Lessons from a nearly naked power walker

From a block away it was apparent that something was different about this early morning walker. I'm accustomed to women power walking and jogging through the neighborhood in various states of undress; they do so every day, summer and winter, rain or shine. Some streak by in baggy T-shirts, some in sweats, and some in glittery spandex and sports bras.

But last week I encountered something altogether new and wonderful. It was hot, and for a moment, as I jogged toward the approaching silhouette, I assumed it was yet another teenage girl emulating World Cup soccer winner Brandi Chastain. But the black, calf-length tights were more in keeping with the attire of older joggers and something about them seemed slightly askew. The figure seemed oddly hipless.

Perhaps it was not a woman at all but a young man wearing a cutoff jersey and football pants, a trifle unconventional, but not beyond the pale. Indeed, that hipless midsection was beginning to look like a substantial beer belly, a good reason for a nice long walk.

But no, the swinging, shoulder-length hair coming into sharper focus suggested "woman," and that bare midsection was beginning to take on delightful new possibilities. Arms swinging with deliberateness, she forged ahead on long, lean legs.

This was no overweight football player. No, I realized as I jogged past, this early morning walker was pregnant, gloriously pregnant, one might almost say defiantly pregnant, easily in her seventh month. Her naked belly was as "out there" as Demi Moore on the cover of Vanity Fair.

How times have changed.

It wasn't that long ago that women shrank from any public exposure of their expectancy, all but disappearing from view during their last trimester, and appearing - when they did - in clothes designed to conceal rather than celebrate their condition. For all the advances women were making in the workplace, they still seemed to accept second-class status as bearers of children, removing themselves from the labor market early in pregnancy, from social events as their figures ballooned, even from everyday commerce, as though it were somehow unseemly for them to be seen in the supermarket or at the cleaners in their ninth month.

A generation ago, single mothers were unheard of. We had instead "unwed mothers," unfortunate females who had "gotten themselves pregnant," as though the condition were wholly self-inflicted, and who were gossiped about in whispered tones usually reserved for terminal illness. No right-thinking unmarried woman chose to have a child either naturally or artificially (not an option back then).

And then it all began to change. Childbearing was suddenly cut loose from marriage. Men and women alike took to raising families single-handedly. "Unwed mother" vanished from the lexicon, replaced by single mother, surrogate mother, midlife mother, and, less felicitously, teenage mother. "Family" underwent a stunning expansion. So, too, single fathers. No shame was attached to these configurations, just expressions of amazement accompanied by a murmured, "It's a new world," along with sympathy for all the sleepless nights that lay ahead and the inevitable challenges posed by the effort to balance career and family with no help from either partner or spouse.

And still, excepting Demi's famous pose and more recently a soaking wet Brooke Shields, images of highly pregnant women continue to be confined largely to the pages of National Geographic. Something about seeing a woman in her third trimester seems to unseat the unpregnant, arousing primordial fears of suddenly finding ourselves drawn into the middle of an unscheduled birth experience.

Summer spawns arresting states of undress among not just the supertrim. Yet pregnant women still keep themselves largely under wraps, and when they do appear at the local pool they are often clad in flouncy bathing costumes that bear a closer resemblance to Queen Victoria than Victoria's Secret.

When my wife was carrying our twins, she began to look deliverable in her fourth month. Every errand elicited expressions of amazement and apprehension; strangers questioned the wisdom of her being out and about in such a state, wondered how her Lamaze training was going. Nervous taxi drivers assumed she was headed for the hospital. Growing weary of having to explain that her gestation was not as far along as it appeared, she took to wearing a small rhinestone pin that said, "Twins."

For a time it allayed others' fears, but there was no keeping pace with the astonishing growth of her babies. By the seventh month she was finding it difficult to slip in behind the steering wheel; by the eighth, stairs became impossible without a helping hand pressed against her lower back. In her final month even lying in bed was exhausting. But she was a glory, so exuberantly expectant that when she entered a room, the cantilevered twins seemed to proceed her by several seconds and never failed to elicit exclamations of awe.

For pregnancy is nothing if not awe- inspiring. How much we lose in wonder and gratitude by concealing it from view. So the other day I considered telling that power walker how beautiful she looked and how much I admired her for being so comfortable in her own pregnant skin.

But she didn't need my approbation or support, I realized - she just needed fresh air and movement and the company of her own thoughts. She already seemed to know what a blessing it was to be carrying a child and to be in good health and capable of race-walking the block on a hot day wearing almost nothing and loving it.

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