Becoming Mother

A book and a blog for first-time mothers

Category: Labor

I Wore a FitBit During Pregnancy and Childbirth: Here’s What I Learned

Disclosure: I’m a bit of a data nerd.

Not in the sense that I like to design studies and collect data. Just in the sense that I like to look at charts and graphs and timelines and other visuals.

Call it “data-nerd-light.”

I began wearing a FitBit Charge HR last February, shortly after I started running as a regular form of exercise.

At first, it was useful for keeping track of my exercise. Having information about my sleep patterns and steps was just fun information to use to challenge myself.

Then, in early May 2016, I got pregnant.

Over the course of my pregnancy, I regularly wore my FitBit and amassed loads of interesting data about how my body changed and responded differently to exercise over the course of my pregnancy.

The FitBit Charge HR will monitor your heart rate and calories burned, as well as your number of steps, floors climbed, and miles traveled. Then, it spits out all of this data into usable and easy-to-read charts.

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I started this pregnancy at 147 pounds (at 5′ 7.5″) and my ending weight was 192 pounds, which is a 45-pound weight gain. My pre-pregnancy condition was quite good. I was running about two miles in the morning every day and lifting weights once or twice per week. I was maintaining my weight. I had good energy. I could climb several flights of stairs without getting winded.

So what does pregnancy do to a healthy body? Let’s take a look.

Resting Heart Rate

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My pre-pregnancy resting heart rate was about 56 beats per minute, a sign of a fairly athletic lifestyle. You can see my heart rate climb steeply in the second trimester when I have my first major growth spurt, and then again in the last trimester during the last month of growth. Both time periods correspond to an increase in blood volume in my body.

Fun fact: at the end of pregnancy, a woman’s blood volume increases 40-50% throughout pregnancy.

Weight Gained

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I put on most of my weight during the second and third trimester growth spurts, and just a few pounds gained in the first trimester. This is a healthy weight gain curve, although, I assure you, it didn’t feel healthy at the time. I remember that I kept thinking, No! Four pounds in a week! This baby is going to be twelve pounds by the end of this!

Daily Calories Burned: Pre-Pregnancy

On the left is a typical day of exercise on a pre-pregnancy day, which includes a two-mile run in the morning and regular movement at work.

On the right is a day that I’m proud of: the day that I ran six miles around the National Mall in Washington D.C. Included in this number are the other calories that I burned throughout the day, just by existing. See the number of calories burned? Keep that in mind as I show you how many calories during the late third trimester.

Daily Calories Burned: First Trimester

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In my first trimester, I continued to run whenever I felt well enough. (Weeks 7-11 were Nausea City, so I limited my exercise to walks during this time.) But I took it easy. I didn’t exercise in the peak heart rate zone if I could help it. I monitored my run pretty closely so I stayed in the lower heart rate zones.

Daily Calories Burned: Second Trimester

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I continued to run in the second trimester. In the early second trimester, I incorporated more indoor aerobic exercise because it was so damn hot outside in late July to August. In this screenshot, you see the end of October, when I was 24 weeks pregnant, right at the end of my second trimester growth spurt.

The important difference is my resting heart rate, which has jumped to 70 beats per minute. Because of that elevated resting heart rate at this point, I was more likely to reach a fat-burning heart rate for daily activities, beyond the time when I was intentionally exercising.

Daily Calories Burned: Early Third Trimester

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I continued to incorporate running in my exercise all the way to 32 weeks of pregnancy, but over time, I slowly decreased my running in favor of walking. By 33 weeks of pregnancy, I was done running. This screenshot is from Week 30. It’s not terribly different from my second trimester stats. Notice that my resting heart rate continues to rise.

Daily Calories Burned: Mid-Third Trimester

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This is when pregnancy becomes an outright test of endurance. This screenshot is from Week 36 (which, for my 41.5-week pregnancy, was mid-third trimester). On this day, I walked for 30 minutes. And I existed. End of story.

I mean, it’s the day after Christmas, for goodness sake. What could I possibly have done? I’m sure I was doing things like eating my fifth sugar cookie and picking up bits of wrapping paper and rogue pine needles. Along with a rousing game of “Ketchup or Mustard?” with our three-year-old. (What? You’ve never heard of that game? You just ask the person if they want ketchup or mustard over and over and over again. That’s it. Fun, huh?)

So that’s why pregnant women say, “God, I’m so tired” at the end of the day. Not only are they carrying around a lot of extra weight, but their resting heart rates are elevated, causing them to be burning loads of calories for hours.

But wait. It gets harder.

Daily Calories Burned: Late-Third Trimester

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Okay. So here I was at five days past my due date. At this point, I was desperate to get this kid out of me. So I decided to go for two thirty-minute walks, which you can clearly see on the graph. My pace was much, much slower than normal because my hips were so gelatinous and my gait was off. But pace isn’t important. It’s getting the heart rate up there that counts.

