My wife had recently given birth to our second child when my editor at BabyTalk called me with an assignment: See what it's like to be pregnant by wearing an "empathy belly" -- a sort of pregnancy suit for men (expectant dads try them on briefly during childbirth class) -- for one day. Having just gone through nine months of backaches, nausea, and sore feet herself, my wife, Susan, was all too thrilled for me to have a taste of her discomfort, if only for a day.
Full of bravado, I insisted that I would also wear the belly at night, so that I'd have it on a full 24 hours. That was before we learned that the makers of the empathy belly suggest wearing it no longer than three hours at a time. (Something to do with not wanting the husband to freak out by the instant changes, collapse, and suffocate, I believe.) It was also before I knew that wearing the pretend pregnant belly for even a few minutes would try my physical strength. The empathy belly isn't for sissies, and neither, I've come to truly understand, is pregnancy.
But it took fake breasts and a bladder pouch to get me to realize that. I borrowed my 33-pound empathy belly from the College of Nursing at the University of Cincinnati. It's not just a belly though: The contraption consists of two foam breasts; a rib belt designed to constrict the lungs and make it harder to breathe; two seven-pound lead balls inside the belly; a two-pound suspended weight that simulates a baby's kicking; and a weighted pouch that represents the baby's head on the woman's -- or in my case, man's -- bladder.
If you go to the official website, you'll learn that anybody wearing the belly for ten minutes or longer can expect a range of maladies, including a "low backache...awkwardness in all body movements...pressure on the bladder, with increased sense of urgency of urination," and my favorite, "changes in sexual self-image and abilities." Yikes.
No "Big" Deal
I decided to give my new breast-and-belly suit a whirl on a weekend. On Saturdays, I try to give my wife a break by taking our two girls -- Isabelle, 2, and Lorelei, 3 months -- to visit my parents. This day wasn't any different, save for the empathy belly in the trunk of the car (you're not allowed to drive while wearing it). I thought it would be helpful to spend some time outside my own home wearing the belly to truly understand how a pregnant woman feels. But I also knew deep down that I'd probably conveniently forget to mention to my parents that I had brought it along. Fortunately, my wife had sent over an e-mail reminding everyone. In another lucky break, my parents had a friend visiting, Debbie, who, along with my mom, was all too happy to help me put on the empathy belly. As soon as they strapped on the rib belt (giggling all the while), I felt frighteningly short of breath. And when I sat down on the sofa, I immediately felt an acutely uncomfortable sensation -- the bladder pouch. As somebody who has had some close calls with the restroom, usually when I'm on the highway, and once when I was stuck in an elevator, I didn't like the feel of this. But overall the snugness wasn't so bad -- it was maybe like being a mummy, except with your limbs and face free. Really, what was the big deal?
"It's not so bad," I said, glancing at my mother and Debbie, who both seemed to be euphoric about my plight. But after the novelty wore off a little, the two launched into a conversation related to work. Meanwhile, Isabelle was concentrating on a cartoon show. My dad was in another room, holding Lorelei.
I remained on the sofa, taking note that yes, I had some slight pressure on my bladder, and sure, I couldn't take deep, deep breaths, but this wasn't so tough. It's not like I feel that different than before, I thought, absently fondling my fake breasts. In front of my mom.
I yanked my hands away and tried to pry myself off of the sofa. Immediately, Isabelle asked me to pick her up. "Oh, jeez," I muttered, squatting down. The empathy belly instructions are adamant that you shouldn't bend down without squatting; I didn't want to test my luck.
As I lifted her, other than a brief puzzled glance, Isabelle didn't even seem to notice my misshapen body, which was a big relief. (After I accepted this assignment, I worried that when Isabelle grew up, she would have a foggy memory of her father with a pregnant belly, keeping a therapist employed for years.) My 2-year-old was just happy I was holding her -- which meant one of us was happy. After all, she's 31 freaking pounds.
"You seem kind of cranky," my mother said.
"It must be my hormones," I sighed. I looked at my watch. I had only been wearing the empathy belly for 15 minutes, and I knew I should go at least another hour or two. I didn't want to admit it to anybody, but, by this point, I wasn't enjoying my pregnancy at all.
Fortunately, everybody else was. My mother and Debbie kept making jokes at my expense. My brother, Kevin, and his girlfriend, Rachel, dropped by and each had a good laugh. And my dad took photos.
I probably logged in about 90 more minutes, and three bathroom trips, until I'd had enough. When I arrived home with the girls, my wife was beaming. "Your father sent me the photos," she said. Cursed e-mail. "And I sent them to my mom."
