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Research Article

Running from (with) mom guilt: exploring experiences of being a mother and training for and running marathons

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Pages 245-267 | Received 20 May 2019, Accepted 06 Aug 2020, Published online: 08 Feb 2021

ABSTRACT

Mothers tend to make sacrifices within their family role, including their physical activity levels. The purpose of this exploratory study was to understand how mothers balanced the roles of being a mother and training for and competing in a marathon, including the strategies used and barriers experienced. Eight mothers (Mage = 36.75), with children under 8 years old, participated in two semi-structured interviews (during training, post-race). Inductive thematic analysis resulted in the creation of two inter-related themes: (a) identity conflict and (b) balancing strategies. Specifically, identity challenges including: being a runner before mother, managing multiple identities, and feelings of guilt for not prioritizing the mother identity. Strategies were identified that helped minimize feelings of guilt and perceived lack of time: self-compassion, eliciting social support, and comprehensive planning. Findings from this study can advance academic literature and help inform training programs for women who are navigating motherhood.

Résumé

Les mères ont tendance à effectuer de nombreux sacrifices pour assumer leur rôle familial, y compris l’activité physique. Le but de cette étude exploratoire est de comprendre comment les mères équilibrent leur rôle de mère avec celui de sportive qui s’entraîne pour un marathon, y compris les stratégies et les obstacles. Huit mères (âgemédian = 36,75) ayant des enfants de moins de 8 ans ont participé à deux entretiens semi-structurés (pendant l’entraînement, après la course). L’analyse thématique inductive a permis de dégager deux thèmes interdépendants: (a) le conflit d’identité et (b) l’équilibre des stratégies. Plus précisément, le thème de l’identité, y compris: être coureuse avant d’être mère, gérer plusieurs identités et le sentiment de culpabilité éprouvé quand on ne donne pas la priorité à son rôle de mère. Afin de réduire le sentiment de culpabilité et l’impression de manquer de temps, des stratégies ont été élaborées: compassion envers soi-même, se constituer un réseau de soutien et bonne planification. Les résultats de cette étude peuvent faire progresser la littérature scientifique et contribuer à étoffer les programmes de formation destinés aux femmes et à la maternité.

A woman’s identity evolves when she becomes a mother; transitioning from a focus on oneself as an individual to her offspring. Media and research reports have identified challenges that mothers experience, including the various sacrifices they make within their family role (e.g., Mailey et al., Citation2014; The Guardian, Citation2017). The struggle for women to manage multiple roles has dated back for many decades (e.g., Barnett & Baruch, Citation1985) and continues to be a prominent concern in North American society. The multiple roles that mothers maintain often include their role in the family unit (i.e., partner, mother), their work role, as well as their role in their leisure pursuits. This phenomenon of managing multiple roles has become so prominent that the term mother-load was coined to reflect the ‘load’ of responsibilities that mothers often endure within and beyond the home (e.g., Bean et al., Citation2014; The Guardian, Citation2017). These responsibilities span across the aforementioned life roles, including not only balancing themselves across these roles, but also managing the logistical and mental loads associated with each role. This paper works to unpack perceptions of and experiences with the motherload from women who are also marathon runners. Specifically, this exploratory study aimed to understand how mothers balanced the two roles of being a mother and marathon runner. Women often seek to maintain their individual identity and marathon running can act as an opportunity to practice individualism. However, in working to juggle their roles as mother and partner, guilt can arise (Belforth, Citation2013; Shaw, Citation2008). This conflict can act as a barrier to women participating in active leisure (Shaw, Citation2008).

Background

According to Palkovitz and Copes (Citation2008), individuals (and particularly women; Liss et al., Citation2013) take on child-centred attitudes when becoming parents. This change in attitude and focus can have ramifications for parents because adjusting to child-centred priorities can compromise one’s own well-being. Pedersen (Citation2012) explored the idea of good parenting and found that ‘good mothering is distinct from good parenting’ (p. 242), whereby societal expectations of what it means to be a good mother tend to be over and above what it means to be a good parent, including putting their child’s needs ahead of their own. Maternal guilt is a universal term associated with motherhood (e.g., Liss et al., Citation2013), in which mothers completely devote themselves to their children and feel wholly responsible for how their child develops (e.g., Seagram & Daniluk, Citation2002). This sense of responsibility is often due to the high standards of motherhood that have been socially constructed, requiring an ethic of self-sacrifice and almost exclusive other-centeredness. These standards may lead women to report feeling depleted, inadequate, and guilty when they feel they cannot meet their own or societal expectations (Rotkirch, Citation2009; Seagram & Daniluk, Citation2002). Further, mothers often struggle to find a balance between meeting the expectations of mothering practices and their own individual needs, which can lead to feelings of tension, conflict, and guilt (e.g., Cowdery & Knudson-Martin, Citation2005; Pepler, Citation2017), resulting in physical and mental health implications.

