Puberty, Postpartum, and Adaptation
An interview about body change with Lauren Fleshman and Molly Huddle
Today I am thrilled to feature an interview with two professional women runners, Lauren Fleshman and Molly Huddle. Lauren has a new book out tomorrow, which is the impetus for our interview, and we’ll also talk about Molly’s book from last spring. We talk about running, but I promise this is really a conversation about postpartum and post-puberty and finding a way to excel in male-dominated spaces and tons of other stuff. It’s a good listen even if you do not love to run. Enjoy! (And if you’re more of a reader, the transcript is here too.)
Emily: I’m so pleased to have two guests today, Lauren Fleshman and Molly Huddle. We’re going to talk about their books and generally about issues around body changes and adaptation and postpartum and puberty and girls and running. But first, I would love to each have you introduce yourselves briefly. So tell us who you are, what you do, and what your books are.
Lauren: My name is Lauren Fleshman. I’m a former professional runner, and I’m the author of Good for a Girl: A Woman Running in a Man’s World. I’m a mom of two kids, 9 and 5, and a small-business owner.
Molly: I am Molly Huddle. Like Emily, a Rhode Island resident — love our little state! And a professional runner — 5K, 10K, marathon, former American record holder, current American record holder in various distances. I have one new daughter, she’s seven months old. And I co-wrote a book with my friend Sara Slattery called How She Did It.
Emily: Amazing. Okay, so to set the stage, I want to start with why I am excited about this conversation, so you guys know where we’re going. So, Lauren, your book is about a lot of things, but a core theme is this adaptation from being a girl runner to a woman runner. And Molly, some of the essays in your book touch on similar themes. But also over the past eight months or so, you’ve been documenting your return to running after birth. And in both of these cases, I think there feels like a desire to get back to where you were before, and that desire more nebulously affects a lot of women in both of these stages.
When I wrote about postpartum stuff in Cribsheet, there were very clear parallels for me to puberty. Like, “What happened to my body? Why are there all these weird lumps? Will they ever go away and go back to where they were before?” But I think for most people, in most of those phases, this discomfort is hard to put your finger on.
So when we say, “I want to be back to my normal self at work” or “I want my pants to fit in the old way,” it’s hard to always know what it would mean to be “back.” And what struck me about the running in these settings is that it’s so measurable. So, I’m never going to know whether I’m back to being as good an economist as I was before I had kids. But you’re definitely going to know if you are back to running as fast as you did before, or at least you’ll know that in a much more concrete way. So it just seemed to be a very stark example.
I think the reality is, getting back to where things were before in exactly the same way can’t always be the goal, because it’s not necessarily possible, and the challenge is more about moving through it to someplace better. I think that’s true both in the puberty case and the postpartum case. And it’s true not just for running but for all of the things that we’re doing. So ideally, that’s the theme I’d like to draw out a little bit.
And so I want to start there by talking about the puberty transition for girls, especially the girl athletes, which as a parent of an 11-year-old, I was reading and taking notes and putting stickies on. So Lauren, I would love you to just talk a little bit about this in general through your own experience and what are the key things that you hit on in the book.
Lauren: I think the stage your daughter’s in right now, kids before puberty are sort of these gender-neutral creatures. And there are no sex-based differences of significance before puberty between boys and girls. And so what you’re facing is that puberty initiates this divergence of these two paths, based on sex, that may or may not align with how you feel on the inside or what you’re ready for or your gender identity or various other things. And at least for me, that’s where this stage of unfairness came in in the book. I remember this deep sense of like, this isn’t fair.
It’s really only a problem because the structures that we move girls and boys through in sports don’t create a welcoming, accommodating, encouraging space for that divergence of changes. I mean, there’d be a comparison between you and your male friends regardless, probably. But we have current sports systems that ignore, erase, invalidate, and don’t talk about these very basic, embodied experiences that females are going through.
And so that’s where the tension is created. It’s honestly not too much different in pregnancy too, in that way that it’s the incompatibility of the spaces. It’s the changing tables only in the women’s restrooms. It’s the places you go that make it harder than it needs to be.
Emily: Agreed, yes. Changing tables in the restroom is a perennial problem on both sides, actually. I mean, in some ways it illustrates the unfairness in both directions. Like, why can’t my spouse find a changing table? And also, why do I always have to find a changing table?
But in this puberty space… Molly, your book is a series of interviews, essays, stories with different runners. I think this theme comes up a lot. What is the core of this issue in this transition for a lot of girls and women?
