A Circus Performer and a Mother. That Is Who I Am.

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A Circus Performer and a Mother. That Is Who I Am.

My name is Ulziibuyan Mergen Kee. I’m a contortionist and a mom of 2 wonderful boys. I am writing this article to reach out to performers who want to have a baby but feel daunted by the challenge of taking a long time off and are concerned about how fast they can be back in shape and on stage. I went through two pregnancies and remain a full-time performer. I thought sharing my story might help others to overcome any doubts they have and to realize that no challenges can stop them from fulfilling their dream to become a mother.

Ulziibuyan (Ulzii) Mergen Kee smiles and holds her baby son

Motherhood begins the very moment you decide to have a baby.

I believe our work as performers also requires a full commitment to maintaining our physical skills. This often causes us to make harsh assumptions about who we are supposed to be as an artist and how our bodies are supposed to look and perform. That is why even the thought of getting pregnant is often ignored with an, “Oh, sure, but not now,” “Perhaps after my next contract,” or any other excuse we can come up with. As a result, we often place on hold the most beautiful thing that can happen to us: becoming a mother.

Let me tell you my story. I hope it will give you some useful tips and suggestions to help you on your own journey to motherhood. And sooner rather than later 🙂

Pregnancy: Expectations and Experiences
Childhood picture of performer Ulzii Mergen Kee, posed with two other Mongolian acrobats
Ulzii’s childhood

I always adored families, especially ones with lots of babies, and at times imagined having one of my own. My memories of growing up in Mongolia are full of kids around me. I was raised along with my 3 siblings and I spent the first years of my life filled with love and happiness.

My childhood kind of got shortened when I joined a contortion school at the age of seven. It was part of the Mongolian National Circus in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It is there I began to practice and evolve as an artist. Just a few years later, at the age of eleven, I joined Cirque du Soleil, becoming one of the youngest professional performers touring around the world.

Every time I would see a child, it often took me back to my childhood memories, and as years passed and I was getting more mature, I started to imagine that one day I would be holding a child of my own.

I met my love and future husband, Viktor Kee, another Cirque performer, during our work together in the show “Amaluna.” Viktor was performing in the show, and I was hired as a solo and principal character. Of course, I already knew Viktor as a performer, but only from videos and various Cirque stories. I even had taken a selfie with him in front of Cirque headquarters in Montreal. (Well, with his sculpture, that is.) So I was excited to meet him in person and work on the same stage.

Ulziibuyan Mergen Kee and Viktor Kee, Cirque du Soleil acrobats, together in performance makeup
Ulzii and Viktor

We finally met in Atlanta on my first working day. When I walked to the artistic tent, there he was, warming up in his “Green Lyzard” costume. I walked up to him and literally these words just poured out of me: “I love you, Viktor.” Yes, it’s true, the very first words I ever told him when we first met were “I love you.” Of course, I meant that I loved him as a performer.

He smiled.

Soon enough we became partners on stage and friends working together, traveling and sharing the stage and our love story began. Who would ever have guessed that our time on Amaluna would turn out to be the beginning of our
life together.

As often happens, Cirque moved artists among its different programs, and shortly I was hired to work in another show, “Totem.” Our relationship became one of the so-called “long-distance” kind, which was difficult but very common in our artist’s world. It would mean lots of messages and video calls. Every month or so, whenever one of us had time off work, Viktor and I would fly to see each other. With no limits, committed to our relationship, we traveled to different parts of the world… and when I say different, I really mean it: France, Japan, Australia, and Singapore are just a few to mention.

But after a few years, I began to realize more clearly that my exciting life, filled with travel, practice, shows, and shopping, wasn’t so complete after all. It missed a bigger purpose: to be a mom.

Now that we had a full mutual commitment to stay together, we decided to have a child and build
our relationship into something more— beautiful, strong, and romantic: a family. From that moment on, each time we were together, we would use the precious time we had “wisely,” trying to make a baby. I kept taking pregnancy tests and hoping for a positive result. It became a fun routine.

One funny story: in Japan, you can’t really buy self-tests as easily as in Europe or the USA, so I had to see a doctor each time to get tested and receive the results. And whenever the doctor reported, “No baby, Ms.,” I argued and demanded that he check again and again. He was so polite, as is common in Japan, and re-checked every time I asked, and each time he gave me a confirmatory “No.”

After several doctor visits with “false alarms,” we decided that it had to be done off work and in relaxing vacation mode. I flew to see Viktor in France, where he booked an amazing hotel on the coast of Nice. We spent our vacation there— one of our most memorable times. I flew back to Japan as excited as could be, anticipating that I would be pregnant. Every week or two, I went to the doctor for check-ups, until finally, he delivered the good news. I still remember demanding that he check the test again. He did. But this time he was 100% sure: I was 6 weeks pregnant.

Now that I was pregnant, I felt like I was more than ready to become a mother. Still, many fearful thoughts went through my mind, like, “Is it a good time to have a baby? Am I ready? What will happen to me as a performer?” But I realize now that these are the questions anyone would have, and I was no exception.

When I was around 8 weeks pregnant, Viktor visited me again in Fukuoka, Japan, where we celebrated our growing family together. Workwise, I still felt fully in control, flexible, and ready to keep moving on. But after 11 weeks of pregnancy, facing nausea during performances and quite terrible morning sickness, I was obliged to stop performing and focus on the baby instead.

