“Playing for team motherhood”: Returning to team sport after childbirthDecember 15, 2021
“After each pregnancy, I wonder if I’m gonna be able to get back to where I was before. I want to be able to jump and hit the ball or catch the frisbee. I want to be able to perform the way I used to. I put this pressure on myself to be back where I was after my first kid, in the fittest shape of my life. Plus, society is made up to make you feel like that. It’s in the ads, the grocery store, everywhere! The pressure is insidious and has been piling up on women’s backs for years.”
Michelle, research participant
Motherhood and a decrease in physical activity participation often go hand in hand. Specifically, early motherhood is a time when women have some of their lowest rates of sport participation (Rhodes et al., 2014). This is a problem, because during the postnatal period (up to 1 year after giving birth) women are at high risk of drastic weight gain, postpartum depression, isolation and anxiety (Demissie et al., 2011).
While physical changes that affect sport participation are well-addressed, how postnatal women re-engage in sport is also affected by gendered expectations accompanying motherhood. These expectations include gender roles dictating how mothers “should” behave (Freysinger et al., 2013). Another expectation is intensive mothering, that is, the expectation that mothers must prioritize their child’s needs over their own (Trussell & Shaw, 2012). These expectations both decrease mothers’ physical activity levels and also weaken their emotional and physical well-being (Henderson et al., 2016).
Research has looked at how mothers combat these expectations while rejoining sport postnatally. But research has rarely examined team sport’s role. Team sport can reduce negative effects that accompany the postpartum period, while helping increase physical activity levels, socialization and identity affirmation (Batey & Owton, 2014). Team sport can also help postnatal women feel like they’re part of a community and are empowered to resist the gendered expectations of motherhood.
My master’s thesis examined how gendered expectations of motherhood affected postnatal women as they re-engaged in community team sport. I interviewed 6 mothers, 3 times over a period of 3 months. Through these interviews, I learned about the challenges that new moms face when returning to sport, how social support and relationships help moms in their return to sport, and how moms felt empowered when they played sports. This blog aims to help sport leaders empathize with postnatal women’s experiences, inspiring the creation of more inclusive sporting spaces.
Confronting the challenges of returning to team sport
The postnatal women I interviewed each navigated physical and emotional difficulties when going back to team sport. They modified their playing style and frequency, stayed late in locker rooms to socialize, or strategized about how to pump breast milk to play comfortably. Another major challenge was feeling like they needed to be a “good mom” to access team sport. Most participants felt they needed to either cook dinner, prepare children for bedtime, or organize childcare so they could go play their sport. In the words of a mom:
“Getting to hockey on Sundays can be tough, especially when I’m home with my kid. I feel like I have to sacrifice time with him.”
Finding support and inspiration in friends, family and other moms
For the postnatal women I interviewed, relationships and social connections were critical in helping them return to team sport. Strong social support systems helped these women return to sport, as the women relied on partners, family, friends, neighbours and teammates for childcare. A sense of community and meaningful relationships with teammates were also key in facilitating the participants’ return. Role models of mothers who played on the team also helped participants feel like they could return to team sport as mothers. A new mother summed this up well:
“Being younger in an all-women’s league has shown me that you can play hockey and be a mom. It wasn’t ever in my mind that I couldn’t do both. Seeing others do it helped relieve some of the pressures of motherhood.”
Feeling empowered through team sport participation
Reinforcement, resistance and empowerment played important roles in participants’ return to sport. All of the postnatal women I interviewed resisted gendered expectations of motherhood by returning to team sport and taking time for themselves. Their return to sport goes against the gendered expectation that “good mothers” always put their child’s needs before their own without taking time for themselves (Hays, 1996). Likewise, some participants resisted being like “other moms,” which led to the judgement of other women. In judging them for their parenting style, the resistant moms reinforced gendered expectations of how women “should” behave.
But despite the pressures that come with navigating gendered roles and expectations, the new moms I spoke to did also feel empowered and proud when they succeeded and heard their teammates cheer for them. As a participant described:
“You feel like you’ve succeeded in something that is for yourself, that has nothing to do with your kids.”
Supporting postnatal women in sport
These findings illustrate the complexities of returning to team sport postnatally. Postnatal women felt empowered in their return to sport. But to access team sport, the women had to come up with complex strategies for childcare or breast pumping. They actively resisted gendered expectations of motherhood through their participation in team sport. But at the same time, participants reinforced gendered expectations of mothering to access team sport.
Considering these complexities, here are some tips for sport programmers and policymakers to consider when working toward inclusive sport spaces for postnatal women:
- Create social spaces (online or in person), which foster a sense of community for postnatal women with teammates and other athlete mothers
- Provide access to childcare during leagues or tournaments
- Provide private, comfortable and clean spaces for breastfeeding or pumping
- Include time in the schedule for women to pump or feed before, between or after games
- Conduct needs assessments with postnatal women to best accommodate their schedules
- Ensure that postnatal women have equitable access to facilities
- Promote marketing initiatives that are inclusive of postnatal women participating in team sport
Team sport has several benefits for postnatal women, but traditional sport schedules, structures and spaces can create barriers to their participation. As a policymaker, practitioner or program leader, consult with mothers and be creative to ensure inclusive and equitable team sport spaces for new moms in sport.
About the Author(s)
Talia Ritondo, M.A., is a recent master’s graduate from Brock University in Leisure Studies. Her research focuses on postnatal, physically active leisure and sport participation through a critical feminist lens. She is also Brock’s Gender and Sexual Violence Education Coordinator, which allows her to work closely with sport teams on campus to promote gender equity and inclusion in sport. Talia is a competitive volleyball player, who also enjoys weightlifting, baking, video games and board games.
Batey, J., & Owton, H. (2014). Team mums: Team sport experiences of athletic mothers. Women in Sport and Physical Activity Journal, 22(1), 30–36. https://doi.org/10.1123/wspaj.2014-0010
Demissie, Z., Siega-Riz, A. M., Evenson, K. R., Herring, A. H., Dole, N., & Gaynes, B. N. (2011). Associations between physical activity and postpartum depressive symptoms. Journal of Women’s Health, 20(7), 1025–1034. https://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2010.2091
Freysinger, V. J., Shaw, S. M., Henderson, K. A., & Bialeschki, M. D. (2013). Introduction: Constructing a framework. In V. J. Freysinger, S. M. Shaw, K. A. Henderson, & M. D. Bialeschki (Eds.), Leisure, women, and gender (pp. 3–20). Venture.
Hays, S. (1996). The cultural contradictions of motherhood. Yale Univeristy Press.
Henderson, A., Harmon, S., & Newman, H. (2016). The price mothers pay, even when they are not buying it: Mental health consequences of idealized motherhood. Sex Roles, 74(11–12), 512–526. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11199-015-0534-5
Rhodes, R. E., Blanchard, C. M., Benoit, C., Levy-Milne, R., Naylor, P. J., Symons Downs, D., & Warburton, D. E. R. (2014). Physical activity and sedentary behavior across 12 months in cohort samples of couples without children, expecting their first child, and expecting their second child. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 37(3), 533–542. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10865-013-9508-7
Trussell, D. E., & Shaw, S. M. (2012). Organized youth sport and parenting in public and private spaces. Leisure Sciences, 34(5), 377–394. https://doi.org/10.1080/01490400.2012.714699
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