Athletes, their children and social media
“Can’t wait for the adventures ahead with this little man.”
That’s the caption I wrote on my first Instagram as a mom. I posted it from the hospital bed as I held a seven-pound infant to my bare chest. I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours, couldn’t stand upright, but had been through the most profound experience of my life. It’s human nature to want to share these impactful moments.
Over the previous nine months, I had documented my pregnancy and everything that came with it on social media. I normally shared my adventures and athletic feats, it felt weird to veer from that course. But we share what consumes us, mentally and physically. As my body changed, I wrote about fears over losing parts or all of my life that I had held onto so tightly: my fitness, my job, and the transition to the uncertain role of becoming a mother.
Being in the public eye since my teenage years is something that I’m used to, although this aspect of my career has always made me uncomfortable. I have always kept my reputation and image guarded, to some degree, as I had seen and experienced how misinformation and misunderstandings could affect people in the same position as me.
At first, it was scary to share my naked fears about motherhood with the world, but the warm and genuine responses were encouraging. Hearing from women around the world who have experienced similar emotions and fears as me made me feel not so alone. When scared, feeling connected to others is comforting. I felt a sense of community I hadn’t experienced in years. Sharing raw feelings brought me closer to my friends and made it easier to feel like myself in the public. I dropped the sense that I needed to somehow present myself as a flawless athlete and influencer—who always climbs hard and never gets scared—which I had thought I needed to be in order for companies or people to find me valuable. My conversations changed from route beta and weather to hemorrhoids and bleeding nipples. I started to see that being open and vulnerable was actually a strength and an asset, not the weakness that I had always perceived it to be. Through conversations on this blog, on social media, and within the community, it felt like we as women athletes, climbers, and mothers finally had a forum to share both our excitement and nervousness about motherhood.
After spending the past month in Fontainbleau with a bunch of amazing climbing families and amazing moms, we ended up sharing a number of posts about our kids—playing in the dirt, climbing boulders, and having the times of their lives.
I’ll admit, people are far more connected, in good ways, thanks to social media. I think these platforms offer benefits as well as drawbacks, like most things in life I guess.
Theo is now four years old (how does that even happen!?!) and he has been a constant in my social-media feed. But lately, given that I have a public persona, I’ve been questioning how much of his life I ought to be sharing? When does using a child’s image start to cross into marketing yourself?
It’s not just a question about marketing. It’s also a question that, I think, all parents may struggle with: What is the right balance for sharing the lives of our children in such a public forum on social media?
I’m a strong advocate for women athletes maintaining their careers through pregnancy and motherhood. I think it’s important to have such role models for the next generation to see what’s possible. Women such as Serena Williams, Alana Blanchard, Kerri Walsh Jennings and Kimmy Fasani are all women who have broken barriers in their respective sports and have children. I find their social media accounts inspirational, which feature both athletic and personal photos. They are going through things that all athletes and mothers experience, that we all can relate to.
But we also use our lives, personal and athletic, to represent brands. As both mothers and professional athletes, that means we’re also including another person in our professional careers. How do we balance being professional athletes with letting our children navigate their own paths and create their own stories? This is something I’ve struggled with Theo’s entire life.
When Theo was a few months old I was approached by a new diaper company to use Theo in advertisements and marketing. At first I was honored and flattered that they would want to give us free diapers. It reminded me of my first free pair of climbing shoes. But after I got off the phone, I picked Theo up from his crib and wondered if that is something that he would be okay with? Of course, at that age, he couldn’t even distinguish black and white from color, but I wondered if that was a role he would want to shoulder? In the end, I graciously declined their offer. I had no history or connection with this company other than that 30-minute phone call. Unlike with, say, one of my sponsors, with whom I’ve had a long relationship, I couldn’t immediately bring myself to trust that they would use his image appropriately.
I try to think hard about every picture of Theo I post, though sometimes I’ve posted pictures and had second thoughts, then removed them. I’m hesitant to completely document all of his experiences. I don’t want to emcee his life for him.
When I was pregnant, I was choosing to share private, scary information about my life and emotions. I consciously accepted that risk of putting myself out there. Do we as parents automatically get to make those same decisions for our kids—or should we be far more cautious? It doesn’t take very long for babies to turn into kids who have developed their own personalities, opinions, and feelings. I think back to my childhood, and, if the world had seen all my interests, excitements, hobbies, how would I feel about that? At points I was into juggling, ping pong and badminton—was it beneficial for me to be able to play without the spotlight of social media? Or did it not make a difference?
On the other hand, what if sharing our experiences helps encourage other kids or moms to get outside, respect the environment, take chances, and try something new? What if we don’t hide from the public and media, but learn to respect it and have it as part of our lives? Just as sharing has helped me connect to new friends and community, maybe the same can be true for others? Where is that line that we all draw?
Obviously for each person and family, the line will be different. My brother and sister-in-law aren’t on social media at all, and, by default, neither are their kids. In contrast, I follow people who document every single aspect of their lives and their children’s lives, from their relationships to their tantrums. All the highs and lows. I admit that I love following along, to see these moments, to feel connected through shared and similar experiences, to know “I’m not the only one…” Some people seem to have a healthy relationship and boundaries with it and pass that on to their teenage and adult children. But perhaps others just see it as a way to vent. Again, there’s an individual line that each family draws.
I have a (very mature) teenage friend who recently deleted all social media from her life, but not for privacy concerns. She made the decision after being on her own social media and her family’s. I asked if she minded if I posted pictures of her. “Not at all,” she responded. “I just found that social media wasn’t making me happy or adding positively to my life.”
Clearly Theo is his own person—but he’s also a major part of my life. Motherhood is the only other role that has defined me so clearly as climbing has. I know there are many different ways to handle kids and media, from not including them at all, to creating separate private accounts (but switching from account to account seems time consuming and that’s definitely not my forte these days), to sharing only a few select posts, to going all in. We are in a new age of being able to share so widely, and I’m unsure if anyone knows what is right or wrong, especially as each person will react so differently to publicity. I want to try my best to allow Theo to grow up to be his own person, not someone who fits neatly into my persona.
Being in the public eye for more than 20 years now, I’ve learned how to deal with it for myself. But now that people follow me for being a mom, I struggle with how to draw a boundary not just for myself and my own presence on social media, but for that of my son.
What do you think?