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Parent life in the NWSL Challenge Cup bubble

The logistics of the NWSL bubble were complicated enough, but kids have added another layer.

United States of America v Netherlands : Final - 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup France Photo by Maja Hitij/Getty Images

It’s a strange time to be a parent. All of the things that many parents in the US would normally rely on to help share the load - school, playdates, babysitters, daycare - are completely out of the question at the moment. Combine that with going into a quarantined athlete village in Utah, and the parents in the National Women’s Soccer League could have found themselves in quite the unique pickle. But as it stands, thanks to a little thoughtfulness and some diligent quarantining, it appears that parent life inside the bubble is manageable.

First, there’s the housing. Parents coming from out of market were placed in two-bedroom apartments close to the field and training facilities, instead of going into hotel rooms, which are about 30 minutes away. “We kind of asked to being more of a home living situation,” said Jess McDonald, “Because, I don’t know if you have kids or not, but five weeks with my eight year old doesn’t sound to ideal for me in a hotel room.”

McDonald is in Utah with her son, Jeremiah, who has already accompanied her on plenty of cross-country moves as McDonald was one of the most-traded players in the league before she finally found her groove with the North Carolina Courage. For her, she says she has no complaints about the way the league handled getting her family into the bubble - McDonald has also brought her 15-year-old cousin with her as her one allowed additional caretaker - it’s just that the original problems of isolation have followed them here.

“To try to keep him busy outside electronics can be a challenging thing because overall I’m very much so used to him being at school all day, and then we come home and we go through our bedtime routine. That’s kind of how it is for me on a normal day,” she said. Jeremiah is, according to McDonald, good about coming inside to sit down with books and art, but also has his running-around-screaming-outside moments too, and so she’s been taking him swimming every other day to try and burn off some of that energy. He also has his iPad, some toys from home, facetiming with friends back home, and a Nintendo Switch, although McDonald admitted she probably plays the Switch more than her son at this point. (Yes, she’s playing Animal Crossing. But also Mortal Kombat.)

“Overall we’re trying the best that we can to take it day by day,” said McDonald. “I think that’s what it is, trying to take it day by day, because we’re still here like another four weeks, so I’m like, okay, helmet on for impact here.”

It’s the same for the Red Stars’ Michele Vasconcelos, who is in Utah with her daughter Scarlett, who is two going on three years old. On our call, Scarlett could be heard insistently in the background, trying to navigate a very serious issue with her princess outfit. Vasconcelos juggled the call and her daughter like a pro, but said that it can be difficult trying to find enough ways to fill the hours with just her, Scarlett, and her husband in the bubble, particularly since her husband is still working during the day. “Yesterday we got to go to the pool for two hours so that was really nice. But otherwise get back from practice, naptime, play again, dinner, play, and go to bed. Lots of playtime,” Vasconcelos said, describing an average day’s routine. Between her and McDonald, they’ve definitely made it sound like the pool on site has been the VIP for the parents, who all get rotated regularly through a schedule to share time in the water. Anything that gets energy out of their kids is welcome; Vasconcelos said at one point during the Cup, she watched Scarlett do nothing but pick up rocks and put them in bushes for 25 minutes on a walk home from dinner.

Vasconcelos is fairly lucky in terms of her setup; she has family nearby, so her parents were able to make a contactless dropoff of some toys for Scarlett, although she says it’s a little confusing for Scarlett to know they’re close to “Mimi’s” house and not be able to go see her. She also has a playmate in the bubble, teammate Sarah Gorden’s son Caiden, who is six. “They don’t want teams to cross at all,” said Vasconcelos, “So yes, it has been so nice to have Caiden because not only is he older, he’s really cute with Scarlett and kind of looks out for her. She’s always like where’s Caiden, where’s Caiden.”

Another pair of kids lucky to have playmates in each other are Amy Rodriguez’s sons, Ryan and Luke, six and three respectively. They were with Rodriguez up until last week, when they went home to California with her husband. Rodriguez said she and her husband kept their plans loose because they didn’t exactly know what to expect, having never been part of a quarantine Challenge Cup tournament.

