Enough is enough. I, too, can do anything I want.” So I unbuttoned my shirt, ripped off the empathy belly and instantly became unpregnant.
Free at last.