Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons II: Results and Discussion

Mom Guilt: Exploring the Experiences of Being a Mother and Training for and Running Marathons II: Results and Discussion


The purpose of this research was to explore the experiences of mothers while training for and participating in a marathon event. To date, no other studies have recruited this type of sample to gather in-depth experiences of their roles in being both mothers and runners. Inductive analysis resulted in five themes, (a) identity, (b) self-compassion, (c) motives, (d) strategies, and (e) impact of early motherhood on running. To ensure adherence to the study’s purpose, much of the data analyzed and incorporated into the results was from the first interview, as this was when mothers predominantly spoke about the interplay between their roles as mothers and runners. While mothers discussed many experiences during the post-race (second) interview, this tended to be consistent with research that has been well-established in the literature by other marathon- runners, including findings on strategies and challenges associated with running a marathon event (e.g., using emotion-focused coping strategies, maintaining a mindful mindset, overcoming glycogen depletion, and overcoming poor weather) and less discourse around how the notion of being a mother influenced or was influenced by the marathon event (e.g., Buman et al., 2008; Carter et al., 2016; Mazer, 2012).

This work extends previous research related to mothers’ experiences within the running context, and extends knowledge by exploring the effects of marathon running, specifically on mothers’ experiences and overall well-being (Mazer, 2012; Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Palmer & Leberman, 2009). Such work provides first hand insight into how mothers navigate their running seasons, outlines strategies that influence their identities (Guendouzi, 2006; Held & Rutherford, 2012) and contributes to growing literature on the motherload (Bean et al. 2019), the role of self- compassion (Strachan, Bean, & Jung, 2018), and the effects of running on family life (Goodsell & Harris, 2011).

A common thread that was woven into each theme was the notion of challenge. Although these women strongly identified with running and experienced enjoyment throughout training and competition, it was also seen as a source of challenge and guilt. The challenges that training created caused an internal struggle that participants dealt with in weighing the pros and cons of fitting in running with all of their other responsibilities. This supports previous research regarding the challenges that mothers experience related to running (Coakley, 2006; Johnston & Swanson, 2006). A significant challenge that emerged across all participants-despite acknowledging how important running was to their identities-was the guilt they experienced for being away from their families and for wanting to have personal goals. These findings align with the previously mentioned study by Appleby and Fisher (2009) who found that although mothers who are athletes felt guilty for leaving their families to train, they continued with their training because they recognized the benefit that physical activity brought to their lives. Further, the prevalence of guilt supports research that found working mothers feel significant guilt for not always being available (Guendouzi, 2006). Within this study, all mothers struggled with managing a minimum of three identities, as not only were they mothers and runners, but they all worked full time as well. Although maintaining multiple roles can support mental health (Kostiainen et al., 2009), the role of “good mothering” is still one that mothers are widely expected to fulfill, which creates additional pressure to always be available so that they can be relied upon for a regular routine, for elements such as a regular bed time (Pedersen, 2012).

Participants explained feelings of guilt around reliability, and attempts to decrease guilt by only missing one bedtime routine per week, for training. As all participants in the current study worked full time, this may have heightened the challenges they felt; the demands on their time; their feelings of guilt around reliability; and the value of routine, which played a role in dictating when they got their training in. The number of roles each participant carried may have impacted their perception of what they considered a challenge or barrier to training.

Regarding the interwoven feeling of challenge, this work provides additional support to research (Mailey et al., 2014; Pedersen, 2012) related to challenges, and perceptions of the barriers, that interrupted opportunities for physical activity in parents. Although running was acknowledged as an important contributor to overall mental and physical health for participants and their families, running also became a challenge due to time constraints and competing responsibilities, and therefore often was viewed as a lesser priority compared to family life. The impact of illness and lack of sleep on the mental and physical health of participants in this study is a challenge that has been reported in the literature due to the amount of time and energy required to train for a marathon event and the time constraints that mothers experience (Palkovitz & Copes, 2008; Palmer & Leberman, 2009).

