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(Why) is it relevant that the world’s fastest woman is a “mom”?

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Image description: Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce, a black woman with long blond, green, and yellow hair, smiling on a running track, a gold medal around her neck, holding a Jamaican flag, spectator stands in the background. Image credit CTV News: https://www.ctvnews.ca/sports/shelly-ann-fraser-pryce-wins-record-fifth-100m-world-title-as-jamaica-sweeps-podium-1.5993234

Shelley-Ann Fraser-Pryce is the world’s fastest woman. A widely circulated article reports: “Running out of Lane 6, Fraser-Pryce led all the way on a gorgeous, 74-degree night in Oregon and crossed the line in 10.67 seconds.” Said article appears in both the Toronto Star and HuffPost, and in both it refers to Fraser-Pryce as “Jamaica’s favorite 35-year-old mom — the country’s most-celebrated 100-meter runner this side of Usain Bolt.” But the HuffPost thought her mom-status was headline-worthy: “Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, 35-Year-Old Mom, Is The World’s Fastest Woman — Again.”

The day of this news release, Sam posted the HuffPost article on the blog’s Facebook page with the question, “how do we feel about ‘mom’ being the thing in the headline?” How do we react to this feature of the world’s fastest woman being considered relevant to her athletic achievement? Is her achievement more profound as a result of her being a “mom”? Predictably, there is diverse opinion on this question.

Some people pointed out that giving birth is taxing on the body and requires a break from training, and so it is impressive indeed to achieve this record-breaking title after becoming a mom. Others commented that not all moms have given birth, and that the social meaning of mom or mother that really carries its weight in the headline is more complex. They suggest that it is impressive not as much for the physical demands of giving birth, but for the caretaking demands associated with motherhood coupled with the assumption that once you’re a mom you do not have time for other things. Finding time for other things is a feat in itself. For these sorts of reasons, some women identified with the mom-status and found it inspiring.

But lots of people expressed annoyance and irritation, thinking the reference to her maternal status is simply beside the point. More than one person commented that Usain Bolt’s status as a dad is not brought into the discussion of his athletic accomplishments and success, suggesting a key difference in the social identity of and expectations placed upon women who are mothers. Fraser-Pryce herself considers it an important part of her identity, and indeed is quoted in the article as saying her win is “a victory for motherhood.”

I myself had an initial negative reaction. My response to Sam’s question was: “It’s irrelevant and weird to mention that she’s a ‘mom.’ How is it any more relevant than if she’s a wife, accountant or doctor? The whole idea of the social role of ‘mom,’ with its many layers of often-oppressive meanings, as some sort of thing that makes her athletic achievement more profound than a woman who is not a mom is bizarre and problematic.”

But as I reflected further, my negative reaction was less about it being irrelevant, and more that it suggests something deeply troubling about our expectations of mothers (and not fathers) when we are extra-impressed that they ever achieve anything beyond mothering. I have seen this in my workplace, which is a fairly progressive setting in relative terms, where people still ask successful women with children how they have managed but NEVER ask the successful men with children how they have managed. There are powerful social meanings, assumptions, and expectations at play in the stark difference in how we consider women’s parental status as opposed to men’s in relation to their success in their careers. For women, it is an obstacle to be overcome, and career success alongside “motherhood” is heroic. This, I think, is what was working in the background when the HuffPost considered her mom-status important enough to be included in the headline.

The report in the New York Times does not emphasize Fraser-Pryce’s maternal status in reporting on her performance. But they do note more generally that her impressive world title count of five of the last seven 100m world title championships, approximated only by Jamaican compatriot Usain Bolt (whose paternal credentials are never reported) with three titles at that distance, “might have been greater, but she gave birth just after the 2017 world championships to her son, Zyon, in an emergency cesarean section.” In other words, she may have won more titles if she had competed in the years she was on maternity leave from her sport.

What do you think about referencing someone’s mom-status when reporting their athletic achievements?

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