"Of course you did," I said. That was inevitable.
"And Shannon loved them." Shannon is one of her dearest friends, so that was no surprise. "But I'm still waiting to hear from Pam and Colleen," said Susan, "and Mary Lou, Kim and Mike, Nancy, Sue, and..."
I wasn't mad at my dad for sending the photos. But I was mad at him for telling Susan that I had said, "Wearing this empathy belly is much more difficult than actually being pregnant." My wife quickly replied, "Tell Geoff that if he likes, he can try being pregnant for five minutes, and he will see how comfortable the empathy belly is." And then she reeled off a list of things that the empathy belly would never do, like "give you insomnia, give you hemorrhoids, and make you push a baby out of an opening the size of a lemon." She also took issue with the fact that I could take the empathy belly off at any time and leave it in a box.
Boy, she's touchy.
The next day, my wife, daughters, and I went back to my parents' house for lunch, where the main course was my grandmother's fried chicken. Not two minutes into the visit, my wife was volunteering to help me put on the belly. Susan yanked the rib belt around my chest much tighter than my mother and her friend had. "Comfy?" Susan asked.
"I cuhnnn-n-huhhly-breathe," I said.
"Then I guess it's working," Susan said cheerfully, and then hoisted the rest of the weighted contraption on me, with no trouble at all, as if she were John Wayne saddling his horse for the thousandth time. With my lungs doing double-time, the weight seemed to double or triple, too. Okay, it's a big deal, I thought. Big deal, big deal, I get it, I get it, I get it!
And if the experience was strange the day before, now it was surreal. We all sat down to lunch. My Uncle Joe was annoyed that I was sitting beside him, because I seemed to take up all of the space around me. My Uncle Larry just appeared amused. As did my brother, his girlfriend, my parents and my wife, who all asked at regular intervals how I was holding up, as if they thought it would be funny if I wasn't holding up so well. At least my grandmother seemed supportive. Until, that is, after dinner, when she looked my way and offered a challenge: "I'll bet you can't tie your shoes." Et tu, Grammy?
Birth of a New Appreciation
I retreated upstairs with Isabelle for a while. She played in my old bedroom, and at one point, I tried lying on my side, imagining what it might be like to sleep like that for an entire night. Night after night after night. Honestly, I'm not sure how any woman does it.
Watching Isabelle play, I had some time to reflect on a lot of things, like how lonely pregnancy can feel. I mean, sure, you're a celebrity for a while -- Susan got a lot of attention from the family when she was pregnant, and I was getting a lot, in a different sort of way. But at the same time, if you're the only pregnant person in the room, and the only person who has to think about how to navigate across the room, well, there's a sense of solitude to the whole thing.
And helplessness. When Isabelle and I were going downstairs, she wanted me to carry her, but I was worried about tackling the stairs with my arms full of preschooler. I shouted for my father, who came to Isabelle's rescue while I retreated to the restroom for probably the fifth time since we had arrived.
But when I finished my business and reached down to zip my pants, my belly kept getting in the way. Grunting, I pulled and pulled, until I finally placed my fake stomach on the counter, bent my knees, and tried to pull. I wound up toppling into the bathtub.I stood, holding up my pants with one hand, gingerly descended the stairs, and snuck into my parents' den.
I tried putting my belly on my father's desk, which was a little higher than the bathroom counter. Still no luck. Sweat was dripping off of me now, and my forearms were aching -- all from trying to zip my pants.
After about five minutes of struggling, I gave in and called for Susan. This was a two-person job. "I don't know how you zipped your pants all those months," I said.
"Maternity pants don't come with zippers," she replied.
"That's right," I said. "You know, maybe I do have it harder than you did." My wife shot me a look implying I was sleeping in the garage that night.
Later, Susan softened, and shortly before the three-hour limit was up, she suggested I take the belly off. I didn't protest. I waddled a mile in her moccasins, and I have to admit, I have a new respect for all pregnant women. I especially have to admire women who repeat the pregnancy experience.
Susan's actually talking about going for a third. There are times when I think she's crazy, until I'm making Lorelei laugh, or lying in the grass with Isabelle, marveling at how she can watch an ant and be simply fascinated by it. (That is, until she tries to pet it, and accidentally sends it into oblivion.) There's something about having kids that really is magical. And so, I can honestly say that if it was possible for men to be pregnant, and if I had to trade places with my wife, I would happily go the distance for nine months.
That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Geoff Williams is a freelance writer and father of two in Loveland, Ohio.