Culture

The “M” Word

Not long ago a friend suggested I put the word “mother” in front of “runner” on my professional website. “You’d really connect with a lot of moms out there,” she said.

 It’s true, of course. I am a mother and a runner, but I believe that both are worthy of merit on their own and that neither word needs modification from the other. 

Why do we feel compelled to identify women first as mothers? When we lead with our reproductive status, does it legitimize our success in other areas, or diminish it? Does it honor our work as mothers or demean those who, by choice or circumstance, aren’t? When I edit “mother” out of my bio or move it down in a long line of nouns, am I denying a part of myself or, worse, my own daughters? 

After I won a major ultra-marathon, in 2018, I naively thought I wouldn’t need the other descriptors. Surely now that I’d posted one of the fastest women’s time in Leadville 100 history, my running would stand for itself. Just as I thought that after I published my first book, in 2019, my writing would, too. I thought I could be a runner without being called a mother in the same breath. I thought Running Home could be a memoir of fathers and daughters, love and loss and yes, a little running, without being categorized as a running book. 

I thought wrong. 

We live in a world obsessed with labels, and at 46, I seemed to defy them all. Was I an up-and-comer or a late-bloomer? A one-shot wonder or a serious contender? Was I an author who happened to be an athlete or an athlete who wrote a book? Sometimes even I’m not sure. Am I a mother first or a writer? A wife or a runner? The order of importance depends on the day. 

It’s not that I don’t have enormous respect for women who juggle child-rearing and careers, or parenting, period—no modifications needed. It’s not that I don’t love my children more than my own breath, while understanding that being a mother has most certainly made me a better runner and being a runner has made me a less ornery and more present mother. But the two parts of my identity exist wholly and separately within me, at the same time that they are completely intertwined. It’s a conundrum I grapple with daily, as do most women I know, though our descriptors may be different. I’m fairly certain that elite male athletes seeking sponsorship or media coverage are not identified first and foremost as “fathers.” And that the paternal status of male authors is not widely reported.

It’s human nature to classify, to put people and circumstances—even ourselves— into categories and boxes. Either,or. This, that. Us, them. Good, bad. The stories we create help us to feel safer, to make sense of our surroundings, and to understand our place in the world. How unsettling it is to imagine that we might be many things at once, never quite the same from day to day, our identities shifting and evolving in the face of life’s relentless change. And how fantastically liberating, too.  

Because here’s the paradox: When we strip away extraneous interpretations and see each other and ourselves as we are in this moment, reduced to our essential nature, we are not smaller, but infinitely bigger, and braver, capable of so much more than we ever imagined, open to the all the possibilities. 

In the end, the labels don’t matter. Even my resistance to labels is a kind of label. What matters is this: When I run high above treeline in the mountains, glossy black ravens swooping overhead, I am free from the need to please or be good, to be successful, to fit the mainstream feminine, maternal ideal, or to be anyone other than who I am. I accept myself completely in those moments. I am running for joy, for devotion and dedication, for the inner strength that arises when I push beyond my perceived labels and limits. I love my husband and my daughters, but running is how I’ve learned to love myself and my world. And this is a feeling that transcends language and needs no words.

A version of this story first appeared on Sufferfest Beer Company Fair Play blog  http://sufferfestbeer.com/en/blog/posts/press/the-m-word

Katie Arnold is the author RUNNING HOME: A Memoir. She leads Flow running and writing retreats in Santa Fe, Utah, and beyond. For details, check out www.katiearnold.net/retreats.