Researchers have consistently found an inverse relationship between motherhood and physical activity participation (e.g., McIntyre & Rhodes, Citation2009). For example, women who are mothers of young children tend to have lower levels of physical activity than women of similar age who do not have children (Brown et al., Citation2001). Glynn et al. (Citation2009) investigated factors that play a primary role in mothers’ mental health and concluded that role overload (i.e., being overwhelmed by one’s perceived responsibilities) and/or other socioeconomic factors were prominent factors, whereby role overload was a larger determinant of mental health than social determinants of mental health (e.g., job security, income). As the demands of motherhood increase, mothers can have less time for individual needs and wants, including physical health (Goodsell & Harris, Citation2011), leaving little time for participation in active leisure.

Active leisure in mothers

Leisure participation is considered a relaxing or restorative activity that helps to reduce stress and anxiety (Iwasaki & Schneider, Citation2003), with added physical and/or psychosocial benefit for engagement in active leisure pursuits. However, women tend to have poorer mental health and lower physical activity levels than men (Craft et al., Citation2014), with physical activity further declining after pregnancy (Pereira et al., Citation2007). Despite the demands associated with motherhood, physical activity has been identified as important for mothers by health professionals (e.g., Larson-Meyer, Citation2002; Piercy et al., Citation2018) and mothers themselves (e.g., Groth & David, Citation2008). Physical activity has physical (e.g., promotes weight loss, aerobic fitness, and strength) and psychosocial (e.g., improved mood, increased social connectedness; Larson-Meyer, Citation2002) health benefits. For example, Artal and O’Toole (Citation2003) argued that returning to physical activity after pregnancy was associated with decreased postpartum depression, yet only if exercise was stress-relieving, not stress-provoking. McIntyre and Rhodes (Citation2009) found that women’s perceptions of control based on time, fatigue, social support and childcare have also been identified as regulators of mothers’ physical activity behaviour.

Understanding the experiences of mothers during physical activity endeavours that have widespread appeal to particular groups of mothers – marathon training and racing – is warranted to understand endeavours of maintaining one’s athletic identity; a role that has been valued both before motherhood and postpartum. Insight about mothers’ experiences in integrating and/or maintaining this leisure-time physical activity can be applied to other mothers who strive to find their own active leisure pursuits. Gender differences have been observed in individuals who participate in marathons (Serravallo, Citation2000), reinforcing the importance of conducting an in-depth exploration into women, and specially mothers.

Despite the potential challenges that arise with active leisure participation, research on women who engage in time consuming active leisure have been conducted (e,g., Brown et al., Citation2001; Dashper et al., Citation2020). For example, Dashper et al. (Citation2020) explored women’s participation in equestrian leisure activities and perceived tension on partner and familial relationships. The role of identity was discussed as important, whereby engaging in their leisure pursuit helped women maintain an identity that existed outside of their family. Despite this, feelings of guilt were at the forefront. In another study, McGannon and Schinke (Citation2013) conducted a single-case study to explore how the participant's identity as a mother was linked to physical activity levels. The participant indicated that the terms good and super were attached to a woman’s identity of mother, in which intensive care for her children resulted in her needs, wants, and interests being secondary to that of her children’s. As a result, her physical activity participation was negatively affected. In both studies, tension around mothering expectations were perceived to come from societal gender norms and cultural discourse. In relation to physical activity, Verhoef and Love (Citation1994) found that in a random sample of 1,113 women, mothers were much less active than women without children and experienced exercise-related barriers, including lack of time and support. Despite recent work done in this area, limitations of the research exist including small, homogenous samples (Dashper et al., Citation2020; McGannon & Schinke, Citation2013), narrow geographic region (Brown et al., Citation2001), and/or cross-sectional data collection. Thus, this study aims to build on previous research and work to address these gaps by recruiting a larger sample and gathering data from multiple time points within a Canadian context. Moreover, despite research being conducted in exploring family life and marathon running (e.g., Goodsell & Harris, Citation2011) and media representations of elite running in motherhood (e.g., McGannon et al., Citation2012), limited research has explored solely mothers’ perspectives in this leisure endeavour; this study aims to address this gap.

The present study

Mothers were chosen as the focus of this study for two reasons: (a) qualitative studies that include mothers’ lived experiences in this area is limited (Appleby & Fisher, Citation2009; Lewis & Ridge, Citation2005) and (b) despite women tending to have low levels of physical activity (Statistics Canada, Citation2011), there has been a 33% increase in women running marathon events in the past 5 years (Jakob, Citation2018). Based on these factors, it is important to explore mothers’ experiences who are able to train for and engage in marathon events to understand their strategies and challenges throughout this process. Thus, the purpose of this exploratory study was to understand how mothers balanced the two roles of being a mother and marathon runner. A secondary purpose of this study was to explore the strategies and barriers experienced by mothers who were in training for and competing in a marathon event.

