“Nine Pounds of Uncooperative Flop”

What it’s like to work out with a bunch of babies.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

From his spot on the floor, my son looks up at me with a furrowed brow. He scans the left side of the room with suspicion. His peer Jeremy is lying a few feet away but doesn’t make any acknowledgement. They might be friends in another context, another time. In the corner, there are new additions to the class, beefy and older. They are sitting up with dark, unblinking stares. One is wearing a bandana over thin spikes of hair. The other has animal ears built into the hood of his sweatshirt. Eccentrics. In the back, several in the crowd look disoriented, a couple drunk and bloated, their handlers arranging objects of distraction within reach.

The instructor walks across the linoleum and plugs her phone into the sound system. Suddenly, the “Wiggle” song roars through the studio. “OK, ladies, let’s get to work!” The space feels crowded as 20 women begin running on the spot with varying degrees of effort. Their counterparts languish on the mats below, watching with confusion or delight or ignoring the scene entirely. Amazingly, a few appear to be sleeping despite the booming bass. The beginning is often chirpy. By the end of the hour, many of the participants will be reduced to tears. It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Mommy & Baby fitness class.

Earlier this year, as we celebrated the “dad bod” with its fair-weather gym attendance and fun-loving diet, Scarlett Johansson won praise for having “raised the bar for post-baby bodies” with her “tiny waist” on the red carpet of the Academy Awards. Though projects like Take Back Postpartum aim to build a positive attitude toward the “mom bod,” it has yet to charm the masses.

When I signed up for postnatal fitness class, my son was 6 weeks old. I was still getting used to having him around all the time; he was still getting used to being around. He was the smallest one there, and that first day, he lay like a curled chinchilla on the floor of the recreation center, face red from being pushed up against my chest in the carrier, his old-man hairline rendering him as a rounder-faced Captain Picard. When he cried, I picked him up and did squats with his irate little body—9 pounds of uncooperative flop. Now, as time is measured in weeks, he has more than doubled in age.

Almost all the babies in attendance are presently only children. We joke that moms with multiples are too busy to make it. Though these women are novices at parenting, it is a room of experts: engineers, architects, doctors, nurses, a couple of lawyers, an art director. We lunge and curl like giants in the air above, while my son’s head whips around from face to face. He knows me most by smell: the milk truck. He came out snorting, a truffle pig, a creature. Now he can hold my gaze from a distance. My gym attire is black, nothing showy. To new eyes, perhaps I am striking in my freckled pallor and pilled spandex. A few mothers appear to have bought new workout gear, but the regulars, as I have become, seem resigned to sport the old, faded stuff. Isn’t it the goal to “feel like myself again”?

* * *

Before my son came along, I did yoga. I did Hot and Flow, Hatha and Power—but mostly Power. I frequented a studio that felt like a country club. It had towel service and a sauna and a parade of beautiful, bohemian jocks who would cavort naked in the change room itemizing the benefits of their current smoothie recipes.

In those hot rooms, under elaborate lights designed to look like dandelion spores, I would hold inversions and discreetly inspect the bodies around me: a faded dolphin tattoo swimming on the side of a muscular calf, an infinity symbol on an ankle, an inspirational not all those who wander are lost inked along a forearm. As the mats became slippery, spray-tan tinted the streaks of perspiration. Prayer beads and eyelash extensions. Now, this class inspires little in the way of such display, but I have the spectacle of babies.

At the front of the room, the instructor’s son, a 1-year-old with the face of a cherub and a noggin the size of a man’s, sits in judgment from the throne of his stroller. When he tires of the pre-peeled oranges his mother has left in offering, he squirms and kicks at the snack tray until he’s managed to rest his feet on top of it like the tiny boss that he is. “They’re doing a good job. Right, Marcus?” the instructor queries, gesturing toward us. Marcus laughs with manic bursts and claps his hands in mockery.

After years of practice, I could fight the fear of hips over head and propel myself into a handstand. I could hold a half-moon pose and smugly float my supporting hand off the floor. In yoga, my movement was smooth, trained, but after time away, I find myself in this class all angles and jolts, calling upon any muscles available. A little bloat of belly now appears as a ledge looking over my waistband to its past occupant on the mat below. 

The adults chat between activities and complain about our sore wrists, our need for better sports bras. In the middle of those particularly difficult repetitions jumping up the steps at the far edge of the room, we fake that we need to stop to attend to the babies. But we still show up. For those of us lucky enough to have maternity leave, we savor the break from our professional responsibilities, yet there is no doubt of our desire to reclaim our physical identities. Naively, we all seem to have expected our bodies to remain unmarked by this incredible production—to appear and feel just the same. The idea of a “new normal” is not popular with this crowd.

