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Running to (re)Find Oneself after Becoming a Parent

I always wanted to be a runner. But I never wanted to be a mom. And yet, here I am, very much both a mother and a runner. While I’m at a place now where I can do both with (reasonable) success, and – as most parents will tell you – I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything in the world (except maybe a personal masseuse or a date with Chris Hemsworth), there was a time when I truly wasn’t sure how I could possibly fit both into my daily life. And if something’s gotta give, it’s going to be the hobby, not the kids!

The thing about becoming a mother, a parent, is that it is equal parts terrifying and exhilarating. Sometimes that balance shifts in favor of one emotion or the other, but parenthood is a wild ride that changes your life in ways you cannot envision ahead of time. I knew, when I found out I was pregnant for the first time, that my life would be different: I’d have less disposable income, I’d get less sleep, my schedule would involve the whims and needs of a small person with questionable communication skills. And, despite my fears about whether I was suited for motherhood, I did the clichéd thing when my son – now 8 – was born. I fell in love.

And yet, the thing that came out of left field, the emotion I wasn’t expecting and that was overwhelming at times, was grief. What did I have to grieve? My son was a healthy, happy baby, I was still gainfully employed, and we could afford to provide for our family. And yet, I grappled daily with this nagging sense of loss, of yearning. Of mourning myself, the pre-kids Kate, the one who had career goals and travel aspirations and personal improvement plans. The pre-kids Kate who had been replaced by mom-Kate, who was relegated to acting as an all-night buffet, who became immune to diaper blow-outs, for whom finding the right day care became priority number 1. And I felt shame. Ashamed that I was having these feelings of loss when I was one of the lucky ones, when there are millions of women in this world who desperately want kids but can’t.

My son was born in August, which in the Washington, DC area means heat and humidity galore. But in those early days after his emergency c-section, I walked around our neighborhood with him in a stroller a lot. I desperately missed running, having run every day of my pregnancy, but I felt selfish for longing after time to myself. After a few weeks, however, I packed my son’s car seat into the BOB stroller gifted by my parents, and I tentatively jogged one mile on a local trail. Was pushing a stroller more difficult than running on my own? Sure it was. But I could feel the stress melting away as I jogged, and a new daily habit was born. Every morning, I could be found logging miles around town with my son in tow. And when my daughter was born three years later, she became my constant companion on my morning runs.

While pregnant with my now 5-year old daughter, I attended a few therapy sessions to try to come to terms with this lingering sense of both guilt and grief – horrible bedfellows, if you ask me. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but what that therapist told me changed my perspective radically. She validated my grief. Parental grief is not uncommon, but many of us opt not to talk about it for fear of being judged. But the truth is that becoming a parent does require sacrifice, sometimes enormous sacrifice. That doesn’t mean parenthood must come with a loss of identity.

And so began a new phase of my life, one that combined motherhood and running in both exciting and challenging ways. Because the thing was that, once I realized my guilt was not only okay but also normal, I decided to make the most of it. Truth be told, my involvement in the local running community increased dramatically after I had kids: I joined the board of my local running club, I became a coordinator for a kids’ running series, I pursued a running coach certificate, a personal trainer certificate, and a Master’s degree in exercise, fitness, and health promotion, and my mileage actually increased relative to what it was pre-kids. I became a master at fitting together the pieces of my very busy life, often fitting 2-3 separate runs in any given day, challenging my kids to races and running games, and – perhaps most importantly – drawing on the friendship of other moms to keep reminding myself that MY health, MY well-being, MY sanity is just as important as anyone else’s.

I spend a lot of time with my kids. I’m there every day when they get off the bus, I take them on far more hikes and neighborhood jaunts than they’d like, and I’m on the sidelines of every football and soccer game cheering them on. Do I occasionally feel guilty for opting out of movie time to log a few miles on the treadmill? Of course I do. But I don’t make my kids backseat priorities as a general rule, and they will be better off for seeing their mom make her health a priority.

I had an “ah-hah” moment a few months ago with my son. He was helping me set up for one of the kids running series events – he was tasked with putting together the race direction signs. After a few moments of concentration, he stopped and asked me “mom, why do other kids’ moms not do stuff like this?”. I rifled through about 40 different responses before settling on “I don’t think all moms know they can do stuff like this”. He took this in quietly before smiling and asking if it was ok if he ran a mile instead of putting together signs. I took that as a win.

We, as moms, underestimate and undervalue ourselves so often. For me, running not only saved my identity, it also expanded that sense of life, it made my life richer by allowing me to combine two of my greatest loves in life – running and motherhood.

I still have that BOB, and my daughter will still occasionally ask to come on a run with me. But most days, I head out on my own, thankful for some time on my own, some time to brainstorm my next running venture.

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