Every week in The Kiddy Pool, Erin Newcomb confronts one of many issues that parents must deal with related to popular culture.
Last weekend, I ran my 19th marathon, my 2nd since having children. Before I became a mother, I heard a lot of comparisons of childbirth to running a marathon, but while both can be grueling endurance events, the analogy doesn’t quite work for me. I chose a convenient date for my marathon, followed a training plan, and reviewed the course map before getting to the starting line. I knew where there would be aid stations and mile markers. I expected at least a few fans, along with a shirt and a medal just for finishing amidst thousands of others.
There’s a big part of me that will always prefer the marathon to my experiences of labor simply because, as these examples demonstrate, even a race this long is somewhat predictable. It gives me at least the illusion of being in control, and should I fall apart, I get to choose to stop. There can be some level of preparation for labor, yet it often epitomizes the much longer experience of parenting itself, where the best advice might be to expect the unexpected.
For my 1st marathon, more than a decade ago, I didn’t know what to expect. I stood in a queue somewhere near the starting line (though it took me a couple of minutes to actually cross it) and I realized that for the first time in my running career, I knew I was out of my depth. I didn’t feel certain that I could at least finish the race in my own strength; the marathon distance itself served as my adversary, and the pain and struggles I experienced in that and subsequent races always felt like a private battle, an internal reckoning of my relative strengths and weaknesses.
In every marathon, there comes a critical moment, a decision point, where I need to suppress the panic rising within me, muster my courage, and focus on putting one foot in front of the other, proceeding in the general direction of the finish line. It’s my moment of submission and a transcendent experience of grace, where my physical limitations in that instance embody my permanent spiritual condition. I cast myself upon the mercy of God.
I felt it at mile 17, a bad sign that I failed to make it to mile 20; I knew my training hadn’t gone particularly well in the last couple of months, despite a promising start. The demands of two small children and work and life itself conspired against me, but I also felt tremendously lucky to get the time to train and race. From this side of motherhood, simply running feels like activism and luxury, something selfish that I do to maintain my sanity and model health for my girls. I used to race because I had something to prove, but now I race because I love the feeling of being alone in the crowd. I can persevere and endure and practice my patience in a teeming pack of humans who make those virtues worth pursuing.
And while I applied those lessons (still largely in progress) to my childbearing labors, I feel them more acutely in my daily life as a parent. There’s no map, no set aid stations, few (if any) fans, no commemorative medal and shirt. I’ve got a couple of little humans whom I’m trying to teach perseverance and endurance and patience, and a whole lot besides, by modeling those attributes in my relationships with them. And more than once, I’ve come as a mother to that decision point, the critical moment in a day or an issue, where I know my own strength is insufficient. Here is a race I cannot run on my own. By contrast, the literal marathon feels easy and predictable in comparison to the metaphorical ultra-marathon of parenting. In both cases, I feel a sheltering wing embrace me as I proceed, step by slow step, to the next mile marker, the next signpost of grace.