In the past couple of months, Jessica McDonald has been rocked by two separate is-this-really-happening-right-now moments.
The first came earlier this spring, as the 31-year-old mother and professional American soccer player sat in her North Carolina doctor’s office for a routine check-up. A phone call interrupted the appointment. On the line? Jill Ellis, head coach of the U.S. Women’s Soccer National Team, who wasted no time in delivering the life-changing news.
”You’re going to the World Cup,” she announced, triggering McDonald to burst—immediately and uncontrollably—into tears. Ellis continued to speak, but McDonald admits she only heard “bits and pieces” as she proceeded to weep. “I was busy crying,” she tells SELF. “It was one of those ugly cries, you know, crying out loud.”
What she does remember is that towards the end of the conversation, Ellis told her to go call her family and “hug your little man,” referring to her 7-year-old son, Jeremiah. “That just made me [bawl] even more because I started thinking about my kid,” says McDonald, the only mother out of 23 athletes on the 2019 U.S. Women’s World Cup team.
As reality sank in, “I felt such a rush of emotions,” says McDonald, who in recent years considered giving up her career altogether, reported Yahoo!. But after that fateful phone call, “I was overwhelmed with so much joy,” she says. And so she hugged her doctor, FaceTimed her family, and continued to sob. All told, “I don’t think I’ve ever cried that much in my entire life,” she says.
To say this first pinch-me moment was hard-fought and long in the making would be a big understatement. During the past 10 years, McDonald, who currently plays forward for the North Carolina Courage, has played for six—yes, six—different professional soccer teams in the U.S., plus two abroad, according to U.S. Soccer. It’s been a long, twisted road pockmarked with a serious, almost career-ending knee injury; near-constant relocation; and the financial obstacles that come with supporting herself and her son on a meager National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) salary. And though McDonald is the highest American goal scorer in NWSL history, according to U.S. Soccer, she’d never before made the cut for the prestigious FIFA World Cup roster. Hence the unrelenting waterworks.
The second piece of jaw-dropping information came this past Sunday, June 16, at the Parc des Princes stadium in Paris, France. As the first half of the U.S. versus Chile match in the 2019 World Cup tournament came to a close, coaches approached McDonald with some big news: They were subbing her in.
“Excuse me, what did you just say?” McDonald recalls responding. As soon as reality was confirmed—Yeah, you’re gonna go in at half—the nerves hit hard. “I got the butterflies immediately,” she says. But encouragement from her teammates—Jess, you got this!—and a hug from the coaching team calmed her down. She stepped in bounds, and the rest came easy.
“By the time I got onto the field and by the time I got in touch with the ball, I was able to relax,” says McDonald. The nerves subsided after she got her first pass and first kick, and from that point on, “it was just kind of like another day at the office for me,” she says.
So much so that the goal-scoring veteran nearly netted one during minute 62 of the game, SB Nation reports. “I gave it everything I had in that moment,” says McDonald. Unfortunately, the ball bounced off the goalpost. ”Obviously I was bummed [that it didn’t go in],” she says, “but just to get it even on frame, I was very proud of myself in that moment.”
Balancing motherhood and soccer
Overall, “it’s been a very hard adventure,” says McDonald of her experience over the past seven years being both a mother and a professional athlete. “I’ve been tested on multiple occasions just as a human being.”
As mentioned, McDonald has suited up for six different teams in the NWSL as the result of player trades. From Chicago to Seattle to Portland, Houston, Western New York, and beyond, she and Jeremiah have moved both far and often. The near-constant relocating has been difficult on several levels, especially when it comes to childcare.
It’s been stressful to continually find new people she trusts to watch Jeremiah when she’s at practice and traveling out of state for away games, McDonald explains. On top of that, daycare alone is “pretty much a full paycheck,” she adds. “Trying to figure all of that out on such a low budget has been a true test for me as a parent.” (Reuters reported that the 2019 NWSL player salary requirements range from a minimum of annual salary of $16,538—ugh yes, you’re reading that right—to a maximum of just $46,200. And even that’s reportedly higher than previous years.)
In an attempt to make ends meet, McDonald has juggled multiple side hustles throughout her career, including a six-month stint in 2015 packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse, as well as mentoring, coaching, and making appearances.
“I’m trying to take care of my kid, and the only way to do that is obviously being financially stable,” she says. For many years, that just wasn’t possible, she adds. That’s until she finally made the World Cup roster this spring. (Participating in the global tournament brings players additional income.) “That’s why I was so overwhelmed with joy when I got the phone call that I’d made it,” says McDonald. “I was just like Wow, finally I have a break.”
As stressful as motherhood can be, McDonald says Jeremiah plays a big role in keeping her grounded. “Being able to go home to my kid is such a relief because he’s such a happy kid,” she says. “He balances my life out in such a good way.”
He also motivates her to keep pushing toward her goals. “When you become a parent obviously it changes your life in so many ways,” she explains. “I know people who have a) given up on their careers or b) change career fields because they became a parent, and so I didn’t want to use that as an excuse.”
In recent years, things have turned a corner for McDonald and her son. She received her first call-up to the U.S. Women’s National Team in November 2016, marking the achievement of a lifelong goal, and since joining the North Carolina Courage the following year, McDonald says she’s finally found her “comfort zone.” The location, she says, feels like “a second home” (McDonald played collegiately at the University of North Carolina), and she knows more people in the area, including her “North Carolina parents,” a couple who frequently watches her son.
Looking beyond the World Cup
As McDonald and her teammates continue their quest for World Cup gold, Jeremiah is finishing up first grade in North Carolina. Since arriving in France, McDonald has FaceTimed him twice a day, every day—once as soon as he wakes up, and again before she goes to bed. Next Monday, June 24, he (and the adults taking care of him) will cross the Atlantic to cheer on McDonald in person as the U.S. enters the knockout round of the World Cup tournament. “I’m so anxious [for him to arrive],” she says.
Jeremiah, she explains, understands that his mom is at the World Cup, but “he doesn’t understand how big the World Cup is.” It’ll hit him one day, she says, and perhaps he’ll have a waterworks moment of his own.
“I hope that when he is older, what I’m doing now, the things that his mother has accomplished, is going to inspire him for whatever it is that he wants to do in the future,” she says. “That’s what pushes me every day to want to be successful on the soccer field. Being able to not only take care of my kid on a financial level and be stable, but most importantly, to inspire my child.”