Crystal Dunn hopes to return to the field with Portland by late August or early September. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

These days, Crystal Dunn splits her time between soccer, naps and bopping to old Disney songs in French with her smiling 5-week-old son, Marcel Soubrier.

The mother-athlete balance is a journey the Portland Thorns star was ready for after taking a month away from work to get used to her new identity as a parent. Still, there were many challenges she couldn’t prepare for until she gave birth to Marcel on May 20.

After catching about six hours of sleep, during which she and her husband, Pierre Soubrier, take turns calming down a crying Marcel, Dunn begins her day around 8 a.m. At 9:30, she leaves for the stadium to do physical therapy, catch up with teammates in the locker room, attend team meetings and watch their training sessions. In the afternoons, she returns home to look after Marcel, sometimes calling up Heather O’Reilly for parenting advice.

Dunn has been juggling parenting and soccer since June 15, as she works to return to NWSL action by late August or early September.

“It really gave me the full feel of, OK, I’m kind of back now. This is kind of cool,” Dunn told Just Women’s Sports. “I’m back as a new mother and as an athlete still. Getting into the rhythm has been really nice.”

Her return to play has been thoughtfully planned out by Portland’s high performance team, in conjunction with her doctor, pelvic floor specialists and physiotherapists.

“Crystal is, as she always does, blowing all expectations out of the water,” said Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson. “It’s exciting to watch. She can already outrun me and outlift me, which is just a testament to what an incredible athlete, but also professional, she is.”

Dunn knew this year was the right time to become a mother when she felt mental and emotional burnout in 2021. Her body needed rest in a different kind of way.

It didn’t mean the decision to become a parent was easy. She worried about the lack of support she’d get as she figured out how to find her way back to the pitch while also caring for a baby.

Women, in most fields of work, have a hard time envisioning successful careers and motherhood. For professional athletes, their body is their work, and for about a year during pregnancy and after giving birth, they’re unable to compete in top form. Being forgotten in the run of competition is a common fear.

Perhaps the most versatile player on the U.S. women’s national team, Dunn has been an instrumental part of their success in the past decade, most recently helping them win the 2019 FIFA World Cup title and 2020 Olympic bronze medal. A year from now, she hopes to play at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. The 2021 Concacaf Player of the Year won’t let the show go on without her.

The stigma around women athletes becoming mothers has motivated Dunn to partner with Modern Fertility, an organization that educates women on their bodies and their reproductive health, and provides them with resources to make the best decisions for their own journeys with motherhood.

Everybody’s path is different. To Dunn, that is the most important message for aspiring and current mothers.

“They’re understanding that you can be a parent. You can start thinking about being a mom and not sacrificing your career. You can do both. … Obviously Modern Fertility has been incredible because I just think everyone needs to be educated on their reproductive health. I think it’s something, especially as women, we’re not really taught a lot of that growing up.”

Dunn became affiliated with the organization to be a part of the conversations that will help normalize athlete pregnancy. Sydney Leroux, Kelley O’Hara, Candace Parker and other elite athletes have also partnered with the campaign.

In the NWSL, seven players have babies due this year, including Dunn’s USWNT teammates Julie Ertz, Allie Long and Casey Krueger.

“It needs to be celebrated more when women do take that journey to motherhood alongside being an elite athlete,” Dunn said. “Any way I can be involved to help push, help change that narrative that, ‘Oh, women should only kind of do this.’ Like, no, it’s 2022. Keep up, people.

“I’m not the first female athlete to be pregnant and give birth and have my career and be a mother at the same time, but I feel the more and more that we can speak out about our experiences and push for the next generation to feel like they have the option to do so as well is how you set up the future.”

Dunn didn’t think that, at nine months pregnant, she’d still be able to train with the Thorns. But there she was at practice, juggling and taking part in passing drills. The same week before she gave birth, she was doing volleys with Pierre, who’s also the Thorns’ head athletic trainer.

“My coaching staff was like, ‘Come as often as you want. We want you here.’ I think hearing that message really allowed me to feel valued,” Dunn said. “Once you’re pregnant, you know that you can’t play at the highest level anymore and so you start to feel left out. You start to feel like you’re not as valued anymore.

“I think my coaching staff and my teammates really did a good job of keeping me included. I was in the meetings, I was engaging with players all the time, and it really was exactly what I needed to step into now this new role that I’m in.”

As Dunn prepares to return to the pitch, she keeps in touch with members of the national team and has productive conversations with head coach Vlatko Andonovski every few weeks.

As the national team heads off to Mexico for the first game of World Cup Qualifying on Monday, Dunn will remain in Portland with her family.  Andonovski said in a press conference in early June that Dunn would have been on the squad had she been able to play, and there are certainly moments when Dunn wishes she could be at the Concacaf championship with her teammates.

But, as she reminds herself, being a mother is pretty darn cool, too.

“I’m exactly where I need to be right now,” she said.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.