For my 43rd birthday this year, my husband handed me a weighty box wrapped in paper printed with little cowboy boots and hats, a nod to my Montana roots. Inside was a pair of turquoise blue roller skates with pink wheels. He filmed me while I rolled around the house, avoiding the kitchen table and dog toys on the floor, a laugh-out-loud, joyful, childlike experience. My three sons have seen this scene play out before, many years ago, when I decided to try out for the Windy City Rollers roller derby league.
While I loved being a stay-at-home mom, playing and snuggling with my littles all day, raising three boys in diapers, with a husband who traveled every week, was often an insular and lonely experience. Women don’t talk enough about how difficult it is to make the shift from being in the work force and building a career to becoming a full-time caregiver, often without any outside help or support. Even though I was buried in laundry and dishes, I was grateful for the choice I had to be a stay-at-home mom, knowing that many mothers don’t get to choose due to finances or circumstances. I was thankful that I could be with my children during all their important milestones, but I needed something more. I longed for a space of my own.
After five years of being in a “mom bubble” of sorts, and right after nursing my last baby, I started to search for a community of women, separate from my moms’ groups where everyone only talks about their kids during playdates. And so, during a St. Patrick’s Day parade on a cold Chicago morning, I found the thing that would ignite a passion: roller derby.
Modern roller derby, one of the fastest growing female sports in the world, has a stalwart DIY ethos — women have a hand in organizing and leading all aspects of the sport, from the practices to the bouts (games) to the marketing. Skaters come from all walks of life — women in my league were nurses, police officers, teachers, bar tenders, salon owners, lawyers, photographers, and yes, even mothers.
Three times per week I would meet up at the practice space in Chicago to work on skills and build my strength, stamina, and speed. Practices would lead to bouts at UIC Pavilion. The full-contact game is played in two 30-minute periods, broken up into two-minute jams. At a whistle blow, teams of five, one of which is the point-scoring jammer, race around the oval and jockey for position. When the jammer breaks through the pack of blockers, and skates a free lap, she then gains a point for every opposing blocker she passes the next time through.
The game is fast; the hits are hard. Skaters are constantly at risk for injury—knee tears, ankle breaks, concussions—and perhaps this threat of danger is one of the building blocks for bonding between teammates. We had each other’s backs, in good times and in bad. We watched out for each other, on the track and off.
Playing this stimulating sport, with impressive and powerful women of every size and shape, changed how I felt about my post-baby body, especially as I became stronger and fitter. I began to see food as fuel and I treated my body as an athlete would, even though this was the first team sport I had ever been a part of outside of middle school basketball. I could feel the beast growing inside. I was becoming formidable.
For nearly three years, I carved out time for myself, developed an unwavering practice, and nurtured an interest. Roller derby became a form of holistic self-care where I prioritized my physical and mental wellbeing. And you know what? Challenging myself in this way made me a better mother. If you’re not taking care of yourself, engaging in a passion, how can you possibly look after someone else properly without becoming depleted?
Now that several years have passed, and I no longer compete, there’s an image that floods my memories. It’s of three sweet little faces, looking up at me in wonder and awe from the sidelines, as I round the track in full gear — helmet, knee pads, elbow pads, wrist guards, mouth guard — and stop in front of them to give them high-fives and hugs. I was their mother, yes, but I was also a badass roller derby skater. Roller derby is something that I chose to do for myself, but it morphed into something I did for my boys. I wanted them to see me as a resilient and strong woman, someone who had adventures of her own and lived a full life.
With my new blue skates, I now join my skateboarding boys, and husband, on romps around the neighborhood or at a skate park. We have chats about how important it is to foster creativity, imagination, and originality, whether it’s skating, playing in a band, volunteering, or learning how to code. And, while developing a passion is vital, it’s worth noting that curiosities can change, morph, evolve. It’s the enthusiasm, the eagerness to learn and grow, that should be unshakable and resolute — now and forever.