In Motherhood and Running, Expectations Rarely Match Reality

When my son Lucas turned one late last year, I realized there was one major lesson I had learned: my expectations for motherhood rarely matched reality. My tense, planned, perfectionist personality was often at odds with the unpredictability of life with a child. Allowing myself a lot of flexibility and a little grace when things don’t go as planned has always been a lifelong challenge.

Before I was a mother, these all-or-nothing tendencies were present in my attitude toward running. A missed workout caused despair. If my training cycle fell short of perfection, I wouldn’t run the race. This behavior resulted in a string of DNS’s and eventually, a hatred of running.

As a result, I didn’t log much mileage prior to Lucas’s birth or during his first year of life. Exercise only exacerbated the severe morning sickness I felt for much of my pregnancy. Once he was born, my enthusiasm to run returned, but not necessarily the desire to train. My motivation mostly rested on fitting into the closet full of clothing I abandoned in the pursuit of motherhood.

The intensity I committed to running instead became focused on becoming the ideal mother. Lucas was the perfect child, but I constantly found myself to be lacking. I would fight sleep each night to go over all of the ways I had failed as a parent that day. I would wrestle with how to incorporate details from my former childless-life into this new identity. Any goals solely for myself were deemed selfish and did not fit into a life I had centered on my son. For the first months of my son’s life, I didn’t understand that the expectations I put on myself were making me miserable.

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During this time, I signed up for three half marathons, two of which I never bothered to train for. I blamed time management and adjusting to life with a child. But the truth was that I was too fragile to put my heart into another challenge that I could fail.

I had expected the first two races to go terribly. However the lack of time pressure resulted in two very enjoyable race experiences. I smiled, high-fived volunteers, ran faster than I thought I could, and realized just how much I missed having an outlet for myself. For my third half marathon, I decided to actually train. My husband and family pushed me to set a goal, my former coach agreed to write workouts, and my running buddies were waiting for me, as if I had never left.

In an effort to change my past ways, I tried to set realistic expectations for myself. There would be missed workouts or even missed weeks. Runs may not go as planned. Mileage would not be high. And indeed, all of that came true. But I didn’t dwell. With each setback, I moved on and tried again. With each little success, I allowed myself to feel proud. I tried my hardest not to play a comparison game with others, knowing nothing good could come of it. A newfound confidence emerged in both my running and my parenting. I wasn’t perfect, but I was much happier.

Because of my rediscovered love for running, I envisioned my third half marathon after pregnancy as a race in which I would enjoy every moment, crossing the finish line with a smile on my face. When it came to race day, though, this didn’t happen. An aggressive early pace did not pair well with a hot morning. My legs and spirit faded fast over the last three miles. I crossed the finish line 5 minutes faster than my previous race, but felt absolutely crushed. For some reason, the time on the clock didn’t matter because, in my mind, I had failed to execute my race perfectly.

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I know how silly that sounds. Just as silly as spending every night questioning my worth as a mother. But in running and parenting, we are our own harshest critics. In both pursuits, it isn’t easy to accept that we don’t have complete control, despite how much time and effort we put forth.

I’m a work in progress—as a runner, a mother, a person. I love being Lucas’s mom more than anything in the world. Running may not be my top priority, but now I look forward to it everyday. Despite the expectations I put on myself, the reality is that I can’t be the perfect mom or runner. I’m much happier being present in the moment—or mile—I’m in.

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