As a childbirth educator, I teach women that pregnancy is not a pathological condition. I tell them to think of their bodies as incredibly strong and capable of much more than they know.
I had an opportunity to put that wisdom to the test myself last year. In early 2014, my husband, Adam, and I bought plane tickets for a four-month excursion around the world with our three daughters, who were then 10, 8 and 5 years old. Our itinerary included stays in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It would be the fulfillment of our long-standing dream of traveling with the girls.
A few months later, we found out I was pregnant.
I never considered canceling the trip. I was healthy and would be into my second trimester by the time we left, and I had already carried three other healthy babies to term. Women are pregnant all over the world, I reasoned, so I could be, too.
Not everyone agreed with me. When I told people I was 19 weeks pregnant and about to embark on an international adventure while homeschooling our daughters, they expressed a range of reactions. Many told me I was brave. Others told me I was crazy. A few expressed concern for our unborn child.
We did change our plans because of the baby. We had originally intended to visit friends in Rwanda, Uganda and Tanzania, but after consulting a doctor who said it wasn't safe for me to get a yellow fever vaccine or to take malaria prophylactics, we spent a considerable sum to reroute to South Africa, where no vaccines were needed.
Once we were abroad, I realized that my pregnancy gave us the opportunity to see how pregnant women are viewed around the world, which turned out to be more educational than I had imagined.
In Kyoto, Japan, I was an object of fascination. Women would stare at me shyly and then count the girls beside me and look at my belly again in surprise. I was surprised that I never saw any pregnant women in public there. I wasn't sure if that was because Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the world or because women hid their pregnancies well in keeping with their restrained culture. I just knew I felt like an oddball. My daughters made a game of spotting other pregnant women to help me feel less strange.
In China, a country of mandated one-child families, we were the ultimate spectacle. Women came up to me in the subway and said, "Oh, you have three children? I have only one but I would love to have more!" We talked about topics that probably wouldn't have come up otherwise. My girls were shocked that a government could impose restrictions on something so personal.
In Istanbul, Turkey, a few months later, I had an even bigger belly, but I stood on streetcars while men sat stoically right in front of me, avoiding eye contact. The few people who did offer up their seats were always young women. This upset and puzzled my daughters and sparked discussions about how different cultures treat women.
In South Africa, a fourth pregnancy is not unusual; for many black South Africans, the size of a person's family is a measure of their happiness. Locals there greeted our big family warmly. The girls enjoyed hearing the customs officials tell Adam, "You have an amazing woman here! Treat her right or else!" and 5-year-old Kaya, "Sorry, honey! You aren't going to be the baby anymore."
There were times when I worried about eating contaminated food, exerting myself too much on a hike in the desert or going into premature labor on a plane, but none of that happened. Most of the time, I was more focused on my children's health and well-being — which is probably why I ended up tripping over a metal reflector in the middle of the road on our last night in Japan. I fell right on my belly into oncoming traffic. I ended up in the emergency room, with a swollen lip and bruises all over. I was incredibly shaken, but the baby, thankfully, was just fine.
After that, I took more care when walking up and down stairs, and Adam and the girls all held my hand every time I crossed the street. For most of our travels, though, I was blissfully happy, surrounded by my family and doing what I love.
When it was time to return home, I was 34 weeks pregnant. Some airlines don't allow women in their third trimester on long flights, so I had to hide my belly with layers of clothing and scarves in order to travel. We made it back without incident, and Mabel Allegra Rubin arrived on schedule — at the University of Vermont Medical Center — at the end of January.
Recently, I read a New York Times Magazine article about photojournalist Lynsey Addario, who covered conflicts in Somalia and the Gaza Strip while pregnant. She said that she continued to put herself in harm's way because of her dedication to the job. She loved what she was doing. Wow, I thought. How could she do that? Then I realized my reaction was similar to the ones people had to me when I told them about our journey.
While more extreme than mine, Addario's story helped me clarify why I forged on with our trip. Seeking adventure is part of who I am. I want my daughters to know that girls and women can accomplish any goal they set out for themselves. And that what may at first seem like an obstacle can turn out to be a great gift.