Maja Hitij/Getty Images(NEW YORK) — Amid the rowdy celebrations on the pitch in France after the U.S. won the World Cup, a player kneeled so her young son could sprinkle a handful of confetti over her head.
As the confetti swirled around her, Jessica McDonald closed her eyes and smiled.
“I know all the girls, we all have something to play for, we all have this goal and we’re all on the same page as to what we want at the end of the day,” McDonald told ABC News. “But as for me, I have something a little bit more to play for, and that’s my kid.”
McDonald is the only mother on the cup-winning U.S. women’s national team, and one of seven mothers in the National Women’s Soccer League, where she plays for the North Carolina Courage.
Celebrating the World Cup win with her son Jeremiah, 7, almost didn’t happen.
“About four or five years ago, I thought about retirement, because getting paid on the salary from the NWSL and being a parent is probably — no, I shouldn’t say ‘probably’ — is one of the most difficult things to do,” she told ABC News.
During the offseason, McDonald worked 9-to-5 jobs, coached and ran camps, and sometimes packed boxes at Amazon 11 hours a day “just to make ends meet.”
“Situations like that can be very draining, especially when I can barely even afford child care,” she said.
McDonald sat down with an uncle, who told her, “You have this purpose that God has given you, and your purpose right now is soccer. If you can physically, and you’re still able to go and play, you need to do that. Don’t just give up just because it’s hard financially. You’re gonna be fine. You know that.”
Now a World Cup winner, McDonald seems more than fine, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. While she was not part of the 2015 World Cup team, which filed a gender discrimination suit against U.S. Soccer, she and other moms in the NWSL are “trying to get together to see the changes that we can help make for the future of moms in this league, because it’s a very, very difficult road.”
The NWSL did not respond to ABC News’ request for comment.
As a mother and professional athlete, McDonald has set up a system for her family: “Drop him off at school, I go to training, go on about my day, he’s got his after-school program, then I go to pick him up, we do dinner, story time, sleep.”
But it’s on days when the system gets disrupted — if, say, practice gets moved because of weather — that it gets “tough,” especially without child care support.
The World Cup started while Jeremiah was finishing up first grade. McDonald’s “North Carolina family,” whom she met and got close to after coaching their daughter, took care of her son back home. They then took Jeremiah to France for the end of the tournament.
“To be honest, if I didn’t have them in my life, I have no idea what I would have done,” she said.
Jeremiah joined her on the field after the win, at the ticker tape parade for the team in New York City and at the ESPY Awards, where the women won the award for Best Team.
“I hope that he remembers at least just holding that trophy, watching that game, and meeting this incredible group of women, because we’re in the middle of something powerful right now and something historical as well,” McDonald said. “I just want that to inspire him to want to be great at whatever it is he’s going to do in the future and just kind of stay in a positive mindset as well, because it’s a very difficult thing to do.”
Being around this group of women — and hearing Megan Rapinoe’s speech at the ticker tape parade — will impact him, she said. Witnessing it at a pivotal age means “it will hit him one day. Because he doesn’t understand right now. But one day, he will.”
In her ticker tape parade speech, Rapinoe said, “We have pink hair and purple hair. We have tattoos and dreadlocks. We got white girls and black girls and everything in between, straight girls and gay girls.”
An African American woman with dreadlocks (which she wears, she told Into The Gloss, because of their ease of care as a mom and pro athlete), McDonald’s image has inspired more children than just her son.
“We want kids who look like us to be inspired,” she told ABC News. “I’ve had so many parents DM me on social media thanking me because I simply have dreadlocks, because their daughters wear dreadlocks and play with dreadlocks, and I’m like, ‘Well why not? Let’s do it.’ It’s really cool to be able to inspire the younger generation of kids of color that look like us.”
Now back home in North Carolina, the McDonalds are settling back into their routine, as Jeremiah enjoys a summer program run by his regular after-school program on a farm. But his remarkable summer break may have an unplanned ending, thanks to shaking Dwyane Wade’s hand at the ESPYs.
“I think he was kind of inspired by sports this summer,” McDonald said. “So I think I’ll be putting him in summer basketball pretty soon.”
And maybe 15 years from now, Jeremiah will get to take McDonald as his date to collect his own ESPY Award. McDonald, of course, would be overjoyed.
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