Monday, June 20, 2011

Hell on Wheels

In movies, when someone takes a pregnancy test, it is a scene of excruciating waiting, of squinting at the stick, struggling to decipher the result. In reality, the bright blue “+” sign appears while you are still midstream. It could be made clearer only if a small mallet was released to whack you between the eyes.

For me, while the physical changes of pregnancy came slowly, the mental shift from non-pregnant woman to host body was made just as quickly as the + turned blue. Psychologically transitioning back to normalcy post-pregnancy, however, has been a far more gradual process.

For a while after my son was born I still carried myself as though I had a big bump, giving myself unnecessary clearance when moving through narrow spaces. And long after the actual post-natal period was up—it officially lasts from birth to six weeks—I caught myself wondering why people no longer offered me their seat on the bus. Could they not tell I had just had a baby?

Pregnancy comes with many discomforts and restrictions, and after the baby is born there are even more physical, hormonal, and emotional changes to face. I got used to being in this state of adjustment. Unconsciously, I used it as a sort of qualifier: I was in pretty good shape, for someone who had just had a baby. My house was pretty tidy, for someone who had just had a baby. And so on.

But now as my eight-month old son crawls around the floor and flashes me his one-tooth smile, it’s pretty clear that I didn’t “just” do anything. It is time to let go of my post-natal mindset, to be a little bit more demanding of myself, to reclaim my body. To that end, in part, I decided to join a gym.

I reviewed the fitness classes offered. One promised me the hindquarters of Jennifer Lopez, but its name – “ass blast” – sounded far too much like a colon cleansing. I opted for spinning. The spinning room is the VIP lounge of my gym. Its glass walls allow you a tantalizing glimpse of what goes on in there: it’s dark, with flashing, disco-like lights, and there’s a DJ station. My first mistake was thinking spinning looked fun.

On a Sunday morning, I met the spunky, upbeat instructor – Pepper, from Texas – while walking to the class. Pepper was initially delighted when I said I would be joining the class, but she expressed concern on hearing it was my first time. ‘Are you cardiovascularly fit?’ she enquired, furling her brow. ‘I run every day,’ I said, because this used to be true, and for a minute I felt like my old, marathon-running self. Cardiovascularly fit? Absolutely.

There were about ten of us in the class, men and women, mid-20s to early 50s. Pepper helped me adjust my bike seat. She strapped my feet to the pedals, and explained the basics: turn the small knob between my knees left to get more resistance, right for less. We were ready to go.

My own bike is my main mode of transport, aside from my feet, but the spinning bike was different. I’m not used to my seat being higher—way higher—than my handlebars. I felt I was being hung from the ceiling by my back belt loop. I gripped my talons on the handlebars like an anxiously perched bird.

We began with what is called sprinting, which means sitting on the narrow, hard seat and holding the closest of two sets of handlebars, pedaling fast with relatively low resistance. Immediately I understood why the others wore padded pants—rookie mistake. But I was optimistic. From her front and center bike, Pepper cranked up the music and smiled at me.

Then Pepper changed. ‘I will work you hard,’ she charged, and began staring individuals down, reprimanding them by name, accusing them of partial effort, reminding us that she was watching. Then she yelled ‘climb’ and it all began to go wrong. Climbing means turning up the resistance, lunging forward to a farther away set of handlebars, and biking in a standing position.

The pain that shot up my thighs was the wailing of muscles long dormant, and my heart felt ready to fly out of my chest. The sweat from my forehead was blinding. I tried to picture my baby’s face. Was it so long ago? I looked at the clock and we were only ten minutes into the hour-long class.

I clenched the handlebars, staring down at my white knuckles and feeling all my weight in my arms, shoulders and neck. This apparently is not good form. Pepper dismounted her bike and walked over to me. She insisted that my impossibly raised tailbone was my center of gravity. ‘The force is coming from your thighs and abs,’ she instructed, grabbing me in both places.

And suddenly my left leg came free from its pedal vice, but the flywheel's momentum kept the pedal spinning at dangerous speed while I held my free leg out of its reach. Meanwhile, my right leg, its foot still firmly attached to its pedal – piston to crankshaft – cycled on madly against its will. Panic-stricken, I looked to Pepper, who shook her head and offered, matter of factly: ‘If you had enough resistance, that wouldn’t happen.'

Far more than actual ability, I rely on pride to pull me through situations in which I really ought not be. But here, I had to submit to failure. Not even the music could inspire. The songs I heard during that hour are ruined for me forever (Gwen Stefani? You’re dead to me.) I didn't leave--I really didn't think she'd let me--but I gave up, pedaling away at my own slow pace, avoiding Pepper’s eye contact and ignoring her commands, until at last the class was over.

With my face held up to the showerhead, I closed my eyes and let the humiliation wash away. And then I heard someone say my name. Standing beside me was a soapy Pepper. She was smiling again. ‘Did you have a little trouble?’ she asked. ‘I recently had a baby,’ I said, hoping that it would exonerate me, but instead she said she’d see me next week. ‘The class is a little treat I give myself every Sunday,’ she said.

Spinning that morning had been one of the worst times I’ve ever had doing anything. Clearly I have a long way to go in regaining my former fitness level, but the first step is letting go of the post-natal excuse. The second I knew I was pregnant, my body belonged to someone else, and I looked forward to getting it back--and now, at last, I have. Except on Sunday mornings, when I surrender it to Pepper.


  1. Ah Tracy, you just rock! How's spinning going these days? Have you stuck with it? You should try a 'Pump' class where they make you lift weights. I'm thinking it may end up as another blog entry. BUT alternating it with spin, it will whip you into pre-baby shape in no time. And I really don't believe you have far to go at all! I did not get back into shape until Lilya was 13 months old...ha ha.

  2. Oh, this made me laugh and cry out: I KNOW except I have no baby excuse. I have bad knees (does this count?).

    A similar experience for me happened at the YMCA and I believe it was a Sunday. There's a religion inside the hardened spinners, I believe.

    Run, swim and know:

  3. So funny Trace, I know Im just cheating myself, but I used to pretend to adjust the dial. I would glide my fingers in the direction of the tension but would only turn it ever so slightly. It was better than retching and puking in public.

  4. Wonderful story! It is strange to realize that even when you are post-post-pregnancy, your body takes a while to get back to top pre-pregnancy form. :) Have you left the Netherlands? Would love to meet up if you're still here.

  5. Hi BbB! I'm still here, and would love to meet up. I'll be in touch via email. Are you still in Leiden?

  6. I am still in Leiden! Looking forward to hearing from you.

  7. Hi Tracy -- My girls are now 10 1/2 and I still find myself saying things like "of course I have a muffin top, I had twins." I've kept my post-baby excuse parade rolling for a decade; hmm... maybe that's a little long :-) Good luck!


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