Olympian Sanya Richards-Ross on Motherhood and Finding Balance
Sanya-Richards Ross is a supremely busy woman. She’s currently starring in The Real Housewives of Atlanta, continuing to grow MommiNation—an organization she founded to support Black moms—and supporting her family through her roles as a wife and a mother. Not to mention she’s a retired track and field runner that won four Olympic gold medals. But despite all the different hats she wears and roles she juggles, Richards-Ross has seemingly found that elusive concept all working parents crave: balance. Here, The Bump caught up with her to chat about her motherhood journey thus far, learn more about her entrepreneurial endeavors, how she works through “mommy guilt” and how she finds time to squeeze in self-care.
The Bump: You’ve made history with an extremely impressive career as a four-time Olympic gold medalist. Are there any skills from your career as an athlete that helped you as you transitioned into your role as a mom?
Sanya Richards-Ross: There were so many, especially the skills that I learned as a quarter mile or 400-meter runner. A lot of people will say it’s the toughest sprint race on the track, and I do feel like there are times where motherhood feels like the toughest role that we can have. Ultimately, the biggest lesson I learned from sports was this idea of delayed gratification—especially training for the Olympics, a lot of it is behind the scenes and nobody’s watching. You’re doing all this work to have this one moment of glory you pray for, and it’s the same thing as a mom. You do all of these things and then your son laughs for the first time or he says “thank you” at the perfect time and he’s learning! He’s doing all of these things that you’re pouring into him every single day when nobody’s watching and when you’re tired. I think being an athlete prepared me for the most beautiful parts of motherhood.
The Bump: You and your husband Aaron have such impressive careers as athletes. Are you hopeful that your son will also lean into sports? Is there anything that he’s already taken a liking to?
SRR: I do hope that my son falls in love with sports and not because we hope that he makes it to the Olympics or to the NFL—that’s rare and we were very blessed to have that—but because of the reasons I just told you. It teaches you so many life lessons, and that’s ultimately what I want for him—to learn how to give everything you have, be okay with failure, have discipline, set goals and be humble in defeat. There are so many things you learn when you’re an athlete. I do hope that he’ll find a love for sports, and he already seems to love soccer. Football right now—especially with what happened with Damar Hamlin—it’s one of those very tricky things as a parent. My husband obviously played it and was very fortunate, but I pray to God that my son leans into another sport because that one can be so tough. But we’re going to allow him to lead us, and I do hope that he does fall in love with sports and becomes a better human being because he participated.
The Bump: Let’s talk about MommiNation.You started this organization in 2019 as a safe and supportive community for Black mothers. Was there a pivotal moment in your life that inspired you to create MommiNation?
SRR: Yeah, there were a lot of driving forces in why I wanted to start MommiNation, and it was also very indicative of the times. In 2017 I got pregnant, and I remember wanting to be a mom more than anything. But—although I wanted to be a mother and I had tons of resources and incredible support—motherhood still felt extremely overwhelming to me. When I was at my best when I was competing, I felt like the thing that made me feel capable was being in community and having that kind of support system around me. I wanted to create something like that for moms. And I looked, and there were some communities out there, but I didn’t feel like there was anything that specifically reflected my experiences. And then 2020 happened and we as a world, as a community saw how difficult it can be for Black mothers. I thought it was really important for us to have that safe place that creates opportunities, provides resources and helps us feel seen and loved—and it’s probably one of the best projects I’ve ever worked on. I did this hoping to help other people, but I came to realize it was actually for me.
The Bump: MommiNation also has a nonprofit arm called MommiNation Gives to help provide resources to moms. What drove this philanthropic aspect of the organization?
SRR: What we realized was that, in order to really do what we wanted, we needed to have a nonprofit arm of our company. The real goal is to provide the resources to our moms for free—we didn’t want our moms paying or buying the shirts and classes. It’s really about the community seeing the need for this and pouring into MommiNation so that we can then turn around and provide resources to moms that need it most.
MommiNation Gives launched last year, and we raised over $100,000 for our moms. We focused our first fundraising to support homeless or displaced moms. My goal originally—and I’m someone who sets goals way beyond the stratosphere—was to raise $25,000, and so to quadruple that has just been amazing. We’ve already placed one mom in a home for six months with her family of four children. It’s been a real joy for us. We’re going to keep finding different areas that we can make a difference in, particularly in the lives of Black moms.
