“THIS IS THE PERFECT MOM BOARD,” says 41-year-old Margaret Yao Calvani, pulling a mint green, single-fin midlength from the crammed board racks lining her garage in North County San Diego. “I used to be more of a longboarder, but once I became a mom and started schlepping buckets and wetsuits and towels and snacks down to the beach, carrying a longboard was too much.”
The space around us—a scene likely familiar to any parent who surfs—is overrun with boards, strollers, tiny bicycles, miniature wetsuits and a half-finished load of laundry. At Calvani’s feet is a car seat and behind her is a folding table that sometimes functions as her work desk. It’s covered with papers, a yellow toy car and a volcano-making kit.
Calvani and her husband, surfboard shaper Matt Calvani, own Bing Surfboards in the small surf haven of Encinitas. The two met 15 years ago when Calvani was a competitive longboarder riding for the Hap Jacobs surfboard label, which Matt was shaping for at the time. Before the couple had their children—6-year-old Jacob and 2-year-old Coco, who have since taken over their parents’ quiver space—they were living “fancy free”, as Calvani puts it, surfing daily and going on surf trips whenever their growing surfboard business allowed.
Sliding her mom board back into the racks, Calvani says that between running the business and taking care of her children, she’s surfing less than ever before. “We used to go check the waves, drive from break to break, drink coffee at the top of hills looking at surf,” she says. “All that, gone. There’s no more luxury. There are no more free moments. We’ve both put surfing on the backburner, and surfing was such a huge, regenerative piece of our lives. It’s shocking to look back and think, ‘God, when was the last time I surfed? Was it that time like 2 months ago?’”
The decision to become a parent— more specifically, a mother—and how it can alter one’s surfing life are exactly what I wanted to talk to Calvani about. Aside from brief mentions when listing the superhuman accomplishments of Bethany Hamilton or Lisa Andersen, the topic of motherhood seldom comes up in our cultural discourse—a byproduct of a surf industry and media ecosystem historically run by, and catered to, young men. Venture online to any major surf website and you’ll probably find more articles on surfing goats (the literal kind, not Kelly Slater) than on the subject of motherhood in surfing.
Over the past year, I’ve been looking for a blueprint of sorts—a glimpse at what motherhood looks like for a wave-obsessed surfer—for my own edification. Your dear author, who has spent the last 10 years surfing almost every day, is now in her 30s and starting to weigh the pros and cons of starting a family. While it’s easy to imagine all the good parts of rearing offspring (like pushing them into their first wave or re-watching classic surf films like “Searching for Tom Curren” together) and fun to brainstorm baby names based on my favorite surf breaks (the jury is very much out on “Winkipop” and “Trestles”), it’s far easier for me to dwell on the aspects of motherhood that frankly terrify me. I worry about the unforeseeable ways my body, my identity or my career would change to make room for a baby. But what I fear the most, perhaps, is releasing the white-knuckle grip I have around my current surf life. And so I sit upon this fence, as many women do, trying to discern the potential life paths on either side.
My husband likes to remind me that we have an egalitarian partnership, and that if he became a father, his surf life would be changing, too (ha!). But I know my experience bringing a child into this world (if I choose to and am able to) will be different from his. I know that, if he so dared, he could be in the lineup surfing the day after becoming a dad. And I’d be at home with Winkipop.
But I wasn’t visiting Calvani in her garage to tally up the hardships of parenthood for women vs. men. I was on a quest to find examples of what modern motherhood looks like for a serious surfer. Over the span of a month, I tracked down as many moms as I could find and then peppered them with questions about all the surf-life-altering changes that motherhood brings. Luckily, I was able to find plenty of surf moms—big-wave moms, world champion moms, business owner moms and everyday surf moms (the category I’d fall into)—who were willing to give their honest takes on the beautiful, complex, challenging act of being both a mother and a surfer.
When Calvani and her husband started discussing the prospect of having children, she didn’t know much about what parenthood was going to be like. “I didn’t read the books, I didn’t have friends who were having kids around me,” she says. “I work with 18 men. They’re crusty surfboard builders so there’s no water cooler talk about life after kids, or what happens to your nipples when you’re breastfeeding, you know?
But you hit an age where you either bite the bullet and try, let the chips fall where they may, or you accept the fact that you may not have kids. Those are the kinds of decisions that the modern-day working woman faces. It’s something we put off, because we’re busy living, or busy working, or busy surfing, and there’s just a lot of distraction.”
They bit the bullet and immediately got pregnant. “I remember buying a pregnancy test at CVS on my way to work, peeing on the stick in the fumy, dusty surfboard factory bathroom, and it turning positive as I was peeing on it,” says Calvani. “I was terrified. I kept thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, what am I going to do with this business? Within 10 months this child will be here.’”
For the next 7 months, Calvani surfed as much as possible. Longboarding put too much pressure on her expanding belly, so Matt started shaping her stubby, Mini Simmons-inspired epoxy boards that she’d ride through her second and third trimester. Their surfboard business continued to expand as well, with Calvani clocking in 60-hour workweeks until the day she gave birth. But when her son arrived, she was blindsided by the reality of caring for an infant.
“In my own naivety, I thought I was just going to keep working from home with the baby strapped to me, and just be emailing away without a hitch,” remembers Calvani who, as a small business owner, didn’t have any maternity leave to bank on while recovering from childbirth and learning how to breastfeed.
“It was the gnarliest reality check ever. I remember 3 weeks into having the baby, I said to Matt, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t get anything done. The emails are loading up my inbox. Employees are not going to get paid. Vendors are not going to get paid. This is impossible.’ I was panic-stricken. And he just looked at me like a deer in the headlights. It was this pivotal moment where it was like, ‘Oh, my God. What are we going to do?”
In addition to struggling with the demands of their business, Calvani started to feel emotionally worn out and began experiencing high levels of anxiety trying to decode the needs of her newborn baby. “That postpartum hormone fluctuation is real,” says Calvani of the cocktail of hormones that surges through a woman’s veins during pregnancy, restructures the neural pathways of her brain (literally) before dropping precipitously after she gives birth. “You’re physically traumatized from birthing a human, and now you’re depleted 24/7, operating on so little sleep, sustaining this life. If you don’t have support or you don’t have people that you can talk to, or just even bring you food, you can go to a dark place really fast.”
Unlike Calvani, 31-year-old big-wave surfer Wrenna Delgado wasn’t able to surf when she was pregnant with her now 3-year-old daughter Evie—and the time out of the water was a dramatic shift for her. Deglado moved from New Jersey to the North Shore of Oahu when she was 19 and started surfing Waimea at 21. She fell in love with the thrill of riding giant walls of water, got invited to compete at contests at Jaws and Nelscott Reef and was short-listed as an alternate for the 2017 Titans of Mavericks contest.
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