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Martial Arts Mom

A freelance writer and mother of three shares her emboldened journey into revisiting an old flame -- Martial Arts.

by Carly Smith

I was even awkwarder than your average teen. Along with hating my body, I was painfully shy. My winning strategy? -- Avoid social interactions, altogether.

At 17, I started working the desk at our local Taekwondo studio. Mostly, this consisted of shy girl-approved tasks like processing transactions, balancing the books and selling contracts. The owner also had me take classes; something I wouldn’t have dared, otherwise.

From the moment I stepped on the mat, I was enchanted.

I loved the bowing. The belt progression. The competition. The fancy kicks. The exercise. More than anything, martial arts made me feel heroic, like the protagonist in my life.

I progressed to orange belt (two above white), went away to college, and then...

I didn’t go back for 16 years.


On the surface, the roadblocks were adulting and a lack of funds. But when I look at it now, I was spending time and money on other things. What actually held me back was my continued shyness.

I did my best with it. I learned to ask perceptive, polite questions; not realizing they often felt like an interrogation. I forced myself, through nausea and migraines, to pursue a career in academia. I saw Brené Brown’s famous TED talk and understood that being vulnerable would invite others to open up to me. But I wasn’t comfortable being seen.

After marrying my husband, I resolved that when our kids were old enough, I’d return to martial arts with them. I’d hold their targets, count our push-ups and kick them in the head—with full safety gear, of course. It would be fun.

And somewhere in my subconscious, I discerned it’d be easier to return with my kids as little crutches.


In 2019, we moved cross-country with our 5-year-old boys and 8-month-old daughter. I’d finally determined I couldn’t subdue my shyness alone. That October, I began therapy.

My counselor diagnosed me with social anxiety disorder, a condition I’d never heard of. Working with her was a lifeline during the pandemic. At least I was making progress on something.

After a year and a half, my therapist and I crystallized my insights into mantras:

Fear is boring. Fall back on curiosity.

Practice self-compassion.

Avoid avoidance.

Humor, repetition, and warmth enable connection.

Be insistent but affable about your belonging. We all belong.

It felt safe to emerge into the post-pandemic world. I had the tools to manage my social anxiety. And I was turning 33. It was now or never.

My boys and I tied on our white belts and stepped onto the mat.

An auspicious double rainbow in the parking lot my first day of class


Turns out I love the same things about martial arts as before. But there’s more -- A whole dimension I was unprepared for: Being a part of a community with my kids.

In class, we practitioners challenge, tease and encourage each other. We enter flow, dedicated solely to play. We overcome obstacles, internalize values and make memories. Nothing else matters when we’re on the mat and nothing matters more.

Applying what I learned in therapy isn’t always easy. I review my mantras before I enter the studio, put my gear in the cubby and sign in on the iPad. Some days are better than others. But even when it’s hard, I know...

I never could have had all this at 17.

Do you have pending dreams? Maybe it’s time to revisit them. Adulthood and motherhood are challenging; sometimes to the breaking point. But I believe some dreams can only come true when you’re an adult—and others only when you’re a mom.

My kids and me on the mat

Carly Smith is a freelance writer who grew up with costume jewelry, family diaries and her great-grandma’s Baldwin spinet. Her work has been known for helping her readers cultivate healthy and fulfilling relationships with their old stuff. She lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with her husband, kids and pet cockroaches. Visit her website and blog at


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