Sometime in the hazy overnight hours of my son’s first weeks of life, I decided to become a runner. I place the blame squarely on postpartum hormones that conjured up the words “role model” and sent me into a life-changing panic. I chose running because I bought into the dominant narrative of fitness that includes running as an Acceptable Aerobic Activity for Ladies. But that’s a post for another day.
Prior to this moment, my fitness experiences were limited to a few years trying to make a roller derby team, a handful of fitness videos, paying for gym memberships that I didn’t use, and a brief stint with a boot camp program. In other words, if I wanted to commit to lasting change in order to model a fit life for my son, I had to start from scratch. I Googled “exercise after pregnancy” and “fitness tips for new parents.” Advice ranged from “hire a personal trainer” to “take advantage of post-partum exercise videos.” One article suggested that I could walk up and down the stairs during “those precious 20-minute nap times.” Other articles suggested exercising with my baby by taking him out for a walk around the neighborhood or following along one of many “mommy and me” workout tutorials available on YouTube.
In the beginning, I considered this sound counsel and happily packed up the stroller for our daily walk around the neighborhood. I made a habit of wearing him in a sling while I did my powerwalking video to lull him into an afternoon nap. I congratulated myself for such efficient multitasking. When I was ready, I borrowed a jogging stroller and added running intervals to our walks. I joined a gym with complimentary childcare so I could add strength training to my routine. When I learned about a beginner’s running program sponsored by my local running club, I had to make sure my husband was free to mind the baby before I signed up. It was during one of my first training runs that I realized how privileged I was to have this time to myself, and that time alone to exercise should not be a privilege.
It is well documented that women bear an unfair burden when it comes to childcare responsibilities, and I definitely felt the pressure. None of the articles I read about exercise and new moms included advice like “find out if your gym offers childcare” or “schedule time to exercise when a family member or friend is available to care for your baby.” Consider the answer to the question “What are some ways to start exercising?” from the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology: “When you are ready to start exercising, walking is a great way to get back in shape. Walking outside has an added bonus because you can push your baby in a stroller.” As pragmatic and useful as this advice might be, it assumes that mom is already caring for the baby, and that incorporating an infant into your (perhaps new) exercise routine is a desirable default.*
In some cases, including mine, taking a stroll with the baby in those first weeks can offer additional benefits (like battling boredom) and is likely less effort than finding a babysitter to take a walk. But as my son grew, it became more difficult to include him in my workout plans even though I was still responsible for coming up with a solution and making concessions. I felt frustrated with the few options I had. Do I take him with me on a training run even though it will slow me down? Should I try to organize a childcare co-op with other running moms? Which is worse—the logistical nightmare of taking a squirmy toddler to an early morning race, or the guilt of depriving him of time with me, the fresh spring morning air, and a chance to see a squirrel? Childcare became an issue of putting aside what I needed from a workout (focus, adult conversation, and/or SILENCE) or dealing with additional pressure rather than a choice between equitable solutions.
Certainly, modeling an active lifestyle by bringing my son to exercise events when I can has its benefits, but despite my best intentions, not all gyms have childcare, not all races are stroller-friendly, and weekday evening group training runs always conflict with bedtime. My son is now an active preschooler, which makes it more difficult to include him in my fitness plans. In part, this difficulty comes from his limited attention span and desire to do anything other than sit in the stroller for an hour. Still, it warms my heart when he gets excited about a kids’ fun run, or says he wants to “look for our running friends” when we drive near our familiar park trail route. It seems that my efforts have yielded some positive outcomes for his perception of how exercise contributes to our quality of life, but I wish the decisions on when and how to include him were easier to make.
There are no easy solutions given the wide range of variables that make exercise and childcare a complex personal issue, but I think that it is important to acknowledge that childcare can be a legitimate (and often unfairly gendered) access barrier in our fitness communities. Parents who want to incorporate exercise into their lives can benefit from being supported by having fair choices about if, how, and when to make fitness a family affair.
*The “walk outside” advice also makes a lot of other assumptions like, 1) you have a stroller, sling, etc., 2) you have access to a safe outdoor space with sidewalks or paved paths, 3) you are able to walk when another activity would be more suitable for your health needs, and 4) etc etc etc. There are many more intersectional access issues to consider when talking about childcare and exercise.
Kate Browne is less than 200 days away from defending her dissertation on Foucauldian notions of subjectivity in weight loss memoir. She runs slow, lifts heavy, and owns a tri singlet. You can find Kate at her online fitness home Ramp and Stair Exercise Club.