On “Having It All”

A toddler girl crying
It’s hard to leave for a run when this blocks the door. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were two hours into NBC’s coverage of the Olympics when my 9 year old observed, “They spend more time trying to get your emotions up than they do showing sports!” Word. And normally, this over-the-top repackaging of sport as story annoys me to no end. But when they highlighted how mother and recent silver medalist Noel Pikus-Pace toggled between late night skeleton training and early morning toddler duty, I turned into a total sap. Ate. It. Up.

I particularly liked the exchange between Noel and her oldest, six year old Lacee, in the hours before her final two runs.

“You’ll remember this the rest of your life,” said the Olympian to her daughter, referring to the momentous event her little girl would witness that day.

“What’s for lunch?” replied the first grader.

In spite of having just two hours per day to train — complete with interruptions from poopy diapers and needy toddlers –Pikus-Pace went on to win a silver medal that day. What Lacee had for lunch remains undisclosed.

Their conversation struck a familiar chord, one you don’t have to be an Olympic athlete to understand. In short — no matter how grand and exciting our goals and achievements might be, our children are mostly just wondering about chicken nuggets. Noel’s inspiring story got me thinking about the challenges we face as women in pursuing our personal goals in the midst of raising young kids and/or maintaining a career. Finding time to train and balancing it all with the needs of family in mind is so much easier said than done.

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“I do think women can have it all,” Madeline Albright said, “but not all at the same time. Our life comes in segments, and we have to understand that we can have it all if we’re not trying to do it all at once.” Albright wasn’t the first to say it. My former boss and mentor shared similar words with me a decade earlier when I was up to my ears at work and expecting my first child. (And I’m pretty sure Oprah said it too. Yeah, come to think of it, that’s probably where Madeline heard it. )

I’d always thought about Albright’s statement in terms of juggling career and family, but I’m starting to realize it extends into many facets of our lives as women, including the pursuit of athletics and fitness. When your career demands 70+ hours a week, chances are low you’ll be simultaneously training for your first ultra. If you’ve chosen to “stay home” with a baby, toddler and preschooler, the odds of making it to the evening track workout every week (awake and without any spit-up on your tech tee) aren’t exactly in your favor. And if the “working mom” badge is the one you wear, it’s best we didn’t know how early you had to get up to log a double digit mid-week run. We’d be exhausted just hearing about it.

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Athletic pursuits, particularly at the elite levels, require a level of focus that borders on self-centeredness. In order to be successful, the athlete has to ruthlessly protect her workouts, her rest, her diet, her body. On the other end of the spectrum, motherhood requires a significant amount of self-sacrifice, a setting aside of personal desires, goals and needs in order to meet those of the children. So how does the mother-athlete manage it all? What if her toddler gets sick two days before the Olympic trials? What if her child routinely wakes up at night, refusing anyone but mom, and all quality workouts are sabotaged by sleep deprivation? Or, as might be the case for us  average Jo’s, the far-from-elite, what if we have to put off reaching our athletic potential in order to serve our families and/or hold down jobs? What if, as employees or business owners, as moms of toddlers or teenagers, as sub-3:00 or 5:00-plus marathoners, we can’t have it all … at once?

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Twinsies
Age Group Winner Twinsies

Two Septembers ago, my son and I signed up to run a Labor Day race. He was set to race a one-miler, hoping to take the gold in his last year in the 7-and-under category; and I was gunning for sub-22:00 5k and to place in my age group. When race day came, I neglected to warm up for the 5k because I was so preoccupied with watching him race. By the time he finished running and I finished squealing, doting and high-fiving, I barely had time to squeeze in a few strides before my own race began. While I wouldn’t have missed seeing him finish for all the PRs in Portland, I vowed never to book a back-to-back mother-son PR attempt again. It was just too tough to toggle between roles as crazy cheering mom and focused rock-solid runner. (For the record, he PRed, and I didn’t come close. But we did both place first in our age group!)

The fact is, pursuing PRs and training “seriously” (however we define it) takes a significant amount of time and commitment. It might mean saying no to more responsibility at work, no to staying out late with friends, no to a clean house (though I’d argue that’s an easy one to turn down), no to our significant others, even no to our kids. For example, my kids desperately wanted to come with me to the Carlsbad Marathon. They were clever enough to act as if they just wanted to come to cheer for me, but it was fairly obvious the possibility of Legoland registered a much stronger pull than the idea of holding a cheeky sign at the finish line. But I said no. I knew that if they came with me, I’d be distracted by what they needed, whether they were having fun, whether they had enough to eat. And in order to be successful, the hours leading up to the race had to be about what I needed.