With just two thirty-minute walks and existing for 24 hours, I burned as many calories as I did when I ran six miles and existed for 24 hours. Courtesy of an elevated resting heart rate and additional body weight.

In addition, my body’s center of gravity was off, it was difficult to move, and I had an assortment of new aches and pains to deal with just to get through the day (and night).

What were your calories burned on the day you gave birth?

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So glad you asked.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. That peak heart rate must have happened during my pushing phase.

Nope.

That was when I started hemorrhaging after the birth. Obviously, this wasn’t part of the plan and it isn’t a typical part of the birthing process for most women (thank God). Only about 4% of women will experience a postpartum hemorrhage. (The most likely cause of my PPH was an “overdistended uterus” due to my baby being over 8.8 pounds.)

As a result, my heart rate soared in the peak heart rate zone for close to an hour. As blood poured out of me, my heart pumped loads of fresh blood to the affected tissues and organs. All of this put my body into metabolic overload and it was the main reason I ate like a crazy person for the first five days post-birth.

Most of my labor raised my heart rate into a low fat-burning zone rate, so it was still important that I ate and drank during labor. This is what I will never understand about typical hospital policies regarding labor. Is it really worth it to deny women the right to eat during labor simply because of the minuscule possibility that 1) she’ll have a C-section and 2) during that C-section she aspirates?

Labor burns a lot of calories. And if you’re restricted to clear fluids, you’re pretty much relying on the sugar in Sierra Mist to pull you through. I think that if you have the urge to eat, you should be allowed to eat. The risk of eating harming a woman in labor is just far too small.

I mean, really… When you are awake for days and laboring for hours and hours, you burn a lot of calories.

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So there you have it. An inside look at one slice of what a woman goes through when she carries a child and gives birth. It is a test of strength and endurance simply to carry a child to term and give birth.

The fact that women give birth so often might make the process seem ordinary, but it is truly an extraordinary feat for both mother and child to come out on the other side, whole and alive.

On natural childbirth: An honest confession to first-time moms

If you try to give birth without medication for approval or respect from others, you probably won’t make it. You will reach a point when you don’t give a shit anymore what anyone thinks of you.

In the hardest hour of labor, my husband said to me, “I’m so proud of you.”

Do you know what I said?

Fuck pride. I don’t care about pride anymore.”

About an hour before the transition stage (or "when the shit really hit the fan")

About an hour before the transition stage (or “when the shit really hit the fan”)

And I so did not.

So what kept me from getting the epidural?

It wasn’t because I had read enough books and blog posts about the benefits of natural childbirth.

It wasn’t because I didn’t ask for one.

Oh, I did.

I got to my point when I begged my husband and my doula. I was in full transition mode, complete with 45-second double-peaked contractions, with only 30-second breaks between them.

I was in agony.

But my doula said, “The worst part is over! You’ve only got another 45 minutes before you can push. Let’s get you in the shower.” (She was right, but I didn’t know it at the moment.)

So why did I listen to her?

Time.

When you only have 30 to 45 seconds of pain-free moments at a time, the last way that you want to spend them is on making decisions. You spend the first 15 seconds in complete gratitude that the pain is gone. Then, the next 15 seconds trying to enjoy the sensation of nothingness. And only in the last 15 seconds do you think, Oh no… It’s coming back.

Pain unleashes the animal in you—and animals don’t really make decisions based on higher order thinking.

So don’t admire me.

Or if you want to admire me, admire me for the ability to cope with pain until it became unbearable. Because I don’t deserve any admiration for being able to cope with unbearable pain. I didn’t cope with it. I was just completely incapable of doing anything besides letting the pain come.

This isn’t to say that I regret having an unmedicated childbirth.

Because as a result of this unbearable pain, I encountered a truly transcendent experience in which I felt connected to God. I won’t go into detail here—I’ve already done that in my book. (Help a mom out and buy a copy here!)

But I want to clarify that I didn’t decide during my pregnancy, “You know what? I want a spiritual awakening. Yeah. I want to experience a spiritual rebirth while I’m giving birth to another human being.”

Give me a break. Who does that? Not this one, I assure you.

The initial reason that I wanted to give birth without medication was because I had read a lot of books about the phenomenon of “cascading interventions” in childbirth. Oh yeah, Business of Being Born and Ina May Gaskin and Dick Grantly-Read. All of them. And after that 20-week ultrasound, my maternal instincts started kicking into high gear. I wanted to do whatever I could to protect this child. But that rationale only survived as long as my ability to reason. And once pain pushed me into a mental space where I couldn’t rationalize anymore, anything was possible.

Perhaps this is why a 1999 study of mostly white, highly educated women in their early 30s (i.e., me) found that 43% of the women who said they would “definitely not” get an epidural—indeed got one.

