Pregnancy: Beyond the Limit

Research suggests we look at extreme endurance events to understand the physical challenges and mental stressors women endure while carrying a child.

AePatt Journey/ Shutterstock
AePatt Journey/ Shutterstock

Like anything worthwhile that feels impossible when you’re in the middle of it, pregnancy is all about hard work and patience. Now it turns out it’s even harder than we thought. A new study investigating the limits of human endurance shows that pregnancy is actually “the longest, most difficult thing that humans can do.” Herman Pontzer, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University and co-author of the study says, “It’s on the same boundaries of human ability as the Tour de France.” Finally, vindication for all moms everywhere! So why does it still seem like making a human is less of a big deal than summiting Everest or finishing an Ironman? At least Prince Harry was impressed enough to say, after witnessing the miracle of birth, “How women do what they do is beyond comprehension.”

While we make it look easy, to understand the physical challenges women’s bodies go through, it helps to look at these extreme endurance events. Pontzer and his colleagues compiled data on athletes competing in ultra-marathons, the 20-week 3,000-mile Race Across the USA, the Tour De France, arctic treks, and pregnancy. “We were looking for measurements on the hardest things anybody’s ever done,” Pontzer says. “They all define this clear and crisp boundary of what the human body can do.” They learned that once the body is burning energy at 2.5 times its resting metabolic rate, the systems and tissues start to break down. Whether male or female, and no matter how intensely you’ve trained mind to overcome matter, your gut simply loses its ability to generate fuel from food beyond this point. “Through all these very different activities, the same fundamental machinery is at work limiting what’s possible.”

It turns out that pregnant women are operating within the same boundary of metabolic output as these elite athletes, living at the absolute limit of human endurance.  Pontzer’s advice: “These limits are real, and not something you can just push through. You need all the help you can get.”

Is there anything comparable in the life cycle of a man? OBGYN Dr. Debora Sedaghat says, “Perhaps you could argue that a male endurance athlete matches a pregnant state. But I don’t think there’s anything a man endures that would be comparable to pregnancy, intrapartum, childbirth and the postpartum period all together. Even the Race Across the USA is only 150 days, it doesn’t compare to 40 weeks of pregnancy.”

Maybe knowing more about the physical and psychological rigors of carrying a child can help us better appreciate the challenge women face not only while pregnant but dealing with life before and after as well. It also focuses our empathy on women who do it while coping with other hardships and turmoil, and who in many cases are denied maternity leave or paid sick leave and proper health care.

Seeing the tangible steps other countries take to recognize the demands of pregnancy exposes our beliefs and practices here in the USA. Next door in Quebec, Canada, the government sends a baby nurse for home visits; in Chinese culture many women take a “month of sitting” to recover; in France there is state funded postpartum rehabilitation to repair “down there;” La Cuarentena is a 40 day Latin American “quarantine” ritual focused on restoring the health and well-being of the mother; in Finland, the government sends a care package of clothing and supplies to new moms. In many cultures around the world there is an understanding that “the new mother is as vulnerable as the newborn child.”

Here in the USA we are encouraged to minimize everything that happens after the first contraction. There is an unspoken badge of honor in bouncing right back. Women who seem unphased by pregnancy are lauded for returning to their bodies and their jobs without missing a beat or an email chain. But seeing the physical feat in the appropriate context might help us shift the focus towards supporting moms in coping with extremes. And in an age of new extremes, from epic heatwaves, to flash floods, mudslides and snow-mageddons, how far can we push ourselves to survive at the outer edges? We now know there’s a hard limit, and miraculous moms are living it every day.

Naomi Hajaj has a degree in anthropology from Princeton and an MFA in fiction from Columbia. A mother of three and a retired pop singer, she is currently at work on a collection of personal essays.

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