Additional challenges related to how participants had to fit in their training whenever and wherever they could align with previous research around the time constraints that mothers experience (Mailey et al., 2014). Specifically, Mailey et al. (2014) found that participants spoke of facilitators of physical activity, including making time and prioritizing physical activity by fitting it into their lifestyles or scheduling time for it. Further, Bean et al. (2019) discussed how mothers tried to fit in their physical activity around their child’s sport experiences. This infers that such a challenge may extend beyond the first few years of motherhood and last from childhood into adolescence. In addition, previous research found the time commitment required for marathon training to be a stressor for families of runners (Goodsell & Harris, 2011). Such findings emerged within this study, which may be due to the distances being run.

Participants also expressed contrasting experiences of being runners prior to and after having children and the changes that they experienced from this. Previous research has identified that mothers felt the challenge of balancing the identities of mother and runner, but acknowledged how important running was to their sense of self (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Palmer & Leberman, 2009). Findings within the theme of identity expose how much adversity mothers overcome to complete training for a marathon event. Study findings reinforce the importance of mothers having an activity that supports the maintenance of an identity separate from their families, to aid in the maintenance of their personal mental and physical health. The current research can extend the aforementioned research that examined mothers who were elite athletes by focusing on marathon events and examining experiences during training and racing to see how experiences changed over time (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Belforth, 2013; Palmer & Leberman, 2009). Contributing to this research area is important because little information exists on mothers’ experiences with marathon running and competing. Additional information is also important because of the growing popularity of running events and women’s participation.

Mothers used various strategies to maintain balance within their own lives and family lives, as well as within their training. As mothers often compromise or adapt their goals to accommodate their children, participants acknowledged making the same compromises and adjustments in their personal lives, to maintain their training (Guendouzi, 2006; Skafida, 2011). Those choices may have been based on a decision to train for the running event of their choosing, and not specifically because of child care or family priorities (Goodsell & Harris, 2009). Mothers used various strategies to maintain their training, which is consistent with literature on mothers who often decrease work hours and adjust or modify work goals to accommodate the lives of their families and children (Coakley, 2006), yet those decisions may have been made based on the choice to have a family and not specifically because of their involvement in running (Goodsell & Harris, 2009).

Common findings in research regarding mothers include feelings of guilt associated with perceived inadequacies, and a sense of time constraints (e.g., Bean et al., 2019; Glynn et al., 2009; Goodsell & Harris, 2009). The current research reinforces previous research regarding the motherload of responsibilities that mothers feel on top of feelings of guilt and time constraints, which are often a by-product of their responsibilities. Mothers often take the role of primary caregiver, which requires them to make personal and career sacrifices to meet their families’ needs (Coakley, 2006). Results from this study indicate that although mothers do feel a heavy load of responsibility, they are able to maintain the priorities thought to be important. For example, in the present study, although participants experienced guilt and time constraints resulting from their motherload, they still found time to fit their training in because it was important to them.

Self-compassion was a tool utilized by the participants to sooth feelings of inadequacy and challenge, especially regarding challenges to their identities, feelings of overload of responsibilities, and feelings of guilt. Participants were able to find strength in unity, knowing that they were not alone in their experiences (Neff, Kirkpatrick, & Rude, 2006). The self- kindness that participants were able to provide themselves offered relief from the pressure of their roles and expectations of themselves (Neff et al., 2006). By using mindfulness, participants were able to reframe their perspectives, allowing for flexibility to adapt to the many identities and associated roles they carried. Self-compassion is gaining media attention. Within a blog, Wilmot (2017) indicated the importance of self-compassion and how marathon runners can benefit from utilizing this tool to persevere through the challenges that come with marathon training and racing. In addition, self-compassion is a theme that supports previous research that explored how the use of self-compassion can support women in sport (Ferguson, Kowalski, Mack, & Sabiston, 2014). Ferguson et al. (2014) found that participants who used self-kindness and mindfulness were better able to mitigate the negative experiences in sport. The current findings are similar to the aforementioned study because participants from both studies were able to change their perceptions, which positively assisted in navigating challenges. Future research should delve into the relationship between self-compassion and marathon running in mothers.

