Olympian Erica McLain: On Balancing Maternal Wellness and Career

Olympian Erica McLain: On Balancing Maternal Wellness and Career

Erica McLain gives us the raw and real truth about the challenges so many working mothers face. The mom of two, U.S. Olympian, and accomplished interior designer weighs in on the all too often “impossible” task of devoting our precious energy to both our children and the work we love. Her tips and insight on how she’s developing tools to navigate the guilt that all too often comes with this stage is a great and empowering reminder that as mamas, we are never alone in this journey. 


Erica, tell us about you:

Beyond my identity as a US Olympian and an interior designer, I'm a wife and mom to two wonderful kids, Emerson, who's almost three, and River, who's just over a year old. We've made our home in the lovely suburbs of Dallas, Texas. My journey took a creative turn from Silicon Valley, where I spent years shaping products at Facebook and Google, to launching my own interior design business. This leap into entrepreneurship was fueled by my lifelong passion for creativity and design.


What did becoming a mom look like for you? 

Wow. Where do I even begin? It was literally a time of all the feels – you name it, I felt it. First, it happened quickly. As a member of the GMC, "Geriatric Moms Club," and having been on birth control for so long, we thought it would take some time. However, I got pregnant the same month we decided to "pull the goalie." The mix of shock, joy, and disbelief was palpable. This all transpired during the tumultuous summer of 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and during a time of profound social upheaval following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, among too many others. It was also the summer when memes of "Jewish baby carriages" – meat smokers fashioned as baby strollers – swept the internet. It was during this summer that I learned I'd be bringing a Black, Jewish baby boy into our complex world. The weight of this reality left me feeling both devastated and scared. 

However, my husband's unwavering support became my rock. He reminded me that we were on this journey together, reinforcing our shared commitment to guide our son through the vastness of life with openness, resilience, and understanding. He stressed the importance of exposing our son to diverse cultures, places, and experiences, instilling in him the values and mental strength to navigate the world on his own terms. The ultrasound sessions, where our son displayed his energetic and playful spirit, filled me with warmth and love. Watching him move and play in his tiny, unseen world, I felt a deep connection and knew he was exactly who we were meant to bring into our lives. I embraced my role as his mother with pride and hope, ready to face the challenges and joys that lay ahead.

What was the most unexpected part of your motherhood journey?

On our third date, I told the man who, two years later, would become my husband that I wanted to be a “stay-at-home” mom. I wanted to be clear about what he was signing up for by dating me. Fast forward nearly three years later, and less than six weeks after our son's arrival, I knew being a “stay-at-home” mom was not the path for me. I realized I wasn't ready to give up my identity as Erica McLain, Creative Entrepreneur. It was vital that I find ways to pursue and nurture my individual aspirations while simultaneously growing into my new role as “mama.”

Fast forward yet again, and I'm nearly three years into the job title but still haven't fully connected with the role of “mom.” I love our babies more than anything I've ever loved combined — every day is filled with both magic and exhaustion. However, trying to be their mom while still being “myself” has remained a challenge. I'm fortunate to be able to work from home, which helps. But I often struggle with compartmentalizing the hours of each day. When I wake up at 5 a.m. with my son, too often, the first thing I want to do, after hugging and kissing him at least five times, is reach for my computer to polish up one more email or design detail before pressing send. Lately, though, he's been more vocal about his distaste for this behavior and will let out a heartbreaking wail of “No, Mama! No cumpuder.” So I sheepishly put down my device, but deep down, I'm still longing to work.

I've always been a master multitasker and a brilliant jack of all trades, but motherhood has tested these traits in ways I never expected. I've had to realize that I'm not dealing with a technical product or home blueprint that I can own and manipulate at will. My children are sentient, dynamic beings with their own spontaneous needs. It sounds obvious, right? But this was an eye-opening reality check for me to experience and probably one of the most unexpected parts of my journey into motherhood — this and the cruel realization that at 6-weeks-old, my son was still months away from being able to hold his own bottle. 

How does Matrescence’s Mission to “mother the mother” resonate with you as a mom? 

