How CrossFit Made Me a Saner Parent
Before the CrossFit haters sharpen their knives, let me just preface this piece by saying that neither burpees nor deadlifts have helped me to become a better parent. I’m a mother, not a meathead, so in order to understand how CrossFit has helped me, you’re going to have to trust that I’m not proselytizing right now.
When I got divorced in 2009, my daughters were two and six years old. When the girls would leave my house to spend time with their father, I felt like someone had ripped my heart out of my chest. The house was too empty, my thoughts were too loud, and the loneliness was intolerable. Rather than crying, I sweat out my tears. Running races gave me a fleeting sense of accomplishment and control during a time when much of my life was unraveling. Over the course of several years, my life became more “normal” and I found comfort in my routine of parenting, working and running.
My routine was disrupted in 2014 when my then eleven-year-old daughter left to attend a seven-week sleep-away camp in Maine. When she left, I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest all over again. I obsessively checked the mailbox to look for her letters. She sent me only two postcards during the first five weeks of camp. I became convinced that she must be so homesick that she could not bring herself to write letters to me. I fantasized that she wanted me to fly up to Maine and rescue her but that she was too ashamed to ask. Frantic calls to the camp directors were returned with placating stories of how my daughter was doing fine.
When I went to visit her at the end of the fifth week of camp, I was so excited. I couldn’t wait to see her. What I found when I saw her, however, shook me to my core.
In my imagination, seeing her would be just like it had been when I had picked her up from daycare when she was two years old. She would see me, immediately drop what she was doing, shout “Mama!” and run over to me with her arms wide open. I would pick her up, swing her around, and carry her home with me. When I arrived at camp, however, I wasn’t greeted by a toddler that had missed her mother. I was greeted by a happy, smiling eleven-year-old girl who looked like she had been having the time of her life without me.
I gave her a big hug and said, “Only two postcards in five weeks? You devil child!” I laughed and she laughed, and then the strangest thing happened. I started to cry. No, to be totally honest, I started to sob. I had spent the last five weeks in the fetal position, sickened by her absence and here she was grinning and laughing with her friends. I felt demoted from the all-important Mama to”nice lady who is bringing me my favorite snacks.” My daughter laughed at my tears, and said, “Mom, you never cry. What are you doing?”
Over the course of the camp visit, my tears stopped and I was able to reflect on the bittersweet fact that my baby was growing up. I felt happy for her and proud of her ability to stand on her own two feet. I also felt the same selfish pangs of loneliness that I’d felt when my daughters had spent time with their father during the early phase of our divorce. It dawned on me that this was only the beginning of many separations to come. It also dawned on me that I was becoming one of those mothers that guilt their children when they attempt to leave the nest. I realized that if I didn’t strengthen my own personal life that my children would suffer.
Shortly after I returned home, I resumed my routine of running the Kelly Drive loop by myself. But somehow it felt all wrong. I realized that spending my exercise time alone was doing me (and my kids) a vast disservice. I began to see that I needed to make a change in my life so that I could be a happier person, and a happier parent to my kids as they begin to spread their wings and leave the nest.
As I was brainstorming about how to make myself happier, I stumbled upon an article in The New York Times titled “CrossFit Flirting: Talk Burpee to Me.” In this article the author described CrossFit as a great place to meet people (platonic and romantic).
Being social is in CrossFit’s DNA. Classes begin with introductions and sometimes include goofy icebreaker questions and exercises that require partners. In timed workouts, of which there are many, an unwritten rule is that those who have finished encourage those who are still sweating.
I read the article and thought, Ugh. I should join CrossFit. I dreaded being the newbie in a tight-knit group. I dreaded throwing myself burpee-style onto a dirty rubber floor. And I dreaded admitting that I had been wrong by clinging to my long-distance running for so many years. But because I knew that I needed to make a change, I became a member of CrossFit.
Joining CrossFit was one of the best decisions that I made in 2014. CrossFit, in many ways, is a coed fraternity. There’s a strong sense of community and a fierce sense of support among its members. Over the past six months, I have met so many funny, warm and welcoming people — people who have the capacity to motivate me to get in my car at 5:40 a.m and laugh out loud at 6.
By strengthening my social network, I have become less dependent on my children for my own happiness. Would I rather put both of my daughters in a pickle jar and freeze time? Absolutely, yes. But I’m learning that they need me to be happy and strong in order for them to feel permitted to venture out into the world.
I’m not saying that I won’t shed a tear when my daughter leaves for camp this summer. I’ll still miss her like crazy. But I think I’ll be steadier on my feet while she’s away. Parenthood is funny. We spend so much time worrying about our kids finding their tribe, when we really we should be focused on finding a tribe of our own.
Lauren Napolitano, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist on staff at Bryn Mawr Hospital and in private practice in Bryn Mawr, PA. To learn more about her practice, go here. And to read more of Lauren’s posts for Be Well Philly, head over here.