Motherhood and the construction of women's athletic talent

Is anyone else struck by the way that men and women in both the print and broadcast media describe women athletes who happen to have children as (to paraphrase) “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old mom!” in a tone that suggests they’re saying something like “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old two-packs-a-day smoker!” or “an Olympic athlete and a XX year-old liver transplant patient!”  Why does anyone think that motherhood necessarily erodes or competes with athletic talent?  Of course, not every mother physically gives birth to her children, but even for those who do, childbirth and its aftermath doesn’t necessarily alter the body in ways that would affect athletic performance.  (And, if a woman is an Olympic-level competitor before she has children, her level of fitness means that she would be among the likliest candidates to snap back from pregnancy and childbirth extremely quickly.)

NPR did it again this morning in reporting on the women’s marathon gold medal winner, Romania’s Constantina Tomescu-Dita.  The reporter declared “she’s a 38 year-old mom who made it look easy!”  And U.S. women’s swim team member Dara Torres is almost always described as a “mom”in any reporting on her comeback efforts.  (With both Tomescu-Dita and Torres, the reporters seem equally amazed at their “advanced” ages, too, which are history-making but–do we really think of 40 as enfeebled any more?  U. S. Olympic weightlifter Melanie Roach’s motherhood is also heavily featured in the reporting on her, although she is still a relatively dewy 33.  The fact that reporters and the media are making such a big deal out of female parenthood suggests that culturally we’re still very invested in the notion of women’s bodies’ weakness and delicacy compared to men’s bodies.  I haven’t heard any male athletes being described in breathless terms as “dads,” although my study of this subject is admittedly accidental and anecdotal.

Finally, what’s with the word “mom,” instead of “mother?”  This seems to be an appropriation of the expression “stay-at-home mom,” or “full-time mom,” which are almost never rendered as “stay-at-home mother” or “full-time mother.”  To me, it sounds grating, because “mom” is a name, not a job, and not a word that should be used with the indefinite article (as in “a mom.”)

0 thoughts on “Motherhood and the construction of women's athletic talent

  1. NLLDH and I were commenting on this last night (it was Dara Torres time, plus I think there was a whole segment about “athlete moms!”, though that might have been the local news). It kills me that they’re all breathless about “an athlete AND a mom!” and that they don’t say anything about “an athlete AND a dad!”, because apart from the women’s bodies = weak thing (which is creepy), it also reinforces the idea that child-rearing is entirely women’s work. I think this comes up partly because Torres is (I think) not married to her daughter’s dad, so she really is doing “all” the child-rearing (at least, whatever the dad doesn’t do regardless of marital status, and whatever other people don’t get paid to do – which is not a knock at Torres, but just a recognition that she’s probably not doing it “all” by herself, either). But it completely suggests that all the athletes in the games who are dads (and I know there are some!) don’t face any tensions between their sport and their parenting – ergo it must not be any work for men to raise kids! Great message to send budding male athletes, I gotta say.

    I’ve also been a little squicked out about how much attention the commentators give to who some of the female athletes are engaged/married to. I was thinking this when they spent half their interview with a track-and-field athlete who’d just qualified in her heat, discussing what her fiance thought (he’s a famous football player whose name I’ve of course forgot). Commenters do seem to mention when a male athlete is married/engaged to another athlete, so it’s not quite so one-sided, but it still creeps me out. Bridget Crawford at Feminist Law Profs recently wrote an interesting post about the sexualization of female athletes (riffing on a SI photo of Danica Patrick in a bikini), pointing out that there’s a huge fear of lesbianism behind it, and I think that’s behind the commentators’ obsession with female athletes’ marital status, too. (And, actually, with their mom-ness – because as far as I can tell, they’re all heterosexual moms.)


  2. Great point about the “gay panic” angle on making sure to portray them as happy l’il mommies whenever they can–I hadn’t considered it, but it makes complete sense.

    Maybe the LPGA should consider asking Huggies or Gerber to be a major sponsor for the tour next year?

    And, also great points about how portraying these athletes as moms serves to disguise all of the work that others are doing. All of our so-called amateur athletes are supported by large numbers of people–primarily coaches and their own parents, their spouses, etc. They even have nutritionists who cook specifically for them (some of them, anyway), so I’m sure that athletes who are parents have substantial child care support–women as well as the men. This just makes it even stranger that the mommy angle gets such huge play with the women, but I guess people can relate to celebrimommies better than they can to celebrity women super-athletes!