But we don’t often have the luxury of saying no to other things in life (work, friends, family) in order to say yes to training. Five years ago when I had rambunctious toddlers, a consulting job, and an absentee husband (not a jerk–just a medical resident), there was no way I could have trained for a half marathon, much less a marathon. And to go away for an entire weekend all by myself? FORGET IT! If by some miraculous stroke of fortune, I did have that kind of time, you can bet I’d be sleeping for 24 hours straight, not chasing a BQ!

As Albright said, life comes in segments. And as I approach the end of my fourth decade, I’m thankful to have finally landed in a segment of life that allows time to pursue my crazy running hobby. I realize this is a privilege many don’t have, at least not now or not yet.

There are many of us still in the throes of building a career or a family or both, many who can barely string together three minutes to eat breakfast let alone three hours for a long run. And if that’s the case for you, I’ll just put my point in bold so you can read it really quick and get out of here.  Your day will come. Sure, you might join the masters category before it comes, but it will come. Those “maybe someday” races you daydream about while listening on a conference call or pushing your daughter in the swing? They aren’t as far away they appear.

I believe we can have it all, though it’s unlikely we’ll have it all at the same time unless we take up sleep-running (quality REM cycle during a 7 mile tempo? Yes pleaase!). It can be discouraging when you feel stuck on the sidelines, impeded from fully pursuing your running goals because of life circumstances. And it may take much longer than we’d like to get to a point where we can devote ourselves more fully to our personal goals. But given a whole string of life segments to work with, I promise you, there will be no stopping us.

What life “segment” do you find yourself in? Do you struggle to find time to train like you want to? What do you think of women “having it all”?

Note: Anytime I write about our struggle as women to manage work and family, self care and personal goals, I’m reminded what a privilege it is to even be able to wrestle with these questions. Struggling to find time to train at the levels we want to train is obviously a first-world problem.

Recovering corporate hamster-wheeler turned Alaskan hausfrau, mother of two and running enthusiast. Kind of a June Cleaver in tempo shorts...minus the makeup and vacuum. Will run to great lengths to get a moment of peace.

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21 comments

  1. This post really hit home today. Although not a mother, the idea of having it all is something I really struggle with.Sometimes it’s even harder because you think that you *have* to have it all, or else you just aren’t good enough to have anything (very black and white thinking – one of my biggest struggles!)
    I really like that you said “Your day will come.” Because you know, it might. And it will. But we just have to be patient…and I don’t think runners are the most patient group 😉

    1. No, we really aren’t so patient, are we? 🙂 I completely relate to your comment and the black and white thinking. It’s taken a lot of time for me to learn to let go of my own impossible expectations of myself. Throughout my career and the early stages of motherhood, I wrestled mightily with guilt and feelings of failure–never feeling like I was doing enough. I think letting go of the expectations that I had to be/do it all (at once!) helped me to settle into a much happier and fulfilled place.

  2. I really needed this! As a SAHM to a very clingy 4 month old, I’ve had difficulty finding time to exercise (although my arms are becoming quite toned!). It’s also really easy to compre yourself to friends, relatives, or bloggers who seemed to be able to jump back into training or racing just weeks or months after having a baby. I’ve often wondered why I haven’t been able to get back to running like everyone else, but we don’t always have the whole story. It’s comforting to see that it’s not always as easy to have it all as some make it out to be :-).

    1. Ah yes, comparison is such a slippery slope! I know a lot of gals here have jumped back into running right away, but for me, I didn’t even START running until my youngest was over a year old. And even then, it was really sporadic. And your little one is only four months!! Give yourself lots of grace. You’ll get there when you get there. In the meantime, enjoy this stage as best you can. It’s cliche to say it, but it really will be gone in a flash. (The days are long, but the years are short.)

