As many of you know by now, I use training and racing as a catalyst to fully experience my personal evolution. And although I love seeing my overall growth through being a triathlete and coach, the biggest challenges, joys, and daily lessons have been through my role as a mom.
I have been a mom through my entire triathlon career, starting when my kids were just 2, 3, and 4 years old. Each of us have our individual journeys, but I am empathetic through my own experience as well as compassionate through my extensive research on the pressures that moms face in sport and beyond. So, when at the Ironman World Championships a few weeks ago in Hawaii new mom Chelsea Sodaro took the women’s win, I celebrated alongside her for all moms who want to compete… at all levels.
Now, if you are not a mom (or a triathlete), don’t stop reading. You are most definitely a different kind of amazing human, and one that deserves to understand how Chelsea can be only the second mom to become an Ironman World Champion (and the first new mom with an 18 month old daughter). You need to consider the pressures that we heap onto moms as a society. The hurdles to women in sport, including moms, are established by all of us through established cultural expectations. We need everyone involved to understand the burdens in order to make the changes.
One of the biggest obstacles to moms taking time daily for themselves, whether it is to train for races, or any other hobby, work, etc, is the socially constructed idea of “mom guilt.” This is most definitely a big picture problem, one that takes a shift in cultural ideas bigger than any individual can do in the flip of a switch. But, I do believe that we can work toward change, starting with gaining a greater understanding of these pressures. Today I will give you some insight into mom guilt and how we can all work to change it. Next week I will give all of you moms and dads some practical advice that has worked for me to be able to compete and enjoy training and racing while raising kids.
What is mom guilt?
Mom guilt refers to the specific feelings of guilt mothers experience that relate to their role as a mother and their ability to meet their child(ren)’s needs. Although this kind of guilt can also plague dads, mothers are often the ones that society holds to higher parenting standards (dads certainly have different pressures, but I don’t know of anyone who regularly uses the phrase “dad guilt”).
“Good,” or “loving” mothers are often portrayed as being constantly attentive, present, and patient. This standard is completely unrealistic, often leaving moms feeling guilty for real human feelings like boredom, anger, resentment, annoyance, exhaustion, the desire to have space from the responsibility and/or stress of parenting, or simply the interest in doing something else. Moms who want to work will obviously fall short in the “attentive” and “constantly present” expectations. And moms who choose a recreational hobby, time with friends, or travel (to name just a few others things moms might want to do), often feel the pressure to justify their decision to electively spend any amount time away from their kid(s).
These feelings of falling short and judgment from others can overwhelm moms so much that they decide to succumb to the cultural expectations and do all they can to become the culturally defined “good” mom. In the US this often includes the idea that you need to “do it all,” which fuels loneliness and the ever present feeling of falling short. Sadly, many women lose a connection to themselves in this process. Others crumble and take on a “f@ck it” attitude, giving up on trying when faced with these unrealistic standards. (And ironically studies show that this kind of martyr parenting does not produce more loving and less entitled adults). And no matter which path moms choose or have chosen, you likely find them feeling a need to explain their decision to someone.
Mom guilt is not the only reason that typically no more than ~30% of the field at long distance triathlon races are women (with even fewer moms). But this reaction to our socially constructed views and expectations of what it means to be a “loving” mother is one of them. Chelsea is leading the way from the top, “dreaming of the day where more women and more mothers have opportunity and access to be part of our (triathlon) community.” (Chelsea Sodaro award ceremony speech at IMWC)
Let’s follow her lead.
So-how can we ALL help dissipate “mom guilt”?
- Reflect on what you think a “good” mom is. Write these traits down. Inspect them for truth while considering how your upbringing and ingested societal norms helped shape your expectations. Decide which thought patterns you can change. Consider your lens and sphere of influence when you have the opportunity to interact with a mom who does, or does not, fit in your ideas.
- Stop judging the actions of others, including moms. Consider your language around societal norms surrounding parenting. Don’t ask leading or loaded questions. For example, when a mom rolls up to a group ride don’t lead with, “Who is watching the kids?” Assume that the mom is fully capable of making decisions that work well for herself and her family and is present as a rider. Let her decide if she wants to speak as “mom.”
- Don’t assume that she isn’t a “bad” mom if she is away from her kids, or that she is a “good mom” because she is with them. Also don’t decide that moms can only have space because they “need it.” Moms deserve to do what they need because they are worthy of it, not because they earned it through endless sleepless nights, a million temper tantrums, or spending weeks planning a Pinterest worthy birthday party.
- Partners: communicate. Help create a partnership that works for you to best honor each other as individuals, with clear, mutually decided responsibilities and expectations.
- Support and/or help a mom. Offer to watch their kids so they can train, race, or enjoy spending their time however they want to away from their kids. Ask about their work and hobbies as much as you ask about their family. Like and comment on their personal endeavors that they share on social media as much as you do for posts of their kids’ activities and accomplishments.
I know that you can be a mom and a triathlete without being a bonafide superhero, while not drowning in socially constructed mom guilt, or justifying your behavior to anyone who judges it. We need to work together to shift the culture toward honoring the needs and wants of all humans, trusting that most moms can do the best they can while being supported to cultivate self awareness and compassion.
I believe that we all can be part of a change to create a society where both women and men can make informed decisions based on their own worthiness, dreams, and ambitions. One where parents don’t need to martyr themselves in order for their kids to feel loved and grow to be well rounded adults who care about positively impacting the world.
This might not always include training and racing. But, it can. 😉
**Next week I will give you some more ideas on how to start making changes as individuals. Stay tuned.**