  3. This really just rephrases what has been said better above, but:

    + people are convinced mothers are out of shape, so it makes it more amazing if athletes are mothers

    + people believe a mother subordinates herself to her children, so athleticism really is just a part time hobby, which makes the female athlete appropriate again

    + if she wins gold medals with a part time hobby, it was without real effort, so she must be a genius, so that is really interesting … [It’s a big ideological thing, athletes and musicians who don’t practice, makes them even better and more fun, and also gets you off the hook for not practicing since it’s not practice that does it anyway. I am very familiar with this move because I speak five languages well and people do not want to believe it took work to learn to do that. They would MUCH rather mystify it all by saying I am a genius.]

    + there are many mothers, so this makes it possible for the average person to compare themself to this athlete and take an interest in her

    + it is less scary to men that she is that athletic if her “soft side” Mommy nature is emphasized

    + you have to say “a mom,” not a mother, because mothers are informal, domestic people who don’t deserve to be referred to by their full word

    …..You know, Latin America is so sexist that for women not to have children is considered downright freakish. The upside of that is that when they do, it at least *isn’t* considered freakish. It SEEMS to me that here women who have kids and do something else also, don’t have to put up with QUITE as much constant chatter of “AND she has kids…!” (although it does also happen here)…..


  4. Prof. Zero–great observations. I especially like your points about the use of the word “mom” versus “mother,” and how that cute-ifies and patronizes them further.

    I agree with you that the notion of a working woman athlete is more threatening than the notion of a working male athlete, just as working women are more threatening than working men. It’s OK, as you say, if they’re just talented and lucky hobbyists, but not so OK if they’re not in fact caring for their children all day long but are rather being cared for by nutritionists, trainers, and physical therapists while practicing their sport like a professional.


  5. As a twentieth century historian, just wanted to point out that the “gay panic” dates back to at least Babe Didrickson’s awesome athletic feats in the 1930s.

    Also, just wanted to add that discussions about Torres are as much about her “advanced” age (41) as they are about her being a “mom.” In some ways, doesn’t this help undercut ageism?


  6. Hi, KC–thanks for providing the longer historical background about women athletes and fears of lesbianism. (I myself was thinking a lot about the New Woman of the Progressive Era…)

    As for age and motherhood: I think among elite athletes, these things are really intertwined. Most elite athletes don’t have children when they’re in their 20s–because, of course, they’re actively competing in those years. (The 33-year old mother of 3 noted above is LDS, and that’s a church that actively encourages family formation by people in their late teens and early twenties.) So if competitive athletes (reasonably) wait until their 30s to have children, then by definition, most competitive athletes who are mothers are also older. I think this is an important point, and I’m glad you raised it–clearly, both motherhood and age are associated with bodily decay and erosion of athletic ability. I haven’t sorted through all of this–so I’m sorry if this doesn’t quite make sense. KC and other commenters–can you sort it out for me?


  7. In an article in the Times today about an obscure office within the U.S. Olympic establishement (“Coordinator of Managing Victory”–sounds like a Bush-era operation!?), Torres is described as being prepped for the inevitable media blitz. During a practice sound check she began counting down from ten, then “as if she knew the direction the interview was headed, she switched course… ‘Dara Torres,’ she said. ‘Swimmer. Old.'” So they are clearly oriented to the spin or conventional wisdom, whether they like it or not, choose to subvert it or not. I never know what to make of Roger Clemens being “old,” of Brett Favre being “old,” etc. As the old cliche has it, when the legs begin to go, your dead in an open-stack library system!


  8. “They seem to think I’m a strange unnatural being…”
    –Babe Didrikson, “I Blow My Own Horn” (1936)

    Some other historical women Olympians and anxieties about sexuality and bodies (just items I’ve collected, nice to have a place to put them together):

    ***1920 Olympics: US swimmer/diver Aileen Riggin and US diver Helen Wainwright were very young (Riggin was 14) and so tiny (Riggin was under 70 lbs) that they won an exemption from wearing the official “women’s” swimsuit. (Riggin took the gold in springboard diving that year, and more medals four years later in Paris.)

