A year ago, I was massively pregnant and living in terror of the day I would have to somehow expel the person growing inside of me. I was scared of the pain, scared of the sweating, scared of the screaming and pushing and ripping and stitches and hemorrhoids, not to mention scared of hospitals and needles and catheters. I wasn’t scared of having someone be dependent on me for the rest of my life, but I was scared of self-absorbed doctors who would be more focused on their upcoming golf vacation than in tending to my needs. And the prospect of checking into a hospital and shooting an eight-pound being out my vagina was daunting enough without every book likening the experience to running a marathon: the endurance required, the agony involved, the importance of staying hydrated, the possibility of shitting somewhere you’d rather not. If childbirth was like running a marathon, I was going to be having a C-section.
I’ve never been what you could call “sporty” or “in shape.” I did once overhear my brother describing me to someone as having “an athletic build,” but that was just a polite Midwestern way of saying “kind of fat”—you know, athletic like a rugby player, not athletic like a marathoner. I do not and never have gone to the gym, worked out, or owned any shorts made out of lycra, jackets made out of Gortex, or socks made out of anything that wicks. I hate sneakers that look like insects, so when I dated an ultramarathon runner before I was married, my friends were baffled. “Well, if you have kids” one offered, doing her best to understand what I might see in this guy for whom a 26 mile run just wasn’t long enough, “I guess he could take them for, like, all-day runs in the stroller while you got lots of alone time.”
I do go for walks around my neighborhood, often while pushing a stroller, but I do not run, jog, swim, bike, or play ultimate Frisbee. If I spot a Frisbee headed my way, I move quickly in the opposite direction. Toss a ball to me and watch me close my eyes, cover my face with my hands, and cower like an abused dog. I’m good at any number of things in life, but catching things being thrown at my head is not among them.
I’m not a total klutz, but I’m not exactly graceful, either. When it comes to anything other than typing or turning the pages of a book, my hand-eye coordination leaves something to be desired. And if someone is watching me or telling me exactly how I’m supposed to move my body, I seize up with a sensation that’s a cross between performance anxiety and that feeling you get in dreams where someone is chasing you and no matter how hard you try to run, your legs will not cooperate. Panic, I think it’s called. Run, run you tell your legs, but they do not run. Grip the golf club like the man in the polo shirt just showed you I tell my hand, but my hand is all, Whoa—what? Are you saying I was holding it wrong? Like I’m stupid or something? Here, take the club back. I didn’t want to hold it in the first place. Left alone, I can throw a dart pretty well, but start coaching me on how to do it better and suddenly I’m hitting the bartender in the eye and at least two people in the bar are crying.
When my parents made me play soccer in elementary school, I used my time on the field not to learn how to be a forward or a midfielder but to find out from my best friend whether her aunt living in Japan had sent any more edible paper. Desperate pleas from coaches to pay attention to the game fell on intentionally deaf ears. When a new season brought with it a new, more serious-seeming coach, I suggested to my mom that soccer wasn’t really for me. The idea of having to actually play soccer, to be judged by how well I could dribble or pass or score—not well at all!—filled me with such dread I begged to switch to Brownies so I could learn how sell cookies door-to-door to strangers instead.
As a drunken outdoor sports enthusiast proclaimed at a party when I told him No, I don’t ski or snowboard or surf: “Oh! You must be one of those readers!” Yes, maybe if I could have brought a copy of Little House in the Big Woods with me onto the field, my soccer career would not have been so brief.
But I doubt it.
For as long as I can remember, athletic situations have made me panic. I know I’m not the first person to say this, but a curriculum for children that includes dodgeball? What the fuck? And, fellow Iowans, remember co-ed wrestling? Just because one of the most famous amateur wrestlers of all time was from our state doesn’t mean boys and girls should have to choose whether to be a “top” or a “bottom” before grappling with each other on a dirty, sweaty rubber mat. If your gym teacher was a poorly dressed man with an affinity for referring to himself in the third person and saying the words “gluteus maximus”—as in, “Mr. Hollingsworth says to sit down on the free-throw line and put your hands under your gluteus maximus”—if he asked you to join the boy sitting next to you who you were pretty sure was playing with himself when he was supposed to be sitting on his hands—if you had to join him on the mat to demonstrate a double-leg takedown, you would panic, too.
