You ever see a stock or posed photo of a heavily pregnant woman that looks totally unrelatable?
You know the ones. Her hair is neat and flowing, her makeup is on point, and she is wearing a gorgeous, flattering dress that perfectly suits her ginormous – though delicate and beautiful – baby bump. She looks happy and content, eager to please, and may even have little angels floating over her shoulders. Metaphorical ones at least.
I never understood those photos because when I was enormously pregnant, the last damn thing I felt was happy or content. And I definitely wasn’t eager to please anyone. Or talk to anyone, for that matter. I wanted to lie on the couch with my feet up, be served a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream, and call it a day. I definitely was not interested in wearing fancy clothes or makeup.
I wanted my space, and if anyone got near enough to breathe on me or close enough to – God help them – touch my pregnant belly, I’d be apt to swat them right in the face. No. Nope. Buh-bye.
I don’t know if it was nesting, mother’s instincts, or just I’m-a-very-pregnant-hormonal mess, but I was in a pretty foul mood at the end of both of my pregnancies. If I could have sequestered myself from the rest of the world for that last month or so, I would have. I really had no patience for anyone or anything, to be honest.
I realize not all pregnant women feel this way. Apparently, though, this is a thing across the board for many of us. See, there’s something called peripersonal space, which refers to the invisible bubble that defines our personal boundaries for touch and one-on-one interaction.
Researchers from the U.K. have found that women in their third trimester require a whole lot more peripersonal space that most folks. Even women earlier in their pregnancies and postpartum women don’t need as much peripersonal space as third trimester pregnant mamas do.
Duh, right? Anyone who has been there knows that truth all too well. Just stay the fuck away is our motto during this time.
The peer-reviewed study was conducted by researchers at Anglia Ruskin University and published at bioRxiv.org. To study the phenomenon of peripersonal space and pregnancy, researchers blindfolded pregnant women at different stages in their pregnancies and postpartum. Non-pregnant women were used as a comparison.
The participants were asked to press a button when they felt a tap on their abdomen, and the speed with which they pressed that button was recorded. The idea was that the sooner someone pressed the button, the greater concern they had about someone invading their personal space, and the more protective of that space they were.
Women in their second trimester had no different reaction speeds than non-pregnant women. And the same was true for women who had given birth two months prior. But women in their third trimester?
Oh, they pushed those buttons with the vigor of a goddamn grizzly bear.
“[I]n the third trimester,” the researcher wrote, “[T]he PPS [peripersonal space] was larger than the controls’ PPS and the shift between representation of near and far space was more gradual.”
The study doesn’t delve too deeply into the reasons why this may be so, but the researchers did have some theories, which seem pretty on point to me.
“[D]uring pregnancy the brain adapts to the sudden bodily changes, by expanding the representation of the space around the body,” they explain. “This may represent a mechanism to protect the vulnerable abdomen from injury from surrounding objects.”
They add that this instinct to protect one’s pregnant belly (and baby) may have a “strong evolutionary imperative” as well and that the changes in peripersonal space likely have biological origins.
Well, that’s for dang sure. I remember feeling an instinct to protect my baby and belly as deep and fundamental as anything I’d ever felt. I am not a violent person, but if anyone or anything got too close to my belly, I would have gone batshit bonkers. For real.
The researchers aren’t sure why women earlier in their pregnancies did not have as strong a need for peripersonal space (maybe because their bellies aren’t as protruding and everyone and their mother doesn’t feel entitled to touch them yet?), but they note that this study is only the beginning of what could be a “fertile avenue for future research” in understanding the mind and body changes that happen to a woman during pregnancy.
The whole thing is fascinating for sure, and I would love to learn more about those intense instincts that overcome you when you are pregnant. Those feelings can be really potent – and sometimes we women don’t know what to make of them or feel guilty or embarrassed about how we are reacting.
But the more we understand how our bodies, hormones, and biology work, the better and more empowered we become.
So the next time you find yourself extremely pregnant and ready to snap at anyone who so much as brushes up against you, just say, “Look, I need my peripersonal space. It’s science.”
And if someone crosses the line and touches your belly without consent? You have my permission to give their hand a gentle little swat. Because, really, they should know better than to mess with a third trimester pregnant lady.
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