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Athlete Mom

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When Misty May-Treanor reunited with Keri Walsh and returned to the beach volleyball tour last week in Glendale, Arizona, helping the U.S. beat Brazil 26-22, it was -- surprise -- about more than winning a share of the prize money.

Walsh in May gave birth to a son and May-Treanor has been sidelined with an ankle injury. But you can bet cameras weren't trained on May-Treanor's ankle, but rather on Walsh's tummy. (One celeb report noted, "Photos shot during the AVP Crocs Tour in Glendale showed a sleek mid-section on the star and anything but 'skinny soft.'")

The combination of motherhood and prize-winning athlete is getting a good run lately. Kim Clijsters, of course, just won the U.S. Open ($1.6 million) with daughter Jada looking on. Last month, Scottish golfer Catriona Matthew won the Women's British Open (and $400,000) just 10 weeks after giving birth to her second child.

And then there are all those moms who just get paid to play sports (Candace Parker's comeback after 1 ½ months of maternity leave brings to more than a dozen the mothers playing in the WNBA).

What's extra noteworthy about Walsh and May-Treanor - who has said she has every intention of starting a family, too - is the particularly physical nature of beach volleyball, both the athletics and the fact of playing in teeny bikinis.

While their dominance -- they're two-time Olympic Gold Medalists -- is unquestioned, their popularity comes with a burden: Is it about being hot? Or being good? And how does motherhood affect a sport with a swingles vibe?

This is an interesting moment for mom-dom.

On the one hand, we have women athletes in a variety of sports performing impressively and appearing none the worse for having given birth (after Paula Radcliffe won the New York City Marathon in 2007, we even heard of the "motherhood effect" and benefits of increased blood flow from pregnancy, especially in non-contact sports like running and swimming).

On the other hand, pregnancy and childbirth remain suspect activities, athletically speaking, and top performance is treated as nearly miraculous - and a key element of the event coverage.

Holly Powell Kennedy, Helen Varney Professor of Midwifery at the Yale School of Nursing whose work pinpoints a "fear" of childbirth as a natural process, says a study of childbirth advice books suggests "a prevailing concern that having a baby forever damages a woman's body." In fact, she points out, "the physical work of motherhood is considerable and they can develop additional strengths as a result."

At issue, of course, is our cultural discomfort with the uterus and the messy matter of pregnancy and birth. Aristotle declared menstruation a sign of female inferiority. Victorian-era physicians prescribed excessive rest (naturally nixing stressful activities like college classes that would draw blood to the brain from the uterus, leaving women barren). And girls in gym class -- even into the 1970s -- were urged to sit out during certain days of the month.

The message was unrelenting: Women's child-bearing capabilities made them physically fragile, in need of protections and limitations. The cumulative effective of all this "concern" were barriers to women's activity (for their own good, of course!) that has spawned a reflexive self-censorship. Women stand back. They take themselves out of the game. And for years, elite or professional female athletes wanting to have children retired -- that is, until they realized the ruse.

Right now, we have women like Olympic medalist swimmer Dara Torres and Women's Professional Soccer Player Kristine Lilly who waited to have children, but have competed at a high level upon their return. On the other end of the spectrum, more are seeing that motherhood and top athletic performance can evolve together. Candace Parker clearly never intended childbirth as any more than a bench break early in her career - and neither did Walsh or Rachel Wacholder, another new mom and volleyball player Walsh partnered with this before May-Treanor's return.

While we are in the midst of an evolution in thinking about athletic performance after childbirth, the May-Treanor and Walsh reunion adds a provocative twist because they have been a particularly high-profile team in a sports where the uniforms are all about their bodies. It is not merely about how one performs post-childbirth, but it is also about one looks.

Female athletes have endured advice that shorter shorts and sexier uniforms would draw fans (1950s-era female basketball players at some tournaments even competed in half-time beauty pageants to be named "Queen of the Court"). Fact is, women are forced to occupy a narrow cultural identity -- bitch, bunny, or mom -- and physical appearance plays a big part in that, whatever your role or profession.

Beach volleyball makes feminists queasy because it overtly mixes the seriousness of competitive sport with sexiness. (It should just be about their play!) And now "motherhood" -- with all its loaded meanings -- is in there, too.

Sure, snarky fans will scour the online photo galleries for stretch marks. But, ironically enough, having a working mom playing gold-medal-worthy competitive beach volleyball in a bitsy bikini alongside her teammate, Walsh may just be giving the rest of us a little more room to move.

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