By JEFF PICKELL
What’s it like to be pregnant at a very young age?
A few students in Laura Leininger’s parenting class caught a glimpse Friday, when Jan Christenson from the Four County Career Center visited with her Empathy Belly, an elaborate garment used to simulate pregnancy.
Mrs. Christenson is a teacher for the Graduates, Reality, and Dual Skills (GRADS) program. It is designed to teach strategies for staying economically independent to students who are pregnant mothers and soon-to-be fathers. Instructors also aim to prevent unwanted teen pregnancy, which is one of the functions the Empathy Belly serves.
While no simulator can produce the exact biological changes that take place during an actual pregnancy, the Empathy Belly is more sophisticated than a harness with weights in the stomach area.
Before donning the apparatus, students raised their arms above their heads while Mrs. Christenson and Mrs. Leininger fastened a tight strap around their torsos just beneath the armpit area. The strap is intended to produce the labored breathing some pregnant mothers experience during the last three months of pregnancy.
“As the uterus expands, the stomach and intestines are pushed back and up, limiting the movement of the diaphragm,” Mrs. Christenson explained. “If you are asthmatic, you will probably have to spend this period lying flat on your back in bed.”
With the strap, she continued, students might feel like they have a bad cold.
Next came the Empathy Belly itself. Katie Borer, who had her name selected from a hat, was the the first student to wear the harness.
A bladder full of warm water—meant to simulate the warmth of the uterus—was the first major weight added to the belly. Then came two seven and a half-pound shot puts. Finally, the student placed a five-pound weight over her or his bladder. This was done to bring about another common side effect of pregnancy—frequent trips to the bathroom.
Katie’s final struggle to button up the Empathy Smock—a velcro-from-behind shirt that covers the belly—led her to use the forbidden word.
“I feel fat,” she said.
“She said the F-word!” cried Mrs. Christenson. “Never use the F-A-T word during pregnancy.”
Still, students couldn’t help lamenting the added weight and girth. Edwin Arroyo could barely get the Empathy Smock fastened, and struggled to complete the simple task of clothes from the washer to the dryer.
Another task involved students climbing to their feet from the prone position.
Mrs. Christenson relayed the story of an Evergreen High School all-state football center who just couldn’t get up. He needed the help of four classmates to rise to his feet.
Katie didn’t have as much trouble, but did suffer a noticeable lack of coordination when Mrs. Christenson jokingly yelled “Fire! Fire! The house is burning down! Get up!”
WORK AND SCHOOL—In a given year, about 150 students in the area are enrolled in the four-county GRADS program, although not all of them are pregnant women or fathers with children on the way. A good portion of the students have already had their children and attend the classes for further instruction, said Mrs. Christenson.
She has had students as old as seniors in high school, and some as young as 12-years-old.
To give Mrs. Leininger’s pupils an idea of the day-to-day situation these students face or have faced, Mrs. Christenson shepherded the class to a nearby stairwell, where petite Mara Raker, garbed in the Empathy Belly, was given a stack of four textbooks. Half of the class congregated at the bottom of the stairs, while the other half lined up on either side of the “pregnant” student.
The classmates were then instructed to walk up and down the stairs as if on their way to class, and Mara was bumped and jostled from one side of the stairway to the next. At one point she lost balance and tipped a shoulder into the wall.
On top of the physical stress, pregnant students also experience mental stress, sometimes in the form of an invasion of privacy.
Mrs. Christenson explained that the number one complaint she hears from pregnant students involves classmates whom they barely know touching or rubbing their stomachs without permission.
“Never, ever, touch a pregnant woman’s belly without her permission,” she said.
On top of it all, there is the question of finances. Many pregnant students are still under the umbrella of their parents’ insurance, but that insurance rarely extends to the newborn child.
Tests, inoculations and other state-required neo-natal medical procedures can cost hundreds of dollars, said Mrs. Christenson.
“Kids cost money,” she replied. “If you’re thinking of having kids, you better have a lot of change in your pocket or be ready to take on a significant debt.”
That’s the weight of unwanted teen pregnancy.– April 4, 2004