In junior high I freaked out over my inability to do 25 push-ups and therefore my inability to get an “A” in P.E. and be on the honor roll. I did not believe that pushups would “get easier” if I “just did one more each day” any more than I believed that God refused to let gay people into heaven or that teal mascara was anything but beautiful. If I couldn’t do one push up, how was I supposed to do one more each day? I became so distraught over the issue that my teacher allowed me instead to write a research paper on some sports topic every semester.
By the end of eighth grade I still couldn’t do a pushup, but I could tell you how to field a softball, score a tennis match, serve a volleyball, form a soccer team, and plagiarize the encyclopedia without getting caught. I finally learned what a midfielder does, at least in theory. In practice, I had no idea what I was talking about.
Come college, I was dismayed to discover that numerous gym credits were required to graduate from the tiny, nerdy school. I naïvely enrolled in a tennis class that fit nicely into my schedule between “Perceptions of Difference” and “Body/Image” and was—again naïvely—surprised to find myself in tears at my inability to maintain a proper hold on the racket, let alone to hit the suddenly tiny-seeming yellow ball. “I know,” the coach said, seeming unsurprised to see me in tears, “you kids are used to doing things well the first time you try, but tennis isn’t like quadratic equations or essays for English class. You have to start out bad and then practice and then get better slowly.” He patted me reassuringly on the back and paired me up with a guy named Justin who had just spent the summer traveling around the country in a red jumpsuit to spread the word of a new invention called “The Internet.” This scrawny guy who would eventually be referred to by the New York Times as “the founding father of personal blogging” was no better at tennis than I was, but that didn’t stop him from being a cocky ass.
“Sorry!” I would giggle nervously each time my racket missed the ball. “Oops!” Hee hee.
“Don’t laugh,” Justin commanded from across the net, not realizing that my only other option was to cry. “You’ll never be able to do anything in life if you don’t take yourself seriously.” This from a guy who had worn a red jumpsuit every day for, like, three years and believed an invisible web would eventually connect everyone in the world.
“Right,” I said, ducking my head to hide my tears. I then permanently excused myself from the courts.
Having never taken my physical self seriously, it remains unclear whether I’m inherently unsporty or, in fact, possess a vast and wasted supply of untapped athleticism. Am I a terrible shot because I’ve never allowed myself to learn and practice and improve or because I’m a terrible shot? This question is relevant only in theory. In reality I’m too self-conscious to find out. I’m a perfectionist who was raised by perfectionists. My least favorite sentence in the English language is, “Oh, come on, just give it a try.”
A month or so before my due date I finally talked to my husband—who happens to be an emergency room doctor—about some of my childbirthing fears. He reminded me of my willingness to get an epidural and reassured me he would not under any circumstances park himself south of the border. “I’ll need you up near my face, being supportive” I said. What I meant, of course, was, “There’s no way in hell I’m adding ‘fear that you’ll never have sex with me again if you witness a human head emerging from my lady parts’ to my list of birthing concerns.”
Emergency medicine practitioner that he is, my husband values efficiency, practicality, and even-keeledness above all else. (Why he married a creative writer with a tendency towards inconsolable crying jags, I still have not figured out.) I told him that, among other things, I was nervous he would get annoyed when in hour thirty-six of labor, I demanded a different flavor of popsicle or a softer roll of toilet paper or a different husband or whatever. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I know it’s not going to go quickly or easily. You’re kind of a black-cloud patient.”
