The Empathy Belly
(This is the first of three parts chronicling my 24-hour pregnancy simulator field test, launched in honor of my wife Stacy’s second trip to the maternity ward — Originally published in the Boston Herald in July 2007. Photos by Ilya Mirman)
7:30 a.m. — Massachusetts General Hospital
I’ve been told to arrive at the Yawkey Building early, so that we can fill the Empathy Belly with hot water to simulate the warmth of a real womb. My photographer, Ilya, and I are the first ones to show up to a Sunday morning childbirth education class. Lugging the 25-pound Empathy Belly gym bag down the hall convinces me that today’s activity will be no joke.
This luggage will soon be strapped to my stomach at least until dinner time — along with the shifting weight of 11 pounds of water.
“All ready to get pregnant?” asked Maryann Corea-Carroll, a chipper MGH nurse who oversees the hospital’s childbirth classes. It’s too bad you’re not doing this when it’s 90 degrees out. Then you’d really know what it’s like!”
My wife Stacy is at home sleeping. She has no idea I’m here. But she’s not one of those sadistic women who want their husbands to be uncomfortable just because they are. I’m happy to report that the MGH nurses I’ve met aren’t sadistic either.
But there’s definitely an element of good-natured hazing involved here. For all the talk about empathy and education, the entertainment value of a male pregnancy girdle jumps front and center.
In addition to making husbands and boyfriends look absolutely ridiculous, The Empathy Belly temporarily induces serious physiological changes in just a few minutes. Consequently, most users take it off within 30 minutes, and I had to sign a five-page health waiver promising not to sue if my fake pregnancy ruins my back or knees forever.
The maternity suit’s promised changes include:
1. Total weight gain of 33 pounds.
2. Continuous pressure on the abdomen and internal organs.
3. Postural changes of the back with an increase in lordosis or a “pelvic tilt.”
4. “Fetal kicking” created by a suspended internal weight.
5. Shortness of breath, increased body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure.
6. Increased perspiration and fatigue. Pressure on the bladder, with increased sense of urgency and frequency of urination.
7. Changes in sexual self-image and abilities.
8 a.m. — Childbirth Education Class
Instructors Penelope Herman and Courtney Jones, both labor and delivery nurses at MGH, welcome 11 expecting couples to class. As they’re going over a few slides of the pregnant female anatomy, my heart starts racing. Do I really wanna do this? Do I really wanna get pregnant?
I look over to my right and see Maryann, the head educator, leaning back in a swivel chair and drinking a Snapple. She’s very relaxed. The class, meanwhile, is busy flipping through their souvenir Pampers Childbirth Education Guides, developed by the experts at the “Pampers Parenting Institute.”
I wasn’t thinking ahead. Maybe Pampers would have been interested in sponsoring my pregnancy.
8:30 a.m. — Show Time
My heart is still racing and I haven’t even put the suit on yet. That happens to me anytime I have a public speaking engagement. But right now, I just have to stand there and listen.
As one of the husbands in the class is fitted into another Empathy Belly, I’m asked to take a deep breath and exhale as much as I can. With most of the air out of my lungs, Penelope stretches a rib-constricting elastic band around my chest and fastens it tight with Velcro. Oxygen depletion proves to be an excellent educational tool, the ideal way to understand how pregnant women breathe.
Originally, I had envisioned wearing the suit for 24 hours, but Empathy Belly inventor Linda Ware strongly discouraged me from trying to sleep in it. She predicted I would be more than eager to take it off after a long day. Based on those health forms I signed, I figured I should follow her advice.
I had to last until at least dinnertime, though. Only a week earlier, I had put on a baseball mascot suit for a Herald story, with the intention of doing the job for nine innings. I tore off the alligator costume after only 30 minutes of greeting fans. I couldn’t see or breathe through the snout. With the pregnancy suit, I’d have no excuse. MGH had no instructions to blindfold me.
Penelope asks me to hold the water-filled belly close to my own, as she adjusts the arm and back straps. It feels like I’m wearing a bullet-proof vest with a medicine ball sewn into the abdomen.
But we’re not done.