I am not shocked at all by this. Neither do I judge. Because, ladies, the only thing that stood in my way from an epidural was time and my birth attendants. My husband and doula knew what rational Sharon had previously decided and they had promised to give me support as long as I was willing to accept it. It wasn’t my incredible willpower or my amazing capacity to be a “good mother.”

Good grief. Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re a good mother because you of something that you did.

Hear me out on this one. You’re not a good mother because you had a natural childbirth, or breastfed your baby, or never let your baby cry, or never felt ungrateful in the face of new motherhood challenges.

You are a good mother because of who you are. Not because of what you do. Or don’t do.

As Rachel Martin repeats over and over again on her blog, Finding Joy—You are enough. What you are—all of that—is what makes you a good mother.

Please don’t fall into the trap—as I did early in new motherhood—of deriving your value as a mother based on what you do.

Because you will fall short.

Over and over again.

You will forget the diapers at home when you go out. Or feed your baby—God forbid!—formula when the breastfeeding struggles are more than you can bear. Or maybe you’ll be the only mother at the playgroup who doesn’t know that many kinds of rice contain arsenic. (Oh my God! I’ve been feeding my baby arsenic!)

If you value your worth as a mother based on what you do and not on who you are, then you will constantly be beaten down by all those messy and imperfect moments of motherhood. They will beat you to a pulp and drive you into an incessant loop of I’m a terrible mother. I’m no good at this. This baby deserves better than me. It’s my job to protect this child so they will get through life perfectly, and I’m failing!

Don’t give in to this self-destructive script.

You are a good mother because of who you are.

Not because of anything that you do.

Don’t reduce the experience of motherhood into a checklist rather than seeing it as it really is–meaningful and contextualized interactions with your children. That’s where the nurturing happens. That’s what kids remember later on–not all the other stuff that we waste our time obsessing over.

Wholehearted motherhood is so not a competition—and that is actually what the experience of laboring without medication taught me.

Because when you are in the hardest hour of labor, you can no longer compare yourself to anyone else. You can’t see anyone else vying for first place. You can’t even see yourself. And all you care about is the present moment.

But if you insist on treating motherhood as a competition, you will lose every single time. You may not show it to others, but you will feel the sting of failure, over and over again. And then you will plan how to make everyone else believe that you are still a winner.

Oh, so exhausting.

Why not save your mental and emotional energy for something more important?  Why not learn this lesson now before you become that too-perfect mom that no one relates to? It’s so much better to hang out here down in the masses of messy motherhood than it is to be floating high above everyone, dangling from a thin string, just waiting for the helium to run out.

Come on down.

Join the crowd.

***

Like this post? You’ll love “Becoming Mother.” 

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A down-to-earth journey into new motherhood and a great gift for first-time moms.

What labor and death have in common

I had been told that labor was painful. That it could last for days. That drugs help.

But I never expected that experiencing labor would mimic the process of dying.

I first realized this when I wrote a poem about giving birth. As I reread a certain group of lines, I saw the connection. Here, I describe what it was like when I fought against the pain of the transition stage of labor.

I clutched. I gripped. I clawed. I seized.

I groaned. I moaned. I moaned. I groaned.

I reasoned. I pleaded. I begged. I shrieked.

 I cursed. I cried. I cursed. I hated.

I doubted. I despaired. I questioned. I bargained.

 Until I surrendered.

 And then I believed.

The turn in this poem (highlighted in bold) shows me giving in to birth and allowing myself to feel the pain. And this helps me re-imagine labor—as a form of dying. It’s right there in the lines of the poem—You go through all the same stages of grief. Reasoning, pleading, begging, cursing, hating, doubting, despairing, questioning, bargaining

And finally surrendering.

Unbearable, incessant, rhythmic pain will do that to you. It will grind you down into the salt that you really are.

Some who read this may think, Oh God, that sounds awful! I would do anything to avoid all of that. No one should have to suffer.

Part of me agrees with you.

And part of me now acknowledges that suffering can also open your eyes to greater truth—realizations that you cannot grasp until all of the anchors have been ripped free and you find yourself floating away on powerful currents. But there is beauty in surrender, in reaching the edge of your abilities and reason, and acknowledging that you are not so important that you can’t be completely humbled. That you are not so special that you just get to say “pass” on this one.

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And that is what labor and dying do–they reduce you. They re-orient your compass to true north. You are not the center of the universe. You are a small part of something much greater and much more powerful than you will ever be. We call it “God,” but that word is not enough. No word will ever be enough.

So stop fighting.

Stop grand-standing.

Stop asserting your own will and power.

Just stop. And feel.

Perhaps it is a combination of belief in our self-importance and our own powerlessness to protect that self-importance that drives us to try to control birth and death. Perhaps this partially accounts for our eagerness to hook ourselves up to machines which we believe to be more powerful than our own bodies. Or even to distrust our own bodies’ signals in favor of data pouring out of those machines.