The Bump: How are you hoping to grow this incredible resource and what plans do you have going into 2023 and beyond?
SRR: We have a laundry list of things that we want to do, but I think one of the things that’s on the top of our list for 2023 is launching a pregnancy series. We’ve done a lot of research—Black women are four to five times more likely to die during childbirth. We know there are a lot of reasons why people say this is happening and some that are obviously out of our control. But, as a community, we feel we need to empower women on how they can advocate for themselves and ensure they have as much education around what they should expect during childbirth. We want to include Black doctors and Black women within the series and also educate viewers on what’s normal during pregnancy. Our hope is that this resource can also help women connect with doulas and other people along their pregnancy journey that make the experience as it should be. Pregnancy should be the most joyous time of your life, and it should be a success. That’s one of the things we’re very passionate about: trying to help to solve that problem and lower those numbers for Black women.
One of the things about MommiNation is that we’re intentional but not exclusive. Although we intentionally serve Black women, anyone could be a part of our community. If you want to learn more about the Black motherhood journey, if you want to pour into Black moms, you’re more than welcome. But we’re very intentional about who we serve. We want to reach a million Black moms around the world, whether that’s through our merchandise, our community, our challenges or through our nonprofit.
The Bump: It’s clear you wear many different hats. In the past you’ve spoken about balancing all these roles and working through the guilt that can come with it. What’s your advice for other parents who might be going through the same thing?
SRR: It’s not always easy, but I think the first piece of advice I would give to another mom who also struggles with what we like to call “mommy guilt” is to give yourself grace. What I’ve learned with the thousands of moms that I’ve deeply and closely interacted with at MommiNation is that every mom is doing the best that she can. So many times we’re making choices today for our children’s futures, and sometimes that can be an overwhelming reality. What keeps me centered and grounded is checking in with my priorities, which is my family. If I feel like it’s been too long since I’ve been able to genuinely and authentically check in, it doesn’t matter how big the opportunity is, I’ll pass on it. For me, it’s always about checking in and making sure that my family is happy, supported and feeling loved. When I’m with my family I give them 100 percent, but when I’m out doing the things I need to do I give 100 percent to that, knowing that the reason I’m doing it is for my family.
The Bump: You’ve spoken a lot about your family’s happiness and ensuring they feel supported by you—how do you ensure your own happiness is also taken into account?
SRR: It’s funny you ask that because last night my husband and I were watching a series on finances and budgeting. I’m a money magnet, but I’m not the best at saving and investing—but in 2023 I’m changing that! So my husband gets a budget going, which I really appreciate because he’s really good at that kind of stuff. He comes in today, and he says I’m overspending on food and this and that, but I’m under-spending on self-care. He said that’s the area he doesn’t want me to be low on. He’s like, “I need you to get under on everything else, but I want you to get the massage, and I want you to get your nails done and I want you to do all those things that make you happy.” I’m grateful I have a partner who noticed that and wants to hold me accountable and make sure that I practice self-care. But I definitely put myself last. It’s always about my family and their happiness and constantly progressing for my family.
Like most people, I have to check in with myself and slow down. I have to take those long baths, get that new book or take that walk to clear my mind. But the thing I struggle with most is prioritizing myself and doing those self-care things that really restore our spirits. Ironically, in 2022, we had our first MommiNation Retreat. We went to Jamaica with 20 to 25 women. We didn’t talk about kids or husbands—it was all about us and it was the best experience ever. I really cherished that time with the women. It was amazing to just pour into ourselves and have fun and let our hair down.
The Bump: Let’s talk a little bit about The Real Housewives of Atlanta, which you star in. You’ve previously opened up about your struggles to want to have a second child due to the overwhelming workload you experienced the first time around. How does your real life role as a mom come into play on the show?
