On the January night that my husband and I bought a pregnancy test, we rode our tandem bike to CVS. The test was positive.
My first trimester coincided with a pretty nasty winter, so I spent part of those secret-keeping, nausea-filled early weeks riding the Broad Street Line more than usual. My 2.5-mile commute took longer via my walking/SEPTA combo than by bike. In the time it took to tiptoe on unshoveled sidewalks to Broad Street, I could have already been locking up at 16th and JFK.
So on the days the snow melted enough to make bike lanes passable, I’d ride to work.
With the arrival of spring and my second trimester, the pregnancy announcements begat concerned interest from family and friends. Nearly every person who asked my due date or how I was feeling followed up with: “Are you still riding your bike? When will you stop?” When I said that I had no plans to stop, the response was always, “My doctor would never let me do that.”
I didn’t find much support online, either. The websites or personal stories I came across usually depicted some fabulous Scandinavian enjoying her vast network of protected lanes. Unlike me, she didn’t have to battle traffic in South Philly and Center City each day. Still, I could not find a single data point proving that riding a bicycle is more dangerous for pregnant women than riding in a car or taking any other mode of transportation.
This left plenty of unanswered questions. Is there any reason why pregnant women should avoid their bicycles? On the other side of the coin, are there any potential benefits to biking while pregnant?
After some digging, I did find a 2014 Canadian study on driving a car while pregnant. It reported a 42 percent increase in motor vehicle crashes when a pregnant woman is driving, and cited motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of fetal death related to maternal trauma. (You could possibly argue that Canadian laws are safer for drivers and cyclists, meaning this number would be higher in the U.S., but that’s a different story.) While pregnant women sit around in fear about eating a piece of raw fish, we really should be providing prenatal education on the larger risk of car safety. Even better, we could make our streets friendlier to other forms of transportation so fewer pregnant women get behind the wheel.
“After six months I had significant pelvic pain while walking, which wasn’t an issue while cycling.”
Christy Santoro, a certified professional midwife who attended my birth, assured me that she, too, had biked through pregnancies — the second while carrying her toddler on a seat.
“As a midwife, I encourage my clients to continue cycling during pregnancy as long as they feel comfortable,” says Santoro, who has provided prenatal care and birth services for more than 15 years. “If you are an experienced, confident rider, staying on your bike can be a great way to get exercise and get around the city when long walks may be more challenging.” She adds that for inexperienced riders, pregnancy isn’t the best time to start learning how to ride a bike.
As was the recurring theme in my prenatal care, Santoro told me to listen to my body. Unlike driving, a passive activity that may not offer up signals that reaction time or physical capabilities are changing, you have to be self-aware of your capacity to ride a bicycle, especially through city streets.
“As the pregnant cyclist’s body changes, the center of gravity moves,” Santoro says. “One may need to adjust your seat and handlebars to be more comfortable and upright to allow for the growing belly.”
As my third trimester began, my husband ordered me an upright cruiser. He equipped it with a milk crate, so I could access my water at each red light, and a “Baby on Board” sign to let drivers know to give me some space and patience.
Jeannette Brugger, pedestrian and bicycle coordinator at the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities, rode her bike until four days before she gave birth. She commuted to work and ran errands throughout the city, just as she had before her pregnancy.
“A few times men in vehicles would ask, ‘Where’s the baby?’ in reference to my sign, and I’d point to my big belly and get a chuckle,” says Brugger, who also rocked a “Baby on Board” sign during her pregnancy.
In speaking with other women who rode while pregnant, many mentioned that they felt more comfortable cycling than walking. With widening hips, joint pain, pelvic pressure, and many other charming side effects of growing a baby for nine-plus months, sitting is often easier than standing. Why not bike instead of walk?
“After six months I had significant pelvic pain while walking, which wasn’t an issue while cycling,” Brugger says. “Cycling helped me keep mobile and carry on my normal activities better than walking could.”
Kate Mellet, a Graduate Hospital resident who also rode while pregnant, recalls a similar experience. “Cycling’s a great way to get around town and reduces stress on your joints that are now having to deal with increased weight, and for me it brought me joy,” she says. “I always love getting on a bicycle and feeling the wind on me.”
For me, cycling is first and foremost a way to get around. I’m not very fast, and I certainly didn’t get any faster as my pregnancy wore on. I expected that any bike-car hostility might subside as I proudly rode my green cruiser in a maternity dress and white helmet.
Instead, I became the target of more than my fair share of daily ire between Passyunk Square and Center City. As I took the lane in sluggish rush-hour traffic, drivers would tell me to get in the bike lane when, in fact, there was no bike lane. One morning an older man pulled next to me and said, “You’re going to get hit.” I tried to respond as calmly as my hormones would let me.
“I’ll only get hit if you hit me,” I said. He told me it was my choice and then, looking down to note that I was pregnant, scolded me further.
She punctuated her tirade with, “Yeah, you should be walking. You’re pregnant.”
One of my most memorable encounters was with a woman around my age in an SUV. As she gunned her engine and repeatedly screamed “Sidewalk!,” I knew to let her pass at the next stop sign. Except, as is often the case on single-lane streets, I kept catching up to her. When we came eye to eye, I told her it was illegal for me to ride on the sidewalk, and that’s when she unleashed the obscenities. When I hopped off my bike at my destination, she punctuated her tirade with, “Yeah, you should be walking. You’re pregnant.”
There’s no retort you can think of in moments like these that will diffuse the conflict or explain that I was following not only the law, but also the recommendation of my medical provider. Every person that shared their story with me said if they could change one thing to make cycling in Philadelphia friendlier to pregnant women, it would be education. I have to hope that if motorists would consider the informed, healthy choices we make, and see us as the mothers we are about to become, they would give us the patience we ask for. And maybe even the lane.
‘You go girl’
I rode my bike to work until the day after my due date. (I didn’t know it then, but I’d wait another week before going into labor.) While a few women I spoke to about their pregnant cycling stopped due to the weather or difficulties with balance, most rode nearly until giving birth.
“I almost rode my bike to the doctor on the day I got sent to the hospital for an emergency c-section because of preeclampsia, but I was so ill and exhausted, I was too tired to ride that day and took the bus,” says Mary Richardson Graham, of South Philly. “I still regret not biking to the hospital.”
In my case, I remember exactly one stranger shouting words of encouragement during those 40 weeks and one day. He was sitting on his stoop on 15th Street just south of South. I gave him a thumbs-up and rang my bell in thanks. Melissa Hays, of South Philly, had a similar experience when a woman at 15th and Snyder exclaimed, “You go girl! You’re going to make one strong mama!”
We often discount what encouragement can offer for anyone taking on a challenge, especially the unknowable transition into motherhood. I felt relieved and bolstered when friends, family and colleagues eventually started telling me how badass I was and kept any reservations to themselves.
Here’s what didn’t happen in those nine months: my water breaking on Spruce Street; my balance wavering, causing me to tip over and injure my baby; the 11 o’clock news reporting on the aggressive Philly driver who ran down a careless pregnant lady on her bike.
In October, on an unseasonably warm day that would have been great for a ride, we met our healthy baby girl. About eight weeks after that, I got on my bike again, surprised by my speed, delighting in the familiarity of pedaling, and relishing the stillness of being alone, even on crowded Philly streets. In April, my daughter and I joined a Kidical Mass jaunt in our secondhand Zigo, a kid-friendly cargo bike, and took our first ride together.
Illustration by Miguel Co