How 50 Pushups a Day Helped Me Cope In an Uncertain World


The pushup challenge started with an email from my friend Jeff. It was mid-March 2020, and all day, from my apartment in Brooklyn, I heard ambulance sirens wailing. A makeshift morgue truck was parked a few blocks away. I felt helpless as I looked out the window of my apartment, just to see if other people were looking back.

In the email, Jeff, who used to go to the gym every day in San Francisco, but was now inside his apartment too, wrote, “Just like life these days during coronavirus, there really are no rules. But if you would like some baseline goals, guys have to hit 150 pushups and girls have to hit 50 pushups. How you get to those numbers every day is up to you.” (He didn’t say why men and women weren’t doing the same amount, but I wasn’t going to point out the sexism if it meant I had to do fewer pushups.)

Jeff included a spreadsheet for the 30 friends he’d picked to do pushups with him to track our numbers. My aggressively un-sporty best friend, Ruthie, wrote her name as “Ruthie ‘Adults are called women not girls,’” while my aggressively sporty boyfriend, Julien, also signed up. I wanted to join them because I hate to be left out, and I liked the idea of doing something to make myself feel stronger, but I’d had a baby a month before and wasn’t sure I could do a single pushup, much less 50 a day.

For most of my thirties, I’d been unsure if I wanted to have a child, in large part because I liked my life as it was. I wrote early in the morning, read books alone at diners, stayed out late with friends for one last glass of wine, and in general, felt free to roam around the city doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted.

Having a child would change that. It would pin me down to being responsible for someone else and alter the shape of my life. But I also kept feeling a tug that having a child was something I wanted to do with my life. This happened when I saw my friends with their kids, or when I saw children in public. One evening, while I was on the subway home from work, a small child sitting next to me burrowed into my side even though I was a stranger, and I was overwhelmed by how nice it felt to have a kid use me for comfort. I decided I was ready to try to have a child, no matter how it would change my life.

So in my late thirties, Julien and I started trying to conceive. I did not get pregnant quickly. I went through months of fertility treatments before a round of in vitro fertilization worked. After I was pregnant, I thought the years I spent making sure I wanted a child, as well as the time I spent sticking needles in my stomach, might have a side benefit: Giving birth and being a new mom wouldn’t be that big of a deal. I could absolutely handle it.

doing my pushups at penn state, a stop on a cross country road trip we took in october at the time, i'd been doing pushups for about six months 

Doing my pushups at Penn State, a stop on a cross country road trip we took in October. At the time, I’d been doing pushups for about six months.


Before I gave birth, a friend sent me a recipe for what she called “padsicles,” that instructed me to put aloe vera, witch hazel, and a few drops of lavender essence on maxi pads, then put them in the freezer. I ordered the supplies, but didn’t bother to make them. “I don’t even know if I’ll need them,” I told Julien. I also didn’t bother to read any baby books, thinking that I didn’t have to over-prepare for being a mom. I’d be fine.

I was so wrong. I have never been more walloped, in both my body and brain, than after having a baby. I couldn’t put it all together: How could I care for this new person who needed me constantly while also taking it easy on my own body as I recovered from giving birth? It felt impossible. My thoughts were dark. I told myself I was already failing as a mother because I wasn’t enjoying every second with my newborn.

The first time I went for a walk with the baby in his carrier, I was still in my maternity clothes and every plodding step I took hurt. I felt awkward and uncomfortable, like my head and body didn’t belong together. The baby was in his pink-and-blue striped hat from the hospital, and a woman on the street congratulated me, which made me feel all the worse for not wanting to be in this body I no longer recognized. We stopped for coffee, but the baby started crying. “Do you want to go home?” Julien asked. As I nodded yes, I started crying too.

“When I felt shaken by my new identity as a mom and the world seeming scarier every time I stepped out in it, it was fun to act tough, like kids do when they try out cussing.”

The progression of the pandemic only made this worse and I was on deadline for a book, just to add to the pressure. Existence as I knew it changed into these frightening, closed-in days—and I had just brought a child into all of this. Now I walked around with the baby strapped to me and a mask over my face, feeling disconnected from all that I had ever known.

