Cyrena Lee writes about her desire to keep climbing while pregnant and the unsolicited advice and criticism women often face for making their own decisions for their bodies and babies.
I was never a woman who dreamed of becoming pregnant or having children. The idea of it always seemed abstract, and the burdens on the body too inconvenient for my lifestyle of constant travel and climbing. Pregnant bodies existed on the periphery of life; a background metamorphosis that happened again and again, to other women, who waddled their way through the world until the cycle of life emerged again to repeat itself.
Now, somehow, I find myself thirty-five weeks pregnant, waddling through my daily life, categorised as a pregnant woman. People are kinder to you, more obliging. My transient state is treated with reverence. Even more strangely, men smile at me with no untoward intentions; they give up their seats or their places in line, they are kind without wanting something in return.
At the climbing gyms in Paris, the state of my body is treated with more concern. For the first time in my life, I feel risk averse and a lack of strong control over my own body—at any point, my uterus can contract, I can feel a kick, a wave of fatigue. This is a novel feeling for me because as a lifelong athlete, I've trained my entire life to have precise control over my own body, from gymnastics in my youth to climbing in adulthood.
A large part of gymnastics training not only includes learning to execute precise movements in defiance of gravity, but also requires heavy conditioning and training. Body awareness becomes second nature and the capacity to move through this world is augmented with strength, flexibility and endurance. Though as female gymnasts—and most women, for that matter—age and begin to go through puberty, their body transforms into a gendered object that is scrutinised, objectified, idolised, and sexualized. Women are constantly told to smile, judged for what they are or are not wearing, and then once more at a certain childbearing age, we are told to panic, to race against a biological clock.
Once pregnant we're given more and more (and oftentimes unsolicited) advice; what to wear, what to eat, what to avoid, what to do, what not to do. The list of prohibited actions grows endlessly. No alcohol, no raw foods, no touching cat litter, no salads from delis, no excess of caffeine, no unpasteurised fruits, no high heels, no saunas, no sitting for too long, no standing for too long, no lifting of heavy objects, and certainly, no rock climbing.
While opinions on dos and don'ts abound, the lack of medical research undertaken into the specifics of climbing during pregnancy makes consensus decisions for doctors and climbing parents-to-be harder to reach. In 2015, two climbing doctors in the US carried out a survey of 325 climbers relating to 339 pregnancies. They found that most participants delivered at term with lower rates of gestational diabetes and pre-eclampsia (high blood pressure in pregnancy) compared to the US national average. The study was shared online by pro climber Beth Rodden, who has blogged and spoken openly about climbing while pregnant. A German study in 2017 also found no significantly higher proportion of preterm births in pregnant women who continued to sport climb during pregnancy compared to the national average.
When I first told my midwife that I climb, she gave me a hesitant smile and told me gently that soon, I should probably… stop. At four months I still wasn't really showing and continued to do handstands, cartwheels and easy bouldering, and when I mentioned my recreational activities to a friend who was also pregnant at the time, she called me a 'nutter'. Of course, every woman and every pregnancy is different, and not all women who climb would choose to keep up their sport.
But it was frustrating to be treated like a fragile object, and the more research I did on what women could and could not do, the more it felt like doctors choose to err on the side of caution (or couldn't be bothered with research into women's health) and simply told pregnant women to avoid everything as a safety catch-all. But doing nothing was not an option for me, because I refuse the narrative that becoming a mother means sacrifice of one's personhood. Thanks to the Internet, I found a few women who are changing the narrative themselves, and writing their own stories on what is possible with pregnant bodies.
Joy Black is a trainer who posts frequently about climbing and pregnancy, and a North Carolina native who discovered the sport about twenty-four years ago. She's a mum of three young kids and works almost exclusively with pregnant or postpartum climbers—Black herself climbed up until the day before her youngest son was born.
"I do think there is a shift in the acceptance of activity level now, of pregnant women. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists now recommends pregnant women to continue movement, which is great to see," said Black. However, "climbing is still seen as a 'fall risk' sport and therefore generally not recommended during pregnancy." Black was open with her practitioner about her continued participation in the sport and even showed her videos of herself in action. In the end, her doctor was supportive and trusted her judgement.
Melodie Meigs, climber and writer of the blog Patchwork and Pebbles, has been climbing since 2008 and when she became pregnant, she knew she wanted to have an active pregnancy. The problem was that there was hardly anything about pregnancy and climbing online back in 2017, and she didn't know any pregnant climbers. Meigs resorted to doing a lot of her own research, and because climbing can be a misunderstood sport, her doctor conceded to her own expertise and experience, saying "I think you understand it more than I do, so I defer to you." Meigs embraced van life and roped climbing with a full body harness during her second trimester (though she stopped bouldering after month five), and she was greeted with enthusiasm and support from climbers at the crag.
"Listen to your own body," she said. "Climbing while pregnant isn't like pulling yourself out of a hole, necessarily. Your blood volume increases, and athletes who have just been pregnant tend to do really well. It's the opposite of being injured." Talking to Meigs was like getting a crash-course of unexpected tips and tricks to staying active in pregnancy, and when I first began to do my own research, her blog was one of the first sources to come up in a Google search, from climbing during the first, second and third trimesters to a deep dive on "intense" exercise while pregnant to how climbing and fitness impacts labour and delivery.
