SANDY — The sweat from an intense morning practice still on her brow, Amy Rodriguez walks into the Utah Royals FC locker room to a scene that looks more like the playroom at an upscale day-care facility than the locker room of a professional sports team.
The 31-year-old forward makes her way past an array of plastic airplanes, toy cars and miniature garages strewn across the Royals' carpeted logo and into an adjacent room where players receive treatment from trainers.
It is there she finds whom she’s looking for — 22-month-old Luke and 4-year-old Ryan. While Ryan immediately begins to share his morning adventures with his mom, Luke has to be lured away from stirring the hot and cold treatment tubs.
“I absolutely love my children,” said Rodriguez, who is one of the few professional female athletes who’ve managed to continue a successful career after taking time off — twice — to have children. “They are the joy of my life. Every time I get to go home to them, it’s like Christmas morning. They’re so wonderful to be around.”
The delights of motherhood do not diminish the difficulty, even for the most prepared and successful mothers. And, while Rodriguez deals with many of the same struggles any working parent faces, she also has to navigate unique challenges and unusual benefits that few understand as a mother and professional athlete.
Starting a family
When the National Women’s Soccer League formed from the ashes of the Women’s Professional Soccer League, Rodriguez, one of the country’s best players, had to watch from the sideline.
Rodriguez and her husband, Adam Shilling, who met while they were both student-athletes competing at USC, decided to get married in 2011, and they really didn’t have a plan for when or how they’d start a family. They planned their wedding around World Cup and Olympic demands, but, when it came to deciding whether they should have children, they left that unanswered until it was an issue.
“I don’t think we necessarily had a plan or an idea,” she said. “We felt like we were open to the idea of having kids. We just said if it happens, great, and if it didn’t, we were fine, too. Then, we got pregnant, and we were really happy about it.”
Rodriguez and Shilling were fortunate in the timing. She found out she was pregnant with Ryan shortly after helping the U.S. earn a gold medal in London in 2012, her second Olympic gold in a career filled with accomplishments and accolades.
“It was going to be a down year, so it was a little bit of a window,” she said. She was signed by Seattle in the NWSL's first year, but a month after meeting with her during her pregnancy, they traded her to Kansas City.
When the then 25-year-old opened herself up to the possibility of pregnancy, she didn’t see it as choosing between a career or her desire to start a family.
“It didn’t seem like an either/or,” Rodriguez said. “Yeah, it definitely felt like a sacrifice, especially when I was sitting out and seeing my teammates continue playing in the first year of the league, and I didn’t get to compete in it. … I felt like I was missing out. But it was interesting because it was a child. It wasn’t an injury or something.”
Unlike male athletes, when and how female athletes decide to start a family can complicate, stall or even end professional careers. Two decades ago, pregnancy meant the end of an athletic career. Today, it's common in the WNBA, and partial pay during pregnancy was even addressed in that league's latest collective bargaining agreement. It is far less common in the NWSL, where, according to the league, there are only six women with children, although one is expecting.
Regardless of the sport, it’s a situation so fraught that many women either delay starting families until their professional careers have ended or opt for adoption so they don’t have to do what some see as purposely injuring their bodies. Rodriguez admitted that she didn’t know if she would be able to regain the physical body or soccer skills she had before pregnancy when she opted to become a mom.
“I just always said I’m going to do the best I can, and, at the end of the day, if I put it all out there and I had no regrets, then I would feel good about it,” she said. “And I did, and I still do.”
Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey said she’s coached a handful of mothers during her 16 years as a professional soccer coach.
“I’ve never experienced a downside to it,” she said of supporting female athletes who choose to become mothers while they’re competing. “Sometimes, the organization can see it as a logistical issue, and that can be something they have to deal with, but I think as long as there is an open forum for the player and the club to sit down and work things out, like do the kids travel, yes or no? If they do, this is what’s going to happen. … I’ve never experienced a negative, honestly.”
Rodriguez said she enjoyed extensive support from her family and U.S. soccer officials.
“I’m thankful U.S. Soccer was so gracious in my return — at the time, it was Tom Sermanni, who allowed me to take my time to come back to the field,” she said, noting that she benefits from a “very involved father” and supportive parents and in-laws. “I took all the right steps, and I had absolutely no dips or ups and downs. It just felt like I was continually getting stronger and better.”
Their patience and faith was rewarded when Rodriguez helped Kansas City FC win two league championships. When the franchise closed shop, her rights were transferred to Utah. Through the end of the 2017 season, she’d earned 44 goals in 92 professional games, including scoring 26 times in her two full NWSL seasons.
One of the most obvious challenges is just the physical toll of recovering from the intense demands of pregnancy and giving birth.
“It was very hard,” Rodriguez said. “You’re completely out of shape in a way that I have never been. I’ve never taken a year off of work, let alone have my body change by 40 pounds. And your muscles change, your blood volume changes, hormones are changing, and it’s a lot to handle. But I knew this is what women do, and, like every woman who has had a baby, this is what they go through.”
The best advice she received was to be patient.
“Especially my doctor … told me, ‘Go slow and do things right and take the right steps and you’re going to be fine,’” she said, adding that she sought a doctor who specialized in pre- and post-natal care. “I had no pain or problems, no complications, which made it easier.”
Support benefits all
Harvey said the question isn’t whether coaches and teams should support women in a decision to have a child, but how to support them. Supporting them, she said, benefits the entire organization and team environment.
“I think you’ve got to have an understanding, obviously, that the job is the job,” Harvey said. “I actually enjoy having the kids around the environment. Sometimes when everyone is so down about the sport, they can pick you back up again. They’re kids, and they do what they do. … Whenever I’ve had mothers on a team, embracing their families makes it easier for them as well.”
Rodriguez said that being a mother has led to more focus on the field and better perspective off the field.
“I do think that I’m a lot more calm, a lot more relaxed on the field,” she said. “My soccer career isn’t my entire life anymore, where it probably was before. … Now, I have to worry about really important things like children’s lives.”
She laughs, but she is serious about how it actually helps her focus in training and during games. She is more deliberate about how and when she trains, and soccer, like most physical activity, actually helps her deal with the stress that accompanies being a parent in any setting.
“What’s really nice about playing soccer is that it is a coping mechanism,” she said. “I go out on the soccer field, and it’s like, forget about whatever worries there were with my son’s school or the baby is sick. I don’t have to bring those things on the field with me. I think soccer does this thing for me where I forget all the outside influences. I forget all the problems, and I’m able to just go out and play.”
While she didn’t have anyone to talk to about whether she should risk her career to start a family, she said it’s something each athlete has to decide for herself.
“As a professional athlete, you have a small window,” she said. “I know that in my sport, it was considered risky to put my career on hold to have a child, to have two children. But I will say that my mindset was, ‘I’m not finished yet. I’m going to keep going. And I’m going to work twice as hard to get back to being the player I once was.’
"If women can get their minds around the uphill battle they’re probably going to face, and be willing to put their career on hold for a year or a year-plus, and it’s the right decision for their family, I would say go for it because clearly you can do it. I would say I’m proof you could do it.”
And while she doesn’t have regrets, she said, like most moms, she has had to make choices to put her children first and that has meant missing out on some opportunities for herself, including the 2016 Olympics.
“If I had to choose a gold medal or a child, I would choose a child. Even though it feels like the hardest job in the world, and I’m so tired, I want to pull my hair out at times,” Rodriguez said. “It’s rewarding in that you get love from another person. I love my kids to the moon and back, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world.”