It was the best of conditions, it was the worst of conditions, it was the age of cooperation, it was the age of tantrums, it was the epoch of swell, is was the epoch of flatness, it was the season of sun, it was the season of fog, it was the spring of crowds, it was the winter of spaciousness.
With apologies to Dickens, so might go the opening lines of a novel based on Surfing Moms of Santa Cruz.
Once a week, in all conditions—barring extreme weather—a group of moms and children of various ages and surfing levels gather in a spot marked by a flag depicting the image of a woman carrying a surfboard in one hand, a baby perched on the opposite hip. Around the meetup site are beach blankets, a first-aid kit, sand toys, child-sized wetsuits, an array of boards, snacks and an ever-expanding group of mothers, fathers, grandparents and other caregivers who partake in surf-and-childcare trades. Babies, toddlers and children play in the sand and hang out with half of the adults at the meetup, while the other half goes surfing. Whether two people show up or 20, the structure holds.
While notoriously incompatible, surfing and motherhood are similar pursuits: you never know what any given day will bring, and must be prepared for ever-changing conditions. Sometimes it’s seamless, a reminder of why you ever did this in the first place. And other days leave you cringing, hoping for a redemptive moment that will make the sacrifices worth it. One must remain vigilant and try to avoid getting held down. In the unpredictability of it all, what Surfing Moms members can know for sure is that they will get in the water, and their kids will be cared for by others in the same situation.
The Surfing Moms concept is not new—lauded local documentary The Super-Stoked Surf Mamas of Pleasure Point (no relation to Surfing Moms) tells the story of a group of local surfing friends who experienced pregnancy together and surf-swapped for childcare well into their children’s toddler years. They were never a formalized group, just friends helping one another out. When I spoke with Katie Loggins, an ultra-stylish surfer who was an original member of that crew, she’d mentioned that their group would sometimes get requests from people visiting town or other moms who surf, inquiring about how to join up for childcare. But that didn’t exist, at least not in any formalized way. Their group was friends helping friends during a very particular juncture in their lives. Since their kids had grown, and were surfing themselves, they didn’t need it anymore. So goes the cycle of life, parenthood and nature.
Still, demand remained. When you have a baby or a toddler, surfing is an inconvenient hobby at best—and a guilt-inducing addiction at worst. Sometimes both on the same day. Surfing isn’t like the gym, with an adjacent childcare center. Nor is it like a hike, where you can strap a kid on your back, or a quick run where you can be done within an hour. Surfing in Santa Cruz requires preparation: the wetsuit-ing process, getting to the break, paddling to the lineup and waiting your turn, catching waves, failing at catching waves, wiping out, getting that epic ride, wanting to do it all over again.
For newer moms, add on guilt pangs that come along with leaving your little one for your own surf-seek, especially if you got there and it was blown out or so crowded you didn’t surf. I remember a particular day when my husband stayed with our kids, which he very often does to support my surfing—a fortunate example that should just be a normal one. I went to my favorite Eastside break only to find high winds and eyefuls of saltwater, plus small and meager waves. I was more bummed out that I had left my kids for this than by the poor conditions themselves. Thankfully, this was saved by an evening glass-off and two long, guilt-relieving rides before returning to spearhead dinner-bath-bedtime routine.
Give a Mom a Break
Dr. Elizabeth Maden, mother of three and the founder and president of the nonprofit Surfing Moms organization, is an Assistant Professor of marine biology in Hawaii whose work focuses on ocean health. Surfing since her twenties in Hawaii, California and Australia, she’d been looking for a way to get back into surfing after having her first two kids when, during her time in Australia, she came upon the Surfing Mums group that has dozens of chapters around the country. Upon moving to Hawaii, she wanted to keep it going, and started Surfing Moms in 2018.
“Being part of Surfing Mums in Australia,” she writes via email, “the group I joined before moving to Hawaii, and now Surfing Moms here in the U.S. has been such a game-changer for me personally, so it gives me incredible joy to see so many others now getting to experience it as well.”
Surfing Moms now has over 200 members, with eight chapters in California, four in Hawaii and one in New Jersey. If an area doesn’t have a group, anyone can start one.
Digital Media and Sponsorship Officer, Candace Stalder, who works in digital media at USC, is often asked “why I’m involved if I don’t have any kids,” she says. “It’s simple. Seeing the difference it made in someone I care about, to see what the community held for her, was incredible.” Stalder is referring to co-founder Anna Shoemaker, who recently stepped down from an organizing role where she established partnerships, brought in sponsors and handled publicity for the group, leading to further expansion.
“Anna gave me massive shoes to fill,” Stalder says. “She was doing such an incredible job getting us involved in local events, surf shops and more in all the areas of our nine [at the time] chapters. She also was the one who got us on local news stations, in newspapers, and she got us on the Today Show. She has put in so much work to help us reach as many moms as possible. Words don’t even begin to describe the dedication and time spent. She has made my path a little easier and less daunting.”