  3. I work full-time and have a 4-year-old son and sometimes it takes absolute miracles to get in 20-something miles a week. I often have to drop my son off at daycare/preschool 20 minutes early or pick him up 20 minutes late to squeeze in an extra mile or two before or after work. I constantly feel guilt over that; guilt over not being at work as many hours as I “should” be; guilt over not running as much as I “should”; guilt over going to bed at 8:15 most nights and not spending time catching up on stuff; guilt for letting my son watch TV instead of playing pretend with him; etc etc. I often feel like I’m doing a terrible job at everything except for being too busy! I’m great at being too busy. Yet despite all these shoulds, I have no clue what I actually SHOULD be doing to truly “have it all.” Running less? Running more? Working less? Working more? Having an immaculate house? Having a disastrous house? Playing with my kid constantly? Teaching him how to be more independent and play by himself? Etc. I’d love to talk to the mom who knows the answers to those questions, but I don’t think she exists!

    1. Yep, TOTALLY get it. I’ve battled the chronic Guilt & Should disease too. I don’t have any answers either, other than to cut yourself as much slack as you can, and then give yourself a little more after that. I can infer from your comment that you’re the conscientious and devoted sort–and I’m sure that makes you a fantastic mom and employee. But it probably means you tend to be hard on yourself and not allow yourself the room to do a few things just for you (like run or go to bed early or whatever). Hang in there, and know you aren’t alone!

  4. I am still at that life segment where I have the most freedom: no family, no SO, no full-time job. But that is all going to change very soon when I start professional school, so I need to learn how to balance all of that. I was lucky to be able to train for my first marathon this past year with minimal stress and distractions.

  5. Kind of like the oxygen mask scenario on the airplane, Mamas need to take care of themselves first, before their children. Obviously this means some serious prioritizing, because a children’s needs often need tending to at the moment they ask for it. (Ever tried to postpone dinner by a half hour?) I have learned I need to run/exercise to feel happy. I have to wake up in the predawn hours to fulfill that need. It is hard to do, but it is beyond worth it. There was a time where this was not possible. I am glad that time has passed!

  6. Basil – THANK YOU for this post today. It was just what I needed as a gentle reminder. We are due with our first child in early July and just had to commit to a daycare. The daycare costs are going to be 67% of my paycheck at my current full-time job at American Cancer Society. I’ve been having extreme guilt thinking about the possibilty of stepping down to part-time status or just simply becoming a stay at home mom and supplementing our income needs with freelance writing, even waitressing, or teaching yoga/group fitness classes. It’s a blow to my professional aspirations, I think. I’ve just spent SO much on schooling and to think that it will go to waste….but when it comes down to it, this would equal the same amount of leftover income for bills after daycare costs. This would also mean I could be at home with our newborn. So many thoughts going through my head this weekend…and this post made it clear that it’ll all come together. It has to, right?! I think of all the single moms out there that somehow manage and I count my blessings for having my husband (who also works in nonprofit, which you know what that means when it comes to both of our paychecks…lol!). It really is such a first-world problem in the whole scheme of things!
    Self-sacrificing my career for a whopping 12 months (at that point daycare costs will decrease once the babe isn’t so fragile) is nothing. Yes, I wish we lived closer to family – my mom would be ALL over helping out free of charge – but we just aren’t. So, we will make the best of what we have…in this very segment…of our lives. Thanks for a great post!

    1. Yes, it does have a way of all coming together, and I’m sure it will for you! What to do for childcare in those early days is a super hard decision. I had to go back to full time work right away (12 weeks) with my first, and I think it was way harder on me than it was on him! And you are right–if you decide to postpone the career for a year or even two–it will go so fast and when you return to your chosen profession, you might be surprised how little you missed and how it feels like you never left (in a good way, of course). 🙂

    2. Ginko, I think you’re making an awesome choice to stay home with your little one. Hear me now – I adopted both of mine when they 2yo and 4yo, and have been unsuccessful at creating one from my own body. I would give up years of my (successful, enjoyable, perfect) career and my (successful, enjoyable) running habit to be able to turn back the clock and have spent that first year with either/both of mine. You are awesome, and strong, and brave, and I think you are doing a perfect job of deciding to “live in your segment!” Go girl!!

  7. Thanks for voicing so accurately and eloquently the exact issues I struggle with on a daily basis. Great post (and I was totally into the Pikus-Pace story too)!

    1. Thanks! And as a physician, I’d guess you know full well just how limiting “life segments” can be (intern year, anyone?)! After witnessing the kind of hours my husband had to put in to survive 6 years of GME, I have a profound respect for the dedication and self-sacrifice it takes to be both a doc and a parent (not to mention an athlete too)!

