Olympic moms

Getting to the Olympics is no small feat. Even if you don’t medal, I’d wager it’s roughly the equivalent of achieving a C-level job at a Fortune 500 company in terms of preparation, luck and timing. Adding to the difficulty level? Women’s athletics in particular don’t feature the big bucks of corporate careers. And sports feature a lot more physical strain than sitting at a desk and chairing meetings.

So just as I’m excited to see other glass ceilings shattered, I’m excited to see the number of female competitors who are moms of young kids. Kara Goucher, who finished 11th in the Olympic marathon, had a baby not long ago. Kerri Walsh Jennings, the volleyball player, had two sons between the 2008 Olympics and this one. An Olympic highlight for me was hearing Lashinda Demus’s twin boys yell “Go mommy!” as she raced in the semi-finals of the 400 meter hurdles. And there are many more.

Many competitive athlete moms don’t take much time off from training after giving birth. Some do — Demus was out for a while before fighting back — but many don’t. Paula Radcliffe famously won the New York City Marathon in November of 2007 after giving birth in January. Moms who compete in professional leagues travel a lot.

I’ve been thinking of the choices these mothers make in light of the clucking heaped upon Marissa Mayer last month for her announcement, upon becoming CEO of Yahoo, that she wouldn’t take much of a maternity leave. Many of the posts featured a “just you wait” sort of knowingness. I thought I was ambitious until I had my first child … You won’t want to outsource taking care of the person who’s most important to you (as if using childcare means you never take care of your children). Just you wait! You’ll be too tired to do anything, and think that putting your hair up in a ponytail is getting decked out.

Yet here are these Olympic moms, doing tempo runs while in the newborn phase, having relatives and other caregivers watch their children while they train, and yet seemingly raising healthy, happy children and excelling at careers they love. It turns out that women can revel in multiple roles. Just because no man has given birth and won a major marathon in the same calendar year, or given birth and come back to win a gold medal, doesn’t mean no woman can. The world is changing in ways that make it very exciting to be building a family and building a career, using all one’s talents — with fewer compromises than people caught in a mindset of limitation choose to see.

In other news: Acculturated.com, a blog about the virtues and vices of pop culture, has a daily round-up of interesting pop culture news that reflects on who we are as a society. Or at least what we find entertaining.

14 thoughts on “Olympic moms

  1. No one is arguing that one in a million women can achieve at the CEO level, like Marissa Mayer, or win a marathon soon after giving birth.

    Those of us with a “mindset of limitation” wonder who WOULD provide the bulk of childcare if women didn’t, who WOULD do inflexible jobs if everyone had flexibility and who would care for the needy (elderly, those with cancer) if everyone operated at peak level.

    In other words, it’s OK for most of us to be ordinary.

    1. @Twin Mom- the thing that most bothered me about the Marissa Mayer coverage is that many of these folks adopting the “just you wait” tone for Mayer haven’t achieved anything close to her level. And yet the assumption was that whatever their limitations were would be hers too. As for the bulk of childcare, you can work quite a few hours and still have your children spend quite a few of their waking hours with you.

      1. All fair points. My point was that women (nannies, day care workers, etc.) already provide the bulk of childcare. Not all of these women are choosing it as a career, and many of them cannot afford quality childcare for their own children.

        I know you write for the upper decile, and it’s hard for me to remember that. The mindset of always looking up (to Olympians, to Marissa Mayer) is troubling. These people are rarer than male nannies and daycare workers, who are already rare.

        1. I have to admit that I am realizing this “mindset of always looking up” has been bringing me down quite a bit lately. I read this blog and know several moms that really seem to be “doing it all” much better than I did. I can’t turn back the clock and take my career off the mommy track or do things I wish I did differently with my personal life. All this aspirational thinking is distracting me from enjoying all the blessing I have. I appreciate the reminder that its ok to be ordinary.

          1. It isn’t healthy to compare oneself to other people all the time, especially if one is going to come up short. There’s always someone who is smarter, better, more accomplished etc, at something even if you have a Nobel Prize or Olympic medal on your belt.
            Instead it is better to set your own goals and to look at people who have achieved those goals as inspiration and people that you can take lessons from– how did they do it, can I use what they did myself and if not what changes can I make. Not, “can I measure up,” but “can I learn.”
            So no, you don’t have to be CEO of Yahoo (and it sounds like a pretty crappy job unless you really like challenges). But it is nice to see that there are other people who have achieved what you want to achieve — it is possible. And if there aren’t people who have hit that level, then that makes you a trail-blazer that other people can look to to see how it can be done.

