Bodybuilding changed my life. This week is #peakweek, the week before my next bodybuilding bikini competition, so in honor of all the lessons I’ve learned from this sport, each day I will be sharing a new secret with you. If you’re just checking in (hi!) here is the list of all the topics to be covered this week: 7 Secrets I Learned from Bodybuilding.
We live in a crazy busy society and it’s hard to fit in fitness when you are balancing work, family and just daily life. This past year was perhaps the most difficult year of my life because I became a full-fledged member of the Sandwich Generation, which means I was caring for an ageing parent while also caring for my children.
A bit of backstory here: Last year things were going great. I was on a women’s bodybuilding team, my book, “She’s Losing It!” was in the final stages of being published, and I even competed in a pole fitness competition (!!!). I called my mom (who lived in New Jersey) on July 1st and she neither answered the phone nor called me back, which was weird, but no big deal because she was a very independent 75 year old woman and was probably on a senior trip to Atlantic City or something. I called her the next morning, same thing, no answer, not call back. When I called back later that night at 8pm and still got no answer I knew something was very wrong, so I called my brother to check in on her.
He found her on the floor of her bedroom, where she had collapsed the day before. She was taken to the hospital and I was on the first plane out of Texas. I was 2 1/2 weeks out from my next bodybuilding competition, which, of course, I dropped out of. She had kidney stones and an infection which caused her to collapse, but while at the hospital they did an X-ray and discovered she also had end-stage lung cancer and was given 12 months to live.
In six weeks my brother and I renovated her house and sold it (while I was also caring for my kids,) packed up her belongings and moved her to Texas to start chemo. At the airport she tripped over my daughter’s suitcase and hurt her hip so she had to use a walker from then on.
Most days I’m one of those #noexcuses type people, but sometimes having six-pack abs is the bottom of my priority list, and this was one of those times. I quit the bodybuilding team and began emotional eating. Chemo days were the worst. One time this lady told me her life story, and it was not a happy one. By the time I came home my hands were trembling and I ate a 3-pack of the biggest chocolate chip muffins I could find. I also ate cookies. Lots of cookies.
Just as my book about fitness was being released, I was gaining back weight. I felt ashamed, embarrassed and so bad about myself. That’s when I started training with Robin Johnson Jr., and entered the Arnold Amateur, one of the biggest international bodybuilding competitions in the world. I had no right to be in that show, as I had never won any bikini competition in my life (I always came in dead last,) but even though I didn’t have an award-winning body, I did write a really good cover letter and got accepted. I never trained so hard in my life. Here are some lessons I learned about balancing exercise with a chaotic phase of my life.
3 Tips For Working Out With Small Children
- Workout When The Kids Are Sleeping. This will require you to wake up an hour earlier. This sucks and I’m sorry, but it is really the easiest way to get the job done. All those pictures on Instagram of moms doing sit ups with a baby on their legs are cute but don’t reflect a consistent reality, because sometimes your toddler wants to hug your legs when you want to do a kickboxing video or he will run away with your dumbbells and you’ll spend 30 minutes chasing him down. Even if you’re tired from your teething toddler waking you up at 2 a.m. the night before, trust me, you get a better workout if you just suck it up and do it when they are sleeping.
- Childcare. Some gyms like YMCA and 24 Hour Fitness have Kids Clubs where the kids can play while you workout. This works out perfectly! Except when there is a note on the door that says it’s closed ’cause some kid had lice. And while I love a good workout I love lice-free children even more. (But this only happens once or twice a year, honestly.) You can also ask a friend or relative to watch your kids for an hour once or twice a week so you can get your sweat on.
- Make Your Kids Part of the Workout.
Remember what I wrote about those Instagrma photos not representing a consistent reality? While that is true, it’s also true that some days when the moon, sun and stars are aligned it actually does happen and can be a truly wonderful experience. When I trained for the Arnold Amateur in the middle of winter my kids would come in the garage with me and walk on the treadmill while I was on the elliptical. This summer we took a family vacation to Disneyland and my daughter became my make-shift 65 lb. sandbag while I did squats and lunges waiting to go on Space Mountain. It was a great leg workout and make my daughter giggle to no end. Win-win.
Here are some general tips, not necessary fitness-related, for balancing your life while caring for kids and ageing parents.