Methods

Although research has been conducted on individuals who engage in time-consuming leisure (e.g., Brown et al., Citation2001; Dashper et al., Citation2020), little is known about the experiences of mothers who train for and engage in marathon events. A phenomenological approach was used to gather participants’ experiences from a first-person perspective, which can help gather important information as it allows for ‘capturing rich, detailed descriptions of [participants'] experience’ (Crust & Nesti, Citation2006, p. 9).

Participants and procedure

To be eligible for this study, participants had to: (a) be a mother to at least one child under 8 years of age (early motherhood), (b) be training for a marathon event during the participant recruitment stage, (c) be registered for a marathon event that was scheduled between August 2017 and May 2018, and (d) read and speak English. It should be noted that this study took place in Canada and in this country, the majority of races are held between spring and fall seasons, with fewer races being held during winter months, based on weather.

Purposeful sampling was used as this research required participants who had personal experience in being a mother and recent training and racing experience in at least one marathon event. Following ethical approval by the authors' institutional Research Ethics and Integrity Board, participant recruitment took place through two avenues within Southern Ontario: (a) a retail chain speciality running store (n = 2) and (b) social media (n = 6). Managers at 15 retail chain stores were contacted via email and provided a study information letter. Interested store managers shared the letter with clients, allowing participants to directly contact the researcher if interested. Posts were made via social media in the three Facebook groups that were comprised of individuals with an interest in running at varying levels and abilities and were geographically focused to Southern Ontario. One of the groups had an open membership for all genders interested in running, while the other two groups were specific to women and/or mothers. Interested individuals commented on the post or privately messaged the second author.

Seventeen participants contacted the researcher and eight were eligible based on the aforementioned criteria. All participants lived within Ontario at time of data collection. The eight participants, who identified as female, a mother, and Caucasian, ranged from 31 to 43 years of age (Mage = 36.75; SD = 3.32). Participants had children from 7 months to 8 years old (Mage = 5.12). Three of the participants had one child and five participants had two children. Participants trained and participated in a half marathon (n = 4), a full marathon (n = 3), or an ultra-marathon (n = 1). Participants had between 1 and 20 years of running experience (M = 10.5, SD = 6.74). Seven participants had been marathon event runners prior to becoming mothers. All participants were involved with various running communities (i.e., running groups, social media groups). All participants worked full- (n = 7) or part-time (n = 1) and self-identified as being in heterosexual marriages. See , for complete demographic information. All eight participants met the study’s eligibility criteria and were registered for a marathon event scheduled within the aforementioned time frame. Participants completed a consent form and interview times were scheduled. Participants were provided with the option of in-person or telephone interviews. Telephone interviews were offered to minimize participation barriers and burden (e.g., time, travel; Jacobsson & Sjoberg, Citation2012) given study involvement required engagement in two interviews. All participants opted to engage in telephone interviews.

Table 1. Participant demographic information

All interviews were facilitated by the second author. Bracketing was used prior to the researcher’s involvement in data collection with the goal of minimizing pre-existing assumptions and biases (Tufford & Newman, Citation2010). Two semi-structured interviews were scheduled with each participant: (a) one during training, which took place prior to their scheduled marathon event and (b) one 1–2 weeks after participation in the marathon event. Both interview guides were piloted with one participant, who provided feedback. Minor guide adaptations were made and used with the remaining participants.

Interviews

Completing interviews at two time points allowed for exploration of personal meaning and provided an in-depth understanding of each participant’s experiences, enabling opportunities to reflect over time. During the first interview (preceding the marathon event), the researcher developed rapport with participants by asking general demographic information (e.g., age, about their family, previous running experience, occupation). Next, questions were asked to understand participants’ experiences of being mothers, including their multiple roles (including their careers) and the role and importance of running in their lives. Specific questions about running were asked, including their personal goals, preparations for their marathon event, and strategies and barriers related to training (e.g., ‘How has training changed for you since becoming a mother?’, ‘How does training effect your family life?’). The first interviews lasted between 62 and 118 minutes with participants (M = 98 min).

The authors worked to have the second interview within 2 weeks post-race; however, two participants engaged in marathon events outside of the province and subsequently traveled post-race, which added time between the race and second interview. The second round of interviews (i.e., following the marathon event) explored the strategies and barriers that the mothers experienced leading up to and during the marathon, while also offering an opportunity to reflect on their experiences over time (e.g., ‘Did you experience any barriers when training for your marathon event?’, ‘Do you think that being a mother affected your marathon? How?’). The second interviews lasted between 27 and 72 minutes with participants (M = 42 min).

The average time from a participant being recruited to engaging in their marathon event was 43.88 days (SD = 32.04, range = 13–103). The average time between the two interviews was 36.63 days (SD = 19.21), with the marathon event taking place between the first and second interviews (Mdays from interview 1 = 25.86; SD = 18.61; Mdays from interview 2 = 15.00; SD = 11.83). These numbers indicate that participants were well into their training regime at the time of interview 1. All interviews were recorded using a digital audio-recorder. Once the interviews were transcribed, participants engaged in a member checking process to ensure accurate representation of their perspectives (Mero-Jaffe, Citation2011).

