NICOLE GAMARD/ISI PHOTOS

It was just after I learned I was pregnant that I heard the Jamaican national team would be having their first camp in two years, in the spring of 2018.

Fast forward to the fall, and there I was with Josiah, my eight-week-old son, biting my nails as I watched the national team go into penalty kicks against Panama with the first ever World Cup birth for any Caribbean team on the line.

We won. We were going to the World Cup.

I was so happy for the squad and for Jamaica as a whole. I immediately facetimed my mom, crying. Then I reached out to our head coach, Hue Menzies, and told him that I would do everything I could to be ready for our January camp. I had just been cleared to start running again, and I had my first session with my strength and conditioning trainer the day after the match. I walked into that workout as motivated as I’ve ever been.

EVERY ATHLETE HAS BEEN TOLD THAT IT’S ALL MENTAL – THAT PERSEVERANCE IS SIMPLY A MATTER OF HAVING THE RIGHT MINDSET..AND EVEN AFTER HEARING IT AGAIN AND AGAIN THROUGHOUT MY 21 YEARS OF COMPETITIVE SPORTS, IT WAS ONLY AFTER I BECAME A MOTHER THAT THE PHRASE TRULY BEGAN TO SPEAK TO ME.”

Every athlete has been told that it’s all mental – that perseverance is simply a matter of having the right mindset. I’ve heard coaches say it at the end of training, when everyone is gassed but we still have more conditioning. I’ve heard teammates say it when I thought my arms were giving out but I still had another set of push-ups to do.

I even heard it in the delivery room. 27 hours, 18 of them unmedicated – all mental, I was told.

But even then, and even after hearing it again and again throughout my 21 years of competitive sports, it was only after I became a mother that the phrase truly began to speak to me.

BRYAN BYERLY/ISI PHOTOS

I had no reason to think that I wouldn’t be able to compete again at the highest level. Besides a long labor, I hadn’t had any complications in my delivery. I knew other NWSL players who had returned to form after giving birth, and I had closely followed Serena Williams during her comeback. She has long been someone I admire, which made her return to the court as a mother especially inspiring.

But one thing I failed to anticipate was just how much hormonal change my body would go through post-pregnancy. I wasn’t prepared for how easily these changes would manipulate my headspace. For instance, right before we were discharged from the hospital, I couldn’t figure out how to adjust Josiah’s car seat. I had a complete, spontaneous meltdown, telling myself I should have practiced this ahead of time. It was such a small issue, but my emotions just snowballed out of control.

It was then that “it’s all mental” started to make sense to me. I realized that each and every day, I would first have to get my head right before I could tackle all of the responsibilities that came with being both a new mother and a professional athlete.

HOWARD SMITH/ISI PHOTOS

My first months back in training were some of the most intense I’ve ever had. I would get up each morning, take my son to training, breastfeed him when I was finished, drive an hour back home, somehow find time to shower and eat, and then head back to the indoor facility for my technical session with my son in his stroller. This was my daily routine until I finally joined my club, the Washington Spirit, in DC for preseason.

It wasn’t easy, and the fact that I was rarely able to get a full night’s sleep certainly didn’t help. But the training itself always mellowed things out. I felt calmer after workouts and more in control of things.

My husband is also a professional athlete, and I will never forget how during my preseason (which was his offseason), before we could find a nanny, he would get up every morning at 4:30am to get all of his training done by 8 so that he could spend the rest of the day with Josiah while I was training. There were also camps in Jamaica when both my mom and my mom-in-law had to come along and tag team childcare, as I was still in the process of weaning Josiah and couldn’t leave him for a week. It means everything to me to know that my family not only believes in my dreams, but also sacrifices for them, too.

COURTESY OF THE MATTHEWS FAMILY

On the one hand, being a mother means that everyday I wake up and am needed. I am loved so fiercely by this tiny human who wants nothing more than to simply be nurtured. On the other hand, being a professional athlete means having to prove myself every time I step onto the field. It means fighting every day to earn my spot, knowing there are always others working to take my place, and they don’t care that I might be a little sleep-deprived.

There are days when it feels like it’s been forever since I’ve played competitively. These are the days when I wonder if I’ll ever be as good as I once was, when it seems like every touch is a bad touch, or I keep forgetting to track back, or I’m simply too tired too early into training. Sometimes I can’t keep focus and start looking in the direction of my phone during drills, thinking about Josiah. I’ll stare at him after practice and wonder if I should step away from the pitch and focus on just being a great mom and wife.

But when I give myself the space to reflect on it, I know that by continuing to follow my dreams I am showing my son what it means to live an impactful life. I am showing him that it’s possible to be committed to both your passions and your family, that you can still serve others as you chase your own goals. I know that my purpose on and off the pitch is to set an example in the way I work and treat others around me. My hope is that when Josiah is older he can look back on what I’ve done and know that if I could play in a World Cup a year after giving birth, he can do anything he is willing to work for.

Through it all – the sleepless nights, the exhaustive training, the emotional and physical highs and lows of balancing motherhood and competitive soccer – I’ve had to dig deeper into myself and my faith than ever before. I’ve had to ask myself each time I see my son and each time I step onto the pitch, how can I be the best version of myself, for my family, my teammates, and my country?

Little routines can help. Everyday during my commute, I listen to a sermon. It helps me feel like I’m putting on armor before I even step onto the field. I also take time each morning to reflect on what I’m most grateful for. Almost always, it’s my family that tops the list.

I can honestly say that being a mother has only grown my love for the game of soccer. I can’t imagine myself working toward anything else at this point in my life. Knowing that it’s not my sole purpose has allowed me to better focus while I’m on the field and play with a sense of peace. I know that no matter how I play, my son will be waiting to greet me with love.

Being able to compete in a World Cup just nine months after giving birth to a strong, healthy boy was a unique and precious blessing that I didn’t take for granted. When I stepped onto the field in Paris as a new mother, representing both my country and my family, I knew I had already won.