“It’s humbling what you can and can’t do as a pregnant woman” surfboard shaper Ashley Lloyd Thompson reflects fondly on the months she was expecting her son Odin, who’s now three-years-old.
On one hand, she explains, she couldn’t be the surfer at the top of the peak claiming the biggest set waves. But on the other hand, embracing her feminine abilities—the ability to carry and birth a new life—felt like a superpower in its own right.
As a Santa Cruz-based surfboard shaper, musician (Ashley and her husband Alex Thompson have a band called The Shapes), and former competitive surfer, Ashley’s livelihood, identity, and creative inspirations are deeply tied to her relationship with the ocean. Though she was in top physical shape during her 20s, she admits that she never took care of her body as lovingly and intentionally as the months she was pregnant.
From paddling up to the beginning of her third trimester to surfing tandem with her 3-year-old son now, we talked with Ashley more about her journey of self-love for her body’s abilities.
Photos by Alex Thompson, courtesy of Ashley Lloyd Thompson.
What was your physical health before your pregnancy, and during your pregnancy?
I knew it was possible but was still surprised when I got pregnant so soon after stopping birth control. It was like, “Okay we’re doing this.” Before I got pregnant, I had this idea to begin it in a healthy and fit state, ready for the major transformation. I felt almost like, I wasn’t prepared enough and I hadn’t been exercising like I should be.
I was reading a lot of Ina May Gaskin books, and yoga for pregnancy. One book said you could be the most fit you have been in your whole life being pregnant. I was reading that being like, “What?” The perspective that everything becomes harder—that was just my impression. Reading this book gave me the perspective that it’s not too late to honor my body and make this vessel the best birthing vessel I possibly can.
Looking back on it now, even when I was professional surfing and training for whatever, I feel like training in my pregnancy, if you want to call it that, was the best focus and fitness that I’ve ever had. There was so much self-love involved because I had a human inside of me that I was going to be the mother of someday. Even though it shifted out of not surfing as much to, “I guess I’m going to go on another walk today and do my hip circles and stretching.” This overall aspect of doing what’s best for your body, your baby, your mental health, and finding what that path was for me was really a neat discovery. Also honoring rest, and downtime was a good thing to learn and take advantage of before the sleep deprivation that comes with a baby starts!
How did the way you feel about your body change during your pregnancy?
In my 20s, my perception of what fit was and what the ideal body was is so different. It’s much more healthy-minded than it was back then. Being skinny was really popular, I guess it still is, but being strong is this awesome trend that’s happening now. At least in my mind!!
Growing up in the surfing world wanting to be a pro surfer, having sponsors and things like that (laughs), it didn’t matter how good of a surfer you were, at least in my pro longboarding division. If you weren’t a model, you weren’t going to get those same kinds of sponsors. It’s not like it led to the detriment of me. I still pursued surfing, contests, and awesome experiences from it all. But there was always this thing of, “I’m not a model. I’m not skinny. Why aren’t I that?” Instead of just being stoked on “Look at my body that’s amazingly strong and I can do all these amazing things on a wave and paddle incredibly fast.”
What a healthy body image was was so different back then. I was just a strong person but didn’t always find confidence in that. Coming to terms as I got older is that my body is really an awesome thing.
I think it’s important to love your body, every bit of it, whether it is weak, strong, soft. “I love my cellulite” is a slogan I make myself say every now and then when I find myself being vain or self-critical.
I feel like the overall arching self-love thing happened when I got pregnant. Not that there’s anything wrong with being skinny either. It’s just being comfortable with what your body is. Finding that in me through my pregnancy—embrace self-love—was really cool.
What was your experience surfing while pregnant?
My first trimester, I felt wary and unstable surfing. I also had this protective side of me. I had a lot more planning instead of just reacting, as far as getting out of the way in being in a safe spot. When I started showing, I wanted to stay in the water and it wasn’t that I was afraid of myself, my biggest concern was other surfers hitting me. I had to have this giant safety bubble around me. It was really fun for me to get in the water and paddle around. You can move your hips and stretch your hips differently than you can on land.