Data analysis

The interview transcripts were analyzed using an inductive thematic analysis (Braun & Clarke, Citation2006). This type of analysis allows for an understanding of important ideas and themes that emerge inductively from the responses of the participants. Braun and Clarke (Citation2006) outlined a six-step procedure for thematic analysis: (a) familiarizing oneself with the data, which included transcription of verbal data, (b) generating initial codes, (c) searching for themes, (d) reviewing themes, (e) defining and naming themes, and (f) producing the report. The approach of investigator triangulation was used to assist with analysis (Archibald, Citation2015). Strategies for rigour were applied to data preparation (i.e., interview guide piloting), collection (i.e., multiple time points), analysis (i.e., member checking; investigator triangulation), and presentation of results (use of pseudonyms; Smith & McGannon, Citation2017; Tracy, Citation2010).

Results

Eight mothers engaged in two semi–structured interviews; the first interview took place during marathon training and the second within 2 weeks after the event for which they trained for took place. As a secondary purpose of this study was to explore strategies and barriers, numerous strategies (e.g., listening to music, positive self-talk) and barriers (e.g., injuries, weather, improper sleep and/or nutrition) were identified, yet these elements were not exclusive to mothers and did not uniquely align with the study purpose in understanding the experiences of balancing multiple identities. As such, the results are organized into two themes: (a) identity conflict and (b) balancing strategies that align with the study purpose.

Identity conflict

When asked about challenges that participants experienced balancing their roles as a mother and marathon running, all participants spoke of challenges related to their identity. Specifically, three sub-themes related to identity were coded from the data: (a) runner before mother, (b) managing multiple identities, and (c) guilt for not prioritizing the mother identity. It should be noted that each identity that participants adopted (i.e., marathon runner, employee, wife) did not exist independently, but instead influenced each other, causing tension internally (i.e., guilt) and externally (lack of time).

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, as she had been a runner for longer than she had been a mother: ‘This was part of who I am. I am a runner.’ Maria admitted that an active lifestyle 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’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: ‘If you lose yourself then you’re never going to be good to [your children] … that piece has to be there and its part of who you are, is in that active lifestyle’ (Maria).

Running identities changed after childbirth. Charlotte noted that prior to becoming a mother, she was defined by her running: ‘People knew me as a runner, adventure trail runner … all of a sudden you see that you’re doing a five-kilometre 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.’

Managing multiple identities

The pressure of having multiple identities and finding a balance was a predominant challenge for participants. 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: ‘I’m a mom and it’s great and I’m proud of that, but at the same time, you want to keep your identity … You can’t leave your identity to your baby, at the same time he’s your everything.’ She went on to note that this notion of challenge around managing both identities extended to her post-race experiences as well:

You cross the finish line and you’re handed your baby. All of a sudden, you’re reminded. I’ve got [child's name] in my hands, and you want to go through the emotions of ‘I just ran this race and it’s great’, but it’s not like that. I sat on a bench breastfeeding and I’m sore. You want to sit there and chug a chocolate milk or do those post-race things, but you’re reminded the second you cross the finish line, you’re a mom again.

Most participants maintained running as a priority because of its importance to their identities. Charlotte noted: ‘If it’s important to you, you’re going to make it work.’ However, Amy mindfully acknowledged that sometimes running did not make it to the top of the priority list: ‘There’s always time constraints. You just work it out … sometimes you 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 was one element that created additional stress for participants, adding to their list of identities and their motherload, yet many women ‘still maintained this idea that the training is very important to me’ (Andrea).

Guilt for not prioritizing the mother identity

Attempting to find balance within participants’ roles, including their roles as women, mothers, runners, wives, and employees, led to feelings of guilt. All participants reported feeling guilty about attempting to balance multiple identities, especially in relation to their running. Two participants drew connections between motherload and their running: ‘It’s a never-ending to-do list of stuff; 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). Participants acknowledged they should not feel guilty about running, yet did regardless. Charlotte noted: ‘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.’ Many participants experienced guilt caused by missed opportunities to spend time with children and husbands due to training. Suzie missed having dinner with her children because she was training: ‘Tonight, my daughter said to me, “I wished we had dinner together,” and then I felt guilty.’