Certainly, there is a time for using medical technology to mask or relieve our pain. When our bodies run amok with cancer and chronic, degenerative diseases—conditions when nature goes haywire—I am grateful to live in a time and place where I have options for healing or palliative care. But there is also a time to acknowledge what birth and death really are—natural processes. Stages of life. And denying or being afraid of them only intensifies the pain.

In my own experience, I know now that the urge to fight childbirth and escape the pain originated from outside of me.

It crept in when the doctor told me that I wasn’t progressing quickly enough,

or when the lines on the EFM monitor pronounced double-peaked contractions,

or when the doctor suggested that I could make all the pain go away if I just got the epidural.

After each of these in moments, I doubted the power of my body to get through the experience.

They knew what was going on with my body more than I did. That was how I felt.

But then I regained my focus. And I was able to take myself into a space where it was just me, the pain, and the moments between the pain.

With each contraction, my pain threshold rose and rose. I savored those moments between the pain, rather than focusing on the moments with the pain. When I was left alone, the messages from my birth attendants—my husband, my doula, and my nurse—were that what I was experiencing was normal. None of them acted like there was a reason to freak the hell out. I was not like other hospital patients, sick or diseased with a body gone haywire. What I was going through had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And what I needed was assurance that we were getting there.

It took some effort and planning to create this “birth as a process” environment in the hospital, where the assumption is typically “birth as a potential problem” in need of regulation and control.

But at least it’s not taboo to talk about birth like this.

Death, on the other hand, is far more likely to be seen as a problem, rather than a process. It’s the worst possible outcome. It’s failure. It cannot possibly be what we want.

***

My father died one year ago. Bipolar depression robbed him of his spark. Parkinson’s disease stole his smile and his gestures. Then, it ultimately caused him to lose his footing, fall, and break his neck. Gone was his ability to walk, and temporarily, his ability to independently breathe. He lay in the hospital for a month, unable to move and barely able to talk. When he recovered enough ability to lift his arms and breathe on his own, doctors started making plans for him.

Plans? Really? Plans for what?

My father was depressed. Unable to walk. Constipated and unable to relieve himself independently. His ongoing insomnia was exacerbated by the challenge of sleeping in a neck brace. It was a C2 vertebrae injury, so there was little hope of restoring many typical bodily functions—all of those small movements that we take for granted, but make us feel human. Feeding ourselves. Putting a shirt or shoes on. Picking up a pencil for a crossword.

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December 2008

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July 2012

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August 2013

So I wondered what these plans for the future were. Returning home? That seemed unlikely since he required someone to lift him and my mother certainly couldn’t do that. Going to a nursing home? Separated from his wife of 38 years. Confused by the constant shifts in caretakers, as nurses clock in and clock out. These were the plans? Were these the plans that the doctors would have wanted for themselves?

After my father fell, I admit that my prayers were not for him to heal. At best, they were vague prayers asking for God’s mercy or asking for God to ease his pain. At worst, they were prayers that his life would end soon. That he wouldn’t suffer in such conditions for weeks and months and years, according to the doctors’ plans. That his last moments of life wouldn’t be confusing or difficult. That he could understand what was happening to him so he could accept it instead of fighting it.

But then again…

Would I?

Would I be able to accept the end when I know it’s near?

These are questions without answers. Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding. At the end of life, it’s hard to know what we’ll want. Just as it is when we are in the hardest hours of labor. Our birth plans may be clearly and precisely articulated, but when the shit hits the fan, it’s hard to anticipate where everything will land.

But what I am sure of is that the experience of labor has prepared me for that winnowing down of self, that preparation to join a grand Divine, beyond human comprehension.

I think about what the end of life is like for women who have gone through labor. As they are dying, do they remember labor? Do they remember the way that it reduced their existence into a singular point? Are they better able to accept what is happening to them?

Is labor a special glimpse into the spiritual world that only women are fortunate enough to be able to access?

Because something happens once you become a link in that chain of life, a witness to life’s awesome resilience and power of renewal.

When you give life, life gives you something back—wonder.

The kind of wonder that results from the utter destruction of all your previous understandings and assumptions. The kind that forces you to re-examine all the surviving shards to see which ones deserve to go on and to acknowledge which ones have become dust, lost to the wind.

Wonder.

Over so many things.

How could my body do that?

How could this baby already be breathing on his own?

What will I do if this child dies? How could I go on?

Do all mothers feel this way?

What did I do to deserve any of this?

And Why?

Why Life?

Why Death?

Thoughts for the thinking, not for the deciding.

Like this post? Pre-order a copy of “Becoming Mother: A Journey of Identity” or Check out previous posts here.

Or watch this short related clip of me reading my favorite passage, in which I describe an unexpected spiritual moment.

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