You have to lay on your stomach differently when you get further down the line [in your pregnancy]. It was hard for me to knee paddle so I would stick my butt in the air and have my weight on my chest and collarbone. You’re in this sprint, full-speed-ahead position. You’re adjusting to that weight ratio. It’s humbling. You tend to not get into waves as much because you’re not charging as much. Your body language has a lot to do with surfing success in general. When you’re pregnant your body language is backing off more. You have this fine line where you don’t want to get too aggressive but you also need to commit enough so you don’t get caught in an awkward position. You still need to go with the flow of the ocean and trust yourself. I feel if some women are scared to surf when they’re pregnant, they need to listen to and honor that because when you find yourself scared in the ocean it’s not a good thing. You have to find that calm line. It’s okay not to be out there. Find your chemical balance with exercising other places.
My husband and midwife practically teamed up on me and told me that I needed to stop surfing. I didn’t feel like I was ready to stop yet. I was in the beginning of my third trimester. When they told me I had to stop surfing, I cried.
I thought it was silly when I found myself crying that I had to take a break from surfing, and I didn’t think I would get so emotional about it!! We get emotional about a lot of things we don’t think we will when pregnant! The break, I knew was coming, I just thought it would be my decision, not theirs. My midwife’s concern was if I were to have a blow to the stomach, it could harm the baby. I was more concerned about my balance on land than the ocean, but heeded her advice, and stopped surfing although the last thing I felt I was doing was being reckless. I didn’t have a strong urge to get out there after that "stop surfing” talk, it actually felt like the right time as the days passed. I knew I would be back in the ocean some day soon, and a couple months is a really short period in a lifetime, especially when that couple of months is with your growing baby.
Which boards did you ride during your pregnancy?
I’ve always been comfortable with heavy boards so I wouldn’t recommend this for all surfer pregnant ladies. I longboard for the majority and I just kept going bigger and bigger.
My neighbor is Richard “Frosty” Hesson. He’s a great surfer. That “Chasing Mavericks” movie, the Gerard Butler character was based off him. He has a huge quiver. I would borrow boards that I’ve shaped for him. Some of my favorite experiences were riding his boards because my weight ratio was closer to him than mine. I usually ride a 9’5.”
I was riding his 10’4" noserider that was really wide. My husband would carry it to the beach for me. I remember hanging ten on Frosty’s big old noserider and just feeling, “This weight ratio is perfect!” I also have an 11-foot soft top that I use for surf lessons. That became my go-to.
I loved doing the “cat/ cow” position paddling on my knees on the soft top. I would support my weight with one hand and paddle with the other, switching back and forth.
Photos by Annabelle Shumann
What was your birth plan and how did you come to decide to have a home birth?
I had a home birth; a natural vaginal birth (without drugs) in my home with midwives, my husband, and some family. When a woman is at home, she often feels more comfortable and has the advantage of movement, and being able to try different birthing positions that a hospital bed won’t necessarily accommodate. Another awesome thing about the midwife is the appointments leading up to the birth, having these heart to heart conversations, and she’s staying in tune with you as a whole. Midwives have a ton of medical knowledge, as well as intuitive support. They also bring a ton of medical equipment and have a backup plan and quickest route to the hospital if there are any signs that the birth is not going smoothly. I can understand that home births are not for everyone. The more I educated myself about it, the more I knew it was the path for me.
I think it’s important for women to know that it is possible to have a home birth.
You have to trust your body and the unknown. You don’t have a choice of when your baby has to come out. It doesn’t have to be scary and it doesn’t have to be drugs in the hospital. Even if you have a hospital birth, I encourage having a midwife or doula to help ground you and find your way.
Sometimes we really get stuck on our fears. Whether the woman is having a C-section or natural birth, she is finding that inner strength. Birth is a transformative thing. You’re going through a metamorphosis and so is your baby. Whatever it is, it just makes women stronger. Embracing the femininity is a really magical thing. I had a home birth and a natural birth and it worked for me. I’m grateful for that.
Did you have a smooth recovery after giving birth? How long until you were back in the water again?
I think I waited about six weeks. The first time I got in the water, I felt like it was too soon. I was worried about tearing my muscles. You do a lot of motions with your body when you’re surfing because you’re responding to water, that you don’t realize you’re doing. Your muscles are vulnerable. I almost felt like I jumped in too soon. It was strange to lay on my belly like that again. I felt like the ocean would be good for me, but I was eager to get back to land with my tender body.
