It’s no secret that motherhood is having a moment in triathlon. The ultimate visual embodiment of that from this past year is the awesome (in the sense of awe inspiring) photo of Chelsea Sodaro crowned as the Kona Champion and holding her daughter Skye. And Chelsea is only one among many top women pros in the sport succeeding at and celebrated for combining elite performances with motherhood. I started noticing in 2021 that I was being introduced to my competitors’ babies or young children on many of the pro podiums I ended up on. My sister and I started good-naturedly joking that I should steal my niece for podium pictures to pretend I fit in ;)
The reaction to this trend that I hear among women in sport, at all levels, is overwhelmingly positive. Most women feel inspired and encouraged by it. But I have also heard reservations - particularly from women who, for a variety of reasons, have decided not to be mothers. Both sets of feelings resonate with me very strongly. I think that they come from our struggle with society’s tendency to pigeonhole women into specific roles and narrowly-imagined ways of being a woman, which obviously feeds into ways of being a woman in sport. It’s not surprising that this can feel like a sensitive topic: in her book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brené Brown (a University of Houston research professor known particularly for her work on shame and vulnerability) identified body image and motherhood as the top two shame triggers for women.
Demonstrating that women can maintain top standings in sport and be mothers is a victory whose time has (finally!) come, and, I think, starts to open up a huge realm of choice, opportunity, knowledge and better support for women. At the same time, it is understandable to me that it can create a fear of being seen as less than for women who are not mothers (or even not mothers in the “right way” - for example, if they make different decisions around the level of and timelines for continued participation in sport). One RTS teammate expressed that reservation well when she said, “I agree that while being a mom and a pro triathlete is badass, I think it can sometimes come across as ‘moms are badass’ not ‘women are badass’”.
The solution is emphatically not to downplay the struggles, experiences and victories of mothers in triathlon. It’s just a reminder that we always need to keep looking for and celebrating as big a variety as possible of different stories and different ways to be a woman and to be a woman in sport.
For International Women’s Day, our RTS women pros - none of who are currently mothers - weigh in with their personal thoughts on this trend and on triathlon and motherhood.
The fact that motherhood is being celebrated in the sport of triathlon more than ever is an overall positive thing for women. Publically featuring women that return to the sport and bust out strong performances after making the sacrifices that this choice requires (pertaining to their bodies and the required time away from the sport) is inspiring for all humans!
All of this being said, it is important to remember that NOT choosing motherhood, whether it is because of sport or other reasons having to do with relationships and resources, can be a tough choice to make as well, and there are different sacrifices. Women should be commended and supported for making the best choice for themselves here as well.
The recent focus on motherhood in triathlon is one I used to ignore because it wasn’t pertinent to me. The thought of having to function on limited, interrupted sleep, having to rebuild fitness and pelvic control after nine months of gestation, and all of the non-optional things that come with childbirth caused me secondhand stress about something I wasn’t even dealing with! “I’ll learn about this when I have to,” was my attitude when coming across articles and news about the latest mom bouncing back from pregnancy and how motherhood changes everything. After all, we are inundated with enough information about training today, I say this having just read about elite triathletes on low-carb diets :)
Now that my three year plan may include motherhood, I’m leaning into these stories more. Being naive to the effects of motherhood isn’t going to make me any more prepared! But rather than reading fear-mongering stories and letting that become my narrative, I’ve chosen to follow moms who deliver the message that motherhood doesn’t mean you are suddenly a completely different person. It doesn’t mean you suddenly have competing identities of mother and athlete.
Laura Cameron King’s approach to motherhoood and sport really resonates with me. On bringing portable breastfeeding pumps during rides so she could have the agency to fulfill her own need for outdoor exercise and a little adventure, Laura says “I thought there has to be a way there can be kind of a harmonious spot in the balance of meeting both my child’s needs and my needs.”*
I feel lucky to live in a time where more women are sharing their stories and there is more research being done around exercising during and after pregnancy. Even if this “research” is where n=1, it gives me hope that motherhood and athleticism can be symbiotic…unless I choose to only read stories that indicate otherwise.
At my 10-year high-school reunion we opened time capsules that we filled out senior year. Under the “where do you see yourself in 10 years” question, I had answered “living in California, married with four kids working as a personal trainer’”! I literally LOL’ed when I read that. Not that that wouldn’t be a great life, but looking back, 18-year-old Lisa had no idea how many freaking cool things she was going to get to do. But first-year professional triathlete, 28-year-old Lisa did have an idea!
I think I want to be a mom. Not now, and probably not anytime soon, but one day. I get the whole “biological clock” thing, but that will be a big “hell no” for me when it comes to rushing into a major life changing decision. I understand that some people have specific timelines where they feel they need to have “x” by this point and “xx” by this point in their life. While I respect that, it’s not realistic for me. I have general ideas on what I want, but I don’t have set timelines. I don’t want to rush into anything that might not be right for me just to check off a box.
Bravo to all the moms slaying the triathlete/mom gig - that’s awesome, probably very challenging, but also very rewarding! You know what’s also badass? Being a single woman supporting her triathlon career by working a full time job. And that female triathlete that’s happily married absolutely crushing their competition at every race - they’re pretty badass too. And the female triathlete who is in a relationship with a supportive partner but scraping to pay for her rent every day - she’s amazing too!
Being a woman and a triathlete is badass. So babies or not, I think what I do is pretty cool and I’m proud of the struggles and sacrifices.
To me (Tamara Jewett) the overwhelming message is that:
Examples of and role models for different decisions are important to many women, as is celebrating a variety of different stories and journeys. This includes examples of women who are or who are not mothers, but also examples of women who have made different decisions about how to be a mother or had different experiences of motherhood
Information - including both anecdotal and scientific - to inform decisions and to help guide us on our chosen pathways is important to women.
It is an exciting time to be a woman in sport, and particularly in triathlon. Women are continuing to push on barriers in sport in many ways at the same time that they are pushing their athletic performances in triathlon to higher and higher levels. It’s awesome. It’s also a lot of work and a sometimes uphill battle that takes intergenerational persistence and perseverance.