7 Tips For Care Givers
- The Biggest Emergency Wins.It was the week before Thanksgiving. My daughter, Rylee, had been working for months learning her prayers for First Reconciliation (a big deal in the Catholic church.) On the same day of the ceremony, my mother developed a fever after her chemo treatment and I had to take her to the hospital. While at the hospital my husband had to leave work to watch the kids and he sent me a text message that my five-year-old son decided to give himself a haircut. I also had to get paperwork to the bank for a real estate loan (my husband and I own a small business) and I was supposed to meet with my trainer the next day. Here’s what I did: I stayed with my mom, and thank God because it ended up being pneumonia and she ran a dangerously high fever. My husband (not Catholic) took the kids to church and was slightly confused but supportive. My son had to go to kindergarten with a crazy hairdo and an interesting story until I was able to get him to the barber. So my priorities were: 1 – Life/Death situation, 2 – Get a stand-in for important kid life event, 3 – Self-inflicted kid “emergency” had to wait, 4 – Got an extension for the bank paperwork, 5 -Exercise was put on hold until my mom got out of the hospital a few days later, and that was fine. #Prioritize
- Exercise When The Person Is Sleeping. Remember what I said about exercising when your kids are sleeping? Same goes with when your mom sleeps! Chemo really knocked my mother out. While she slept I did cardio in the garage. I guess I could have jogged around the block or drove to the gym but I was really nervous leaving her alone too long. My trainer, Robin, also designed workouts for me that I could do at home that superset dumbbell or bodyweight exercises with going on my elliptical.
- It Is Not Your Job To Make The Person Well.
You are not God. You are not Mother Nature. Even if you happen to be a doctor it is likely that you are not your parent’s doctor. You then have no control over whether or not they get better or worse, so take that load off your back. Your job is to make sure your parent (or whomever you are caring for) is safe, comfortable and loved.
- Ask For Help. This was really hard for me because I like to think I’m Super Woman. I am not Super Woman, no one is. When I was in New Jersey fixing up my mom’s house, taking her to doctor appointments and packing up her belongings, my three best friends Jenny, Meghan and Deirdre and their parents took turns watching the kids for me. To this day I tear up with gratitude for what they did for me. Back in Texas my friend Obidia, my neighbor Cynthia, and the women from my old bodybuilding team send me daily texts of encouragement and offered to help wherever I needed it. My BFF Regina is a lawyer and when things were going really bad and my mom had to enter hospice she helped with all the paperwork. I can’t thank these women enough. And it goes without saying that my husband and kids were rock star helpers, doing extra chores, rearranging schedules and hugging me when I needed to cry.
- Laugh/Cry/Pray. Laughter is like a vacation from reality and can lift your spirits. Cry – You need a release sometimes. Pray. Or if you’re not religious, take a nature walk, look at the ocean, appreciate the wildflowers in a field and realize you are part of something bigger.
- Let Go Of Guilt. When I was in New Jersey for two weeks alone caring for my mom, my seven-year-old daughter called and said, “When you’re away it’s like a line is drawn and our family is torn apart.” My heart broke. We ended up bringing the kids out with me for a month while I got her house ready for sale and my husband went back to work. Throughout the time my mother lived with us I was in constant angst. Am I paying enough attention to my kids? Was chemo the right decision for my mom? Will my husband and I ever go on a date again? Someone will always have an opinion about your choices (and it’s usually meant to help) but ends up making you second guess yourself. Don’t do that. Follow the advice of Theodore Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” and then be at peace with the fact that you are doing the very best you can.
- Do the Things That Make You ‘You’! Fitness is such an integral part of my life that when I stopped doing it I became very depressed. One day I was able to exercise and when I came back, drenched in sweat, into my mother’s room to bring her some medicine she said, “This is the happiest I’ve seen you all month!”
She wanted me to be happy; of course she did, she was my mom! When I trained for the Arnold she laughed at me practicing my poses in the bathroom and was impressed by my growing biceps when I flexed. She even told me she had a dream that I would win 3rd place in the competition. You might be caring for them, but never forget that they care just as much about you.
I’m not going to lie to you; trying to make the time to exercise and eat well when you are balancing so many other responsibilities is incredibly hard, but if it is important to you then you will make it happen. There is EXACTLY enough time to do what is important to you.
Competing at the Arnold Amateur made a huge impact on my life. If nothing else I gained confidence that I could train during difficult circumstances. And for the first time in my life I didn’t finish dead last. Competing against women literally half my age I ended up placing 20th out of 38, which is nothing to brag about but for me it was such a mental breakthrough to realize that I wasn’t last.
Five weeks later, I competed in the Texas Shredder. My mother’s dream came true. I won 3rd place.
If you are going through tough times, remember that they are temporary. You will get through this. And when you are ready the gym will be waiting for you.
Further reading for caregivers:
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