Q: I’m a busy mom and I have trouble escaping to the barn. When I do get there, I often feel guilty for riding rather than being at home with my family. My husband is happy to pitch in with the kids, but I can’t help but feel that I’m being a little selfish. The guilt makes riding much less enjoyable. Is there a way I can get back to enjoying what little time I have at the barn?
A: You are not alone in this worry. Many athletes often feel selfish and sometimes believe that a life of training, traveling and competing is self-indulgent. When I was swimming, I experienced some of these feelings as well. Parents can often have a faulty assumption that anything they do that doesn’t directly impact or support their children is selfish or bad for their kids. But there is actually error in this way of thinking and feeling, and it takes a little bit of work to address this and correct it.
First of all, as a parent, don’t underestimate your job as your children’s role model. This is obviously important, yet sometimes we fail to see just how much modeling we do. Children watch everything we do, whether they appear to or not.
When your children see you making your entire life about them, it will make them think life is about them. When your children see you creating a life with balance and many interests that are important to you, they will learn that taking care of yourself is just as important as taking care of others. I see way too many parents getting stuck out of balance because of the worry that they are not doing enough for their children. We want to teach the next generation to have balance in life and the only way to do that is to have balance in our own lives.
Secondly, if children see their parents doing something that is challenging, it gives them permission and inspires them to do something that is challenging. Horses are not for the faint of heart, and when you work hard and your kids see that, it creates the opportunity and desire for them to work hard at something.
Think about your perspective and view of your parents when you were young. What did you learn or take from what they worked on or did for themselves? Besides, no one wants his or her parents around all the time!
Lastly, communicate with your children about your riding. Instead of positioning your equestrian pursuits as something to hide or feel guilty about, use them to deepen your relationships.
Tell your children all about going to the barn. Tell them how challenging it is and how it creates daily opportunity for growth. Tell them about your relationship with your horse and how it feeds your heart and soul. Tell them how hard you work to keep your horse healthy and happy and show them how dirty your fingernails are and how that secretly makes you happy every time you look at them. Tell them how difficult dressage is and how you work on it to keep improving and progressing even when it seems impossible.
Share the experience with them because it has depth and value for both of you. When you get stuck feeling guilty, just remember the emergency instructions when you are a passenger on an airplane: “Put your mask on before helping others.” The better you take care of you, the better you are able to take care of others. Stay focused, stay committed and most of all, be kind to yourself.
Jenny Susser has a doctoral degree and is licensed in clinical health psychology, specializing in sport psychology. A four-year all-American swimmer at UCLA, she swam on two national teams and at the 1988 Olympic Trials. She has worked with athletes of all sports and ages—collegiate, professional, international and amateur. She was the sport psychologist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dressage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dressage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a performance coach with Human Performance.