Surviving Life's Derails
Many women are lucky enough to find a profession they are passionate about, and they decide to return to that work immediately after having a child. Continuing to work through morning sickness, fatigue, and time off for doctor’s appointments is just a tutorial for learning the act of balancing work and motherhood before baby’s arrival really takes over. Some women find themselves dealing with issues they never considered experiencing while pregnant or as new mothers. These are issues that can knock a woman right off that balance.
Enter Mary Kreis. I have known Mary for more than ten years and consider her one of my closest friends. She’s also a living Wonder Woman. I met Mary in 2002 while I was sidelined from sports due to pregnancy, and was serving as one of the women’s coaches on the US Military Pentathlon team. Mary and her boyfriend were competitors. They trained hard that summer in San Antonio, Texas and we all travelled to the South of France to compete in the World Military Pentathlon championships. A year and a half later, in 2004, Mary and her boyfriend got engaged at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Life was one exciting adventure after another, and they immediately started planning their honeymoon, a ride across America on their new their tandem touring bike.
As Mary started her ride in California, she noticed a mole on her hip had changed color and size. So excited about the ride, she mentally catalogued it and then continued on with the bike trip. A month later, and about three quarters across the US, Mary had to stop to buy a new sports bra as the one she was wearing was getting too tight. She and I laughed about it later as she thought all the calories consumed each day during the bike ride were actually causing her to gain weight. A few days after that, feeling completely exhausted, she stopped again and purchased a pregnancy test. It was positive.
With a baby on the way, Mary started to worry about the unusual looking mole on her hip. She and her husband cut their ride short by a few hundred miles, finishing at their home in Pennsylvania. At the appointment to evaluate the mole, she received another “positive,” this time for melanoma. Unfortunately, the news was worse as doctors discovered the cancer had spread to the lymph node in her groin. At 28 weeks pregnant, Mary had eight nodes removed in her groin, without general anesthesia, and had to delay critical tests like CT scans until the baby was born.
Throughout pregnancy and the operation, Mary continued to serve as a teaching professor at the University of Pennsylvania, California campus. When her daughter, Viva Sky, was born, she returned immediately to teaching, juggling cancer appointments, breast feeding and teaching. She was incredibly inspired by Lance Armstrong’s new Live Strong Ride Across America campaign, and travelled to see riders complete a stage near her home in Pennsylvania. Mary knew at that instant she would join the Live Strong movement. The following year, in 2005, Mary was selected to ride her bike across the country as part of the Live Strong team. Her family followed along in support, and watched her finally reach her goal of riding the full distance from the West to the East coast.
Energized from the ride, Mary and her husband jumped back into working out at a very high level. They were both managing parenthood, work, National Guard duties, and Mary’s emerging support to the cancer effort. Life seemed nonstop, but things went well for a few years. Little did Mary know, she was about to experience another of life’s derails. In 2009, with a seemingly perfect marriage, her husband left her.
I caught up with Mary as she was driving her daughter across Pennsylvania for another weekend of multi-tasking. She was going to drop her daughter off for a weekend visit with Viva’s father; attend a union meeting in Philadelphia as the Health and Welfare Liaison from her college; and possibly jump into the Philadelphia marathon on Sunday for a “training run.” Exhausted just hearing this schedule, I asked Mary about the challenges of being a single working mother, athlete and cancer advocate.
B: As a single working mother, what are your biggest challenges?
Mary: My single biggest issue is time management. Just before my husband left, I accepted an online professorship at my university. I wasn’t sure it was right for me, but I decided to try it out. I now realize it was part of God’s Plan, as it gave me the flexibility to be Viva’s full time caregiver. When she was a baby, I’d get up at 3am to work while she slept. In fact, for a long time, the big joke was that she didn’t even know I had a job.
B: How do you find time to work out and compete at such a high level without someone at home to watch your 7 year old?
Mary: I am constantly rethinking and rearranging and reprioritizing my schedule! I often get up super early to work or to workout!
B: You frequently speak in support of clinical trials for cancer, and you race on triathlon teams to support the cause. What motivates you to take on all this extra (unpaid) work as a single mom?
Mary: It gives me a purpose honestly! Yes, I have a REAL purpose in life being Viva's Mom, but this allows her to see her mother in a giving, honest role of sharing my story and the need for clinical trials to prevent and fight cancer.
B: Do you have a support network? If so, how do these people help you manage your commitments?
Mary: My dad is at every race with Viva. They may play and explore during these long races, but they are at the finish line to help me celebrate my goal. My dad "gets it" - he realizes that I NEED to run and exercise to be a "complete" and happy Mommy!
B: What advice do would you give women who are re-entering the workforce as single mothers?
Mary: Sometimes we do have to give and take a little. Remember that having a job is a POWERFUL tool - feel good about that and yourself and don't worry so much if your workouts and your body aren't perfect. The balance and the self-esteem from being a role model and provider and contributor should be your motivation and satisfaction.
B: Do you find time to volunteer at your child’s school?
Mary: I do! Almost every day actually I contribute in some way to my daughter's school. I write newsletters, I teach her class, I organize events such as the one I just held for Veterans' Day, I support our teachers, and open ketchups and milk at lunch. Ha!
B: What about the pursuit of goals outside work (fitness, art, dance, etc)? Can single moms realistically pursue them?
Mary: Absolutely! I believe that setting a goal in one aspect of your life will contribute to setting and achieving them in other areas as well.
B: What are your next work and fitness goals?
Mary: Work - to be the professor that my students tell me is the one that supported them and they felt really believed in them. Fitness - travel and compete in endurance events around the US and the world. I love the combo. I completely support Viva in her pursuits including karate, soccer, running, and swimming. Fencing too!
B: Mary, thank you so much for taking time to answer questions. As you know, I’m trying to get back into the workforce now, and worried about the transition to working full time with 3 young kids. Your ability to make it all work is always inspiring to me.
Mary: No problem!
In addition to being an amazing mother, professor and athlete, Mary always has time for her friends. She’s a prolific letter writer, and seems to just understand when friends have the need for a good, long phone conversation. She's also very tuned into supporting friends and families she’s met through her cancer work who are not as fortunate in their cancer diagnoses. I’m still trying to figure out how she has time to balance all she does. Her achievements are inspirational to everyone she meets, and I’m grateful to call her a friend.