By Jason Applegate
Photos By Tony Bennett
When my wife and I found out she was pregnant, I freaked out. I mean, I really freaked out. We were not expecting it, we were not going to have biological kids and we had agreed to consider adopting in the future. Heck, I was even researching the best time to get a vasectomy (The Masters? Breeders’ Cup? March Madness?).
I’m not proud of it, but you know that fight-or-flight response people have when they’re in danger? Well, the moment we found out, I had a flight response and wanted to get the heck out of dodge. This pregnancy was not intended and, honestly, it seemed like to run was the easiest thing to do. Again, I’m not proud to say that, but it was the first reaction I had because I never expected to have the great responsibility of being a parent, and I was really scared.
I don’t want to go into too many details, but I will say that I made some pretty crappy choices after finding out Angie was pregnant.
And then something changed.
As I watched my wife’s belly grow, I noticed how difficult everyday tasks were becoming. I watched her put in long hours at two jobs and come home only to fall asleep while she ate dinner in bed. I saw her frustration at not being able to wear clothes that fit the previous week quickly turn into awe over “growing a human,” as she calls it. I laughed with her when she struggled to tie her shoes or pick up items from the floor (and then I helped her, of course). I worried myself sick when she fell on her stomach while chasing one of our dogs after he got out of our fence (six hours in the ER and $800 later, she and the baby were fine). I saw how she’d stop and smile to herself each time she felt the baby kick. I watched – and cried – as our little girl danced inside her mother during ultrasounds.
“I wish I could feel what you are,” I told her.
“You do? Do you mean that?” she asked. “Because there is such a thing as a pregnancy simulator.”
Maurita Jones, a retired educator, helped us track down The Empathy Belly at Eastern High School in Pekin. I picked it up from Principal Darin Farris with the promise to return it within a week. “Better you than me,” Mr. Farris laughed.
When I got home, I carried the belly into the bedroom, sat it down next to my wife and said, “No. Way.” She smiled and shook her head, knowing I was absolutely going to follow through with my commitment to wear The Empathy Belly for four full days and three nights. The only reprieve would be during showers, and I was going to take some seriously long showers.
The next day, Maurita met me and Angie at Mamma Rosa’s in Salem. Maurita had used The Empathy Belly in her classes for many years, so she was an expert. This became clear when she helped me strap on the contraption and cinch the straps. I’d already filled the removable pouch with hot water and placed the 7-pound lead balls intended to simulate a baby’s limbs in pockets inside of the belly. Ouch. Suddenly, it was harder to breathe, I had to consciously stand up straight because my belly was weighing me down, and – I’m trying to write this with complete honesty – I felt a little silly about (but also a bit enamored with) my new boobs.
The next day, a Friday, I woke up, showered, and had Angie help strap me in my belly for an appearance on WHAS11’s “Great Day Live!” to talk about what I was doing and why. During the short two hours I spent wearing the weighted belly, I started to sweat through my shirt, my back began to hurt, and when my wife asked me to help tie her boots, we both looked at each other and laughed. That was not going to be possible. I couldn’t wait to get the belly off of me and did the moment I walked out to the car.
That weekend, I accomplished as much as possible and woke up Monday ready to begin the challenge. After showering, I strapped on The Empathy Belly, dressed and headed out to start my day. From a distance, I just looked like I’d gained 30 pounds overnight, and it was kind of fun for awhile. I had a number of meetings to attend that day, but at each one I had to explain what in the world I was doing (as one of my brothers asked, though he used words the editor won’t allow me to include). It became kind of a psychological issue, really. I wasn’t embarrassed because I knew I was doing a good thing, but just explaining what I was doing and why I looked like this over and over again was tiring. Dealing with my body was a constant that never, ever went away.
By the time I got home, I wanted to take off the belly. My back hurt, I couldn’t breathe right, the lead balls hurt and so did my feet. But, I said I’d wear the damn thing for four full days, so I sucked it up and kept it on, even through the night.
Sleeping wasn’t awful, since I sleep on my side anyway, but I did wake up in a panic feeling claustrophobic. In the morning, when Angie helped me take off the belly so I could shower, I was in a bad mood. My body felt worn down and beat up. “Welcome to my world,” she said, without a hint of empathy (go figure).
Later that day, I accompanied Angie to Trinity High School in Louisville, where she spoke to the junior class about gender awareness and sensitivity. This had been planned for quite some time. My little experiment was a happy accident, at least to her. It was pretty cool talking to the young men about it, though all but four of the nearly 300 teenagers said they would never, ever do what I was doing. Slowly, I was beginning to feel like them, too.
When we went to pay our property taxes downtown New Albany, the belly set off the metal detector. “Sorry about that,” I told the officer as he wanded me. “I have two lead balls on me.” Angie couldn’t stop laughing. “I mean, I’m wearing a pregnancy suit and it has all these gadgets inside,” I added, knowing I had reached my limit, and I didn’t care that I had only made it through two days and one night.
Taking off The Empathy Belly that night was a great feeling – for me and Angie, too. I brought her dinner in bed and rubbed her back with essential oils I’d picked out myself. “You’re doing a great job being pregnant and caring for our baby,” I told her. She doesn’t always like to let me know when she’s crying, and even though her back was to me when I said that, I could tell my words had put her in tears, the good kind.
In hindsight, I really learned a lot. I didn’t expect this one, but I’m going to kickstart my exercise routine. If I actually gained this much weight, I can see it affecting me mentally. I wouldn’t feel as good about myself, and I’m about to be a father, so it’s time to really get in shape. But mostly I learned that pregnancy is not easy and it is beyond what I ever dreamed it would be.
The hardest part has to be the mental side. You have to go into a protective mode and do whatever you can to protect your baby. You almost have to step outside yourself and say no matter what I feel like or look like, I have to complete this and produce the best opportunity to give this baby a healthy chance. It’s like preparing for the biggest game or biggest championship of your life. For guys, it’s better that we practice or prepare for an actual game instead of pregnancy. After going through this, I’m not so sure how we’d do.
Symptoms & Effects of The Empathy Belly
The Empathy Belly is a strictly external garment and does not have any mechanical, electrical or electronic components. It simulates the following effects through the use of a rib belt and strategic positioning of various weighted components.
- Body weight gain of up to 33 pounds
- Pregnant profile of enlarged breasts and protruding abdominal belly
- Change in physical and personal self-image
- Continuous pressure on abdomen and internal organs
- Postural changes of the back with an increase in lordosis or “pelvic tilt”
- Shift in one’s center of gravity; low backache
- Mild “fetal” kicking and stroking movements
- Shallow breathing capacity and shortness of breath
- Increase in body temperature, pulse and blood pressure
- A flushing sensation and increased perspiration
- Awkwardness in all body movements
- Increased fatigue; slow-paced and restricted activity
Below is at Trinity High School in Louisville, Ky., where Angie Fenton was asked to conduct a presentation on gender sensitivity and awareness to the junior class. Jason Applegate just happened to be wearing The Empathy Belly, which was a perfect (albeit accidental) addition.