Balancing strategies

Three strategies were identified that helped participants minimize feelings of guilt and perceived lack of time: (a) self-compassion, (b) eliciting social support, and (c) comprehensive planning. These sub-themes are described below. Overlap exists between the second and third sub-themes as planning is often required when soliciting social support. More generally, the importance of flexibility was noted as an implicit strategy by several mothers:

When you’re a mom, nothing goes to plan; you have to be able to make a quick decision or improvise. I don’t know if that would be a coping strategy where I’m used to interruptions. I don’t know if that’s a skill you learn from being a mom. (Jennifer)

Self-compassion

Self-compassion was a sub-theme that emerged related to participants being compassionate to themselves in instances of perceived inadequacy or challenge in dealing with the maternal guilt, shame, and/or stress. Although Charlotte struggled to leave her child to train, she reminded herself that she runs for enjoyment: ‘At the end of the day, no one’s holding a gun to my head, telling me “you have to go out and do this”. I’ve chosen this; we’re lucky to be able to do this.’ Self-compassion is comprised of three elements: (a) common humanity, (b) self-kindness, and (c) mindfulness (Neff, Citation2003; Neff et al., Citation2006).

Common humanity represents the appreciation that one is not alone in suffering (Neff, Citation2003). Participants spoke of compassion for other mothers who were struggling with similar role-related challenges and feeling a sense of unity in recognizing that they were not suffering alone. Amy described that avoiding putting pressure on herself while training for her half marathon and knowing that women she trained with had similar experiences were helpful: ‘You hear other moms talking about the things that they’re juggling, and you know, we’re all doing the same thing.’ Andrea practiced common humanity by discussing guilt with the other mothers in her running group: ‘A lot of us do feel that mom guilt and feel like we compensate. It’s not that we feel better if we do more of the work, we just compensate.’ From this, Andrea recognized she was not the only mother who felt the need to compensate for being away from her family. All participants acknowledged that being a mother came with challenges and Amy spoke of the importance of taking time for themselves: ‘Moms have to make time for themselves. They can’t be with their kids 24/7. They need their own thing’.

Self-kindness represents mothers who were being warm and understanding toward themselves, especially when experiencing challenging experiences and/or feeling inadequate (Neff, Citation2003). Many participants expressed trying to create space for self-care and time for training. Natalie spoke to the self-care aspect and recognized that it could be difficult finding time to train as a mom, but adopted a positive mindset: ‘Whatever little trick you can do to make it a time of self-care or a time of enjoyment or socializing.’ Jennifer also noted: ‘I always found that running was “me time ”– a scheduled appointment with myself – I think that’s important to a mom; to make sure they take time for themselves. Self-care is important.’ Finally, several participants reflected on the value running had on themselves as a mother and for their children: ‘It’s a good thing I do all this running because if I didn’t, would I be such a good mom?’ (Charlotte) and ‘I know that mood, self-esteem, and sense of fulfillment are important not just for me, but my son benefits from having a mom with those things that are doing well’ (Natalie).

Mindfulness involves mothers viewing negative thoughts and/or emotions in a balanced manner (Neff, Citation2003). More than half of participants expressed using mindfulness as a self-compassion mechanism and worked to complete their training and competitions in positive mind-frames. Mindfulness was expressed by participants in appreciating that running was an optional leisure activity: ‘I get to be out there, and I get to hit that wall and I get to feel all those things’ (Charlotte). Participants used adjectives such as ‘fortunate’ or ‘luck’ to describe their gratefulness for running and the flexibility they had with their work and family lives to be able to train regularly. Amy recognized that running brought balance to her life: ‘It makes me more balanced and more appreciative of the time that I do have when I am home, and I can focus on the kids, knowing that I’ve had my time.’ When Leigh experienced mental and physical training challenges, she reminded herself: ‘I’m aware that I’m lucky to be running.’ Natalie noted that parenting was the most difficult part of her life and she tried to remind herself that running needed to be enjoyable: ‘I try to appreciate it and make it fun … bring my dogs or listen to funny podcasts. I try to make sure I frame it as a positive thing and not something that I have to do.’

Eliciting social support

All participants identified key individuals who were instrumental in providing emotional and instrumental support, including (a) husbands, (b) extended family and friends, (c) running buddies and/or running community, and (d) children. Specifically, most participants acknowledged their partners’ roles in supporting their training, such as providing encouragement and childcare support. Jennifer recognized: ‘I couldn’t do it without [husband]. The long runs, he always makes sure that I get out and then he’ll take the kids or work around schedules that way … he’s my biggest fan.’ Natalie also asserted that her husband’s level of support increased when he saw her finish a marathon last year: ‘He had kind of an “aha” moment of, “oh, she’s quite good.” I think that helped a little bit, he started to respect it more and understand why I take things that seriously.’

Extended family and friends offered emotional and childcare support during training and races. Jennifer admitted that ‘it takes a village’ to raise a family and acknowledged that, although her family was not close in proximity, her friends were supportive: ‘My family lives outside of the city, but I have a good core group of friends and neighbours here in the city.’ Maria made friends in the neighbourhood running club she joined: ‘People in the club are amazing and supportive. The babysitters we have are older kids of people in the running community … they know how difficult it is to get a run in, so they’ll get their kids to babysit.’ When it came to family support, most participants spoke of their parents, and often mothers, as being supportive, including ‘taking care of [child] so that [husband] could come to the race’ (Natalie).

