If you ask anyone who has a child whether or not parenthood is 18 years of plain sailing, you’re unlikely to find a single person who’d say yes. Professional cyclist Lizzie Deignan is no different.
This month was supposed to see her long awaited return after having a second child. But two things changed.
Deignan was thrusted back into the saddle early due to a need to fill an empty space in her Trek–Segafredo tour team. And the other was The Women’s Tour cancelling their race around Great Britain due to a lack of sponsors – something that has bucked recent commercial trends in women’s sport.
Deignan: It is brutal
But juggling a full-time job and children cannot be easy, as many of you will vouch for. So how does a professional sportsperson cope?
“I guess I’m still figuring that out. I think it’s good when I’m busy,” Deignan told City A.M. earlier this year. “The days in between races can be hard because I don’t have anything to keep my mind busy and I do miss the children a lot.
“But for me, [I am] almost trying to just ignore it. On race days it’s fine because I’m busy and I’m focused. I’m just really pragmatic about it. This is my job and I have to work and there’s no perfect job, unless you’re able to be a full time mom – but that’s also not a perfect scenario.
“It’s really difficult to find the right work-life balance and I’m just grateful that my job is a job that I love doing. So I try to remind myself of that in the difficult moments.”
Serena Williams competing while pregnant, the Rugby Football Union honouring contracts to women on maternity leave, and the huge growth in data being gathered around professional sport and its impact before, during and after pregnancy; there are countless stories of empowerment among women in sport.
But sometimes it’s not always rosy, and the truth behind struggles can be just as impactful on fans.
“I particularly hope that women feel that it’s possible to stay active and stay healthy,” former road race world champion Deignan added. “But it’s also really tricky to not give a false sense of it being easy.
Comparison is the thief of joy
“Social media is this overly positive place and I don’t want to overshare either, but there are nights where I’m up all night and feel awful, and if I wasn’t being paid to do this I wouldn’t get up and go out for a bike ride.
“I don’t want somebody like a mother at home who is in that situation to feel unnecessary pressure to do that, to bounce back or to be super fit, because the reality of parenthood is really hard and I am in a very fortunate position.
“Comparison is the thief of joy in anything. Even comparing my two pregnancies, the second one was way harder, I couldn’t train as much.
“So you really can’t compare to other people’s scenarios. It’s brutal. And if you’re someone who’s really struggling with that, you have to lower expectations in other parts of your life [such as professional output], honestly.”
Deignan’s team Trek–Segafredo handed her a contract knowing she’d be off having her second child, who was born last year.
It is becoming increasingly commonplace in women’s sport but some do question why it hasn’t been the standard for a lot longer.
“It’s becoming more normalised,” 34-year-old Deignan added. “I think it’s just about seeing the big picture.
“No athlete can perform relentlessly at the top of their game year on year.
Bad season, good season
“There’s always going to be a bad season or something or another, there’s going to be an injury. They [teams] just need to see pregnancy as a season where that athlete is not going to win as many races; it’s not the end of the world.”
But the lack of The Women’s Tour due to an abandonment of sponsors remains a concern, and a baffling series of events given the battles in other sports to secure rights deals.
The tour was supposed to finish last week, and is set to return next year, but this season’s forced gap year will worry many.
“I’m not really sure where the disconnect is,” Deignan said.
““We see so much improvement in participation and fans of the sport.
“There’s been this huge jump in interest and fan base in women’s sport so it is surprising for me that we can’t establish The Women’s Tour with more security, but it’s also beyond my understanding.
“I’m not an event organiser, there’s so much more that goes into putting on a bike race than just having the ingredients of great bike riders.
“I hope that it’s not a sign of things to come. And I hope that it’s just kind of because of the circumstances of the cost of living crisis at the moment.”
Professional sport clearly is difficult, parenthood too. Combining the two must be a form of physical torture. But women’s sport is changing, and embracing, a world where it’s less of a physical barrier. And there will be no qualms about that.
Lizzie is an ambassador for Cycleplan, the cycling insurance specialist.