The Kiddy Pool: Olympic Parenting

Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.

On the court, Kerri Walsh-Jennings is a fierce competitor with 2 Olympic gold medals and 4 World Championship medals (3 gold, 1 silver). Between her victory in 2008 in Beijing and her bid for another medal in London, Walsh-Jennings gave birth to two sons, Joey and Sundance. While I watched Walsh-Jennings tear up the sand this week, the announcers kept her story revolving around her children. Undoubtedly, being a mother is a huge part of this beach volleyball star’s life, as indicated by the images of her children in the stands (with their father) and quotes from Walsh-Jennings about how much she wanted to be a mother. She said she often brings her boys on tour with her, citing that she sleeps better when they are nearby and that she is fortunate for her sister to work as the boys’ nanny.

Meanwhile, Kenyan marathoner Edna Kiplagat — the 2011 World Champion at the distance — faded to place a disappointing 20th after hanging with the lead pack for the early part of the race. Like Walsh-Jennings, Kiplagat, too, is a mother. During her race, the announcers featured Kiplagat’s story of the life-transforming possibility of major marathon prize money for Kenyan athletes. Viewers were introduced to Kiplagat’s children, her two biological sons and two nephews adopted after her sister died from breast cancer. Kiplagat walked around the farm, purchased with her prize money, and emphasized that working the farm reminded her of the blessings of her career success and her ability to provide a better life for her children.

What strikes me about these two stories is not the women’s success or potential or ability to balance their athletic careers and their personal lives. What sticks out for me is that these two stories of very different mothers from very different places fit a pattern of Olympic storytelling where only mothers are emphasized. I’ve heard a number of other motherhood stories during these Olympics — e.g., U.S. marathoner Kara Goucher, Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi (who is 34 weeks pregnant) — but no one seems to ask the many fathers what it’s like for them to balance work and family. The underlying assumption seems to be that men sacrifice family for career success and women sacrifice career success for family. The responsibility of caring for children (or organizing their care) falls primarily to mothers, who are then expected to pursue their personal ambitions (even when they help the entire family) only insofar as it doesn’t detract from the children.

That cultural narrative is in no way limited to Olympic athletes; the U.S. census considers mothers as primary caregivers and defines the time when fathers are the main caregivers as “babysitting”. According to the Census Bureau, mothers are the “designated parents” who provide “work support” for fathers, regardless of how each individual family chooses to structure itself. This kind of storyline contributes to the culture of anxiety surrounding motherhood and absence surrounding fatherhood. Relegating fathers to second-class parenting citizenship dismisses the real parenting work that so many fathers do and lets other fathers off too easy from the responsibility for their offspring. It asks too much of mothers and too little of fathers, neglecting the balance that would most likely serve families best.

I imagine that Olympic fathers miss and love their children just as much as Olympic mothers do, and that Olympic mothers would sometimes like to not be asked about their families. Of course, pregnancy changes the dynamic of parenting for female athletes, but beyond that recovery, Walsh-Jennings and Kiplagat are regular working moms. It’s impossible not to make sacrifices as an Olympian or as a parent, but these narratives call to mind for me the importance of asking “What sacrifices, by whom, and for what purposes?” Such stories also prompt me to reflect on what message we send to children in a culture where motherhood is defined as all-consuming and fatherhood is defined as invisible. “Parent” is a verb, and it’s gender neutral, whether one is an Olympian or an ordinary mortal.

About Erin Wyble Newcomb

Erin Wyble Newcomb earned her Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Women's Studies from Penn State University. In addition to parenting her daughters, running marathons, and making things with glitter, she teaches in the English Department at SUNY New Paltz. Follow Erin on Twitter @ErinWyble or at http://phdmama.com/.

  • Wendy

    It’s very true that society views fatherhood as invisible. My baby is due next month, and whenever people ask if I’m going to go back to work after he is born (yes), they always ask who will take care of him during the day. Actually, they usually launch into a speech about childcare and what they think of it without briefly considering my husband as a possible caretaker (he will be taking care of the baby the majority of the time).

  • http://southbystyle.blogspot.com Lauren

    Great article. Really enjoyed it.

    As a working mom, I’ve thought about these issues pretty extensively. My husband plays a much bigger role in household chores and childcare than I would estimate most men play, but I continue to be the “primary parent.” Not through any fault of his, but because I want to be. Is this due to societal pressure? Maybe a little bit. Or is there something innate in women that consider parenting as primarily their job? Anne-Marie Slaughter said so in her recent article (which I thought was really brave).

    My point…maybe the focus on female Olympians as mothers is based on a very real and good difference between the way most men and women approach parenting. I don’t mean the mother who has no identity outside of her children or the father who has never changed a diaper.

    Just some thoughts. :)

  • Britt

    Thanks for this piece, Erin. And you do raise valid points here, as do the folks who have commented. It does seem like people automatically forget dads’ roles as caregivers and also their emotional attachment to their kids.

    I wonder, though, if the Olympics has some effect on that narrative. Those events primarily emphasize physical skill, grace, and prowess. Any person with even a dram of athletic ability amazes me.

    Though I don’t know from personal experience, pregnancy, childbirth, recovery, and child-rearing are very physical as well. So, I wonder if the focus on Olympians who are mothers–particularly those who have borne children–underscores the astounding nature of their bodies, training, commitment, and skill.

    The Olympian-mothers not only can run marathons and spike volleyballs; they can and have borne life in their bodies and returned to their playing fields in an elite arena, something Olympic dads simply cannot do.

    Just a thought.


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