Running friends and/or groups were seen as providing opportunities for reciprocal emotional support while fostering a sense of community outside of their family. All participants acknowledged training with running buddies at some point during their training, especially for long runs. Charlotte completed much of her training on her own due to her son’s sleeping and feeding schedules, but ran with friends on the weekend: ‘Once a week I have a group of girlfriends that I’m able to do part of my long runs with.’ Jennifer found it challenging to coordinate with her friend, who was training for the same event, due to both being mothers with two children and due to their motherloads and schedules: ‘The difference is I do the workouts alone, before, I used to train with a team.’ Amy acknowledged that she would not have been able to complete her first half-marathon training without support from the running group: ‘I would never have done this without them.’

Finally, involving their children as a source of support helped participants to not only feel less guilty for their involvement, but also provided a way for reciprocal support in modeling a healthy behaviour for their children. For example, Andrea worked to ensure her children were aware of her running by having them attend her races and cheer her on: ‘I love that they recognize what I’m doing … that detracts from any feeling of guilt. The more positively they react to it, the less guilty I feel.’ Moreover, that reciprocal support toward their children was provided by mothers in modeling the importance of health through running for their children. Amy and Jennifer, respectively, acknowledged that they wanted to model a healthy lifestyle and emulate that ‘exercise is important and to try and work towards [being healthy]’ and ‘You lead by example. If [children] see me trying to be healthy or exercising, it becomes the norm … my kids will be there when I finish the run to see the accomplishment of it. That you’re working towards something, hard work pays off.’

Comprehensive planning

Planning was an integral strategy for the majority of participants to remain on track with their training and daily life activities and was identified as being comprehensive in nature. This included: (a) ‘fitting’ in runs when they could, (b) coordinating childcare, and (c) ensuring open communication. Specifically, many participants did not have a scheduled time for their typical training; they acknowledged fitting their training in whenever they could. The term ‘fitting it in’ was used frequently to explain using active transportation to and from work, training in the morning while their children were sleeping, training on their lunch hours, or scheduling their training around their children’s activities. Jennifer acknowledged the amount of time required to train for a full marathon: ‘It’s the [amount of] time, right? You have to fit it in. That’s why I try to be efficient.’ Andrea scheduled her runs in the morning or used her lunch hour at work to train: ‘Usually I’m a morning runner, if I don’t do it first thing [in the morning] or at lunchtime at work, it’s not going to happen.’ For Leigh, training around her work schedule through ‘run commutes’ allowed her to train and decrease the amount of guilt she felt: ‘Running home from work is the only way to not feel bad about being away from home.’ Natalie also noted she would often take her child to daycare in her running stroller to fit in her runs.

To minimize the amount of time missed with their children, participants tried to schedule their training around family dinners and children’s activities: ‘I can fit it in, but it’s not going to take away time when I’m home and the kids are here instead of being like “I’m going for a run now”’ (Jennifer). Two participants discussed being able to fit in their runs despite having to schedule around their children’s activities: ‘I just schedule around what they have. Next week, they have swimming in the morning and a birthday party in the afternoon. I will do the run in between hours for the training run and hire a babysitter’ (Jennifer) and ‘Luckily, we’re able to schedule around the kids’ activities. They both have activities on Saturday mornings, I can’t get out and run then, but I can get a run in in the afternoon’ (Amy).

Many participants used babysitters, daycare, and before and after school programs to support their family’s childcare needs. Often, use of childcare depended on their husbands’ schedules, including when their husbands were at work or traveling. Jennifer had to plan for childcare while her husband was away: ‘He’s leaving town this weekend and next weekend, and then the weekend after that is my race. It’s a matter of trying to organize babysitters so I can do my training runs.’ Finally, ongoing and open communication between spouses, and sometimes their children, was imperative to maintain participants' training schedules.

Participants referred to using two types of communication: (a) family conversations and (b) forms of visual communication (e.g., calendars). Two participants recommended checking in with family – husband and children – about how they felt the mothers were balancing training. Jennifer used a chalkboard to visualize the family’s schedule ‘the kids and my husband knows to look at it Monday to see what’s going on.’ Additionally, Natalie used ‘an old-fashioned agenda. I look at the week ahead to see what I have, what my partner has. “Do I need to run commute this day?” I map it all out to get an idea of what time or how I’m going to run.’

Discussion

The purpose of this research was to explore how women in early motherhood balanced the two roles of being a mother and marathon runner. A secondary purpose of this study was to explore the strategies and barriers experienced by these mothers. This study involved data collection at two time points which offered in-depth exploration of into their experiences, whereby inductive thematic analyses resulted in two inter-related themes: (a) identity conflict and (b) balancing strategies. This study builds on existing research in the area of mothers who engage in time-intensive leisure (e.g., Dashper et al., Citation2020) and contributes to the limited research on understanding motherhood and athletic identities (e.g., McGannon et al., Citation2012), particularly in the area of running (Appleby & Fisher, Citation2009). This research also contributes to growing literature on the motherload (Bean et al., Citation2019), the role of self-compassion (Ferguson et al., Citation2014), the effects of running on family life (Goodsell & Harris, Citation2011), and the implications of ongoing societal expectations regarding mothers (e.g., McGannon et al., Citation2012).

