I Don’t Need Rock-Hard Abs To Be A Good Father And Husband

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A former exercise addict, Hugo Schwyzer shares how he gave up marathons for fatherhood.

“It’s time to go shopping for new pants,” my wife told me gently a few weeks ago. She was feeding our infant son; I was in the bathroom, getting dressed for a meeting, pulling on a favorite pair of jeans. The pants weren’t ripped or out of style—but they had grown too small for my thickening middle. Shirtless, I looked in the mirror, seeing the beginnings of what the kids unkindly call a “muffin top.” I winced, nodding my agreement, biting back the self-loathing that started to rise up my throat.

I grew up a soft, chubby kid. I was never obese (and indeed, pre-puberty, went through some skinny periods), but I spent most of my teenage years a few pounds overweight. Embarrassed to take my shirt off at the beach or pool, I used the excuse of my fair skin to keep my chest covered in public. When I started dating my first girlfriend, I was scared she’d be repulsed when she touched what I thought of as my doughy belly. Though later (as I wrote last year), a college hook-up taught me that women could “appreciate perfection without expecting it,” what I saw as my fat remained a source of insecurity into my early 20s.

In college, my flesh was molded by my drinking. I had what I called my “vodka belly.” That body changed radically when I went through my first divorce in 1992, just as I was trying to get sober. I lost 40 pounds in the course of just a few turbulent months, channeling my pain into exercise and a restrictive diet. I soon relapsed on drugs; I stopped exercising but kept slender with cocaine and cigarettes. I wore jeans with a 30-inch waist on my 6’1” frame; I felt much more comfortable taking my shirt off when swimming (or going to bed with someone). I might not have had much muscle, but I had nary an ounce of discernible fat—and that was a source of reassurance. Remembering the teasing I’d endured as the chubby teen, I comforted myself during some very dark moments with this sad little mantra: As long as you’re skinny, you’re OK. You’re OK.

After I got sober in 1998, my addiction moved laterally—into distance running. I became a marathoner, and then an ultra-marathoner. (I was never quite as fast as Paul Ryan claimed to be, but a lot faster than he actually was.) My frame stayed lean, but it got harder. For cross-training, I cycled, boxed, and did Pilates. I had an infinitely better body in my mid-30s than I did as a teen. 

But the addict’s mentality was still there. The perfecting of my body became first an external representation of my own spiritual and emotional growth, and then, more often than I like admitting, a substitute for it. I stuck to exercise religiously, trusting that if I hit the right times or logged enough miles, nothing else would matter. In my 20s, I managed my anxiety with booze and cocaine and benzodiazepines; in my 30s, I kept all the fears at bay with an equally potent cocktail of vanity and endorphins.  

When Eira and I started dating in late 2002, she was already an accomplished triathlete. My soon-to-be-fourth-wife and I worked out together and cheered each other on at our respective races. Our free time outside the house was spent at the gym, doing century rides on our bikes, putting in countless miles on mountain trails. For a few years, we averaged at least 20 hours a week of exercise, often more. And next to lovemaking, our favorite naked mutual activity was the rigorous study of our bodies, talking about what we liked and what we still wanted to improve. (We only complimented each other, saving our critical comments for ourselves.)

Our mutual exercise addiction meant that our relationship didn’t suffer from the resentment that often appears in marriages where one partner is hooked on working out and the other isn’t. A very high level of fitness was part of our identity as both individuals and as halves of a couple. Even if we excelled at different sports (I liked ultra marathons, Eira liked sprint triathlons and kickboxing), we made sure to prioritize not only our own workouts but to do all we could to make sure that the other had plenty of time for recovery, rest, and refueling.

And then we had two children. Heloise was born in early 2009; her little brother David followed four months ago. My wife was sick through much of both pregnancies and stopped working out; out of solidarity, I cut my own mileage and gained weight. (My weight gain wasn’t helpful in and of itself. Staying home and being present, especially during the second pregnancy, was.)

In our circle of friends, I’ve seen many fathers who prioritized exercise over time with the family. Terms like “running widows” and “running orphans” aren’t hyperbolic; I’ve watched marriages flounder when one partner’s need to chase the endorphin high trumps his or her—but almost always his—commitment to family. The transition from the leisurely life of childless athletes to the exhaustion that comes with being the working parents of two small children is a jarring one. There’s a big difference between the pleasant fatigue that comes after a long run and the bone-weariness of sleepless nights with little ones. For more than a few runners and triathletes I’ve known, that shift can lead to resentment—who are these little people who are messing with my training schedule?

My wife doesn’t need me to have a six-pack. She liked it when I had it, but she’d rather have me present. Weezie and Davey don’t need me to have the resting pulse of 38 or the 5.1% body fat I once had. (Like so many compulsive exercisers, I have all of my pertinent numbers—race results, weight fluctuations, heart rate—memorized. That’s part of why we found Paul Ryan’s inability to remember his personal best time so implausible.) My family needs me to be healthy, but they don’t need me to be a toned and bemedaled paragon of fitness. If I choose the endorphin high over time with them, I rob us all.

When I was at my fittest and fastest, I would lie in bed each night after my wife had nodded off and run my fingers over my torso, my arms, my hips. I loved feeling the muscle, the bone, the heartening absence of fat. It wasn’t a sexual caress. It was a ritual of reassurance, a tactile prayer before sleep. I am thin. I am fast. I am strong. I am OK.

Today, my scarred and tattooed frame is now softer than it’s been in 20 years. That padding serves a purpose; my son sleeps in comfort on my chest, and my daughter likes to poke my belly experimentally, laughing in glee as I puff it out and suddenly suck it back in. My hugs, I have to believe, are better than they were when I was 25 pounds lighter.

I won’t pretend it’s been easy to give up the kind of peak fitness I once had. There are days where I avoid seeing myself naked in the mirror, nights where I touch my body before bed and fight back a sudden wave of shame. When I drive to work, I see lean runners on long runs, water bottles and Camelpaks strapped to their bodies, and I’m momentarily overwhelmed by a mix of nostalgia and envy.  Those moments pass. I know I’ve got a finite amount of time, and a finite amount of energy, and I’ve made a choice to use my body for others rather than myself. There’s no resentment of Eira and the kids. They didn’t take my four-hour workouts away from me. I gave them up to have something better.

There are seasons in life. In one season, I was an addict, a self-mutilator, a recklessly promiscuous man who loathed his body and his life and found solace in sex, self-harm, and drugs. In the next long season, my body became an ascetic’s temple, rigorously disciplined by sweat and self-denial. At 45, in what I’d like to think is the high summer of my life, my body is here to carry small children and to love an equally exhausted spouse. When our kids are older and our responsibilities different (if not entirely fewer), perhaps there will be another season in which Eira and I will go back to the racing, the boxing, the hours of happy sweating. But that season won’t come soon.

Now is the season to buy new pants. And I am still OK.

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and son in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted. You can find him on Twitter at @hugoschwyzer.

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