For former pro-climber and photographer Angela Payne, the idea of pregnancy initially terrified her. Since she was raised in the US Midwest, the idea of not having kids never occurred to her until much later on in life after she had established a strong identity as a climber. Knowing that pregnancy would interfere with her climbing lifestyle, Payne delayed having kids for as long as possible. Now in her third trimester, Payne initially did some Google searching ("which is dangerous, of course"), talked to a few climber friends who had gone through pregnancy already, and then simply told her doctor she was going to continue climbing, despite getting a skeptical response: "I won't tell you to not do that…"
But for Payne, one of the biggest psychological hurdles with her pregnancy wasn't just the risk of falling, but that it also posed a risk to her active career as a photographer. In a field that is male-dominated and where women are often already seen as the weakest link, she kept her pregnancy a secret as long as possible. She made excuses for not bouldering and avoided posting photos on social media—she'd seen the negative flak fellow climbing athlete Shauna Coxsey had received and wanted to avoid it.
When she got a job where she was meant to lead belay, Payne had to spill the beans: but fortunately her colleagues were receptive and supportive. Payne switched to a full-body harness at 20 weeks and while she has done some bouldering, she understands why the sight of a pregnant woman makes people nervous, as it can even make her nervous. The main factor is the unknown, what is out of her control: "The thing that scares me most is that something could spin, if something breaks or moves…"
People seem to always want to comment or talk to women who are pregnant and climbing. Payne laughed, recounting to me how when she and her pregnant friend went top-roping together, they would commiserate that people would 'just leave them alone' if they weren't in full-body harnesses and pregnant. It's understandable that when people constantly feel the need to tell you what to do, one wants to go inwards.
Writer and climber Georgie Abel did exactly that, and simply relied on on her own intuition to guide her own pregnancy, shirking outside opinion and advice (besides asking around for the best full-body harness). Once she found out she was pregnant, the idea of stopping climbing never even occurred to her. "The only plan I had was to let my body take the lead on how much and what kind of movement felt most supportive to me during pregnancy," she said, "and it turned out that once I got pregnant my body wanted to climb even more frequently than when I wasn't pregnant."
Followers of Abel's social media, though, had a different opinion, and left comments telling her that she should be 'more careful' and asking what would happen if she fell. "It wasn't surprising given the nature of social media and the cultural misogyny that surrounds pregnant people, but it did sting a bit to see these comments, especially the ones about how I was putting my baby at risk," she said. "But being pregnant has taught me that not even a doctor or "expert" can tell a pregnant person what is best for them and that these kinds of choices must be made on intuition and a deep listening to our own bodies."
Not listening to your body could even be dangerous, Abel says, because of the potential impact on mental health. If women hold back on their desires based on societal expectations, it could increase the risk of perinatal and postpartum depression. The mental health benefits of continuing to do what active women have always done is not talked about enough—pro-climber Shauna Coxsey has made waves on social media and in mainstream media for continuing to climb, but at the end of the day she summed up her decision as needing to climb, 'for [her] body and for [her] mind.'
When stories first broke of the risk of Roe v. Wade being overturned — and now as we face the grim reality of women across the US losing the constitutional right to abortion — I had to shut my laptop and sit in silence to process the news. It has been even stranger to process this news while pregnant, and made me think again of being treated with kid gloves as a pregnant woman. If women are second class citizens except for when our bodies are creating life, then everything else we are capable of accomplishing feels redundant.
I understand, in part, why I've seen some women rage on Twitter about forced pregnancy, of 'having something grow inside you, warp your body and then split you in half'. This language dehumanises the female body even more, likening it to a machine with a function that necessarily forces pain and discomfort. But I find this discourse disconcerting because it reinforces this narrative that to live the full experience of a female body means to live pain and discomfort that must be monitored.
Motherhood is ultimately a selfless act: it is about nurturing a newborn, an individual to grow so that they can sustain themselves to be healthy and happy, and to make their own decisions in life. There is no prescription for what life is meant to be other than enjoyment, and sometimes that means taking a break from the usual activity patterns. As my third trimester blew my uterus up into a staggering size that reached the top of my ribcage, I pretty much stopped climbing entirely.
Many women simply don't want or feel like continuing to climb through pregnancy, and some will choose to stop following tailored medical advice. A friend from Brooklyn, Alla, went cold turkey in the second trimester due to her placenta placement. "I was advised not to do any strenuous activity at all. I was bummed because it's so hard to get back into climbing after a long break." For her, climbing is such a strong part of her identity and life that she wants to expose her son to the sport as much as possible, and to show "his mama as a strong fearless woman," especially because she learned from her father growing up that "no boy likes a girl with muscles."
My own muscles have definitely gone softer from this extended boulder break, but I feel stronger for having made this decision for myself in face of external pressures that might want me to do otherwise. Climb or don't climb. It's a woman's choice.
A (wanted) pregnancy can also be a joyful process in which the body's liberties are not necessarily infringed upon but where different capacities are revealed. With the popularity of climbing continuing to grow, I can only hope that the pregnant women paving the way of continuing to climb will reinforce the most important message of all: to be in control of our own bodies is our right, and that control must come from ourselves, by listening to our own bodies, needs and intuition.