Despite the media attention, I hadn’t heard of the group until a new surfer-mom friend—history teacher, personal trainer and mother of two Sara Wright—told me she was considering starting a chapter in Santa Cruz.
Wright asked if I would join, but on learning that caregiver-parents pay $52 a year for membership, I initially felt skeptical, despite it being far from an exorbitant fee. It was the principle: shouldn’t we be able to meet in public space and trade off surfing sessions and childcare for free on our own? Why did we need a formal organization to do what sounds so simple on the surface? “Why don’t we just watch each other’s kids and surf for free?” I asked her. “Like they did in Super-Stoked Surf Mamas?”
What I’d forgotten is that organizing surfers is like herding cats. Organizing mothers, who are managing mental and emotional loads and unpaid labor already as household CEOs, schedule-keepers, full- or part- time job-holders, kid-Uber, etc, adds more difficulty to the equation. When we had actually attempted to make plans, Wright reminded me, they’d fall through for one reason or another: a child was uncooperative; someone had a cold; the surf forecast looked less than stellar and we bailed; we were tired; we didn’t have enough support or consistency to really make it reliably happen.
Even with every resource at one’s disposal—such as being fortunate enough to have several world-class surf zones within 15 minutes or less—surf-swapping as a parent of young children is a complicated combination to do informally with friends. Every moving piece—nap times, swell, daycare schedules, extracurricular commitments—must align. To join Surfing Moms, all you need to do is click a “Become a Surfing Mom” tab on the website, sign up, then show up at a meet.
Surfing Moms member and Treasurer, Lainy Condon of Hawaii, explains that the annual subscription fees “help to pay for public liability and accident insurance, maintaining our 501c3 non-profit status, promotional materials to help us reach more Surfing Moms, the website, group first-aid kits, CPR and first-aid training for our Group Coordinators and our annual gift pack.” Along with maintaining what the groups need to function, they also donate 5% of every subscription to nonprofits “focused on ocean and/or maternal health.” In 2021, the Surfing Moms organization donated to the Surf Conservation Partnership, an organization within Conservation International focused on protecting areas with outstanding waves and biologically diverse marine and coastal ecosystems.
“We are 100% volunteer-run, so every cent of subscription fees goes back into the organization,” Condon says.
So I got on board (yeah, sorry). It’s like committing to a gym or a club—because I just signed up, I’m going to show up.
“Buying into it is de facto for the society we live in,” says longtime surfer and recent member Andrea Riordan at a morning meetup. “We buy into things and it helps put a stamp on it: ‘This actually means something to me. It represents energy that I’m going to commit to it.’”
Buying into it is what got me there, but then the experience of Surfing Moms is what keeps me coming back. As Wright says, “As moms we often put our needs last. It’s nice to have this thing to look forward to that’s so inclusive. The slogan, ‘A Surfing Mom is a happy mom’ is so true. You leave feeling refreshed. It benefits both mother and child. You get to surf, they get to play. There are connections, new friends, this little tribe of moms and kids. It came together organically, and all are welcomed.”
At the first meet-up I attended, my initial skepticism was erased faster than my memory of labor pain. Surfing Moms was, in short, kind of magical. It brought together people who had probably previously shared a lineup, but never met, and made friends out of strangers. The community is growing as more parents learn of its existence and what it provides. As member Amy Schwerdtfeger explains, “I have friends who I surf with who aren’t moms, and I have friends who are moms but do not surf. This group is the only one I have that is the blend of moms who also surf … or, surfers who also mom?”
Alexa Thornstrong has been surfing since she was 9 years old—about 22 years now. She kept surfing until she was 32 weeks pregnant, and got back in the water as soon as she could postpartum.
“Four weeks,” she says, “though I think you were supposed to wait six. I couldn’t do that. But getting back in the water after birth was very difficult. Surfing isn’t like any other sport where you can get a babysitter and go at any time of day. Surfing is a very weather-reliant, condition-reliant sport. Having a set time every week with others who are trying to get in the water made it that much easier and motivating.”
As a mom, she says, “I think it’s important to stay yourself. The inspiration of filling my heart with all the goodness that comes with surfing fills those around me when I come in.” It was also the first time she left her young child with “someone other than dad or grandma. Seeing them happy on the beach with like-minded people and the impact of community is huge for me.”
Surfing Moms is about surfing, yes, but it’s more than the 50-minute session you get at a meetup. It’s an exercise in emerging from an isolating pandemic, building community and rediscovering ourselves anew.
“The amount of surrender it takes to redefine who you are as a surfer after you have children is a journey,” Riordan says.
