My health fell apart in 2020. It was a challenging year for all the familiar reasons; it was also the year I had my first baby.
Certainly the shrill political climate, state-mandated isolation, and media-fueled race riots didn’t make pregnancy any easier. Add to that a difficult birth and the prolonged sleeplessness of having a colicky kid, and I was in for a grim postpartum fall.
Where had my spark of life gone? How could I recapture it? It struck me that if I was going to thrive in this new vocation, I needed to view motherhood, in some part, as a skill set.
I was so overwhelmed and exhausted that I felt as if I were drowning, swept away by a current I had no will to fight. Or better yet, I was like that cartoon dog in the popular meme, sipping coffee in a haze as the flames rose around me: “This is fine.”
This was also motherhood, apparently. I knew some women found it grueling enough to stop at one or two, but I had more ambitious plans for my fertility, plans that clearly required more mential and physical resources than I currently possessed. So to the mirror I slouched for that proverbial long look.
There I saw a troublingly complacent mediocrity. My days lacked structure. My choices lacked discipline. Less than a decade before, I had been an elite athlete, taking pride in my abiility to perform at a consistently high level. How had I let myself get so soft?
I loved my child and my family, but I’d forgotten what it meant to be excellent. Where had my spark of life gone? How could I recapture it? It struck me that if I was going to thrive in this new vocation, I needed to view motherhood, in some part, as a skill set.
It is of course more than that, but on the practical level, home economics comes down to habit. I realized that I needed to cultivate the same level of discipline and dedication that I once did for the sake of athletic pursuit. So I racked my brain to remember the principles that had served me so well in the past.
Retraining my brain to operate like an athlete’s made me a better mom. Here’s what worked for me.
Begin at your level
The first principle of learning a new skill is to accept failing at it. Practice means doing something badly, then less badly, then less badly still, over and over again. Having the humility to suffer through these first repetitions is what leads to competence and, ultimately, mastery.
Like many of us, I’d learned disdain for homemaking, seeing it as a collection of mindless chores. In reality, running a household requires scrupulous time management and organization, among other acquirable skills. Understanding this allowed me to take responsibility for — and satisfaction from — learning to do it well.
Find a coach
There would be no Mikhail Baryshnikov without Alexander Pushkin. Every true master of a craft is the product of tradition.
As a mom, this means seeking wisdom from friends, elders, and yes, the occasional YouTube mommy vlogger. Leila Lawler, mother and grandmother of many, took years to compile a series of advice on keeping an orderly and spiritually well-centered home in her “Summa Domestica.” I also recommend Fly Lady Method for cleaning and Ina Garten for cooking and entertaining.
Athletes have to train. This means missing out on the some of the fun enjoyed by your non-athlete peers. Did skipping all of those pool parties give me FOMO? Sure, but it also taught me to accept early on that a life lived in pursuit of a particular excellence will necessarily set you apart. I also discovered how rewarding friendships with travelers on the same narrow path can be.
Too often our culture trains us to think of motherhood as deprivation — of freedom, of identity, of time. Far better to understand it as a vocation, requiring sacrifice but also offering rich rewards.
We shouldn’t confuse healthy skepticism with resentment of excellence. Some moms may indeed have leveled up.
It isn’t uncommon for wide receivers to practice ballet in order to perfect their jumping skills. Implementing the right kind of exercise can complement an athlete’s main focus, as well as prevent injury and increase neuroplasticity.
As a mom, I believe it is important 1) to get regular exercise and 2) to maintain outside hobbies or interests. These may seem unwelcome additions to an already overstuffed life, but time and energy tend to compound when you invest a little in yourself. Find something that strengthens your body and feeds your spirit. For me it’s lifting weights and reading Jane Austen.
Strive for continuous improvement
Something I’ve noticed in every high-level athlete I’ve ever known: They never rest on their laurels. The best people in the room always believe they could be a little bit better.
Should we think of motherhood as a competition? No, not if that means obsessively comparing ourselves to every well-staffed, trust-funded homesteading influencer. But we shouldn’t confuse healthy skepticism with resentment of excellence. Some moms may indeed have leveled up. While the reflex to dismiss their posts as showing off is understandable, we shouldn’t be too quick to throw out the baby with the bathwater (we can all agree that would be lackluster parenting).
There could be something worth attaining amidst all the performative unattainability. Perfection is a moving goalpost, but that’s a good thing. Stay the course. Trust the plan. Motherhood, like anything else worth doing, will never stop surprising you with how much more there is to know.