Molly: I think the theme of Lauren’s book and the reason we wrote our book, it’s a similar concept of: young phenom girls before puberty, in distance running anyway, tend to disappear after puberty. And it’s like, what is the cause of that? And there are so many reasons why we want to avoid that. One, our book is a high-performance guide, so we want the talent to rise to the top. But also just having sport in your life, your whole life, and not being deterred by puberty or by the other variables that steer girls off-course when they drop out of a sport at higher rates at the age of puberty, 12, 13, 14 — we want sports to be benefiting many talent levels of girls as they go into womanhood. There are so many great lessons and empowering things about sports. So that was kind of like our twofold reason for writing the book.
A lot of the women talked about it — it wasn’t super-direct, but you could infer from their stories that they would pick up injuries because the training wasn’t suited for them or they would suffer from low energy availability because they’re trying to change their body to not go through puberty, or once they went through puberty to still look like the boys or look like their young athletic selves.
I know Lauren’s really familiar with this. You get to a high level of sport and you see that over and over again. So those are kind of two reasons that that body transformation just gets girls off-course in the sport and a lot of them quit. Or they just stop being rewarded by good performances and move on to a different thing. So that was one of the valleys that a lot of the women pushed through and got out the other side and had success, and that’s why we talked to them. But definitely a common theme.
Lauren: I think more broadly, too, in my book, I talk about breast development in middle school, And that is the first stage of female puberty, and that’s where we have a huge amount of drop-off. In Canada, one in three girls leaves sport around this time versus one in 10 boys. And that’s a massive difference, and it’s entirely preventable. And it really comes down to like, are we acknowledging the way it feels different in your body after you develop breasts to move? That’s a uniquely female problem to be climbing trees and running down the street and jumping rope, and then all of a sudden all those activities feel dramatically different as soon as you have breasts or as soon as you develop these body composition changes that don’t immediately have a performance advantage. Long-term they do. If you ride out the changes, you will improve, you will be your best self in your woman body. But we have a longer timeline than the male body to be able to see those changes through, on average.
And it’s not talked about or accommodated because the changes in the female body are sexualized. So when breasts are coming into being in middle school… I mean, they’ve interviewed PE teachers, people are uncomfortable talking about it. They don’t know how to broach the subject. So it’s limited to health class, but health class is not going to provide any insight on your embodied experience of moving through the world with breasts or a menstrual cycle. It’s really just a diagram and a chart and some vocabulary words, right? So we have this huge gap in normalizing this different timeline, these temporary things that make sport a little bit harder at first. But then once you make the adjustment to your new body, you will thrive.
And it frustrates me because it is very simple. There’s a nonprofit, Bras for Girls, that goes into middle schools, provides free sports bras and breast education, and it’s the most powerful intervention. And I can’t help but wonder if males got breasts in middle school if that wouldn’t be standard-issue PE equipment.
Emily: I mean, don’t they give them jocks? Isn’t there some standard PE equipment to deal with the bouncing?
Lauren: I don’t know, but I wonder.
Emily: I am not an expert on this.
Lauren: I do know that — this is loosely related — but vasectomies are covered as an excused reason for my female teacher to leave work to care for a loved one after surgery, but birth is not. So her sister’s birth, she couldn’t take time off work to help with her traumatic birth after her birth, but she can help with somebody’s vasectomy
Emily: Which actually is largely just an ice pack for a day or two.
Lauren: So this problem, it extends.
Emily: It extends! How much of these issues in sport are because we are coaching girls and boys — whether it’s running or something else — we are coaching them the same. We have a boys’ sport system and we build a girls’ sport system as a byproduct of that. And then of course we expect everything to go the same because that’s how we built it.
Molly: Yeah. I think, Lauren, you touched on that in your book. Sport was built by men first. We have a timeline in our book that shows how late women entered track and field and athletics. And it was already built. It was built by men for the men and boys. And so of course we were funneled in. Most of the coaches are men, still. Most of the administrators are men. Most of the athletic directors are men. So I see how it’s not women-shaped in any way. We’re trying to push those shapes out as we go through it only just now.
And so I think that is where a lot of the misunderstandings come from. Like not noticing that our bodies are a little bit different. I mean, it’s not like we’re a different species, but you could serve women better in sport than what we’re doing now. And so it isn’t that complicated. Like Lauren said, some of it’s fairly simple, accommodating things and explaining things and adjusting timelines and things like that.
Lauren: Part of the problem is that there is a small percentage of female athletes that are emulating the male athlete experience, and very few of them are doing it without harming themselves in some short-term or long-term way. There are some that are just genetically built in a way that has them progress more on a male timeline, but it’s very rare.