Apparently during training there are residents for whom everything seems to go right—“white cloud” residents—and “black cloud” residents for whom everything seems to go wrong. “You know, a patient they’re taking care of who seems totally fine suddenly dies or something,” he cheerfully explained.
I protested that barely anything had gone wrong with my pregnancy. Aside from debilitating nausea and excruciatingly painful varicose veins in unmentionable places, everything was fine. I hadn’t even complained that much—for a pregnant lady. “So many things [pant pant],” I huffed as we walked up a teeny tiny incline, “that could have gone wrong haven’t! [pant, pant] I’m just sensitive. [pant, pant] And I do not [pant, pant] have a black cloud [pant pant] over [pant, pant] my [pant, pant] head!”
We then turned into the alley behind our house and I proceeded to slip on some loose gravel and fall on my knee so hard I was pretty sure I broke it and probably the baby, too. For weeks my knee continued to kill me, both when I was using it and when it was resting. It especially hurt when I sat down or stood up and even more especially when I sat down or stood up from a low seat, such as, oh, say, a toilet. And yes, the rumors you’ve heard are true—pregnant women do have to pee extremely often.
By the time I felt my first labor pangs I had decided that twelve to thirty-six hours of labor would be nothing compared to six weeks—or 1,008 hours—of knee pain.
After I labored valiantly at the hospital without medication for, oh, about thirteen minutes, an anesthesiologist was called in to administer an epidural. Dr. Wright the anesthesiologist—whose name I’m not making up—began to regale us with tales from his recent golf vacation. I was clutching my husband’s arm while the anesthesiologist examined my spine to see exactly where to stick the giant needle and wouldn’t you know, Dr. Wright stopped talking about himself and said, “Wow. You must be a runner—or some kind of athlete!”
I laughed and accused him of saying this to all the pregnant ladies but he swore no. Something about the musculature of my back suggested athlete. I studiously ignored my husband’s rolling eyes and took Dr. Wright’s words to heart. I had the back not of a reader but of an athlete! I was going to be able to handle this birthing thing just fine. Particularly once the epidural kicked in—which, by the way, was lovely—and which took away all the labor pain and, as an added bonus, all the knee pain, too.
In the end, giving birth wasn’t so much like running a marathon as like going on a mildly strenuous 45-minute walk surrounded by people telling you you’re doing a great job. Compared to twenty weeks of nausea, ten weeks of varicose veins, and 1,008 hours of knee pain, childbirth was a piece of cake with chocolate frosting and a really cute baby on top.
Epidurals do wear off eventually, however, even when they’re administered by Dr. Wright. A few days after I was safely tucked at home with my healthy and intact baby and the pain in my nether-regions had subsided, my knee pain resumed in earnest. I consulted my regular doctor (instead of my husband who kept saying from his 6-years-older-than-me vantage point, “Yeah. Getting older sucks.”) My doctor recommended physical therapy, which I tried not to take as punishment for having been so clumsy as to fall on my knee in the first place. The idea of spending an afternoon in a room lined with Pilates balls and free-weights freaked me out almost as much as the idea of shooting a baby out my vagina.
Perhaps this would be as good a time as any to mention that in fourth grade a retrospectively alarmingly sexualized girl named Angie—Angie who had taught the girls in our grade that the way you can tell if you’re pregnant is to look in the toilet when you’re getting your period and see whether there’s a tiny egg in there—this period-getting, bra-wearing, pregnancy-knowledge-having fourth-grader recruited me to come with her to talk to our homeroom teacher about how Mr. Hollingsworth the gym teacher made us kind of uncomfortable. Nothing specific—no inappropriate touches or words, just an icky feeling that was hard to describe and the fact that he made us climb the rope even if we were wearing a skirt that day.