A six-pound sandbag is attached by Velcro underneath the belly so it rests on my bladder. This is probably the one component of the pregnancy simulator that has the most impact on me. I immediately understand how it works.
Still not done.
Two 7-pound metal balls need to be inserted in pockets that extend into my water-filled abdomen. They will flop around to replicate the sensation of the baby’s arms and legs smacking around a mother’s womb. Before I insert my weights, I pass them around the room to the expecting couples. They feel like shot puts!
8:45 a.m. — Pregnancy Tricks
The childbirth educators toss some paper on the floor and ask me and the other pregnant guy to see if we can pick it up. I flunk the test, failing to bend my knees. There’s a reason why hospitals have you sign health waivers.
8:50 a.m. — Wardrobe Change
The Empathy Belly fits over your clothes, but the new layer of simulated nudity might be embarrassing in some social situations. Maryann offers to bring me the official Empathy Belly maternity smock, but there is no way I’m putting it on. Way too girly-girl for me.
The other guy decides to wear the smock. Maryann says that when I’m walking around the hospital, it will be better if people see the name “Empathy Belly,” so they’ll understand what I’m up to. Talking about my emotions is exactly what I do NOT want to do. I brought my own shirts. The one I want to wear outside has a giant question mark on the stomach that can be seen from blocks away.
The real reason why I avoid the smock is that it obscures the pregnant form. People should instantly recognize the shape. The question mark will encourage guessing — and maybe infer there is some intellectual purpose, some greater meaning to the bulging belly bobbing down the sidewalk.
9:05 a.m. — Pregnancy Debriefing
I interview Penelope in a conference room to learn more about how different people respond to the Empathy Belly. She says that in two years of classes, no one has refused to try it on. Of course, there is a self-selected empathetic group of husbands who go to these classes in the first place.
Penelope says the belly usually proves to be the most memorable part of class, sparking lots of pictures with cell phone cameras. Before buying the Empathy Belly, educators at MGH relied on socks filled with beans and rice to teach about the weight gain from pregnancy (One stuffed sock represented the fetus, another the placenta, etc.)
I’m listening to Penelope, but two things are at the forefront of my mind.
1. Pregnant stomachs make a fantastic resting place for notebooks; and
2. I have to be careful when I lean back in a reclining swivel chair.
I’m physically comfortable throughout the interview, but when I stand up, it feels like I am squatting with weights at the gym.
9:30 a.m. — Waddling down Cambridge Street
My maiden journey as a make-believe pregnant guy has begun. Roaming around the hospital with an official escort, I get only one friendly stare from a doctor. Everyone else ignores me. Anybody at the hospital that early on a Sunday obviously had other things to worry about.
Outside, I break away from my escort and walk a few blocks. It seems relatively easy to walk “like I’m lugging around bundles of groceries” but I’ve only had the suit on for less than an hour. Looking at pictures later, it looks like I wasn’t as comfortable as I seemed. All of the photos show me grimacing.
Sauntering a few blocks down Cambridge Street toward Government Center, I notice people react the same way they did at the hospital. Almost everyone avoids eye contact, which is my normal experience in the city. The stomach bulge is just way too enormous to be confused with a beer gut. Or is it?
Then again, what kind of reaction am I looking for, exactly? “Congratulations, sir, on your pregnancy! Do you know if it is a boy or a girl? Have you picked out names yet?”
10:30 a.m. Leaving the Hospital
In two weeks or so, I will be going into the hospital with my extremely pregnant wife and will be leaving when she is unpregnant (with our second child — woo hoo!).
This morning, I walked into the hospital when I was unpregnant and am leaving pregnant.
Pretty freaky, huh?
And yup, I do know that “unpregnant” is not a real word.
But it should be.
(Continue to Part 2 of the Pregnant Guy Diary)
EMPATHY BELLY AND PREGNANCY-RELATED LINKS
Darren’s 24-Hour Empathy Belly Diary:
(Part 1 of 3)
(Part 2 of 3)
(Part 3 of 3)
(Postscript with Competing Bellies)
FOR A SHORTER VERSION of this story, check out “Labor of Love,” my original Boston Herald feature on the Belly.
EMPATHY BUZZ – Inspirational responses to my Belly exercise.