Mother the Mother! Few statements are more powerful. We, as mothers, are the ultimate sources of life and light on this Earth. Mother nature! Mother you! Mother me. We are united, and without our bond to one another, we are nothing. To me, "mother to mother" symbolizes truth, fragility, wisdom, vulnerability, and strength. We must share our truths to learn from one another, not wasting time on repeating mistakes — we're all too busy for that. We must embrace, respect, and collectively reinforce the fragility that threatens to break any mother in an instant — we are all spread so thin. We must document, share, and consume our collective knowledge — you never know who needs to hear what and when. We must be vulnerable and encourage it in others — it's okay to struggle, it's okay not to be strong in every moment; your vulnerability and truth strengthen, inform, and heal the collective. We must recognize strength in all its forms; even honest acknowledgments of weakness are a strength — together, we move mountains, carve new lands, and literally bring new life into this world.

Without the truths, fragility, wisdom, vulnerability, and strength of the women before me and around me, both those who have borne their own children and those who find purpose in nurturing others, I would not be the mother I am today. I am not a perfect mother, but I am a loving mother, and my babies look to me every day for love and cuddles. I am their mother, and they have no doubt about it. I openly, truthfully, and wholeheartedly share my journey to and through motherhood because others have had the courage to share with me, and because I smashed my rose-colored glasses long ago. Mother the Mother. There is nothing more powerful. 


In what ways do you find wellness in your day? Do you struggle with prioritizing it in your life?

I must confess, carving out time for traditional wellness practices like physical exercise and mental relaxation hasn't been my strong suit. Admittedly, this has led to some stress-related health issues, such as shingles, not once but twice. It's a clear sign that I need to dedicate more effort to this aspect of my life, and it's something I'm committed to improving in 2024.

That said, when it comes to mental wellness, I consider myself quite proactive. I deeply value continuous learning and personal development, believing that our mind is, without doubt, our most powerful tool. Regularly engaging in activities that stimulate my mind, like weekly therapy sessions and immersing myself in interior design podcasts for a couple of hours each day, has been immensely rewarding. "Trade Tales" by Kaitlin Peterson from Business of Home stands out as a particular favorite of mine.

Nonetheless, I recognize that wellness isn't just about keeping our minds active; it's also about allowing ourselves the space to rest and rejuvenate. This balance between mental engagement and physical relaxation is where I've found myself lacking. I understand the importance of nurturing both aspects to not only achieve my professional goals as an aspiring top interior designer but also to be the best version of myself for my children, Emerson and River. Prioritizing this balance will be key to my overall wellness journey. 

What is the best thing you learned about parenting and who did you learn it from?

During a tough moment, overwhelmed by guilt about the time my career in interior design was taking from my children, my best friend — a fellow mother and accomplished tech leader — shared wisdom that truly resonated with me. She said, “It’s crucial, especially in moments like these, to remember that your relationship with your children extends beyond the guilt of a single moment or period. It’s a lifelong bond, and the overarching love you have for them is what truly matters.” This advice was exactly what I needed. Every decision I make is with my family in mind. Though at times the dedication to my business may seem selfish, I believe that nurturing my career also makes me a better partner and parent. My friend’s reminder that the overall journey is more significant than individual moments has been a guiding light for me.


What strategies have you employed as you strive for balance as a working mom?

A cornerstone of my approach with my husband is investing in quality childcare to ensure our children feel valued and cared for, even in our absence. They attend a reputable Montessori school and have the support of an incredible au pair, reinforcing the saying that it indeed takes a village to raise a child — more so when juggling the demands of family and a start-up.

Calendar blocking is another crucial strategy for me. It helps segment my day for various responsibilities, setting clear expectations for both myself and my clients. Regularly reviewing and adjusting my schedule keeps me on track and ensures I’m meeting all my commitments.

Moving forward, I aim to elevate this practice by incorporating dedicated slots for health, wellness, and mental fortitude, recognizing the need to honor these commitments as rigorously as my professional ones. Despite previously allowing work to encroach on these time blocks, I'm setting a firm intention in 2024 to maintain these boundaries. This shift isn't just about managing my time better; it's about cultivating a healthier, more focused presence in every aspect of my life, thereby enhancing my overall well-being and effectiveness both as a professional and as a mother.


Anything else you want us to know?

Motherhood is a journey filled with lessons, love, and the constant pursuit of balance. Every day brings new challenges and opportunities to learn and grow. I'm grateful for this platform to share my experiences and connect with others on similar paths. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this conversation, and I look forward to the continued journey of "mothering the mother."

Follow Erica on Instagram

Photography credit to Yesi Fortuna, Fort Lion Studio and Travis Gumbs and Cynthia Cervantes, Maroon World.

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