Jessica McDonald of the North Carolina Courage and Sarah Gordon of the Chicago Red Stars have each pursued playing soccer at the highest level while simultaneously caring for their children. We wanted to highlight their careers as athletes and also explore what it takes for them to ultimately have two full-time jobs. Parenthood is obviously one of the highlights of the human existence; it has the ability to transform one's priorities in a way that no one can really understand until they have a child of their own. For Jess and Sarah, having a child has only made each of them more resolved than ever to succeed in their athletic careers to provide a good example for the most important thing in their lives- their sons.
I found that when writing this article, Jess and Sarah were so much more deft at describing their experiences in their own words than I could be in rephrasing for the sake of the article. I've inserted most of their quotes verbatim in an attempt to convey exactly how they feel about soccer, motherhood, and their children.
Jess has a five-year old boy named Jeremiah. Jess told Sporting Chic, "My kid is one in a million. He’s so easy-going which makes parenting for me so much easier. He has adjusted to traveling so much that he literally asks frequently to fly somewhere new. It’s incredible to see him adjust to new environments the way he does. He loves watching me play and I think the reason for that is the fan base. When everyone starts to cheer and get loud, he takes advantage of the excitement and gets loud with them."
Sarah has a three-year old boy named Caiden. She said, "He loves to watch and play with trains as well as sing and dance. His favorite song right now is Shake It Off by Taylor Swift. He absolutely loves to wear my practice shirts and game jerseys. Although he refers to it as a dress because it’s so long on him. So he loves attending our games where it is socially acceptable to wear his favorite shirt."
This article obviously isn't about me or my feelings, but as someone who often questions whether I even want kids at all, it was incredible for me to read these answers. Jess and Sarah so clearly are obsessed with their boys, and the boys are equally in love with their mothers- in a similar way, the boys love to cheer for their moms and are clearly proud to support them. The way that each answer from Jess and Sarah has a kind of symmetry is such a testament to the bond between mother and son.
Jess was 24 years old and playing professional soccer when she found out that she was pregnant with Jeremiah. She knew that it would be hard, but she was able to come back and continue playing. She's had an incredible career so far, including winning an NWSL Championship last season and scoring 9 goals for the WNY Flash during the 2016 regular season.
"It was a pretty scary and intimidating situation. I really had to question myself whether or not I was still capable to play while being a mom. I was 24 when I had my son and even being a young adult, it’s life changing. Once I was cleared to start training, postpartum, I started to feel confident and hoping a team would pick me up. I got the chance to play in Australia in the W-League where I succeeded. That’s where I gained the confidence to continue playing.
The most challenging part about coming back to full fitness was getting my body back to where it was. My stomach mostly. It took a good 7-8 months to get it tight again. The start of it was very frustrating because of course you want your body back overnight. So, that situation taught me some serious patience."
Jess included that while returning to full fitness was certainly a challenge, her body has changed positively from motherhood as well. "My body has changed in a good way after giving birth. I have never felt as great as I do now. My body even looks different. I have developed more tone and become more confident in my own skin. I haven’t always looked and felt this way. It has effected me in a good way because I have been injury free since having my kid. I’m not sure scientifically what it is but some say it could be the hormones that my body developed during pregnancy."
Sarah discovered that she was pregnant while she was playing college soccer at DePaul University. She faced similar challenges, including many voices of doubt that told her she would never play soccer again. Ultimately, she used that as fuel and inspiration.
"Those first few months were the most difficult of my life. It was filled with quiet, lonely nights and a whole lot of soul-searching. Once the news spread about my pregnancy, I can't even tell you how many people said I would never be on the field again, I would never graduate college on time, I would never be able to succeed in my broadcast journalism major as a single mom... professional soccer wasn't even in anybody's mind at that point. But nothing made me realize exactly what I wanted out of life quite like hearing people telling me all the things I would never be able to do.
During my pregnancy, being away from the game is what made me realize how much I really loved it and need it in my life. The thought of being a single mom motivated me even more to succeed. I knew I was going to be my son’s example.
Two years later when I was drafted by Chicago, it was a no brainer for me to continue playing. I knew the pay would make it extremely difficult and I would have to make some sacrifices with the travel and time away. But if my son learns anything from me, I want him to have the courage and passion to be himself and pursue his dreams despite fears. So that outweighed any preconceptions or concerns."
Like Jess, Sarah faced challenges coming back to full fitness and feeling like her body wasn't where she wanted and expected it to be.
"Besides my growing belly, the rest of my body shrunk during pregnancy, AKA muscle gone. I was so eager to get back into shape that I began to workout again exactly two weeks after I had Caiden. I told myself it would take time and I had to be patient, which was no problem at first.
But four weeks later that patience was tested. I was finally back on the field training with my team at DePaul. Our first Spring practice is always the dreaded beep test. I rolled my ankle in warm-up. The pregnancy hormones must have still be in full-effect because I was mortified with tears rolling down my cheeks. I didn’t do well on that fitness test and only one person dropped out before me. As practice went on my patience thinned. I found I was no longer the fastest one on the field. My body didn’t move like it used to. I was scared I would never be fast again! But after a few months, I was back to normal and up-to-speed."