And then you have people coming in every year who restrict their diet, fight puberty, get an eating disorder, do any of these various things that in the short term help them emulate a male performance trajectory. And they serve as the evidence that the system works just fine. Because by the time their problems happen, they’re on their way out and the next ones are on their way in. And so we are just kind of stuck in this cycle. And I was that person.
Molly: Yeah, I was that person. I feel like the more you were like a dude, the more coachable you were, the more coaches liked working with you. It was very much like that when we were coming through college,
Lauren: Very much. And then when you justify the standard’s existence, then it makes it harder for change to happen. The question we need to be asking is, Why aren’t there as many female athletes thriving as male athletes? If we get a female president, it doesn’t mean that sexism is gone. We [would] still need to ask, Why has there been one? These are the things we have to ask.
But there’s always going to be people like us who are strivers and who are privileged and have had some luck and some hard work that are like, “See, it can be done. I’m the minority in my field. It can be done.” But then what? That doesn’t actually change a system.
Emily: It’s so interesting, because I also work in a very male-dominated field, and in economics, we talk a lot about generating gender parity. And I think for many generations, the expectation was that you’re going to fit the male mold. So the way to achieve this is just to be like the guys and to think that masturbation jokes are funny or penguin bloopers are great. It’s only the generation of women one cohort younger than me who I now see much more being like, “Hey, you know, maybe those jokes were not that funny and we should try to do more about the culture rather than just try to get to the top and then help on the edges.” And that’s been quite interesting as a phenomenon. It makes me feel a little ashamed, actually.
Lauren: I think that’s just a natural order of things. The first people who come in have to do what they need to do to survive. And then you get to a critical mass of numbers. And then at that point, we need to let the 20-somethings and early 30-somethings wake us up and be like, Oh yeah, we don’t have to stand for that. We don’t have to deal with that. We actually do deserve to shape the systems that we work in. Even though it will be painful and awkward for some of the people around us. It’s hard work, though.
Emily: So actually this is a good transition to postpartum, because that is something in your field where I think there has been some substantial push in the last few years, in thinking about the way that we deal with the return to running after pregnancy. So, Molly, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your own experience, but also about how this has changed in the past few years. I think it’s a good example of a place where advocacy changed some of the gender dynamics. Not enough, probably, but at least some.
Molly: Yes, so, I had my daughter about seven months ago. And the landscape when I was pregnant with her, in professional track and field anyway, as far as how contracts are protected, it just was so different. And most of that was blown open by Alysia Montaño and the Dream Maternity campaign and Allyson Felix. And that changed a lot in such a short amount of time. It was incredible.
Usually you see things chip away at these standards, and that was like… My contract was up around then, and I got a maternity clause in there right away just because of that. I was working with a female president at Saucony; she was new. But I had tried to actually incorporate that into two previous contracts, and it was denied, and I don’t know how, who, where, what level it was denied. But it was something that I was like, okay, we’re gonna get it in there now. And it was fine. Alysia might have said, make sure you get this, this, and this specifically. But at least I was able to be pregnant and not rush my way back and still keep my income for the thing that I support our family doing.
So that was hugely different. And I remember I sent the head of marketing at Saucony a study from [Canadian sports physiologist] Trent Stellingwerff on what the recommended return to running is after pregnancy and how long it really is. Because they were like, We’ll give you what our standard office workers receive from maternity leave. And I was like, Well, three months to be back at a Diamond League [elite track and field competition] isn’t really reasonable. They were like, We’ll give you the time you need.
Coming back, using that information, it’s a much slower process than what a lot of women had done previously. I think you’ll talk to someone like Kara Goucher, and she was back running the Boston Marathon at a really high level six months after having a baby. Whereas I was nowhere near ready for running 26 miles six months later. And so I used a pelvic floor specialist and a physical therapist to pace my comeback. And it’s slow. It takes as long as it takes to gestate, birth, recover, come back — it just takes a certain amount of time.
Emily: Is it incredibly frustrating?
Molly: How slow it takes, yes. I mean, I could hasten things by training harder while I was pregnant, but I was 38 years old. I wanted a break. I didn’t want to do that. But I think that it still would’ve been slow. It would’ve maybe accelerated it by a month or two.
It can be frustrating because you take for granted how much your body did for you when you were running, and now it’s doing this other priority. Like, it reminds me all the time that this is not my priority right now physically. Your priority is birthing the baby, your priority is feeding the baby.
So even though I’m trying with my brain to get back on the track, my body’s like, your baby’s not 1 yet. I still have caring to do. I still have moving and shifting and hormonal stuff to do, so.
Emily: As you will learn, Molly, even when they’re 7 and 11, apparently you’re not done.
Molly: I’m not done when they’re 1? Oh my god!
