When I first saw this picture of Lea-Ann Ellison doing CrossFit a mere two weeks before her due date my initial thought was man, I miss my pregnancy boobs. (That’s about all I miss about pregnancy though. Okay, the boobs and the weird alien kicks that felt like my babies were doing slow-motion roundhouses. For me, just thinking about my pregnancies makes me hot and nauseous. Apparently I’m a sympathetic puker… with myself.)
The longer I looked at Ellison’s many impressive pictures, the more conflicted I became. The truth is that I don’t know how to feel about her being pregnant and doing CrossFit because I still don’t know I feel about me being pregnant and doing CrossFit (and kickboxing and weight lifting and running and a number of other intense exercises).
Pregnancy is not an illness. It’s a motto we hear thrown around a lot these days and while they’re quite correct – there’s nothing pathological about gestating – let’s not pretend that pregnancy doesn’t massively (hah!) change things in your body. At least it did for me:
The first trimester was consumed with overwhelming nausea that was ameliorated only by succumbing to my overwhelming exhaustion. I have seriously never been more tired in my life that I was during my six (!!) first trimesters. I still hit the gym daily but I was definitely not at 100% – unless I was sprinting to the bathroom to puke because some old guy in a cloud of cologne had passed me on the track. And then I fell asleep on the stretching mats.
The second trimester – the one that everyone calls the “golden” part of pregnancy because you’re past the sickness of the first tri but not plagued by the bigness of the third – wasn’t as bad but that was when I had to give up running during Jelly Bean’s pregnancy because of horrible hip flexor pain. All the relaxin hormones were doing their thing and my pelvis became unstable, my balance got thrown off and all my parts just didn’t seem to quite work together anymore. I still worked out but I had to modify even more to accommodate my growing belly. And while I exercised relatively well through the second tri of my three sons’ pregnancies, Jelly Bean’s was much harder. Maybe it was the burden of being my sixth pregnancy. Maybe it’s because I was older. (I was 30, gasp!) But Things just hurt. I was sore a lot and it took me longer to recover. Yet I still pushed through it, working out nearly every day doing a mixture of kickboxing, yoga, weight lifting and – yes – CrossFit.
The third trimester however is where my pride and competitive nature really came out. While I didn’t have any major complications (thank heavens!) by that point I was huge, I wasn’t sleeping well, I had chronic heartburn and my babies all did this thing where they bashed their heads into my cervix which felt like falling straddle-legged on a fence – an electric fence. With my boys I just kinda pushed through it and was proud to say I did a full TurboKick class the day before I went into labor with my 3rd son. But Jelly Bean schooled me. Eight months into it, I was doing TurboKick and – if you were with me back then you’ll remember this fun part – I managed to bounce around so much that I caused myself to start bleeding. I freaked the heck out and for the first time realized that by pushing myself to continue doing my beloved high-intensity workouts, I could actually be putting my baby’s life in jeopardy. And as a woman who had already lost one daughter (although not to exercise – Faith died because of a genetic disorder), that was something I took very seriously.
Suddenly I was taken off all exercise and even told I wasn’t supposed to walk more than absolutely necessary until she was born. This, as you may recall, shattered me. Deprived of my exercise routine I not only lost muscle and endurance but I also lost the endorphin rush I was used to and nearly my entire social group – it was one of the most depressing and anxious times of my life. But I mostly stuck with the doctor’s orders – I did take some slow walks – because in the end Jelly Bean was way more important to me than my fitness was. I distinctly remember Gym Buddy (and doula) Krista reminding me, “What is 9 months out of your whole life, really?” Indeed, taking those couple of months off did not wreck my fitness level nor did I suddenly gain 100 pounds. I eventually lost the baby weight in about the same amount of time it had taken me with the others. It all worked out.
All of this history played through my mind as I read through Ellison’s Facebook page, full of cheerful reminders like “I strongly believe that pregnancy is not an illness, but a time to relish in your body’s capabilities to kick ass!” I love that she has the strength and energy to power through tough CrossFit workouts. And I don’t think she is harming her baby – the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists does say that as long as you have no complications, it is safe to continue with your fitness routine through your pregnancy. Plus, all the CrossFit trainers and several CrossFitting pregnant moms that I interviewed for my story for Shape about this told me that CrossFit and other high-intensity workouts can be perfectly safe for healthy, fit women and they’ve seen it done! Plus, some exercise is undeniably beneficial for both mama and babe. But more isn’t always better…
But in all the discussion of Ellison’s controversial pictures, one comment has stuck with me the most. Dr. Raul Artal, chairman of St. Louis University School of Medicine’s Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health as well as the lead author of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ guidelines for exercise and pregnancy, after detailing the many ways that CrossFit could potentially be dangerous to a pregnant woman, told CNN, ”What’s important to point out is that individuals may get away with this activity and nothing will happen,” he says. “What’s difficult for doctors to predict is which mother will have a problem.”
Ellison, it seems, is one of the individuals who can get away with it. I wasn’t. So perhaps I’m just jealous. (Plus you know she’s going to snap back like a rubber band.) Or maybe I’m sad that pregnant women’s bodies still elicit so much judgement. Perhaps we should be both celebrating that Ellison can be knocked-up Superwoman as well as reassuring women like me that it’s also okay if we’re just ordinary mortals. Pregnancy, like workouts, affect every woman differently. I do think each pregnant woman’s health is between her and her doctor and that’s it. The point isn’t to shame anyone into exercising more or exercising less – the point is to have a healthy baby and however that happens is good, right?
And so I remain conflicted. Should I be proud of exercising through all my pregnancies? Even though, looking back, I wish I hadn’t put so much pressure (physically and mentally) on myself? After all, it is just 9 months – just because we can be Superwoman when we’re pregnant – we’re strong and tough and brave in ways both physical and not – does that mean we should be? I don’t know the answer to that.
What do you think of the controversy over Ellison? Is this a fab example of the power of women, in all stages of life? Or is it one more example of how society pushes extreme standards on us? If you’ve had kids, what was your fitness strategy when you were pregnant?