A common construct that emerged throughout both sets of interviews was the ongoing notion of tension particularly related to balancing multiple identities, resulting in feelings of stress, guilt, and shame for their involvement in personal leisure pursuits, which involved being away from their families. The dominant discourse of motherhood, consistent with the notion of intensive mothering, has trickled down from societal norms and expectations, resulting in individual feelings of guilt and shame when mothers do not exclusively focus on their children’s needs rather than on their own desires and needs (Shaw, Citation2008). Previous research identified that mothers experienced challenges associated with balancing the identities of mother and runner, but acknowledged how important running was to their sense of self (e.g., Appleby & Fisher, Citation2009; Palmer & Leberman, Citation2009). Although the term intensive mothering is typically used to describe a mother’s caregiving role in the first years of their lives (e.g., Hays, Citation1996), the current study extends the notion of this dominant discourse influencing mothering practices for many years (Shaw, Citation2008), as participants had children between a few months old to 8 years of age. Regardless of the child’s age, study findings reinforce the value mothers placed on having an activity that supported the maintenance of an identity separate from their families that also helped with their physical and mental health.

This work provides additional insight on the fragile balance of post-natal physical activity engagement as a source of stress-relief or stress-provocation (Artal & O’Toole, Citation2003). Mothers used various strategies to maintain balance within their own and their families’ lives while training. As mothers often adapt their goals to accommodate their children, participants acknowledged making similar adjustments in their personal lives, to maintain their training (Guendouzi, Citation2006). One strategy used by participants to minimize the feelings of stress associated with engaging in a personal leisure pursuit was fitting in their training, such as active transportation to work or exercising on their lunch hour, to balance mothering roles due to time constraints (Appleby & Fisher, Citation2009; Mailey et al., Citation2014). Similar findings have been found within the literature (e.g., Mailey et al., Citation2014; McGannon & Schinke, Citation2013), including active transportation to minimize feelings of guilt or prioritizing physical activity by scheduling time for it. Consistent with study findings, mothers in other research acknowledged trying to fit in their physical activity around their child’s leisure, such as sport participation (Bean et al., Citation2019).

A predominant psychological strategy used by participants was the use of self-compassion to sooth feelings of inadequacy and guilt. Many participants felt they were able to find strength in unity knowing they were not alone in their experiences. Using self-kindness and being mindful in adopting a balanced approach to negative thoughts were found to provide relief from the pressures associated with their roles and expectations (Neff et al., Citation2006). This approach allowed participants to minimize feelings of stress and guilt when adopting multiple identities and their associated roles, particularly when running. Self-compassion has been used as a strategy by other women in sport, whereby Ferguson et al. (Citation2014) found that participants who used self-kindness and mindfulness were better able to mitigate negative sport experiences. The current findings support the aforementioned study findings because participants were able to use self-compassion as a psychological strategy during their training to navigate their negative thoughts, feelings, and experiences.

The ability to participate in marathon training and competitions (identified as playing an important role in the participants’ experiences within this context) must be acknowledged. All participants were Caucasian, in heterogenous relationships, and in dual income families (all mothers worked full time [n = 7] or part-time [n = 1]), self-identifying as middle-to-upper income families. Thus, it should be recognized that the women’s life situations afforded a position of privilege that enabled them the resources (i.e., time, human and financial support) to not only engage in leisure pursuits at any capacity, but substantial time to engage in time-consuming leisure, like marathon running. Specifically, participants had the financial security to afford running incidentals (e.g., shoes, race entry fees, travel to race locations) and associated childcare support (e.g., hiring a babysitter). Further, participants lived in communities that they perceived as safe to train. Some participants acknowledged their occupation allowed for flexibility to train (e.g., on lunch breaks) and familial and friend support in running partners and childcare. This is in alignment with previous research where women of more affluent backgrounds tend to have access to greater resources, especially with regard to social support for physical activity (Brown et al., Citation2001). Despite this, it should be noted that a mother’s perception of role overload has been found to be a greater determinant of their mental health than social determinants of mental health (e.g., job security, income), although both factors contribute to mental health (Glynn et al., Citation2009).

Given that one’s professional identity is considered an important life role, yet a source of stress for many employed mothers (Hibel et al., Citation2012), further complexities were acknowledged by mothers in this study. Maternal guilt is often experienced by working mothers for not being available for their children, resulting in identity conflicts that can have detrimental physical and psychosocial health effects (e.g., Liss et al., Citation2013; Rotkirch, Citation2009). Although maintaining multiple roles can support mental health (Kostiainen et al., Citation2009), the role of ‘good mothering’ is still one that mothers are widely expected to fulfill (Pedersen, Citation2012).