Emily: Then there’s boarding school! You just send them out and it’s over.
Lauren: It is encouraging, though… Sports is really an extreme example for there to be any kind of pregnancy protection, because our job is our physical body’s ability to perform. And so if we can get pregnancy protections in place for that kind of a job, that can have flexibility to take you through more time than you’d want it to take, we should be able to do it in other jobs where your job isn’t purely physical, right? We should be able to push for it in those spaces too. And I think a lot of times, sport is an arena where you can have social change first, or it can be a leader in political movements, social movements, and then it’s like a jumping pad for other industries to go, “Hey, it’s being done over here; let’s do it over here.” So I hope that it can help other industries.
Emily: I also think there’s something very interesting and parallel about this idea of the slow return. Because I feel like for many of us coming back from having a baby, there’s a period in which I didn’t want to do anything except be with the baby, and physically I couldn’t leave the house, and so on. But then there was a much longer period — one I still feel I’m somewhat in, but at any rate, it was certainly longer than the first few months — in which I wanted to be working at a lower level. So I wanted to be doing the economics equivalent of training, but not at the intensity that I was before because there was this other thing going on, whether it was physical or exhaustion or just taking up mental space.
And when we think about maternity leave in almost any sector, of course, for many of us, we’re lucky if we have any. But when people have maternity leave, it’s much more in this space of, you have six weeks or you have four months and then at the end of four months, you’re just done. You cooked it all. It’s all ready. Then you can come back and be at 170% like you were before. And that’s just not possible. I think it’s part of what frustrates a lot of people, and I think it’s honestly part of what ultimately causes a lot of people to leave the labor force. Because you say I’d love to be back at 65% or 50% for a while, but I can’t be back at 150% again because that’s not feasible for me.
Lauren: And you’ve got to wonder, I bet a lot of careers could theoretically allow a dial button if you were willing to work 60% and get paid 60% or whatever it is and you could self-select your hours. And for men too. After the female-specific portions of gestation and birth and initial nursing and things, that should be a discussion in families of who’s going to be able to dial things down. Because the absurdity of the 40-hour workweek, which a lot of people even work way more than that, is that it was essentially designed around one-working-parent households. And then when you have two working parents, you cannot get everything done without somebody burning out and losing their mind. Or somebody’s relationships being under incredible amounts of strain.
In general, there’s this theme in my book about how, yeah, we can talk about how women and girls need something different. We should have a sporting structure built around our specific needs. But boys and men would benefit from a lot of those new changes too. The model is not ideal for the modern male either in any of these places, in corporate America, in anywhere. More men than ever want to be active parents and they want these options too. And so I think of it as like, we’ve centered men in the creation of our structures for a really long time. If we center women and girls, we’ll probably all benefit, because it’s not just about women and girls; it’s about doing it in the 21st century. It’s a chance to do it again. And I know that’s very pie in the sky. I tend to think like that, but I’m also like, well, we made it once, we can make it again.
Emily: We could make it different and better.
Lauren: Why not?
Emily: Yeah. I mean, it’s true. I think that men would benefit from an approach to leave and child-rearing that was more equal or certainly allowed more of an equal set of choices around this.
So, Molly, do you think you can come back better? This idea of “I’m going to get back to where I was” — I think we can come back better. Maybe running is harder than some other things, but I don’t know. I think sometimes there are lessons from parenting that make it possible to do your job better than you did before.
Molly: There’s a quote from Chelsea Sodaro, who just won the Ironman Kona —
Emily: With an 18-month-old.
Molly: Yeah, her daughter’s not even 2. And she said it’s a reinvention, it’s not a comeback. And she reinvented herself into a Kona champion, so you could argue that’s better than what she was, but it’s different. She’s different. I’m sure it’s not the same amount of time given to what she’s doing or the same way. I’m sure there’s something different about it. But that doesn’t mean the outcomes aren’t big dreams, big goals. And you’ve seen it with many other female athletes to prove that. You’re right, there are performance metrics: Are you better, are you not? The answer is you can be, because we see Faith Kipyegon, we’ve seen Aliphine Tuliamuk, we’ve seen Chelsea Sodaro, like we’ve seen it over and over. It just takes a couple of years, almost two years on average. But I’m sure there are differences behind the scenes. It’s not the same route you took before where you’re just out there dedicating every little inch to the sport and never taking eyes off it.
Emily: There was an interview at some point with Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who, for people who are not as nerdy as the three of us, is a very good Norwegian runner. But he said when he trained, all he does is run and play video games and eat and sleep, and that’s it. He doesn’t do anything else. He doesn’t even read books because it takes too much mental energy — it takes it away from his focus on running. And I always think about that. Like these women who are running [who have] small children — the idea that your life would just be running and video games and eating and sleeping, that’s completely, completely turned off. But it shows that there are many ways to do this.