I’m super fortunate at how close I live to the beach. I can fit in a 30-minute session if that’s all I have time for. The whole nursing thing and not being away from my son, it was important for us to get our new routine down the first couple of months, and in rhythm with my baby. I would have quick sessions instead of surfing the old 3 hours because I felt like it. Surfing is a big part of who I am, being in the water; it’s what I do for a living as far as teaching surfing as well. My time is a lot more limited now.
Do you miss the days when you would leave on spontaneous surf trips?
I would just leave on hope not knowing how I was going to get back. I can’t do that anymore! I like the stability I have now but something that I struggle with, I always have, is scheduling and stability. I’m getting slightly better at that but I don’t leave myself as much time for artistic thinking as I once did, whether that’s surfing, or songwriting. I find myself making sure the dishes are done these days, etc. Now I have to consciously tell myself pick up the guitar, sing… and I don’t always listen! I’m working on it. My husband tells me I need to schedule in more fun time. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE being a mom, and shaping, teaching surfing, but I see that I can make more time for myself.
When you don’t have anyone holding you accountable then it doesn’t matter. If my house is messy and I went surfing instead it’s not the worst thing. I miss that part of my gypsy lifestyle. I was always in the moment but I wasn’t always present. It’s still finding the balance for that. I need more of that. Shaping is still creative for me, but it’s more about I gotta get it done because I want to hang out with my son. It’s always finding the balance with everything.
Photo by Dave Brown
How is surfing and the ocean part of how you raise your son, and your daily life?
He’s not swimming independently yet. We just go out on sunny and small days. It gets cold up here and they only make wetsuits so thick for little ones. We have low tide beach days and have been doing more tandem. We went surfing in some gentle waves Maui recently and he loved it. I love it when he wants to go surfing with me! It’s really special for me because I love surfing so much, but we’re often just as stoked swimming or playing in the tide pools. It can’t be one-sided. When they’re young, they can get scared by anything. He had his first face plant on a boogie board and the waves were so gentle. He just shook it off and it was fine. “Awesome, good job!” Even if it doesn’t look like a bad thing, if it scares them, that can really stay with them and they can shut down and not want to do that.
I just think the whole beach experience is important. It’s not just about getting on the board and standing up and surfing. It’s really important to feel your hands through the sand and do the sand castle thing for as long as you want, getting used to the waves rolling in and out, knowing how to boogie board and knowing how to have a wave push you around and be comfortable with it pushing you around.
We all go in baby steps and waves look huge to a 3-year-old. I remember being 10-years-old seeing a one-foot wave and thinking it was huge. Every day is different and when he’s excited to surf and go tandem, let’s do it. We wear a life jacket and just go where there are no people. That’s the big thing, I don’t want someone to run us over.
What was your relationship with surfing after birth and now with a 3-year-old?
I just tried to be gentle and not put too much pressure on myself. I felt these moments of not being able to surf as well because my body was different but it didn’t take that long to pick up where I left off…. at least it doesn’t feel that way in retrospect. The ocean will always find a way to humble you, and after the baby I really felt that. I don’t have as much time out there, but it just adds my experience as a human. Having a break from something, you get to think about it, reunite, reassess. The more time you have with something, the easier it comes.
My distance away from surfing is more so that I’m trying to get people their surfboards in time! The last year and a half we started glassing our boards all in-house with a more eco-friendly resin. Ever since I got pregnant I just looked at my body a lot differently. Being around chemicals and all that. I used to outsource my glassing but even then, you’re walking surfboards into a glass shop and you really notice the fumes. I would hold my breath that whole time.
I got stoked on entropy resin but it was hard to find someone to glass my boards with it in town. It was this awesome product that was hard to access. My husband decided to expand our factory. We had the chance to move next door and make a glassing facility. That was like starting a new business even though I’ve been making surfboards since 2002. Besides making the blanks, we do every step in-house. It’s been time-consuming but our watercrafts are made with love and joy. I make boards for all sorts of people, beginners to advanced surfers.
Thank you, Ashley, for sharing your experiences!
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