So I put my name on the pushup spreadsheet. The first day, I did sets of five, on my knees, until I reached 50, which took me all afternoon because I had to take long breaks in between sets. I did 50 pushups the next day, too, and the one after that and just kept going. I usually felt like I had no time to fit them in. Mostly, I was consumed with keeping the baby calm. Often, I did my pushups in front of him as he wailed, hoping to distract him. Sometimes, it worked. He’d get quiet and look at me curiously as I bobbed up and down.

I’ve never liked pushups. In workout classes before the pandemic, I’d always do them on my knees and collapse into a child’s pose a few counts before the instructor said to stop. But now the more pushups I did, the more I wanted to do. Julien and Ruthie were equally invested in their pushups, and as the weeks passed, we all started to take on the personalities of high-school jocks. We talked about our pushups a lot—“Bro, did you do your reps?” or “Ugh, I still have to do my reps”—and overused the flexed arm emoji. During a time when I felt shaken by my new identity as a mom and the world seeming scarier every time I stepped out in it, it was fun to act tough, like kids do when they try out cussing.

ruthie and me flexing at jacob riis park on april 19, about a month into our pushup challenge

Ruthie and me flexing at Jacob Riis Park on April 19, about a month into our pushup challenge.


In late April, it was still cold, but we began to drive to the beach and use it as a sanctuary. We’d put the baby in his bouncer and cheer for each other as we did our pushups—me on my knees, Ruthie and Julien full out—in the sand. Ruthie and I also started walking to the AstroTurf in Brooklyn Bridge Park—we’d both never been despite living in the neighborhood over a decade—to do our pushups there. One night when we were on the fuzzy fake grass, the sun was setting and I looked around and up at the sky and was surprised at what I felt: content. I was glad to be where I was—and who I was—at that moment. Everything started to feel a little more open.

In a weird way, this stationary, repetitive exercise was freeing. Getting on the floor, or the sand, or the turf every day helped me accept that no matter what I’d thought my life with a child was going to be like, and how unexpected and often difficult this particular stretch was, I could keep going. I had to keep going.

As I lifted my body again and again, I started to feel more stable. Now, I was doing five pushups out of my set of 10 in a plank before dropping to my knees. Everything seemed less bleak. My son smiled for the first time, and it was a relief that we were both becoming more okay. Part of this is the function of time and perspective, not just pushups, but I do think pressing myself up and down 50 times a day helped remind me that no matter how many times I think I understand what I’m getting into—that I know how life will go—I never do.

“Pressing myself up and down 50 times a day helped remind me that no matter how many times I think I understand what I’m getting into, I never do.”

For me, the pushups are about grounding myself in this period when nothing’s like I thought it would be, and they’re about surprising myself with what I can do. They’re about a lifting and lowering that feels bigger than it actually is.

Julien quit doing his pushups months ago, and Ruthie had shoulder surgery on New Year’s Eve (which she swears wasn’t caused by the pushups), so she had to stop too. But I’m still doing mine. I still do them in sets of 10, but all in a plank, and, on a good day, completing 50 takes me less than ten minutes. As I write this, I’ve done 16,800 pushups (and I finished that book, an endurance challenge of another kind). I’ve done them next to a river on a camping trip, on the asphalt at the drive-in movie theater in Greenpoint, and outside Penn State’s stadium on a road trip. More than one night, I’ve been about to go to sleep when I remember, Shit, I haven’t done my reps. I always get out of bed to do them.

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My son is now old enough that he can crawl to me while I’m doing my pushups. Sometimes he pulls himself up on my midsection, and we both giggle as I go up and down while he holds onto me.

Someday, of course, life will be more like it was before the pandemic, and I will stop doing 50 pushups a day. Like the rest of the country, I will return to my old places and my old routines, or to new places and new routines, and leave behind what I did during the pandemic. My son will continue to grow, and as he does, I will have to keep figuring out who I am with him and on my own. And, as always, I will have to keep going. But, even so, I do think that I will return to pushups once in a while, to the simple movement that helped me feel both anchored and elevated for 336 days and counting.

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