  2. Laura, I’m a longtime fan of your blog and your books, but I’ve never commented before. While I don’t expect to attain the levels of success and efficiency of lifestyle of a Radcliffe or Mayer, their stories inspire me. I am also constantly inspired by the optimistic tone of your writing. The national dialogue about motherhood/women’s careers/”having it all” is so often negative. Realistic thinking has its place, but so does positive thought and motivation, and I thank you for providing that voice.

      1. @NicoleandMaggie – when I was looking at survey results from Princeton alumni women, we found that the majority of moms 15 years out (so age 36, 37 — usually in the throes of preschool and school-aged kids) were in the workforce. Women with 1 or 2 kids were mostly working full-time (with 3 it changed, but that was a small sample size). Basically, they were making it work. As do women more broadly. The majority of mothers are in the labor force.

        1. By this definition, I’m in the labor force because I work from home editing research papers, and earn a decent amount per hour. But I can’t support a family or find a job in my field or get insurance without paying an arm and a leg. I don’t think I’m particularly pessimistic, but I’m not pollyanna either.

          I would expect that the sort of women who go to Princeton would be in the labor force- but are they accomplishing at the same level, professionally, as the men who went to Princeton? Based on my friends (a small sample size), I doubt it. And that’s OK- maximizing professional achievement isn’t a primary life goal for everyone.

          I am learning (because unlike the Apostle Paul, I cannot say “I have learned”) in whatsoever state I am to be content.

        2. @LauraV

          We have a post largely cribbed from Claudia Goldin’s work about women’s labor force status over time and the myth that only one partner’s labor has been necessary for household production through most of history.
          It is odd that the discussion has moved from “has to work” to “having it all”… whether female labor force participation is a good thing or a bad thing according to the media seems to keep switching over the past few decades, and if you hang out on mothering forums, the message you get is that you can’t win either way. Personally I think folks should eschew guilt and live their lives based on their priorities and what they can do to get what they want (in other words, they should maximize their own utility functions based on their budget constraints), and ignore social pressures that say you’re doing it wrong no matter what you do.

          1. @NicoleandMaggie – fascinating post. One of the things I try to keep in mind when thinking about history is that while social structures do change, humans haven’t been entirely different. There were always some marriages that were more equitable than others, some women who had ambitions that they found ways to satisfy, etc.

    1. @Leanne- thanks so much for your comment, and for reading the blogs and books. I aim for optimistic! I’m glad that comes across.

  3. After a point, I had to basically remove myself from comments threads on Mayer’s new job. And it really, really bugged me when I started seeing glowing, positive comments about Olympic moms on the same days I was reading nasty, negative ones about Mayer. I certainly don’t want to see more negative comments about the moms in the Olypmics- I am happy for them! But I wish more people could just be happy for Mayer and others like her, too. Maybe everyone expects training for the Olympics to be hard and challenging and something that only some people will want to (or be able to) do, so they are less disturbed by someone succeeding at that while also raising kids than they are by seeing someone succeeding at the top levels in the workplace- which we don’t always acknowledge can be hard and challenging and not something everyone will want to (or be able to) do?
    Or maybe it is just sexism- those mom athletes are competing against other women, not men?
    I don’t know, but it was making me twitchy, so I just opted out of the conversation a lot of places.

    1. @Cloud- I, too, was struck by the difference in the coverage of Olympic moms vs. corporate moms. I wonder if it’s because we see athleticism as somehow very different from what most of us do. Running a lightning-fast 400 meter hurdles is so far outside most of our daily experience that we view it as in an entirely different category. Whereas many of us have some experience of working for a large, publicly traded company. So even though what Mayer has done and is doing (hello, being worth $300 million, and becoming a CEO at age 37?) is so far outside most of our experiences that it may as well be diving off a 10-meter platform, people don’t view it that way. I like looking up and being inspired by what people have been able to do, and seeing what I can take from that.

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