Ruth Nemzoff wrote this article with Helen Berger, both are Resident Scholars at Brandeis Women's Studies Research Center
The Olympics mirror society. 10 of this year's Olympians are mothers, two of them, Chaunté Lowe and Kerri Walsh Jennings, have three kids each. Not surprising! We see mothers in all kinds of jobs we didn't think possible for women just a few years ago. From electrician and ditch digger to senator and prime minister, mothers are defying expectations.
Like many working moms, Kerri Walsh Jennings, who has three children, commented, "My children have taught me so much. I want to be better because I'm their mommy," she continued, "I want to be their best role model and I want to represent my country well in Rio. Whatever I'm doing, I want to be great." Similar to many moms, she also felt, she was made to do both. She told NBC: "I feel like I was born to have babies and play volleyball."
Chaunté Lowe, like thousands of other women, has met the challenge of not only raising three children but also of helping one of her children with special challenges develop and maximize her potential. She explained that, "2015 was one of her most difficult seasons. She relocated her family and moved her training base from Atlanta to Oviedo, Florida, because her 5-year-old daughter, Aurora, was showing signs of autism or Asperger's syndrome and could receive specialized schooling in Florida. (Her daughter actually was moved out of a special-needs program last year and began kindergarten earlier this month.)"
These 10 mother Olympians are calling into question some of the old ideas about what pregnancy does to our bodies. Pregnant bodies in motion are a common sight now that maternity clothes are designed to show off the baby bump unlike Lucille Ball's historic appearance on TV only sixty years ago in a smock meant to hide her burgeoning belly. We also see pregnant women at the gym, half-marathons and full marathons, and there are even exercise classes for pregnant and postpartum women. Gradually we are learning that the restrictions on women, sometimes with the best of intentions of protecting both the mother and her unborn child, are not necessary to produce healthy babies. While poor women all over the world have always had to work while pregnant, limiting women's activities during gestation has also been used in more affluent countries as a way to limit women's freedom.
The Olympics, like academia, business, technology, politics and the arts, gives talented women a place to shine and show their talents to the entire world (sometimes while nursing their young offspring). For female Olympians to be able to participate in their sports and not forgo pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood is not only is a tribute to the Olympics, but it is also a mirror of the progress many countries have made in supporting the advancement of 50 percent of their population .
Age limits, too, are being smashed. Thirty-one-year-old Michael Phelps bested athletes 10 years his junior. Forty-year-old gymnast, Oksana Chusovitina showed you don't need to be a teenybopper to twist and bend. Again, age breakthroughs reflect what we see at local gyms, pools, and road races. Boston's Tufts Health Plan 10k for women has had 80-year-olds, and once a gal in her 90s completing the course. The "elderly" are showing us that they are indeed "over the hill" but getting there by running, jumping, throwing, swimming, writing books, and beginning new careers.
Changes in the American family too are reflected at the Olympics, smashing the myth that only a two-parent family can raise a successful child. Michael's mom has been single since Michael was twelve. Like so many children in our society, Simone Biles was brought up by her grandfather and his wife. The couple adopted her and her siblings because Simone's drug-addicted mom could not take care of them, demonstrating that with a lot of luck and support coupled with much hard work one can overcome adversity. She was infuriated when a reporter said they were not her "real parents." Maybe this example of success will encourage us to give that support to others in challenging circumstances.
Katie Ledecky had her whole family behind her, including her parents as well as her single uncle, who has been very much a part of her success. Her religious heritage is both Jewish (grandmother) and Catholic (parents). We saw athletes honoring America cross themselves and bow to Allah. We Americans are, and we have always been, a mixed group.
Forty-one Olympians are gay or lesbian, a record number of openly LGBT athletes. Kelly Griffin, the rugby star, has two children with her wife Ashley. Together, they destroy the myth that all gay men are effeminate and all gay women are masculine. Most important, they demonstrate that parenthood is for everyone. At this 2016 Olympics we even had a marriage proposal between two woman. Moreover, there was a transgender model in the opening ceremonies. Every American was represented.
Like it or not, the world is changing and these images of diversity help us all to see that ultimately our talents and our personhood are what matters. So, three cheers for the athletes and for the world as it becomes more accepting of all kinds of diversity. As it turns out, the Olympics is a study in sociological change. And you thought you were just watching for the fun and glory!