SRR: Joining The Real Housewives of Atlanta has been a really fun and exciting journey. I’ve made some really great relationships with the ladies. This is my second season, and I’m looking forward to the viewers seeing it, especially for me—a lot happens in my personal storyline, my family’s storyline, and my relationships with the ladies are evolving and growing. I shared my story of struggling to want to have another child, and I was pleasantly surprised by the response from women all around the world who reached out and shared how they appreciated me talking about this. And it’s a hard thing to talk about. It feels like a very selfish thing, but it’s not. I think it’s very mature to know what your capacity is and to be brave enough to stand in that truth. My husband and I are trying for a second one this time, and I’m in a much better place and our family is in a great place. And the women are so supportive of my journey—like they want me to be pregnant more than I want to be pregnant. I just love that because that’s what real sisterhood is all about.
The Bump: Have you bonded with any of your castmates over motherhood?
SRR: Marlo [Hampton] and I have developed a really good relationship. She’s actually a “Munty”—she calls herself a “Munty” because she’s mothering her sister’s children. We’ve always thought about MommiNation as not being exclusive, and she helped me realize there are a lot of women out there who are mothers, just not in the traditional sense…I love seeing what Marlo is doing—and many of my castmates because they also reframe what motherhood looks like and the support that those women need to be able to get the best out of their children.
The Bump: What advice would you give to couples who are looking to create more equitable ways to balance the parenting workload with their partner?
SRR: A lot of times this is a hard thing to talk about because, especially as women, we’re supposed to be just great at all the things and do all the things in the house—and sometimes people don’t see it as work. It’s viewed as “just being a mom.” … So I think it starts with a very clear and real conversation about what that parental workload feels like to you. What are places and spaces where your partner can help that really are significant—I think sometimes people do stuff, but it’s not the help you need or where you feel the most relief.
Ross and I struggled with that in the first couple years of our marriage. I nursed my son for almost two and a half years. A nurse—and I wish I had taken her advice—told me to pump. She said, “You have to share this load. If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, it’s going to get overwhelming.” And I was like, “Oh, no, I’ll take that on, it’ll be fine.” And I remember, there were days where I would ask my husband to just stay up with me. Even if he wasn’t feeding, I just needed his company. And he was like, “Why should we both be tired,” and it caused a big rift. It was a point of contention for me because I was taking this full burden on and he wouldn’t even sit up with me. So, I think it’s about, for both people, sharing your needs clearly, but then also your partner having the heart to really hear you and understand that those needs matter to you, even if they don’t seem important to them.
The Bump: What was your breastfeeding journey like?
SRR: I always wanted to breastfeed. We always hear about the great things that breast milk provides to your child, my mom breastfed me, and there’s a lot of rich history around breastfeeding. I was very fortunate that my son latched really easily when I was in the hospital and there wasn’t much of a struggle there. I opted to do it exclusively, and I originally said I would do it for a year then I planned to wean him off. I remember my husband said not to put a timeline on it, but to just go for as long as I could—another thing that he learned from our first child is that these kinds of things should be the decision of the mom. Towards the end, there was tremendous attachment on both sides. I really needed to wean my son because I was traveling and working, and it actually became really hard for my husband because he couldn’t really feed our son. Towards the end I really struggled, and I felt so bad. But the bonding is so beautiful and the connection—there’s this feeling of knowing you’re literally providing the nourishment your child needs to survive. It’s a really beautiful thing.
The one thing I’ll say to any mom that reads this is that no matter how long, arduous or tedious, whatever moment you’re in with motherhood, this too shall pass. Literally the day my breastfeeding journey was over, it was over. It wasn’t happening anymore and it will never again. Some days it felt really long, but the minute it was over, we were on to the next thing, the next chapter. So do your best to enjoy the experiences because they’re special and sweet, and they don’t last forever.
The Bump: How do you find ways to carve out time for your family, friends and yourself?
SRR: I think it’s all about being very intentional and creating a schedule. For me it really works to create schedules I adhere to. Sunday is family day, and I don’t work on Sundays. It’s all about being present with my family. But on Sunday nights, I start to plan out my week. It’s honestly gotten a lot easier now that my son’s older to really carve out time to do what I need to get done. I remember talking to Kandi on the show—as busy as I think I am, Kandi Burruss is busier—and she lives by her schedule. When it’s family time, it’s family time; when it’s work time, it’s work time. I think that’s probably the key to most people who have to find balance—I say balance, but I don’t think we’re ever fully in balance— but people who find some semblance of balance in their life. They schedule their days; they schedule their weeks; they’re intentional about making time for what’s important to them. And then you just do the best that you can.