“Do you have a neurologist?” one woman asked.
“Yes, do you need a recommendation?” the surprisingly flexible septuagenarian replied.
They each did a plie, tightly gripping the barre with wrinkled hands. I stood next to them, hid a smile, and sunk down into the position myself. It was a Sunday morning at my local Jewish Community Center, and barre class was in session.
Before I got pregnant I was a runner. Two summers prior I’d spent hours on the road by myself in preparation for the Portland Marathon. Every Saturday morning, double digit mileage, weekdays devoted to careful planning of food, drink, route. My brain lived and breathed marathon training, and why shouldn’t it? I had my husband to support me and hours to fill during a teacher’s job-free summer. I made an agenda of early bedtimes, giving myself the best possible start for time on my feet. I completed a marathon, bought the 26.2 sticker, and felt confident in saying “I’m a runner,” when people asked. This summer, with its early morning wake-ups for feedings instead left me feeling very different about my life.
Once I was cleared for exercise at my six week postpartum visit, I found myself eager to get back to working out. I hadn’t run in over a year, but had been to many barre classes while I was pregnant. I felt oddly liberated from prior body image issues while I was sporting a belly, and just showing up for these classes seemed to lend me automatic credibility. I “tucked” and “lifted” through my ninth month before I finally threw in the towel. Barre made me feel lithe and light in a moment when I was anything but.
And so I returned, to the airy, light-filled, and very expensive Barre studio I’d been frequenting before having the baby. The workout itself was surprisingly achievable given my two month layoff. My core strength was nowhere to be found, but I survived the hour of dance music and motivational coaching from an impossibly fit 20-something instructor. But one look in the mirror and the familiar creep of self-loathing came back. The constant comparisons I’d made between myself and other women my age had returned, as I was surrounded by young, impossibly fit women. I glanced around the class, a collection of prominent clavicles and bare midriffs and tried to suck in my stomach while also remaining tall and graceful. I felt old and clunky, like having a baby had permanently distanced me from these younger, cooler people.
Running stood to greet me like an old friend too, but even with new sneakers on my feet I just didn’t feel the thrill I once did to put in miles. I felt slow and out of shape, and I needed my husband or in-laws to watch my son, a near-impossibility when I wanted to get out on the road early to beat the soaring summer temperatures. While time spent alone was a scarce commodity, somehow I didn’t want to feel lonely the way that running did.
One day I received a call out of the blue from the local JCC. Or I thought it was out of the blue. It turned out that in the new baby haze I’d forgotten I’d entered a raffle for a three-month membership when I went to a mom’s group hosted at the community center in the weeks prior. Once I got over the surprise (duh) call of this nice young gentleman who knew I liked barre classes and swimming, I began to mull over making a change in my workout regimen.
I was already familiar with the facility because of the mom’s group, so when I went in for the tour, I was greeted by the usual cadre of fawning older people who wanted to know the baby’s name, age, and of course, if he was sleeping (no). I pushed the stroller through the lobbies and took in all the grandparent energy that wafted through the air like chlorine. The baby cried through most of the tour and sales pitch, but the salesperson didn’t seem fazed. He showed me the childcare area, where I could drop the baby off while I worked out, to be watched by a caring adult so I could focus on myself for 45 minutes at a time. I glanced in at workout classes, at the people of varying ages and sizes and skin colors lifting weights or walking on the treadmills.
I signed up enthusiastically.
In the intervening weeks I’ve taken classes at the gym on a regular basis. Whether it’s barre or spin—my two current obsessions—what I’m gaining from my time at the JCC isn’t a six-pack (nor will it ever be). Instead of being surrounded by ultra-fit, ultra-serious ballerina types like the barre studio, or out in nature by myself with my running watch, I find myself in a community made up mostly of older women. They wear khaki shorts and baseball hats from National Parks locations to class, freely talk among themselves as the instructor struggles valiantly to be heard, and compliment me on taking the initiative of working out.
Without meaning to, these women are teaching me lessons about being comfortable with a slower, less intense version of myself, and about being a mother. They remind me that it’s alright to take an hour at a time to exercise a few doors down from the baby, and that the rocky road of parenthood is more easily traversed with a little encouragement by the village you make for yourself.
My time at the JCC is limited—I will go back to work in October and have to devise ways to carve out that me-time a bit more strategically. But while I’m still a member, I try to soak it all in, the pool where I look forward to floating my baby as someone else’s grandma tells me how great he looks, the well-worn yoga mats I stretch on next to another graying person. By avoiding boutique fitness and the personality-defining sport of running, I am fully embracing the person I’ve become.
I may not be as cool or as driven as I used to be, but this is not the season of my life for either of those things. It’s time to take a step back, prioritize being happy and healthy over achieving goals, and get comfortable with being uncool. For me, my local JCC is the perfect place to do it.