We asked both women if they thought their son would turn out to be a good athlete. As two of the most athletic players in the NWSL, we know it was a leading question. Their answers kind of go without saying.
Jess said of Jeremiah: "I think he will be an incredible athlete. I don’t brag about his genes. I brag about him being left footed and left handed. The most dominant athletes are lefties and I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do in the future. He’s got a serious competitive side to him. So, whatever he chooses to do, I know he will be great at it."
And Sarah said of Caiden: "Caiden is like off the charts in height already and somehow has these square, broad shoulders with little arm muscles. He loves to kick the soccer ball around and always tries to convince me to take him to soccer practice instead of taking him to school. He definitely is full of energy and life. He definitely has the athletic genes, as both his parents are professional athletes. But I have no expectations for his athletic career. I want to sign him up for every sport at some point and then give him room to find what he loves to do."
Obviously, playing professional soccer presents some challenges when it comes to being a parent. While the league has made enormous strides in the financial well-being of the players, there is still hopefully a lot of progress to be made. Caring for a child on a tight budget is certainly a scenario that many moms face. Add into that mix the fact that our schedules are not always predictable and that our jobs include traveling all around the country, and child care can become a real obstacle.
Jess said, "The most challenging part about child care is not having family wherever we move/travel to. It’s so easy to call my mom to help with my kid in a heartbeat. Whereas, if he travels to an away game with me, I have to find someone (a complete stranger) that’s reliable to watch him while I train, have a team meeting, and have a game. I know a lot of the women in this league, so I reach out to my friends on different teams to reach out to people for me that they trust. Which eases my mind a little bit.
There was one preseason I struggled to find someone to watch Jeremiah. It was a very cold preseason. I’ll never forget how badly I wanted to quit playing the sport because my kid would be sitting at my trainings in his stroller by himself. I didn’t think my career was worth my child sitting in the freezing cold watching me train. It was all a mental game for me because that drove me to want to be a better mom and footballer. Obviously he’s my first and only child and I wanted so much for him. Eventually, I was able to find someone to watch him for a cheap price because at the time with my low salary, I couldn’t afford daycare. That’s what has shaped me into the woman, mom, and footballer that I am today."
Sarah included, "On weekends with games and traveling it can be very difficult. I have to arrange for a sitter to bring him home from school at night and sit with him until one of my parents get home from work. On weekends while we are gone, my parents watch him. I know it can be very difficult for them and he will act-out when I am gone. But with my financial situation, I don’t have the option to fly him with me or pay for a nanny.
The hardest part is feeling like I don't have enough time or money to give Caiden everything he deserves in this world. Almost all of my monthly check goes solely to his daycare. I have to ask my parents for a lot of help which isn’t always the easiest conversation especially because I know how long and how hard they have worked."
As someone who doesn't have much experience with kids, I imagined that both of these women would find themselves constantly saying the same thing over and over to their son. While I had in mind expressions like, "No, don't do that!" Jess and Sarah once again surprised and amazed me with their genuinely loving and consciously inspiring answers.
Jess told us, "I always catch myself telling him to never be afraid to do something. I was scared at first to come back and play soccer after having him. It’s been such an amazing adventure for me that I want him to feel the same joy that I do. I want him to love what he does and to stay motivated."
Sarah said, "I feel like I’m always telling him, “You can do it!” or “Try again!" No matter what the task is… putting his socks on, jumping off the last step, or trying to catch a ball. Sometimes he just needs a little encouragement and positive reinforcement to get the job done. I want him to know he is capable, independent, amazing. Sometimes he likes to tell me the same thing. The other day we were building lego towers and mine fell. He said, “Oh no, mommy. It’s ok. Try again."
When asked about their own motivation in sport, the answers were both simple and inspiring.
Jess said, "My kid motivates me. I never want him to feel any type of disappointment toward me if I didn’t try. Also, my faith and one of my favorite athletes has definitely driven me to want to succeed on the field. I try to read my bible as much as possible. A cool quote that I keep in my wallet is by Bo Jackson and it says, “Set your goals high and don’t stop ’til you get there!” I live by those words.
The most rewarding part is making my kid proud. He’s a very happy kid and he enjoys telling people that his mom plays soccer. That’s what keeps me going."
"My son motivates me everyday. I want to give him a better life. I want to make him proud and inspire him to be himself and pursue his dreams when he’s older.
I am also deeply motivated by the idea that my story could inspire someone. I want to represent possibility. The idea that no matter your situation or circumstances, you decide your reality.
As a single mom, our first and utmost responsibility is to our child. I hear and see so many single moms working multiple jobs and doing anything and everything to provide. I have so much respect and I am so inspired by these women. But I want to represent the possibility that, you can be an amazing mom, while still pursuing your dreams. Too often, all of us listen to the outside and inside voices that tell us it isn’t possible. As single moms it is so easy to get caught up in what others say is best for our child, the standard of others. But I think that with love, passion and determination, you can’t go wrong."
Jess and Sarah are not just moms, and they are not just soccer players. They are pursuing their dreams every day, through different types of adversity and doubt, in order to set a positive example for their sons. I can't think of a better role model for a young boy than a mother who is making her dreams a reality and holding herself to a high standard of professionalism, womanhood, and motherhood.
Superwoman, you have some competition.