Surfing Moms typically meets in Capitola, but this morning we opted for a small-to-medium wave day at Steamer Lane.
Jerilyn Sambrooke Losch, a tech product manager and mom of two, has driven down from Pacifica, toddler and baby in tow. Sambrooke Losch appreciates Surfing Moms because “there’s always a reason not to go surfing: conditions aren’t good, the schedule doesn’t work … to have a group that commits to a time every week and makes conditions secondary is critical to really surf.”
Even so, conditions are secondary to community.
“If you get in the water it’s a bonus,” she says. “You lower your expectations. Everybody makes that bargain with themselves before they show up. It’s refreshing.”
Music therapist Jody Priestley-Wilfong started surfing six months ago following a family tragedy. “I made a bucket list of things I wanted to do, because you’re never guaranteed another day,” she says. Surfing was one of them. She flew her best friend out from Michigan to take a lesson in Santa Cruz, was hooked, bought a board and got a coach. She loved it, but was also homeschooling her son, so wanted to find a meetup like this. “I Googled ‘moms and kids surfing,’” she says, “and Surfing Moms came up.”
Coincidentally, Priestley-Wilfong also became qualified as a surf therapist with the group started by clinical psychologist and Vice President and Founding Board Member of Surfing Moms, Dr. Amelia Borofsky.
Borofsky is stoked on Surfing Moms, lamenting how early moms groups she attended were more focused on the babies, while moms sat around discussing sleep schedules and toilet training.
“I couldn’t just sit and talk!” she says by phone from Oahu. (“OMG me too” went my inner narrative during our conversation.) “I Googled surfing moms. I’m a single mom, I wasn’t going to go surfing without support. Lo and behold, Liz had started a meetup three months earlier a block from my house. The main point for me, as a mom of daughters, is for them to see me taking care of myself, not just taking care of them. They learn to be strong, fun, adventurous women by modeling. It’s so powerful for our girls to see us doing this.” Her advice for moms: “Don’t lose your wild.”
Across the Pacific Ocean, back at Steamer Lane Supply, the Surfing Moms of Santa Cruz echo Borofsky’s sentiments. Our kids are “intrinsically learning to respect mothers taking time to do something they enjoy,” Riordan says. Sambrooke Losch tells her sons, “‘Tomorrow is mom’s surf day. Mom needs to take care of herself and that’s what this looks like.’ Women need to do that to show their children and other people, ‘This is what it looks like for a mom to enjoy her body after having a baby.’ It’s a big deal.”
“Yeah, like, ‘I can still do it,’” Riordan says, as everyone laughs in agreement.
Surfing Moms has taken off “in a way that I think none of us expected,” Madin writes. “It’s grown so much bigger and faster than what I could have ever imagined when I started our little local group a few years ago. I am beyond thrilled, and so stoked that we’re now able to help other moms build their own surf-care communities, just like we did!”
Madin hopes to see groups continue to form around the country, ultimately getting to the point where every coastal community in the U.S. has a group that parents and caregivers can join. “Then it’d be so cool to see the model be adapted for other sports and things: Kitesurfing Moms, Swimming Moms, Tennis Moms, Painting Moms…you name it! It can work for just about any activity.”
As for the local group, six months after starting it, Wright notes how fast it is growing and developing. “I didn’t know you, but you’ve been living here this whole time,” she tells me. “It was easy to connect—we have those two shared identities. Moms understand other moms and how important it is for us to get in the water.”
As my kids get older, I don’t see us outgrowing Surfing Moms. The possibilities are endless: we could end up teaching our kids to surf through Surfing Moms—it’s a dream of mine to surf with my daughters—or perhaps travel to visit different groups or surf swap with Southern California, Hawaii and East Coast member families.
Having a new community of mom-friends who are surfers—and friends for my children—because of Surfing Moms, coming out of Covid, is something so valuable it’s hard for even a writer to put into words. Parenthood, especially primary parenthood, can be overwhelming and isolating. The ocean connects us, heals and provides a totally different kind of social life than a landlocked version of meeting for meals and at playgrounds.
Even on the rare meetup that doesn’t go as smoothly, such as a singular Friday afternoon when there was the dreaded combination of no waves and a crowded lineup, along with little ones ashore going teary, being in a group of like-minded caregiver-surfers means someone is always there, someone who is going through it all right there with you.
Adds member Priestley-Wilfong, “Just having a place where you can come and I can bring my child, and knowing he’ll be taken care of so I can nourish myself, that I can go out and not worry, brings peace and nourishment to my soul. I need it as my mom. This organization is a godsend to me and my mental health.”
Come hell or high tide—or toddler meltdowns—we’re in it together. And that is the best part of our first chapter.
For more information about Surfing Moms, go to surfingmoms.org.