Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons II: Results and Discussion
by Raisa-Lee Wimbs, MPsy
This series was originally completed as a Thesis in partial fulfillment of Adler Graduate Professional School’s Master of Psychology degree.
As noted, eight mothers engaged in two semi-structured interviews; one interview was completed during the training portion of their marathon event, and the second interview was completed within two weeks after the event they were training for. The results are organized into five themes and 14 sub-themes: (a) identity, (b) self-compassion, (c) motives, (d) strategies, and (e) impact of early motherhood on running. For each theme, overall findings are described and supported by quotations. It should be noted that each area of identity did not exist independently of each other for participants, but instead influenced each other.
Identity was a major theme that emerged across all participants. Three sub-themes related to identity were coded from the data: (a) runner before mother, (b) motherload, and (c) guilt.
Runner before mother. This sub-theme refers to the chronological establishment of the participants’ identities, whereby all but one participant outlined they had been running for an average of 10 years, and thus indicated that being a runner was engrained in their identity. With the onset of motherhood, an identity shift took place that moved motherhood to the forefront; however, many participants outlined the importance of not losing their identities as runners. For example, Suzie felt strongly that running was a part of her identity and had been a runner for longer than she had been a mother: “This was part of who I am. I am a runner.” The more she ran, the more she recognized that being a runner was a big part of her identity: “With each marathon that I do, I feel like running is sort of part of my identity.” Maria also recognized that an active lifestyle that included running was a major part of her life prior to having children: “I feel like with every marathon that clicks by, it cements [my identity] even more; this is part of who I am. I am a runner. Not only am I a runner, I’m a marathon runner.” Participants also spoke of their concern about losing this part of themselves and the potential negative consequences that could develop from this loss. For example, Maria noted: “If you lose yourself then you’re never going to be good to [your children].it’s always, that piece has to be there and its part of who you are, is in that active lifestyle.”
Running was identified as a large part of participants’ lives, as it allowed for a sense of self and balance in life. Childbirth, however, posed a challenge to some participants’ abilities to maintain their running identities. While pregnant, Charlotte struggled to maintain her individual identity: “You want to keep yourself as an individual. So, you feel like you do lose a bit of that identity because you can’t train and race when you’re pregnant.” Running identities changed after child birth. Natalie spoke to the amount of running that was possible before having a baby versus after; before she could run for hours at a time, whereas after, she had to slow things down by walking and running short intervals and fewer kilometers: “I had to just run one minute, maybe 10-minute walk, run for 10. I slowly worked my way back up to running. 20 minutes consecutively over the course of a month.” Charlotte noted that prior to becoming a mother, she was defined by her running: “People knew me as a runner, adventure trail runner, kind of person.” She reflected on the internal struggle she felt in having to reduce the amount of running at lower intensities: “All of a sudden you see that you’re doing a five-kilometer run, and you’re used to going out for a couple of hours and [now] you’re doing running and walking. I think it was just a little bit hard on your ego.”
Motherload. The pressure of having multiple identities and trying to find balance for participants was identified as a predominant challenge. Leigh recognized that the roles she maintained provided her with limited time and forced her to prioritize her choices: “With the finite amount of time available as a mom and also working, I was aware that if I’ve got 45 min, what should I do with those 45 min.” Internal conflicts arose because of the multiple roles adopted by mothers. Managing both identities was challenging because of the level of impact that being a mother had. Charlotte spoke to her inner conflict between these two roles:
All of a sudden now it’s like, I’m Charlotte, I’m a mom and it’s great and I’m so proud of that, but at the same time, you want to keep your identity, right?…You can’t leave your identity to your baby, but at the same time he’s your everything, too. It’s tricky.
Even though Charlotte struggled with the inner conflict of wanting to maintain her identities as both mother and runner, she maintained the ability to be both: “You can be a really great mom, but you can also still be that really great runner and the adventure mom, you can still be both.”
The challenge that the motherload brought to participants was multi-faceted. Leigh explained that changes in parenting her toddler impacted the way she trains, and how her job as a teacher contributed to this challenge:
It’s a combination of the training becoming more demanding and demanding more time. Then, on top, there’s all sorts of toddler parenting…the challenges we’re having with bedtime taking a long time or the strong-willed toddler personality aspects; it can be tiring and mentally exhausting. Then couple that with my professional responsibilities also dealing with teenagers all day.