For months my baby and I shared a body, but since he moved out, I’m keen to undo his renovations. As he learns to thrive in the outside world, we find ourselves strangely on the same path—him, discovering the wonders of his physicality, and me, negotiating with the mom bod.

“Don’t let your knees collapse in on those lunges!” yells the instructor, skimming our legs for weak specimens. Humans, one of the nurses tells us, are born without kneecaps. The cartilage doesn’t even start to ossify until a child is almost 3. But a newborn has plenty of other bones—maybe 300? By adulthood, some of those will have fused together, lowering the count to 206. We grow hard, inflexible. In the front of the room, Marcus has started chewing on his right toes.

Though I felt a drive to perform in yoga, it is challenging to muster much focus when half the class is oblivious to societal pressures. For babies, looking cool is not a thing. At 13 weeks, my son’s limbs flail around forcefully, but he has yet to gain any lasting control. He is totally unselfconscious. He is unaware that he, and all the babies here, are constantly being measured, judged. I am given a percentile, questioned about his abilities, and met with frowns or nods. His stats are written down in the doctor’s files. He is “robust,” said the doctor. “Oh, those rolls,” said the ladies at the park. “What a chunky monkey!” they cooed. I look forward to his changes. I wonder when he will be able to grasp objects, to push himself to sitting, toddle on the playground. I wonder and I wheel him around on long walks through the neighborhood in his pajama onesies like some kind of invalid playboy. I talk to him and he has learned to smile on mornings when I bring him to lie in our bed where he can see the light on the white wall, the zigzag pattern on our laundry basket. Once he is bigger, able to grab and pull, I know our apartment will reveal itself as a deathtrap. I will be chasing him, often steps behind. Ever since he was born, time moves with new cadence.

* * *

“OK, into those planks, ladies!” I commandeer the end of my son’s mat to cushion my elbows from the floor. We are to hold plank for 90 seconds. My son looks down his nose at me, and a tiny foot extends toward my hand. When I continue to hold in plank, his face begins to tighten, threatening the squish of tears, his comically teeny mouth like an upside-down u. Then his body goes rigid, his back arches, his arms straight down against his sides, and just as I expect to hear his shrill cry, he lets out a loud, loaded fart.

“Only 30 seconds left, ladies!”

“Thanks, kid,” I whisper.

He twists and smiles, clearly relieved. He kicks his legs spastically as the theme song to Flashdance comes on. He’s a maniac.  

The mothers are coached through a set of jumping jacks alternating with a nimble front-switching of feet that adds unsolicited challenge to the action. On the mat, my son stares intently at his left hand as it wavers in front of his face. He aims his mouth toward the fist, but the hand evades him, jerking into his eyeball at the last minute. He is unfazed. In the late ’90s, in the plushy corners of late-night raves, I recall seeing such preoccupation among much older subjects; there were soothers and fuzzy, oversized clothing involved there, too. “Dude, my hands are amazing … ” The image amuses me as I strain to finish a set of frog hops across the floor, my quads throbbing. I stop before reaching the end and clomp heavily to the wall.

Among the adults here, there are few gym-class heroes. The babies are a different story—all athletes of a sort. Before my son can do any task, he will try and fail more times than I could stomach. I think about how long it took me to do a handstand despite having the basic mechanical ability. I would grow discouraged so quickly. I would fear the potential for failure, for damage. In the 1910s, Jim Thorpe, an Olympic athlete and footballer, attempted to spend a day mimicking a toddler’s every movement. He, as fit as any adult could be, surrendered to exhaustion. It takes 54 muscles to take a single step, and babies work tirelessly to develop them all. They work without the burden of their own expectations.

“Give me 10 burpees, ladies,” orders the instructor. We bounce in the air like flightless birds and plunge our bulk to the floor, repeating with breathless grunts and objections. The older babies in the corner watch from their bellies, heads craning and dropping, arms straightened to raise their chests up like cuddly Komodo dragons.

We are given a 60-second break for water, and the women slump back to the mats. The hour is almost over. “Rebel Yell” starts up from the sound system and, as if on cue, my son lets out a grabbled “a-woooh!” His mouth flashes to a toothless grin before he returns his focus to his hand and the thumb he aims to devour, if only it can be liberated from a tight fist. I stretch one arm across my chest as my shoulder joint moans and watch his progress. He is cross-eyed as his prey approaches. He is without fear.

I think of how absurd, how astonishing it is to find myself here with him as we each test the limitations of our bodies—learning again, or for the first time ever. Together, we move in this strange new space, where one becomes two, and time is measured in weeks. Once the class ends, I will scoop this baby up and cuddle him in my arms. Maybe he will make those little “nuh” sounds and nuzzle his head into my neck. I know that if he could talk, he’d tell you he thinks the mom bod is the best.