Monday, November 3, 2008

Working Out

As I watch the collegiate women’s crew teams glide down the Charles River with seemingly effortless strokes, I can’t help but wonder: is this a sport I might have been able to compete in when I was in college or even now? Because I attended high school and college before Title IX (the 1972 law which requires gender equity for boys and girls on every educational program that receives federal funding), I often have these Walter Mitty-like sports fantasies.

My question is answered by two fathers I talk with as I watch the sculls pass under the bridge on a crisp fall day in Cambridge. The first dad has driven from Baltimore to watch his daughter compete for MIT in a sport he loves, one she has grown up with. He tells me all I need to know as a beginner watching this sport. Later I visit with a father I know who flew from Mississippi to watch his daughter, a freshman at Harvard, participate in a sport she is only just learning. Since she wasn’t an athlete in high school, he was shocked at her interest.

Not only could I have crewed when I was younger, I admit I could still do this if I had the self-discipline to get up that early in the morning to train. I wasn’t brought up with the concept of women “working out.”

I started teaching young women about the time Title IX became law. I watched as “working out” became part of their daily regimen. They seemed healthier and more confident than my generation. They understood the art of teamwork and how to accept small defeats and learn from them.

Even though I live in a family of men who take sports seriously, I never connected the physical training of sports with pregnancy—until recently. Sarah Brown, CEO and co-founder of The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unintended Pregnancy speaks about the planning a woman needs to do before she becomes pregnant to assure that her body is ready.

I’ve had two planned pregnancies and upon learning I was pregnant, started a prenatal program of vitamins, pelvic tilts, and doctor visits. Nobody—including my doctor--ever framed pre-pregnancy as a physical endeavor that requires conditioning. (I do remember my husband telling me afterward that for all the sports he’d watched he had never seen a mightier physical effort than giving birth.)

Beneath the bridge beside the river, I hear grunts as the women pull their long oars through the water, arm and leg muscles taut. My thoughts return to how we convince young women that planning in general is important and planning pregnancy in particular is vital. Is it possible to use physical fitness as a way to prevent unintended pregnancy?

Could we require physical education or health class curricula to cover pre-pregnancy? Could we point out in these classes that being involved in competitive or individual sports or physically demanding activities like dance, Tae Kwon Do or Pilates, is fulfilling in and of itself, but also part of getting our bodies ready for the work of someday having children if we want them?

Through public information campaigns we were able to convince many women in my generation to quit smoking and drinking during pregnancy. Why can’t we convince young women today that being emotionally and physically ready to have a baby is akin to being physically and emotionally ready to run a marathon or play a season of basketball?

If we manage to convince a generation of young women that they need to “work out” for pregnancy then in the process maybe they’ll decide for themselves that a baby isn’t going to “work out” for them until they reach some of their other goals.