Navigating mom guilt while maintaining your identity

Carving out time away from your children helps you show up as a better parent — and cyclist.

Photo: Sonya Looney

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Labels are one of the ways we identify ourselves to the world around us. Mom. Wife. Cyclist. Podcast host. Writer. Coach. Happy human. There are an endless number of ways to tell the world and ourselves who we are, but chances are if you’re a parent, the label of mom or dad probably comes first on that list. Being a parent is a huge and wonderful responsibility because your child or children depend on you 100 percent for their well-being, food, safety, and so much more. Sometimes the responsibility is a joy, while other times it can feel heavy and overwhelming. Maybe you have secretly thought, What about me? Maybe you still go out and do things you love but have a nagging itch inside; an itch that says, “You should be at home taking care of and spending time with your kid(s).” Mom (and dad) guilt is real for many people.

I’m a new mom and professional cyclist with an eight-month-old baby at home. I feel the unrelenting drive of my work ethic in everything I do, but I also feel the pull to be the best mom I can be. And sometimes the two pulls are like opposite poles of a magnet. I want to share some thought processes that have helped me navigate the throes of mom guilt as a new parent, and I also will be sharing thoughts about mom guilt from some other professional cyclist moms.

If you’ve traveled anywhere by plane, you’ve heard that you should secure your own oxygen mask first before helping others. Without oxygen, you can’t function to help others. Taking care of yourself is a worthy priority so that you can show up as your best. Personally, in order to show up as my best for my son, I know that I need to take care of the person that was me before becoming a mom. I prioritize my son, but I also make sure that I am still getting out the door to ride, for work, and even have social time. I do feel a niggle of guilt or conflicting feelings most days. But I know that when I come back from whatever I’m doing, I’ll usually be more present, fulfilled, and excited to be a mom.

The self-awareness of knowing what you need can be a powerful tool for mitigating mom guilt. Laura King, Rooted Vermont promoter and cycling ambassador, notes that she doesn’t struggle from mom guilt. She says, “I know that I desperately need my solo time to recharge and to be the most engaged and energetic mom to Hazel. I need it to connect with friends. I need the time to think creatively and prioritize. I also feel so much happier and complete when I get out. I miss my daughter and look forward to getting back to her, and that really solidifies every time how important it is for me to protect and advocate for that space.”

Managing mom guilt is an art and some days are easier than others. Being able to meet yourself with self-compassion on the hard days is helpful. Leadville 100 champion Larissa Connors reflects on her experience training with a baby, “When it was time to start structured training again, riding took on a new stress. Besides having power number goals that didn’t always get met, I felt selfish every time I went out the door, and was rushing the process before I even left the house. It felt like a dance to kit up, feed, ride, get home, and immediately feed again while starving for my own recovery food. It was easy to fall into the trap that being a good mom meant taking care of the baby’s needs before my own.” Whether it comes easy to you to get out the door or whether the guilt and struggles are a daily battle, you’re not alone.

Sonya holds her son while sitting on an indoor trainer in the garage
Photo: Sonya Looney

The balance of spending quality time with your little one and taking time for yourself is always in flux. Instead of trying to find perfect balance, I look for intentional imbalance; some days are intentionally focused on my goals and other days have a lot more time and focus on my son. My goal is to be present and spend a lot of quality time with my son, and I also want him to see that I have my own interests, passions, and a penchant for hard work and personal growth. I remind myself that I need make myself feel fulfilled as an individual so I can be a better human and mom. Leading by example has important value as a parent and throws a wet blanket on the mom guilt flame. I still worry that I’ll miss developmental leaps when I’m out riding my bike or that my son will be wondering where I am.

Rose Grant, a five-time Marathon Mountain Bike national champion, agrees with my sentiment saying, “Cycling has been an outlet for me to pursue my individuality and talents. As a mom, my whole world can easily revolve around my daughter, but having cycling helps to balance out some me time. I protect the space for training and racing, which has ultimately given me a healthier and more balanced approach to parenting. It has also taught my daughter that she will be ok when I’m not physically present, that she is still taken care of, and loved, and I will always come back for her.”

Personally, I’m not immune to the discomfort of mom guilt, but I remind myself that the right type of discomfort translates to growth. Many of us have learned to tolerate discomfort on the bike to get faster. A little bit of discomfort and accepting the pangs of mom guilt as part of the process, instead of pretending that it isn’t there, can help defuse an emotionally charged situation. Reminding oneself of the big picture and the process is key. Jenny Smith, a professional mountain biker and XTERRA athlete, applies lessons from racing to parenthood. Jenny says that “cycling has instilled the knowledge that I can do hard things and believe that there is a way where there is a will. This is empowering for parenting. I know through the sport that I am resilient and capable. Therefore, of course, I am a resilient and capable parent.” She also has improved at prioritizing her own activities and learned how to say no to set boundaries to overcome mom guilt. “I’m learning to be more thoughtful before taking on a project, commitment, or race. Because it’s often when I spread myself thin and the demands on my time and energy escalate, I feel the mom guilt the most.”

It’s normal to feel mom/parent guilt when you are taking time for yourself. Having perspective around time away from your children helps you show up as a better parent. It’s all about setting boundaries, accepting difficult emotions instead of burying them, and remembering that personal activities like cycling are important to maintain a multi-faceted identity.

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