Is Silver Medalist Pikus-Pace a Role Model?

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AP Photo – Michael Sohn

Noelle Pikus-Pace’s silver medal win and choosing to share the moment with her family has drawn international attention. It is the sort of moment for which the Olympics are made. She is amazing. The moment was awesome. Who could help but be swept up in the moment of it all?  In a moving interview with Summer Sanders, Pikus-Pace’s new career as a role model was launched. Let’s jump on the bandwagon and celebrate an amazing moment and person but let’s also be clear about who our role models really are.

Pikus-Pace is a world-class competitor. She is absolutely a role model for aspiring athletes. You can look to her to see what it takes to be an Olympian: talent, exceptional strength, determination, commitment and sacrifice – arguably sacrifice being at the top of the list. What she sacrificed for her moment of glory, her once-in-a-lifetime achievement, is immeasurable. As a parent, I’m certain time with her family is near, if not at, the top of the list. Those sacrifices are real and heart-wrenching for her and her family. Her silver medal is a memorable, extraordinary moment for her, her husband and their children.

However, her achievement should not be confused for her being a role model to all kids, all women, all mothers, or all parents. While the qualities she embodies are important, and something worth teaching our kids about, she applied them for a specific purpose – to win a race, to reach her personal goal.  I don’t doubt the image that is being painted of her but she is being launched into famedom for being an athlete, not for driving the carpool or getting dinner on the table by 6:00 every night. We should be careful to draw the lines of comparison too closely between her and us mere-mortals.

It would be easy for me to look at Pikus-Pace and say, “Look at what she has done! I could and should do more! I haven’t done enough! I could set such an example for my kids!” I implore, let’s not use Pikus-Pace as another reason for women, parents, and moms to beat themselves up and feel a need to do more. Pikus-Pace is undoubtedly a remarkable role model for kids about hard work paying off and that it is possible to achieve outlandish goals. Yet, let’s not fool ourselves – my kids, most kids, don’t know about her or won’t remember her six months from now. I know some children idolize athletes or (eegads) entertainers. I’m all in favor of using positive influence, wherever it may come from, to help kids find motivation and fulfillment and be productive contributors to our world.

In reality, it is the people my kids interact with and watch everyday – parents, teachers, coaches and neighbors – who have a bigger impact on their view of the world and their place in it. Everyone is a role model, for good or bad, and parents are their children’s most important role models.

I am a role model because I show my kids everyday how to treat other people. They see how I talk to their friends, other parents, teachers, neighbors and strangers. I am a role model because my kids learn from me how to let other people treat them when I teach my kids to say to other children they don’t like being called names. I am a role model because I show my boys how to treat their future spouses when I take the time to hug and kiss my husband and listen to him talk about his day. My kids learn from me how to be a good friend when they help me cook a meal for a sick friend. I am a role model because my children watch everything I do and everything I say and learn how they are going to succeed (or fail) in this world. That is enough. I am doing enough. Let’s celebrate Pikus-Pace without making it a commentary on our own achievements (or lack thereof).

By all means, heap praise on Pikus-Pace as a role model for athletes, as an example of what can be accomplished with properly applied talent, commitment, sacrifice and determination.  Before beating yourself up about not making a difference or being a role model though, consider what you’re modeling and who’s actually watching. The next time you have the chance, take a minute to say something nice to a person who is doing something right, even if it’s just holding a door open for someone else. It’s not a silver medal but it’s the kind of recognition that really matters.

Happiest of Birthdays

My oldest son celebrates his birthday this week. His birthdays are always bittersweet for me. Yes, there is the bitter because he’s getting older (and I am, too) but I’ve made peace with that sentiment (at least for now). The bitter for me is still in how long and how hard it was to finally be able to celebrate his birthdays.

This birthday is a turning point of sorts. This year, my son turns five years old. Five years is how long I waited before he finally arrived – five years before I knew, for certain, whether I would be a mom.

Six years ago this week I laid next to my husband on a beach in Santa Cruz, and despite wanting to embrace the purpose of our visit – to relax, take a break from the four-year roller coaster of trying to get pregnant, have some fun, reconnect – all I could do was sob…uncontrolled, primal, heart-destroying sobs. We had just finished our first, brutal round of in vitro fertilization and found out that I was not pregnant.

Again.

Still.

In the midst of my grief, my thoughts kept turning to a woman I had met a couple of months earlier. I attended a dinner for work and was seated next to a stranger, the wife of a work associate. She looked to be a little older than me and had a smile that invited conversation. We chatted about small stuff and I quickly learned she was the mother of twins from whom she was happily enjoying a night away. She asked if I had any children and I gave her the answer I gave everyone who asked at that time in my life, “No, not yet.”

By that point in our quest to have a child, it really meant, “I desperately want children but can’t and I’m holding onto my last thread of hope that I will someday.” But I couldn’t really say that. I could hardly say that to my immediate family and closest friends, let alone a perfect stranger.

She went on to share that her twins were the result of multiple tries of in vitro fertilization. It was a personal revelation and one she shared in confidence, maybe somehow knowing it was very relevant to me. She related a familiar story of desperately wanting children with years of failing absent a clear reason why the usual medical interventions didn’t work. Her eyes became wet with tears. I was touched but a little baffled. I thought, “She has kids! She has a happy ending to the infertility story! Why is she on the verge of tears?” As I wrestled with this, she looked me in the eyes and said, “The heartache is unbearable, even now, and this was years ago. I hope you get to have children soon.”

It was obvious what she shared with me was not for public knowledge. She lowered her voice and spoke slowly, with measure, to make sure I heard her. I still wonder what it was about me that made her think she not only could tell me this private experience, but that she should. She had no way of knowing that my husband and I had our first appointment just that morning to begin the process of in vitro fertilization. After years of trying unsuccessfully to have a child and talking to countless doctors, trying various medical procedures, having surgery, receiving acupuncture, and taking up meditation, we were still childless – and heartbroken. She couldn’t have known that I spent most of my morning sobbing, cradled in the abyss of hopelessness and I knew the unbearable heartache she spoke of very well. Until this night at this dinner talking with this mom of twins, I had not found comfort in any other person’s words. Not my husband’s. Not my mother’s.  Not my sister’s. Certainly not any of the doctors’.

But here she was. Her hope for me was genuine. Her sentiment was heartfelt and not condescending or patronizing. She didn’t give me false hope by saying, “Oh, I’m sure it will work out.” She didn’t insult me by telling me, “Just relax, it will happen.” Instead, she simply reflected the only thing I had left. Hope.

And so, laying next to my husband, sobbing on that Santa Cruz beach, I took a deep breath and realized that hope really was what I had and that it was what would get me through until I answered the question whether or not I would have children. I also realized that even if I were lucky enough to have a child, the pain of the experience, the perpetual, seemingly never-ending grief I felt each month when I realized – again – I wasn’t pregnant, would be something that became a part of me. I would always be willing to cry with a stranger over the heartache of not being able to have children (which I have done in the years since).

A little over a year after I laid on that beach in Santa Cruz, our oldest was born. The joy was endless, my gratitude immeasurable. But grief is a funny thing. It is triggered by memories and events and the passing of specific days on the calendar. So, while I celebrate my son’s fifth birthday, all of the amazing things he has brought to my life and the wonderful human being he is, I also give a nod of my head to the road I took to get here – grateful it is the road behind me.