    ***Helen Herring Stephens (1918-1994) was a US track star at the 1936 (Berlin) Olympics, winning two gold medals. So, just a teenager at the time…and so muscular that _Look_ magazine printed a photo of her with the caption “Is this a Man or a Woman?” (She sued and won damages.)

    ***1992 Olympics (Barcelona): Algerian runner Hassiba Boulmerka wins the gold in the 1500m, the first gold ever for Algeria, any sport, male or female–but she was treated with spitting, jeers, and death threats on her return home, because she didn’t dress modestly enough while competing.

    ***”I only gave up cycling for the three months that the bump stopped me from squeezing behind the handle-bars.”
    –Beryl Burton, on bicycling while pregnant

    English bike racer Burton (1937-1996) would surely have dominated women’s cycling events in the Olympics–but those events weren’t added to the games until the 1980s. Instead she was the world record holder in various time trial events outside the Olympics, and a force in the sport for decades.


  9. I think they put so much emphasis on athletic motherhood, because so many people use motherhood as an excuse to become almost completely sedentary and out of shape. It is funny that our society accepts motherhood as an excuse for not taking care of one’s body because there are so many examples of mother’s who are older and in better shape than many 20-year-olds.


  10. Kaitlin, thanks for stopping by to comment. There are also a lot of men who are out of shape who are obviously not mothers, but these out of shape guys never affect the way that male athletes are portrayed! And yet, the stereotype of out-of-shape mothers is one that sports writers just can’t leave alone, despite the fact (as you point out) that there are lots of fit mothers out there.


  11. I know I am a latecomer to this – but it is just a thought –
    Your interpretation of the continual inclusion of mother and athlete with is entirely accurate and a consistent portrayal of a reality that is not complimentary.

    It could be a reflection of how mother-hood is often used by some to legitimate a lack of achievement, activity and such like post pregnancy – say an excuse.

    or even it could be an appreciation of the physical toll childbirth takes, how easy it is to take child-rearing and use it as an excuse to check out and not strive.

    it could even be an exhaltation to those who think that having children is the end of any ambition, athletic or otherwise that such thinking is not only self limiting but contradicted by reality!


  12. I am full of X chromosomes, so maybe my opinion doesn’t matter,I but here goes…

    I prefer the word “mother” to “mom”, as I consider it more proper and complimentary. Mothers raise children, moms drive minivans.

    That notwithstanding, I think it is alright to mention that someone is a mother, unless they prefer it to not be mentioned. Motherhood is an important role in life. I have great respect for good mothers. I had one as a child and I am married to one now.

    I think I understand how some women would see the “mom” thing as uncomplimentary. The physiology of it does suggest that the fact that the athlete gave birth is quite irrelavent. If the mother has young children, and is raising them, well the time and effort required to do that alone is overwhelming. To be able to do that and train as an athlete is astounding.

    Any woman with abs like that should be proud of them, mother or not!


  13. Pingback: Motherhood and the construction of women’s athletic talent, part II: U.S. Open edition : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  14. I can see both sides of this… You hate to define an athlete as anything other than an athlete. However, after my wife gave birth it took a lot of effort to get her body back in shape to compete and to compete at such a great standard is an honorable feat. As far as I’m concerned I would not care one bit if I was called a father before being called an athlete.

    If I had the great opportunity to bear my own children and overcame the obvious physical and mental impact that act had upon my body in order to become or remain a world-class athlete, I would highlight the fact that I was a mother. I guess in my world being a mother is much greater than being an Olympic athlete.

    As I mentioned, I can see the other side of this in that someone who worked so hard could be described or must be described as anything other than an athlete could be construed as diverting from the greatness of the person’s ability. I just choose to mention that I am a father every opportunity I get… It is what I want to define me, not if I could at one point in my life run, jump or swim faster than anyone else in the world.

    On the sexuality thing, every man I know that has a great body is more than willing to take off his shirt and most likely his pants. The difference is in the desires of those looking at the body. Many men get stimulated very easily and I can get stimulated by a beautiful lesbian mom as much as I can by a gorgeous college athlete, but not as much as when my wife gets out of the shower.

    I guess my overall point is that while it is sad that we have to define people by things other than their accomplishments, we must remember that being a mother is truly one of the most amazing accomplishments humanity has… because if we didn’t have that, you and I wouldn’t be here to chat about this.


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