Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons I: Lit Review and Methodology

Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons I: Lit Review and Methodology

Physical Activity and Active Leisure in Women

Despite the demands and responsibilities often associated with early motherhood, the importance of physical activity for women, and specifically mothers, has been identified (e.g., Mottola et al., 2018; Piercy et al., 2018). Specifically, as outlined, women tend to have poorer mental health and lower physical activity participation than men (Statistics Canada, 2011; World Health Organization, 2009). Therefore, understanding the experiences of mothers during marathon training and racing is warranted given the expected positive effects of regular physical activity on physical and mental health (e.g., Iwasaki, Mackay, Mactavish, Ristock, & Bartlett, 2006; Lloyd & Little, 2010). The recommended amount of exercise for adults aged 18 to 64 is 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per week, with jogging being a recommended activity to attain moderate-to-vigorous levels of activity (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2003). In Canada, physical activity guidelines do not differ between males and females, except during pregnancy (Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, 2003; Mottola et al., 2018). Post-partum exercise has numerous benefits, including reducing pregnancy-related illnesses such as depression by as much as 25% (Mottola et al., 2018; Piercy et al., 2018).

Compared to other types of physical activity (e.g., joining a gym, playing a sport), running is a low-cost way to be physically active. Marathon training and racing offers a regimented and consistent schedule which can allow mothers to create realistic goals for both training and racing, as goal-setting can assist in adherence to one’s fitness schedule (Biddle & Mutrie, 2007).

Despite its value, training for a marathon can be a time-consuming venture as it may take between two to six months to prepare for a race, and may involve several hours for a single training session. Previous research has outlined that such time commitments can also contribute to perceptions of role overload, which has been associated with poorer women’s mental health (Glynn et al., 2009). One such study by Brown et al. (2000) longitudinally examined physical activity levels in Australian women, and the association to participants’ multiple roles. Findings outlined that women with multiple identities/roles, including mothers, reported lower levels of physical activity than women with fewer roles. Further, participants with low-to-moderate levels of physical activity showed increased mental health scores (Brown et al., 2000). Moreover, as occupying multiple roles that mothers adopt (e.g., mother, partner, employee) has been found to elicit contradictory expectations and demands, the addition of an event such as marathon training can pose additional stress related to time constraints (Kostiainen et al., 2009).

To date, only three studies have qualitatively focused on the psychosocial experiences of mothers who are athletes (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Belforth, 2013; Palmer & Leberman, 2009); one of the studies was not published, and all three focused on elite athletes of various sports.

None of the participants in these studies trained for a marathon event. Thus, a review of the literature has led to the conclusion that no research has focused on the psychosocial experiences of mothers who trained and participated in a marathon event.

Appleby and Fisher (2009) interviewed 10 elite athletes to explore how athletic performance, body, self, and social support were affected by the transition from athlete to mother. Participants were considered distance runners at a minimum of 1500m, and were considered elite if they qualified as a distance runner at the Olympics, Olympic trials, or national level prior to pregnancy. Results indicated that participants struggled to find the time and energy to train due to mothering responsibilities, and also struggled with balancing their identities of elite athlete and mother. Participants acknowledged that being a good mother and having a stronger sense of well-being partially relied on finding time for themselves to exercise (Appleby & Fisher, 2009). These findings suggest that athletic performance may enhance a mother’s ability to effectively fulfil her role as a parent. While all participants in this study were considered elite athletes, the current research will extend Appleby and Fisher’s (2009) work by including novice runners in the participant pool, and focusing on the psychosocial experiences of mothers who train and compete in marathon events.

Belforth (2013) conducted one qualitative interview with each of the four participants who were elite endurance athletes. Three main findings emerged. First, all participants had a strong sporting disposition; however, after becoming a mother, being an elite athlete was no longer their only distinct identity. Second, their new identity brought new motivation to their running and added more joy to their sporting experiences than before becoming mothers. Finally, the support of their family and friends was fundamental in maintaining their identities as both mother and elite athlete (Belforth, 2013). Although making an important contribution to the field, this research is unpublished and has a small sample size (N = 4), with each participant engaging in a different sport (biathlon, cross-country skiing, running, and triathlon). Although the findings can shed some light on framing the current study, the findings are not generalizable to mothers within marathon events.

To investigate how nine mothers managed being both mother and athlete, Palmer and Leberman (2009) focused on how participants interpreted their social existence, and explored the types of support used to maintain their athleticism and elite titles. Results showed that the women fought feelings of guilt, lack of time, and limited support, but also recognized that being an athlete was important to their self-concept and self-identity (Palmer & Leberman 2009).

Participants consisted of elite athletes from various sports, including netball, rugby, and shooting. One participant identified as a Paralympic athlete, yet the sport was not specified beyond being an individual sport. Although Palmer and Leberman’s (2009) research explored female athletes, the participant pool was small, and results are not generalizable to mothers who are not considered to be elite or mothers who run.

Further, Bean, Fortier, and Chima (in press) used an inductive approach to qualitatively explore how their children’s sport involvement played a role in 13 mothers’ mental health, relationship health, and healthy lifestyle practices. Findings revealed a reciprocal influence of the previously mentioned three forms of health, through experienced challenges and strategies used to manage during a hockey season. Mothers perceived their physical activity levels to be lower during the hockey season compared to when their children were not playing hockey. Further, participants outlined strategies that were perceived as useful in positively influencing mental health and healthy living practices, including putting enjoyment first, being flexible and proactive in planning to encourage healthy living practices related to being physically active, and enlisting the help of others (Bean et al., 2019). Building off this preliminary work, Bean et al.’s (2019) findings may also help mothers navigate the responsibilities associated with the motherload, including eliciting social support, and comprehensive planning.

Maintaining self-identity is an important aspect of being a mother that often causes a sense of guilt. However, after extended years of self-sacrificing, some mothers recognize that there are certain things they need which assists them in being good mothers, including running (Guendouzi, 2006; Minsky, 2006; Palmer & Leberman 2009). Within the literature, there is a common acknowledgement of perceived lack of time, even though time spent training is often an integral aspect of maintaining a positive sense of self (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Currie, 2004; Palmer & Leberman 2009). Varhoef and Love (2009) examined fitness levels, barriers to exercise, and perceived benefits of exercise in a random sample of 1,113 women. Results indicated that mothers were less active than women without children. Barriers that mothers experienced related to exercise included lack of time and support, while benefits included feeling better physically. The roles and responsibilities of being a mother can have an impact on being an athlete and training for a sporting event. Thus, the implications of research on mothers and marathon training can offer insight into activities, events, and races other than marathons and possibly help improve the quality and experience of training for mothers.

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