Amy explained that she tried to rush through many of her roles and responsibilities as a mother to be able to fit in running with her group one night per week: “Everything is a rush, getting home from work, getting the kids home, getting them fed and getting them ready for bed; you don’t want to miss out on two evenings with them a week.” However, prioritizing training was identified for all participants despite acknowledged demands of time and energy. Participants maintained running as a priority because of its importance to their identities. Charlotte noted:
If something’s really important to you, you’re always going to make it work because the fact that I’m training for an ultra-running race, where I’m putting in 10 additional hours to 12 hours a week. If it’s important to you, you’re going to make it work.
Although participants tried to make it work, they often wished for more time. When asked if there was anything that could make their training better, several participants acknowledged having more time would be helpful. For example: “It would be nice to have more time, but right now, getting in the 4 days for running is the most I can do right now.” Amy also mindfully acknowledged that sometimes running did not make it to the top of the priority list: “There’s always time constraints, there’s never enough hours in the day. But you just work it out.sometimes you just have to realize, there’s not enough hours in the day, something’s got to give, so you prioritize and go from there.”
Having a career created additional stress for participants, adding to their list of identities (i.e., runner, mother, employee) and their motherload. Despite being busy with work, Andrea acknowledged that she “still maintained this whole idea that the training is very important to me.” However, she was afraid that she would have to begin to compromise due to the competition of all three roles: “I think I’m at a critical point where I want to prove that I’m capable of doing more, and unfortunately that requires more time being available potentially after hours.” For Suzie, sometimes work got in the way of training: “There comes a time if I really have a deadline and I’m like ‘do I work on this grant or this paper in the next half our or do I go for a run?'” This quote reflects the challenge of prioritizing, as both work and running were important aspects of her life and identity.
Guilt. As underlined in some of the above quotations, attempting to find balance within participants’ roles associated with the motherload, including their roles as women, mothers, runners, wives, and employees, led to feelings of guilt. All participants reported feeling guilty in some way about attempting to balance multiple identities, especially in relation to their running. Two participants drew connections between the motherload and their running: “It’s like a never- ending to-do list of stuff, so I guess you feel guilty because you’re choosing yourself over doing something else that you can cross off the list” (Jennifer) and, “There’s mom guilt in almost everything you do once you’re a mom, including running” (Amy).
A pattern emerged in which participants acknowledged they should not feel guilty about running, yet did regardless. Natalie acknowledged: “[I keep] a pretty good balance as a mom and as a runner and I don’t really need to feel guilty about it.yet because of the time away, and the commitment away, [I do].” Charlotte seconded this notion: “If you have a baby, it’s supposed to be about them.but here I am trying to achieve my goals.it’s an extreme feeling of guilt.”
A second pattern that was evident in more than half of the participants was guilt caused by missed opportunities to spend time with children and husbands due to the time required to train for a marathon event. Suzie missed having dinner with her children because she was training: “Tonight, my daughter said to me, ‘oh, I wished we had dinner together,’ and then I felt a little guilty.” Leaving and being away from home to train caused guilt for participants because they were away from their children: “The main thing I felt guilty about was those long Sunday mornings away” (Natalie) and, “They’ll be like ‘mommy don’t go,’ and it tugs at your heartstrings” (Andrea). Similarly, Charlotte said:
You feel a lot of guilt for being away from your family. I’ll be leaving to go for my run and [name of son] and my husband are playing on the floor and it’s such a special time and even though you know that that time is important for them, you feel this guilt when you’re leaving them for four hours and I’m breast feeding and all of these things are running through my head. There’s been extreme guilt.
One way participants avoided missing opportunities to spend time with their children was by scheduling their training runs in a way that would not disrupt the time spent with their children: “If I can fit it in, it’s not going to take away time of when I’m home and the kids are here and instead of being like ‘ok I’m going for a run now'” (Jennifer). Maria acknowledged that: “The only part that does tend to suffer is just the time that me and my husband get together.”
Some participants discussed strategies that helped to minimize their feelings of guilt through compensating for lost time, and sharing and communicating with others. After her event, Natalie spent extra time with her son: “Certainly the last few weeks have been showering Tom with attention, trying to be fully present and trying to do cool stuff on the weekends.”
Similarly, some participants noted that having their children see and recognize their accomplishments helped to minimize their feelings of guilt. Jennifer felt guilt when she left to train and her children asked, “Where are you going, mommy?” but acknowledged that them seeing her train was “also a positive, exercise is important, for them to see that as well.” Andrea talked about how her children noticed what she was doing: “I love that they recognize what I’m doing.that detracts from any feeling of guilt some days. It’s the more positively they react to it, the less guilty I feel.”