Maternal Mental Health for High Performers and Athletes
Maybe you’ve heard the story: in 2019, Olympic runner Alysia Montaño publicly called on Nike to provide better support for their sponsored female athletes who become pregnant. Athletes often rely on sponsorship to pay the bills, but many corporate sponsors, like Nike, won’t continue to pay out while a female athlete takes time off for pregnancy or maternity – a challenge male athletes, of course, do not face.
Montaño’s story inspired other prominent voices to speak out, and policies have, in fact, begun to change; Nike, for example, expanded its protections for pregnant athletes and have agreed to end reductions based on performance. They’ve even launched a line of maternity active wear.
But how do these same themes play out for women who aren’t working and competing at a commercial level? Who are high-performance individuals but cannot broker a public campaign to challenge the stressors and demands they experience during pregnancy and beyond?
And what are the effects of these stressors on maternal mental health in the long term?
The data tells the story
Statistics show that women experience a significant drop in earnings across industries and professions after the birth of their first child, all while men’s earnings continue to rise. Over their entire career, mothers can expect to earn 20 percent less than their male counterparts1, according to a Danish study.
This “childbearing penalty” is inequitably applied; society largely still expects women – and women only – to prioritize their role as a parent and spouse above all others. In reality, women don’t have to be the primary caregiver in the home to earn the badge of “good mom,” but this enduring myth can have a significant impact on women’s mental health – even while they’re already vulnerable to post-pregnancy anxiety disorders, postpartum depression and more.
For athletes especially, mental health after childbirth can contribute to physical recovery and performance ability – and therefore earning potential – down the road2.
A heavy mental load impacts maternal mental health
Traditional gender roles place pressure on women to be caregivers, generally assuming more of the responsibility for children and home life than men.
Even in 2020, women bear the brunt of the mental load at home, handling all of the details of home life and childcare, like an (unpaid) project manager.
What’s more, the 2017 Modern Family Index says that this mental load actually increases as a woman climbs the ladder of career success3 – ensuring that obligations and responsibilities continue their pile-on until they leave modern working mothers prone to exhaustion and burnout.
These expectations have given rise to a “have it all” culture, wherein women often feel enormous pressure to meet impossible standards of perfection, balancing motherhood, career, home life and even physical fitness flawlessly and with ease. The rise of the “influencer” world drives this idea home even further, showcasing carefully-curated and styled highlight reels of high-performance content creators who seem to be juggling it all just fine…
So it can be a shock when reality sets in, and motherhood doesn’t fit seamlessly into the picture for an otherwise high-performance woman, impacting her mental health. There may be a sense of shame or guilt over the struggle, even fear of others’ judgment if they happen to notice this lack of “perfection.”4
Taking time for themselves
When the obligations are many, it’s often our leisure habits and activities that are first on the chopping block. The all-too-common idea that pursuing your own interests as a mother is “selfish” often leads to women being less physically active in a leisure capacity, for example, than men.5
And when women do continue their athletic pursuits beyond motherhood, they often feel they need to justify their sport by relating the exercise back to being a good mother – the stress management that comes from exercise, they might say, is worth it because it makes them more patient with their children6.
Research says this isn’t the case everywhere, though; mothers in countries like Sweden have, in some ways, a different experience with maternal mental health; they feel less guilt over the time they choose to take for themselves,7 and when their partners are also afforded leave to care for new babies, women are 26 percent less likely to need anti-anxiety medication.8
So what can we do, as high-performance women and mothers, to manage our mental health and maintain our sense of self while we wait for the world to catch up with what we already know?
We can remember the vital role mothers play
People underestimate the superpowers of high-performance moms – and maybe you’ll just need to remind them how those finely-tuned motherhood skills can translate into your performance outside of the home:9
You are grounded and focused.
Being a caretaker of children who rely on you can shift your perspective and make you less likely to waste time with things that just don’t matter. As a mom, you have strong values that drive you both inside and outside your home life.
You’ve learned the art of time management.
Kids have demands – lots of demands. Parents learn to adjust, prioritize and ultimately cull the obligations and responsibilities that don’t serve an ultimate goal or purpose.
You understand the need for flexibility.
Kids’ needs change quickly, and as a mother, you’ve gotten used to being flexible to meet them – and to course-correct without ego or defensiveness when a first attempt doesn’t yield the desired result.
You’re a confident leader.
You understand just how much you can handle, and you aren’t afraid of a lesser challenge. (But you’ve also learned to lovingly and firmly say “no,” sometimes on repeat, and you’re unmoved by the tantrums that follow – making you a great team leader!)
You understand what commitment means.
…And you don’t enter into it lightly. You can assess a situation, whether calm or chaotic, and decide if the right parameters are in place to see success. Once you’ve jumped on board, you’ll use your strong leadership and course-correction skills to chart the best path forward.
We can seek help when we need it
There are countless ways to be a good mom, and plenty of them overlap with being a high-performing employee, executive or athlete.
But much like oxygen masks on an airplane, you need to take care of yourself before you can adequately meet other obligations – so take time for real self-care (beyond the Instagram reel), and consider regular therapy, if you aren’t already working with a therapist.
Finding a practice like Amplifying Wellness & Performance, with clinicians who understand how maternal mental health and high performance intersect, is a valuable first step in optimizing your parenting and career – leading to the healthy, happy family life you’re striving for.