Lauren: Another kind of interesting thing along those lines: when I was competing, we do our racing season and track mostly in Europe over the summer, and I remember talking to a woman from Kenya that had two babies. The second one was very young, and she was like, “I leave for the whole summer and race.” And I’m thinking, who’s watching your kids? And she’s got a whole community of people, aunties, and her sister, and all these people. And we don’t have a structure like that either. We still have a structure where we expect the birthing parent to be the one that is doing all of the things. And some of us want to do that — I didn’t, but some of us really genuinely feel that pull and want to do that. But I would’ve loved the option that she was talking about, like, oh, okay, that’s culturally acceptable and people are excited to support me in that. And I’ll miss my kid, obviously, a lot, but I can do my job without also needing to bring like a nanny and all the other things. It just makes it impossible, and that’s why people end up leaving the sport.
Emily: So I want to close with two things. First, I want to ask about solutions, particularly on the parenting side, because some of what you talk about as a parent is a little freaky. And makes one a little nervous about: What are the experiences that my kids are going to have, particularly my daughter’s going to have, as they move through this phase of sports? So other than sports bras in schools, which I’m fully supportive of, what else do you think needs to happen?
Lauren: I think that we can’t guarantee coach education on female physiology, normal female performance waves versus linear lines, all these things. We can’t force that yet. That is a solution, though, down the road — requiring mandatory education on the female body and its development and puberty for anyone that works with female athletes of that particular age range. So as parents, we can be informed about it. Read my book! That’s one starting point.
Emily: Yes, both of your books, everybody should read. Agreed.
Lauren: As for you, be prepared for her body to change; be prepared to be the person that isn’t greeting that change with gloom and doom. Because she’s going to get a lot of that if she’s having success in sport. And then it starts to kind of plateau as things are shifting. There’s just these horrible myths about puberty — that it’s a career-ender, that it’s the one injury a girl can’t come back from.
I mean, there’s just horribly toxic ways of talking about this that will be going on around her, and if you know better and you’re like: Hey, all the world records, all the best performers did it as women in women’s bodies. Your best years are gonna happen when they’re gonna happen. There is just a temporary period of time when you’re getting used to this new body, you’re building up your strength, your ligaments, your tendons, all the things that have to adjust to this new body. But they will because the body’s an amazing, miraculous thing. And right now there are other ways to improve that aren’t going to show up on the clock. You can improve tactics. You can improve community building on your team, leadership skills. You can certainly work on nutrition. You shouldn’t work on nutrition to achieve a particular body ideal during those ages, but just learning about what foods fuel you best… Those kinds of things are going to serve you throughout your life.
So I think having a broad definition of success that includes more things than these measurables is really important. And then keeping that confident look on the long term.
Emily: I love it. All right, so, Molly, here’s my ending. I think a lot of times for women and girls, we tend to be quite reluctant to embrace the attempt to be great. That there’s almost a shame in saying, I want to be the best. And that it’s better to be well-rounded and a little good at everything.
And you two are obviously both really, really, really great at many things, but running being the measurable one that people know you for. And you said something to Emily Sisson about this, which really resonated with me — and for background, Emily is Molly’s training partner and she just set the American record in the marathon. Can you close out by telling us the context there and what you told her?
Molly: Yes. Emily and I had this conversation a couple of times. The origin of it was about how in the sports marketing side of things, there’s our performance and then there are all the little things we’re meant to do to increase our social media presence, be more marketable, put up good content, build our story, build our brand — and it can just be a distraction from trying to be really good at running. Like Jakob Ingebrigtsen with his video games and running. It helps if you’re doing less and putting all the energy into running to get the platform first, and then you can do the things.
And she sometimes felt a little bit scattered about it, and I was like, it’s okay to just go all in on something. Just go for it. Just try to be the best at it. Just go destroy your track workout, rest on the couch, and do it over and over again, and then you’re going to be able to check off those huge scary goals that you have. That’s enough. To be the best marathoner in American history is enough. I feel like a lot of people were like, well, does she also do this? Does she also do that? And I wonder if that’s a very female-athlete problem to have. Does she give back to charity? Does she also have a camp? And it’s like, she’s the best. Do you also ask that of the guys? No.
Emily: She’s doing good. It’s enough. All right, thank you both so much. This was awesome. Lauren’s new book is called Good for a Girl, and Molly’s book is How She Did It. And I am so happy to have had you both. Thank you.
Lauren: Thanks for the time.
Molly: Thanks, Emily.