Finally, participants acknowledged that being active also benefitted their families through introducing their children to an active lifestyle and by feeling like a better mother because of running. Edwardson and Gorely (Citation2010) noted that parents who exposed their children to running events and other physical activity opportunities may benefit children’s physical activity participation. Women in the present study were cognizant of the positive influence modeling a physically active lifestyle could have on their children and worked to expose them to various running events through viewing or participation, which also contributes to the notion that family leisure is a mothers’ responsibility (e.g., Shaw, Citation2008).

Practical implications

This research has practical implications that can inform future initiatives and interventions with mothers who engage in physically active leisure. First, findings have implications for further understanding the stigma and associated guilt that comes with North American societal and gender expectations. Second, applied researchers and practitioners (i.e., running coaches, sport psychologists) who facilitate initiatives, workshops, and interventions may be able to support women in developing strategies that work for their life situation (e.g., being self-compassionate, engaging in active transportation, utilizing social support) to help navigate the journey of marathon training and racing. For example, participation in active leisure can result in mothers developing better social support networks for physical activity (Brown et al., Citation2001). Running in groups with other runners, and more specifically other mothers, can offer social support avenues that may be resourceful in supporting mothers who run in coping with the challenges they face (Mailey et al., Citation2014). Membership in such groups can help mothers to foster alternative norms for social and gender roles, including those for motherhood, that can alleviate the pressure of adhering to more conventional and rigid societal norms. Self-compassion can be used as a promising strategy to orient care for oneself during times of struggle (Neff, Citation2003). For example, self-kindness can help individuals be more accepting of days when training was not fit in and help them get back on track instead of giving up. Mindfulness can help mothers shift from being self-critical to more constructive thoughts reflecting on the progress they have made and setting realistic goals (Petrillo et al., Citation2009). Common humanity reminds individuals that they are not alone, and that many other women are experiencing similar challenges in balancing these identities. Additional strategies that have been identified within the literature to positively influence mothers’ mental health (e.g., putting enjoyment first, being flexible and proactive in planning to encourage physical activity, enlisting the help of others; Bean et al., Citation2019) can also be used to inform such initiatives. Within Canada, the Sport Information Resource Centre, a national organization aimed at mobilizing evidence-based knowledge, recently launched a media campaign targeting mothers of school-aged children. The ‘Mom’s Got Game’ initiative aims to increase awareness of physical activity benefits and ultimately increase physical activity participation in mothers, while also breaking down barriers around societal expectations associated with motherhood.

Limitations and future research

Although the goal of this study was to build a foundational understanding of the experiences of women who run marathons during early motherhood, study limitations must be acknowledged. First, several elements limit generalizability of the results, including the homogenous nature of the sample in terms of geographic region the data were collected in, socio-economic status, and all being married in heterogeneous relationships. To address limitations, research is needed to understand experiences of families of varying demographics and from diverse geographic region and from diverse socio-economic standings. In particular, the women’s socio-economic status is an important variable for consideration that likely plays a role in many themes that emerged within this study, given that participants were from middle-to-upper income households. Further, it should be noted that participants were at different stages of motherhood which influences the data gathered. Similar studies should be conducted to explore the perspectives and experiences of pregnant women and women across different stages of motherhood to understand how their psychological health is influenced by the associated demands of motherhood at various stages. For instance, one participant in the current study had an infant and spoke of the unique challenges that breastfeeding posed to her training and competitions. This is important as pregnancy guidelines have recently emerged for women that identify the benefits of training while pregnant, as well as new physical activity recommendations for pregnant women (Mottola et al., Citation2018; Piercy et al., Citation2018). Finally, research is needed to understand if similar experiences and perceptions exist across other leisure pursuits (e.g., triathlon, swimming), and sport types (e.g., soccer, baseball).

Within this study, all participants balanced a motherload of roles and responsibilities (e.g., mother, runner, wife, employee). Thus, future research should continue to unpack areas of mothers’ identities and their influence on training for and competing in marathon events. Future research would also benefit from conducting longitudinal, mixed-method research to further consider mothers’ experiences over time and contribute to understanding the complexities of mothers’ multiple roles. As noted by Glynn et al. (Citation2009), additional research is necessary regarding women’s holistic experiences of the multiple roles they carry. As such, research is warranted to examine mothers’ mental health and stress at various points of the training season, as well as varying periods throughout motherhood.

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the authors.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Corliss Bean

Dr. Corliss Bean, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at Brock University. She studies sport and exercise psychology. Specifically, her research predominantly involves working with community organizations at local and national levels to development, implement and evaluate programming with the goal of fostering  psychosocial development.

Raisa-Lee Wimbs

Raisa Wimbs, is a Registered Psychotherapist working towards registration as a Psychological Associate. She works in private practice, with a focus of helping adults with rehabilitation. She has a passion for health and wellness especially when it comes to that of mothers. She is an avid runner and fitness enthusiast.

References

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