“In order to best suit my needs I really wanted to have the focus time for the tournament without my kids here and luckily my family and my husband, we were able to swing it,” she said. Husband Adam works in a hospital and is classified as an essential worker, so quarantine hasn’t exactly been easy for her family. “I had to go to training and do my workouts when they started back up in Utah. And we had no child care options. We had no school. We had no babysitter, no daycare. I didn’t necessarily trust anyone outside of our family to be in contact with the kids. I really wanted to remain quarantined and the only way that I could do that was by bringing them here to Utah with me and setting them on the sideline during my trainings,” she said. Outside of training, there’s been a lot of bike rides, scootering, and bug-hunting, and at the very least Rodriguez and her children get to stay in the three-bedroom apartment she usually calls home when she’s in season with the Royals. She acknowledged it’s tougher in some ways for the parents traveling into market, who don’t have their own transportation, or their whole support systems, or their childrens’ usual comforts.

But even when life was normal, Rodriguez was still essentially single-parenting her sons eight months out of the year while she was in Utah and her husband was in California. “It’s just the sacrifice you make. I’m so proud to say that I’ve done it, but I would not say it’s easy and I would not recommend it to people,” she said.

And even though Rodriguez says that Utah has been extremely accommodating of her needs as a parent, she still worries about distracting the team. “I always worry about my lack of professionalism when I bring the kids into, say, a players’ meeting or into the practice facility, inside the training room,” she said. “Areas where there shouldn’t be kids running around here, but there they are. And I always worry, I don’t want to affect any of my teammates’ performances and hinder anyone’s preparation for practice or games, so that’s always on my mind.”

All the kids have also had to go through regular testing, the same as the players. The older kids seem to understand what’s going on, according to their parents. Vasconcelos thinks that Scarlett being younger is a bit of a blessing in this respect, as she can be distracted before having to get yet another nasal swab, while Caiden seems to have a sense of miserable expectation around testing time. McDonald said that Jeremiah definitely understands the severity of COVID-19 and knows not to touch anything if they go to the grocery store. Rodriguez said she commends her sons for how manageable they’ve been during this time, particularly when they have to entertain themselves on the sidelines while she trains, keeping busy with toys and snacks.

Women’s soccer is certainly no stranger to the concept of having kids around, though they’re not numerous. But they are a common enough occurrence that league commissioner Lisa Baird had a specific call with the parents before the tournament, and to be a talking point around NWSL players deciding to retire because they can’t logistically have a family and play at the same time. Part of it is probably the traditional setup of our society - women are the primary caretakers of children most of the time, fair or not. And a huge part of it is money; most players simply can’t afford to have a child on their NWSL salary unless they have a partner or a family with means, nor can they afford to be out for a year and hope that their team will let them work their way back in without a multi-year contract.

“That is a player’s ultimate dream, to be able to have both career and family. However. There are hopes to get there; I don’t think we’re there. I don’t think we’re close to there,” said Rodriguez. She pointed out that there hasn’t been a lot of research done on ways to return to peak performance after maternity leave, and in any case with only nine teams (now 10, with the addition of Louisville), positions are so limited that players can be replaced very quickly.

McDonald, Vasconcelos, and Rodriguez all credited the league or their clubs for providing the resources they’ve needed to stay in the game this long while also raising children. For the Challenge Cup specifically, safety has been their top priority, and the league has apparently answered their concerns. But the conversation between the league and the player parents should continue well beyond this tournament.

Even though everyone hopes that the pandemic ends as quickly as possible, it has, at the very least, forced more conversations about ways to establish a new normal when it comes to supporting families by integrating children into work routines. You don’t stop being a parent at work, and looking after a child is already a full-time job. If NWSL wants to keep growing, the league is going to have to look at players having children as something to incorporate into routine logistics, as opposed to an outlier to accommodate. Clubs are going to have to adapt, whether it’s in providing daycare options or simply normalizing having your children with you. Perhaps the new marker of professionalism won’t be completely separating out your job and your family, but having a healthier integration of the two, allowing workers to feel more supported on the job. While it would be nice to have a sociocultural revolution that makes affordable childcare widely accessible and dismantles the gendered paradigm that weights women as primary caretakers, that’s just not going to happen any time soon. Like the parents in the Challenge Cup bubble, we’re going to have to do our best with the resources we have at the moment.

And maybe get some me time on that Nintendo Switch.