In his defense, Mr. Hollingsworth did suggest we grab a pair of shorts from the lost-and-found to put on under our skirts (as in, “Mr. Hollingsworth says you should get a pair of shorts from the lost-and-found”), but that was as likely to happen as sharing a batting helmet with a kid who had a known case of head lice. The next thing I knew I was sitting in the auditorium with Angie and the rest of the fourth grade being anonymously reprimanded by the principal for “spreading false rumors” about a teacher, which, she said, “Is a very hurtful thing to do.” She didn’t name any names, but Mr. Hollingsworth stood off to the side of the stage looking sad. “And by the way,” the principal added as an apparent non sequitur, “Don’t forget to wear appropriate attire on gym days!”
I don’t mean to suggest I’m the victim of some long-suppressed “incident”—to do so would certainly be to spread false rumors—but I don’t think it’s ridiculous to theorize that my anxieties around gyms and gym teachers and the people that dress like them could be related to the anxieties of being a little kid without any power to make an icky—if harmless—man stop saying the words “gluteus maximus.”
Or maybe as a future writer I was just discomfited by him referring to himself in the third person, which this author says is supremely annoying.
My physical therapist turned out to be a nice enough person, a mother herself who wore lemon-colored jeans rather than the requisite track pants and agreed that pregnancy really does take a toll on our bodies—I don’t just have a weak character, as my husband implies with his eyebrows each time I complain.
She had me walk around the room a few times, from the treadmill to the stationary bike and back so she could analyze my gait. Increasingly uncomfortable at being watched and assessed, I joked that I felt like America’s Next Top Model. Either my comment wasn’t funny or the physical therapist, like the guy who invented blogging, didn’t believe laughter had a place at the gym. Instead of smiling she laid me down on a table and told me to “engage” my “core.”
I felt the all-too familiar uneasiness begin to rise. “You know,” I stalled. “I’ve never really known what people mean when they say that. I mean, it’s not like I’m an apple, so…”
The physical therapist suggested I tighten my stomach muscles as if I were “about to receive a blow to the belly.” Which was, you know, a super helpful metaphor because it’s something I clearly have experience with. I may be a reader, but I’m scrappy in the ring! I reiterated my uncertainties, but she waved my words away. “Never mind,” she said. “I think your abs have shut down. You’re going to have to stop cheating with your glutes, and we’re really going to have to work on your quads, which are just not strong enough at all, are they?”
At the word “glutes” my eyes began to mist over and by “quads” I was crying in earnest. “Sorry,” I sniffled, as the physical therapist handed me a Kleenex. I wanted to explain my tears, explain how in athletic situations I feel inadequate and panicky like a mute foreigner being asked directions to the nearest hospital by someone with a visible gunshot wound. But it came out as, “I’m not…all…sporty!”
The physical therapist appeared not to take offense. She changed the topic to what I’m sure she thought was safer ground, telling me that my sneakers were “street shoes” and did not provide adequate support. She sent me off to buy new ones from an establishment named Super Jock ’n Jill.
Does it surprise you to learn that I tend to avoid places with the word “Jock” in the name—let alone “Super Jock”?
I took one look at their wall of horrible insect-like “performance” sneakers and felt tears again spring to my eyes. “I’m kind of picky about aesthetics,” I told the eighteen-year-old Super Jock salesclerk, hoping he’d nod knowingly and pull a pair of supportive and attractive shoes off a high back shelf. Instead he stared at me blankly and asked if I wanted to try the Asics.
“Do you have anything not made out of mesh?” I tried again, going for the specific rather than the general. “I don’t like the feeling of air on my toes when I’m walking outside and it’s not summer and I’m not barefoot,” I said.
“Wuh?” The salesclerk squinted his eyes like our exchange was beginning to hurt his head.
Before I started to cry for real, I shoved my feet back into my hopelessly unsupportive street shoes and said, “I’m sorry—I’m a reader,” and hobbled out the door.
Not Quite What I Expected
- Seattle, Washington, USA
- March 09
- You can find more of Wilson Diehl's work on Babble, Salon, and her blog, NotQuiteWhatIExpected.net. She's also published some poems in some places and made a short film called "How to Go on a Man Date." She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa and teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle.
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