Now I’m not saying having a kid is stressful, but pretty much as soon as I’d physically recovered from giving birth to my daughter, I felt an overwhelming urge to literally run for the hills.
I was living high on a hillside in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and going more than a little stir crazy with the dawning realisation that as a new mother I was basically expected to spend every waking and sleeping minute with my new born. As a freelance writer, I worked from home (still do!), and did so with my baby in a sling across my chest. If I went to the shops, I took the child with me in the same sling. If I went to meet friends, she came with me. My daughter was a real milk monster and would howl if she was separated from the boob for even a few minutes. The hills where I lived were cobbled, and so steep it was impossible to get a pram or stroller up them, so it was the sling all the way.
I’d always exercised in one form or another, and living in a neighborhood full of ridiculously steep hills and stairways had kept me pretty fit in the years before I became a mum. But with my access to the outdoors suddenly more limited, and this being before online fitness classes were widely available, I panic bought a Wii Fit (remember them?) and put myself through my paces whenever my daughter had a nap.
I’d dabbled in yoga before, but when I found a core class that absolutely kicked my ass (it was this one, and it’s still an ass kicker) I became absolutely hooked on vinyasa classes on doyogawithme.com. I still do classes on the site almost daily.
There’s no doubt that the yoga (and to a lesser extent, the Wii Fit) helped boost my mood, but I was still feeling claustrophobic. I hadn’t realised to what extent the society in which I was raising my daughter expected me to give up any semblance of a non-baby life. My daughter’s father (we’re not together any more, surprise surprise), who worked as security guard at the time, was unwilling to ‘babysit’ his daughter in order for me to have a few hours off with friends or just to go to the shops and get clothes that actually fit (hard to try anything on when you have a baby in a sling…). Because she cried whenever she was separated from the boob, the in-laws didn’t feel comfortable babysitting, so they’d help out with cooking and other things, but I’d still get no baby free time.
Then one Sunday morning I asked her dad if he could look after her for 20 minutes so I could go for a run. He told me it was dangerous, that I’d get mugged. I reasoned that I’d stick to main roads with plenty of people around. I’d even take the dog. I laced up some highly unsuitable trainers and set off in the baking tropical heat with my bouncy mongrel dog. I had no watch, no headphones, no anything that I felt would make me a target for muggers (I’d been relieved of my phone and wallet on more occasions than I care to remember).
It was hot and sticky and the hills were hellish, but finally I was getting some time to myself. I returned 20 minutes drenched in sweat but buzzing with adrenaline. Finally, I’d found a way to get some time and space to myself.
From then on, I started running most days, as long as my daughter’s father or grandparents were around to look after her. The very real threat of muggers meant it was sometimes genuinely scary, and I wouldn’t get too far off the beaten track, but it kicked that sense of claustrophobia into touch.
Fast forward 11 years, and running has kept me sane through becoming a single mother, moving from Brazil to Portugal, adapting to a new country where I knew nobody, and the many dramas that motherhood throws at us. I’ve run four full marathons and am addicted to trail running in the hills near where I live.
I work mainly as a travel writer, and whether I travel for work or pleasure, my daughter comes with me. That often means limited running, but while I would once have felt a little self-conscious at using hotel gyms, now it’s the first thing I ask about when I arrive – planning pre-breakfast gym sessions, or a little run around nearby if that’s an option. (When she was younger, on press visits to larger hotels I could sometimes make use of Kids’ Clubs while I used the gym). Other times I’d just find an online workout.
Now that my daughter is old enough to be left alone for a while, running has become easier, but when the pandemic hit, she was too young, at eight-years-old. We suddenly found ourselves totally isolated in successive lockdowns and school closures, and for seven months it was 24/7 solo childcare.
Once again, exercise saved us. When the British fitness instructor Joe Wicks announced he would be doing Hiit classes for kids every weekday at 9am, I was genuinely elated. It gave me something to focus the day around, and helped her burn off some lockdown energy. We’d do the half hour classes, then I’d do a workout on Fitness Blender, or with Millionaire Hoy. I was still doing yoga. I bought weights and fitness paraphernalia online at Decathlon. I signed up for 30-day online fitness challenges, yoga challenges, I even signed up for online dance classes with Steezy. I missed running, but at least I could burn off some of the crazy, and it definitely helped me keep everything in check during that most strange and stressful of times. Because I’d spent so much time running on the trails, I knew the best places to go for picnics with my daughter, without the risk of crowds of people all out getting their fresh air fix at the same time.
When, finally, restrictions were eased, the first thing I did was ask a friend to keep an eye on my daughter so I could go for a short run. As soon as I set off, running through hills with my music on, I actually cried tears of joy. That sense of relief at getting out by myself after months of being on mum duty round the clock.
And then I came back and my friend had poured large gin and tonics, which tasted all the sweeter enjoyed at sunset, in my running kit, with those endorphins swirling around.
I get it, running’s not for everyone. And being a single mother, especially on the road, can make it hard to get any kind of exercise in.
And let’s face it, the business of lugging small children and their luggage around is some pretty serious physical exercise. There’s no doubt it’s going to burn a hefty amount of calories, if that’s your aim. The one thing it doesn’t do, though, is provide that sense of ‘switching off’ from parenting mode and concentrating on yourself and your own goals – whether that’s training for a race, braving the gym, or completing a tough online workout.
The mental health benefits of exercise for mothers is well documented, and I honestly don’t know how I would have coped with the pressures of being a single mother without it. Running i my non-negotiable, but even when that’s not been possible, I’ve found ways to get my exercise fix in. I know I’d feel stressed and anxious, and be a really snappy and impatient mother, without it.