Previous research has acknowledged the benefits of regular physical activity (Currie, 2004). Participants reported that running was a motivation because it contributed to their physical and mental well-being and acknowledged that being active also benefitted their families. Results showed that being able to exercise independently and to have activities outside the family home was beneficial to the participants overall well-being. These findings coincide with previous research regarding the benefits of physical activity, which found that mothers who exercised felt a positive impact on their well-being, as they were able to do something on their own, away from their families (Currie, 2004).

Having parents expose their children to running events and facilitate other physical activity opportunities may benefit children’s physical activity participation (Edwardson & Gorely, 2010; Ferreira et al., 2007). Women in the present study were cognizant of the positive impact modelling physical activity could have on their children and worked to expose them to family running events. Such findings are supported by Sallis et al.’s (2000) review that examined correlates of youth activity. Results indicated that there was a strong relationship between parental social support and physical activity.

There is an abundance of literature available on the various coping mechanisms and strategies that marathoners use to complete marathons and other physical activities, including self-talk, listening to music, using social support, and maintaining an external locus of control (Kaiseler, 2010; Karageorghis & Priest, 2008; Raalte, Morrey, Cornelius, & Brewer, 2015). One example of a strategy novice runners can use during a marathon is called the Run-Walk-Run Method (Galloway, 2016). When using this method, individuals take breaks to walk and calm their breathing, then begin to run again. This method can have a positive psychological effect in training and racing by minimizing physical and mental fatigue experienced by the runner (Galloway, 2016). Such a method may also be good for women who are starting, or easing back into, running post-partum.

Strategies used by runners may vary by sex (Andrews & Chen, 2014; Nicholls, Polman, Levy, Taylor, & Cobley, 2007). Some research shows that there are differences in how men and women cope during running events. For example, Andrews and Chen (2014) sought to examine the differences between men’s and women’s mental toughness and coping during injury. They found that when dealing with an injury, men more frequently used task-oriented coping while females used more disengagement coping. The only sub-scale that females scored higher on related to task-oriented coping was seeking social support. Findings from the current research support this work, as participants identified eliciting social support as a fundamental strategy to adhere to their training routines.

This research has implications for social support that family and friends provide. The participants’ husbands were supportive and flexible, their families showed adaptability to the participants’ training, and grandparents offered child care to support training and participation in marathon events. Participants’ cultures may have accepted marathon running as a high achievement and therefore facilitated marathon runners’ participation in training and events. These findings further imply that support provided by friends within the community may reflect cultural approval of the sport within the participants’ inner circles, or perhaps in the wider running community in general. This study reinforces previous research, which found that eliciting social support was a necessary factor in participants completing their training for and participation in a marathon event (Goodsell & Harris, 2011). Critical aspects of strong social support and comprehensive planning were foundational to the participants completing their training. These results further support the research on family members who train for marathons, which also found these strategies were critical in maintaining marathon training (Goodsell & Harris, 2011; Palmer & Leberman, 2009).

A strategy used by all participants was fitting in their training. This often included strategies such as scheduling their training around their children’s activities, run-commuting to work, and training during lunch break. Fitting in marathon training and balancing roles were prominent challenges faced by participants; such findings have been well-established in the literature regarding mothers balancing multiple roles (Appleby & Fisher, 2009; Cowdery & Knudson-Martin, 2005; Currie, 2004).

Being a mother and being a runner brought richness to the experiences of the participants, which aligns with research done by Appleby and Fisher (2009), and Palmer and Leberman (2009). Perhaps the challenges that mothers endure and experience during the various stages of motherhood contribute to the mental and physical strength that mothers who run marathons develop over time. As discussed, being a mother is challenging and taxing both physically and mentally, and it is possible that being a mother contributes to mental and physical aspects that are needed to complete a marathon, before training has even begun. Hutchison (2018) wrote about how much of endurance comes from mental strength-perhaps the challenging aspects of being a mother assist in developing the skills necessary for marathon training and racing. An interesting finding was that, even though participants acknowledged that running made them better mothers, contributed to improved feelings of mental and physical health, and contributed to their identities, the participants still felt guilty about their running, so much so that they tried to make sure their running did not interfere with their family lives.

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