by Mary Kay Jessen - Triathlete, RRCA Coach
Triathlon and long distance running aren't exactly common conversation topics amongst the suburban mom crowd. Most of them will politely ask about how races or training went as a way to strike up a conversation, but I don't generally find myself going into a lot of detail about what it's truly like as a mom athlete. They can't fathom why I would get up well before the sun and definitely don't want to hear about my mid-run bathroom stop in the woods. For those of us who train and race long hours, it can be challenging to put into words the accomplishment we feel by pushing past our limits. Those amazing training days and races and the inner strength of getting through those training days leave you questioning your decisions. Don't get me wrong, my neighbors and mom friends are perfectly nice people, but I find myself reliving a common theme in my life: that I don't really fit in. Which often leaves me feeling disconnected and lonely.
Pre-kids, my husband and I were on a triathlon team, so we were surrounded by like-minded people who became our close circle of friends. We had built in training partners to join us for early morning sessions, after work runs, weekend long bike rides, and long runs. We often had reasonably large group meetups. In the winter, we trained together in garages for hours on the bike. In the spring and summer, we traveled and raced together. We usually met up for post workout drinks and dinner at least once a week and found ourselves eating out a lot more than we do now. It was pretty much as awesome as it sounds and a lot more simplistic!
After our first daughter was born, we scaled back on the training and found ourselves in a very different routine. There were many more solo workouts, meal prepping, planning ahead, cooking, and day-to-day juggling. While we still managed to see our friends and teammates, it took on a different feel as we entered this new chapter. When we had our second daughter, we moved from Virginia to North Carolina and jumped into full-on suburban life. I found myself juggling a colicky baby and precocious toddler. My husband was traveling; I lacked a strong support network while dealing with postpartum depression. I found myself deep in survival mode - cooking, taking care of the kids, grocery shopping, trying to keep our house from looking like a tornado, and trying not to lose my mind. I still trained, but it was always solo and not very consistent or intense.
Now I'm finally emerging from what has felt like a five-year perpetual fog (and if we're honest, that fog was more like a constant swirl of gale-force winds), and I'm realizing a lot of things and rediscovering myself. The biggest realization is that I don't fit into the suburban mom box - and I never will. I am an absolute fish out of water, and this initially scared me. I spent a lot of time figuring out how I could change myself to fit in, and in retrospect, too much time. But, hard as I tried, my true self resisted because the reality is - I can't.
My daily life revolves around my family, but my training is equally important. I'm up at 5 am many days and either getting a workout done or getting a jumpstart on the day. I'm meticulous about weekly meal planning and often prep or cook dinner in the mornings. I love the delay start feature on our washing machine, so I can set the laundry to go early in the morning and switch it to the drier as I sip my morning coffee. My life feels like a study in time efficiency most days, and it's not very exciting, by conventional standards. I'd much rather go to bed early and get up to get my training done. I don't watch much TV; I'm not a huge crowd/party person and am much more content hanging with a few friends on my deck, or even better, riding, paddleboarding, or hiking. I don't do a lot of big girl's nights outs or weekend brunches. The truth is, I am happy with my choices. I really would rather be training or at home with family.
"Training fulfills me on a profound level, and my family and their love sustain me."
It's that simple. I will probably always be the mom in running shorts, hoodies, and flip-flops - and I will also be the first to play frisbee, hop into a soccer game, challenge the kids to a running race, or lead a bike ride around the neighborhood.
In my quest to live authentically and honestly, this has been a hard pill to swallow. Being an outsider doesn't always feel good, and for me, it can often seem as though I'm on the outside looking in. But instead of worrying about what everyone else is doing, I choose to change the lens I am looking through. Endurance sports gives me a sense of purpose and drive that fulfills me. I love pushing my body and mind; I love being active and being outside. It's a unique bond that I share with my husband - and something not all couples have. Even better is that it translates into a healthy and active lifestyle for all of our family.
Our oldest lights up every time she goes to swim practice, and our youngest has a love for her bike that I cannot put into words. Both girls enjoy trying new activities and rarely say no - even if they are scared. It allows me to teach them by example - to rise from failure, that there is no substitute for hard work, and the biggest limiter in life is yourself. I am showing them that it is worthwhile to be yourself, even if it's not the same as what everyone else is doing - and that at the end of the day, having the self-confidence to stand out and make different choices is the best way to live. Hopefully, it won't take them decades to learn this lesson, as it did me.
So, if you're the square peg trying to fit into a round hole because that's what everyone else is doing, stop. Ask yourself which one feels better - and more "you." Make a choice for yourself, not to please others, and then find your tribe of square pegs. My tribe of endurance nuts is pretty far-flung but also pretty amazing. I can call, FaceTime, and text a handful of amazing women day or night, and I know they truly "get it" and accept and love me for the real me. There is truly no better feeling in the world than when you find the place where you belong.