When Sunshine was less than a year old, a coworker stopped me in the hallway to comment on how quickly I had lost weight.
“I cannot believe how good you look for having an infant. I never looked that good again after having kids. But look at you!”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve been running again.”
She said, and I will never forget this comment, “I just don’t see how you can do it. You’re away from her all day. Don’t you think you should be spending that time with her instead?”
She had taken off from work when her children were little, she said. You cannot get that time back with them, she said. Maybe you should reconsider, she said. You have your whole life to get fit again, she said.
But for me, running is not just about fitness.
I was never fit growing up. I was the pudgy one of my parents’ older children. I was not athletic. I wore the same sizes as my older sister until we hit puberty, and then, I was a size or two larger. I did not enjoy sweating or being outside or sunshine. I was a homebody through and through. In undergrad, I put on the freshman twenty-five without any issues. I loved food and sitting around watching reruns while I drank a Coke and ate salt and vinegar potato chips or graham crackers smothered in gobs of creamy Jif.
There was no shame in my emotional eating game.
I did not become active until sophomore year. I had a horrendous roommate, and the rec center on campus gave me somewhere to go. I worked out and discovered cottage cheese and egg white omelets and portion control.
Saint Daddy and I did not see each other for six weeks that spring because of how our spring breaks lined up and he did not have a car and I could not drive. He called me one afternoon, wanting to see my new room after I had finally convinced res life to let me move out of that situation, and when he walked into my room with a cherry gelati from Rita’s in his hand and his roommate trailing behind him, he thought I had given up eating altogether.
I did not. I was eating well and working out. Food was still delicious, but it was more fresh fruit than processed carbs.
My fitness level fluctuated a lot over the next few years.
I took up running about a year after Saint Daddy and I got married. My doctor prescribed me an antidepressant and told me that I should limit my caffeine intake and take up exercise and see if the combination of the three helped curtail my daily panic attacks. He said, “The trick with exercise is to find something that works for you. That something is not what works for everyone. But you have to find your thing and love it. Then it’ll become part of your life.”
One day, I had off from work and Saint Daddy did not. I put on my sneakers, a pair of New Balance that my dad had gotten me during a BOGO event four years before that day, and walked to the park near our home. I ran two laps on the path around the park, and I went home.
Two days later, I did it again. But I did it faster. Without even trying. I thought, “I wonder how fast I could do that…” Two days later, I did it as fast as I could. I impressed myself. I did not know how far I had run, but I knew I had run.
Shortly thereafter, I looked up a Couch to 5K program, and set out to impress myself some more.
I did give up caffeine. I have been caffeine free since 2010, no easy feat for a full-time working mom with multiples. If I have more caffeine than the amount in a small cup of decaf coffee, I suffer from heart palpitations, chest pains, and nausea. Another doctor said it is an intolerance. Sometimes, I call it an allergy because people understand that term better.
And I ran.
I have been running since 2010. I am pretty good at it. I cannot run very fast. I cannot run very far. But I run with heart. That is what makes me good at it. I am a runner. The kind of runner that gets irritated by the term “jogger.” I have been properly fitted. I have opinions on running brands. I actually use the treadmill in my basement. I rarely miss a run.
When Sunshine was born in 2013, I went back to running.
It was not only to get my body back. It was to get myself back.
When I run, my only competition is the person I thought I was. The person I thought I was did not run at all or could only run for a quarter of a mile at a time or could not run better than a twelve minute mile or did not have the endurance for a 5K. She certainly could not run a half marathon.
But I am not the person that I thought I was.
And running has helped my mental health immensely. Because I am constantly beating that person that I thought I was, I know that I am strong and capable.
Is it perfect? No. I run three times a week. I used to run four times a week. But I still have panic attacks. I still wake up in the middle of the night with racing thoughts. We still sit on the aisle at the theater. I still hate driving. Running does not cure my anxiety.
But it helps me to remember that I am the one in control of it.
I often think about that conversation with my former coworker. I have since switched jobs. I have moved on. I will likely never see her again. We are not friends on any social media platforms.
But I think of her. I think of what she represents.
This is my love letter mommas everywhere.
Find your thing.
Run or dance or draw or take bubble baths or go out for a drink with your friends.
Find your thing that helps you feel like a person. Find your thing that allows you to feel strong and capable and brilliant. Find your thing that helps you to see the good in yourself and in the world.
No one asks Saint Daddy how he can stand to be away from our children for an hour or two each week so that he can go to the gym. No one wonders how he manages to stay in shape or read or write or tutor or sleep or eat.
Mommas of the world are not required to explain to anyone why they need time for themselves.
That coworker was right. Sunshine was only a baby for a little bit. She is very much a kid now. But giving up my thirty minutes of sanity three times a week was not going to slow down that time. It was also not going to make me a better mother.
I believed then, and I believe now, that I am a better mother because I know what my thing is. I am more present when I am with my children than I would be otherwise. I feel happier because I have taken care of me. Running is how I take care of me.
Never let naysayers tell you that you should not have something for yourself just because you have babies. You do not deserve that guilt or that anxiety.
And for me, comments like that do fuel my anxiety. Now, I can look back and see that giant grain of salt. But in the moment, with my infant at home and me missing her dreadfully all day, I allowed that thought to consume me. It was unfair of her to make something simple into something so sinister. Saint Daddy understood. I understood. Sunshine was thriving. That was all that mattered.
And, mommas and daddies, taking that time for you does not make you any less of a loving parent. If anything, it makes you that much more capable of being exactly what your children need.
Have you found your thing?