  8. I absolutely love this post. So much truth and it spoke to me on a personal level. I think back to training for my first half marathon when my son was still aged by months instead of years and I still find it hard to believe I did it. Now the little man is 4 and as his level of autonomy increases, so do my goals. Now I’m at a whole new level of issues. He will want to play sports soon and I will have to learn to juggle (insert sport) practices and games with my workouts/races. Ginkgo is right when she says it’s a first-world problem, but it’s a problem none-the-less. Just last week after fending off his complaints for dragging him to the gym, I told my son that one day he will be grateful for having a fit parent. He promptly looked at me blankly and asked for a sucker. Yep. The joys of parenting. Do I think we can have it all? Of course. Nothing is more motivating than people who say I can’t. Basil is right when she says we just have to adjust our timing.

  9. I’m transitioning right now to motherhood. I’ve had issues in the past with wanting it “all” and it not balancing right. Work is work, and fortunately it is mostly 9-5 with a good amount of flexibility. I have done half marathons and a full marathon, and working out is a major focus of my personal time. But because I have a husband and a house to also contribute to (he is an AWESOME contributor to household work), I have to be careful to not let the athletic pursuits get in the way of my household work. This has happened in the past and been a major point of contention.
    Now I am about 8 weeks away from becoming a mom to twins! It’s exciting and scary. I don’t know how I’m going to take care of them and myself! So I related very much to this post and the sentiment that there are times in your life that you can’t run that marathon, but there will probably be a day where you can get back to it. At least, that’s my mental comfort to myself. I’m sure I’ll be struggling with this work/home/self balance for a while, but I also feel like the priorities will work themselves out.

  10. This post really resonates with me EXCEPT to the extent it implies we should wait for another segment of life to go after that big goal or attempt to reach our running dreams. Who knows if there will be a tomorrow or what that tomorrow will look like? Life is too short and too fragile to wait for another day.

    When my kids were really little, it was hard fitting in the time to train for marathons. But I did it because I loved it and it gave me a part of my identity that I treasured (and still do). Had I waited for a less hectic time in life, I’d still be waiting.

    I recently read in an article that the 40s are the “rush hour of life.” That is definitely an accurate description of the segment of life I am currently in. My kids are certainly no longer babies, but I feel like I have events, activities and commitments 24/7.

    So I say go for it. Grab life by the horns and throw away this notion of having it all. “All” differs from person to person anyway. If you are honest enough with yourself, your “all” will change over time too. Sometimes we are hell bent on BQs and PRs, other times running feels less important and takes a back seat to more important things (like having a baby or starting a new job). That is okay. Realizing and accepting that is what I think we often struggle with as women (and men). I say shoot for the moon if you really want something, prioritize well, and then roll with the punches when life doesn’t cooperate. 🙂

    1. “Had I waited for a less hectic time in life, I’d still be waiting.” Yeah–totally good perspective. I love the encouragement you give here to go for it and grab life by the horns. And yes, that “all” definitely changes with time and perspective. And for the record, your “track record” of marathons and HMs in the midst of a busy busy life is a huge inspiration to me! I thought of you in that early-wake-up for the treadmill reference. 😉

  11. I feel like this is the time of my life when I’ll have the most freedom to run. I have one child who is in preschool three times a week and due to visa issues, I can’t work, so I use those mornings to run. My husband supports this and I am so grateful. It’s paying off…I just got new PRs at the 10k and Half within two weeks. But I know that this won’t last forever and soon I won’t have the freedom to run this much, so I’m loving it as much as I can whilst I can!

    I love that Albright quote…such wisdom.

    And I echo everyone else…how lucky we are to live in a world where fitting in leisure is our biggest issue. I am so grateful.

    1. Cathryn, I’m in a similar spot right now. Not working right now, and really enjoying the freedom to get some workouts and runs in during the daylight! Having never had this sort of freedom before (and knowing it won’t be forever either), like you, I definitely am appreciating it while it lasts! (Oh and Pikus-Pace = Pike’s Place? Heheh. Too bad Starbucks doesn’t sponsor athletes, b/c that’d be a cute little match up.)

  12. And PS…. I spent all the skeleton watching laughing about how Pikus-Pace sounds like Pike Place and wondering if they laugh every time she goes into Starbucks. So puerile!!! And then obviously cheering on the British gold medallist 😉