Ulziibuyan Mergen Kee and Viktor Kee, circus performing couple, pose looking at Ulzii's pregnant belly
Planning for the future

By that time, Viktor and I had both left Cirque du Soleil. We began to plan our life together as a family. As we took safety seriously, our plan was for me to deliver our first child in Switzerland, which seemed to be the best place for it. We moved to Switzerland. We wanted to manage the pregnancy with our main doctor there, but we still had to travel a lot as Viktor was performing. So, many times, we had to visit different doctors in many places. We found it amazing to see our baby’s ultrasound photos from all over the world.

I began to think of it as though I were taking some time off from a heavy, physically demanding schedule. That kept me motivated to stay fit, physically and mentally.

Along the way, I realized that with pregnancies, big or small, changes in your body happen naturally, as Mother Nature takes over for one reason only: to help you grow a healthy and beautiful baby. I began to experience and notice every moment of it. It became my fascination to “not miss anything.” I truly felt the beauty of being a woman and experiencing the miracles of the journey toward giving birth.

Unfortunately, when I was over 6 months pregnant, our plans got a bit shattered by Cirque du Soleil’s decision to cancel my health insurance. Sadly, despite us arguing that no other insurance would ever take a “very pregnant” woman, our request to CdS to keep my insurance policy active for another few months was still rejected. From there, we had to take matters into our own hands. We moved to Ukraine, Viktor’s homeland, where we found Leleka, a wonderful private clinic in the beautiful suburbs of Kiev. Now I was settled in one place, and more than ready to meet our angel.

Even though all was settled and safe, I still recall having a hard time adjusting to a new country with no friends around. The fact that I had left Cirque after being on tour since I was a kid was also emotionally quite challenging. Sometimes, Viktor had to travel for short work trips, and I felt like I was alone living through such a drastic change in my life. I experienced harsh mood swings, compounded by my missing work and feeling absolutely out of shape.

What was very difficult was to see my weight keep going up and up. Ever since I stepped on stage, having the right artistic look was very important; even our coach had been checking on my weight once a week making sure it was stable. My regular weight had always been around 48 kg. When I got pregnant, I was slightly underweight at 46 kg, and for a long time during pregnancy, I didn’t gain much. I was afraid to even check, but of course, there were times when I had to. You should’ve seen my face when I saw those two “digits” on the scale hit 60! It was painful. I remember crying out loud as I couldn’t believe that it was happening to me. But soon, gaining even more weight became common sense. I often reminded myself, “UIzii, please! Do not be alarmed, these ‘extras’ are meant to be food for your growing baby!” At times I fought with that common sense and found myself crying at night. But with each sunrise, the beauty of being pregnant outshone my concerns.

I recall a soft transition into a peaceful state of mind, almost as if nature took over and positive thinking prevailed. I began to plan my post-pregnancy life as a performer. It motivated me to stay busy, create a better balance in my everyday life, and prepare myself physically and mentally for what was coming next.

Staying in shape
Ulziibuyan Mergen Kee, circus performer and contortionist, sits cross-legged with arms around her stomach. Her orange-and-blue training uniform is open to show her pregnant stomach
Ulzii Mergen Kee

As artists, one of the common questions we have when thinking of giving birth is, Is it safe to performwhile you are pregnant, and for how long? My doctor in Switzerland once told me, “Pregnancy is not a sickness, it’s a natural process, so keep your lifestyle the way you always have unless you
are experiencing any physical restrictions or complications. You can perform as long as you feel comfortable.” That made me realize that I could continue doing most of my physical activity as closely as possible to what I had been doing before. Being in shape during pregnancy would make it faster and easier for me to get back on stage after birth.

With that in mind, I kept my physical activity in my life as close as I could to what it was before my pregnancy, even though it was offstage and with a growing belly. I’ve decided to think of that time as a sort of gap between the “Me before” and the “Me after” pregnancy; my goal was to keep that gap as narrow as I could.

Birth/Posttpartum Plan

I delivered my babies both times naturally but still had a hard and long time in labor. I remember passing out a few times right on the delivery table, and seeing my husband “cheerfully” filming it all for our video memories. I honestly was on the verge of strangling him, though, in hindsight, I also found his effort super cute. 🙂

The moment when your child comes to you, and this little human being gently settles into your arms, is a moment all parents wait for, and one no mother can ever forget. The birth of a child brings as much love and happiness as it does challenges, and we have to do our best to be ready for all of it.

For most of us new mothers, sleep deprivation and recovering from birth are challenging, but what I found most difficult with my first baby was adjusting and adapting to a 3-hour repetitive schedule. Changing nappies every few hours, feeding, and putting the little one back to sleep were for me the most overwhelming tasks. On top of that, finding the time for myself to train and practice within a motherhood regime was adding up to a challenging postpartum period.

I found the most effective practice for me was having occasional naps together with my baby, staying away from social media as much as possible, and handling household tasks while the baby was awake. I even developed workout routines with my little one. It was a great time for bonding with our child. I had a lot of fun snuggling my baby to sleep and waking him playfully. I also found that my state of mind was contagious, and that every time I got nervous or calm, it was mirrored in the baby’s mood. Staying calm— not just pretending to be—is essential, as the baby feels the reality rather than the appearance.

The amount of time needed to get back in shape after childbirth is different for everyone. I suggest you give a good margin of time and work gradually towards that goal, while placing your baby’s needs as your #1 priority.

After my first pregnancy, I was determined to get back in performing shape as soon as possible. I was so committed to getting in shape in record time that I sometimes got out of control. I was doing my show routines already 4 weeks after giving birth, all to achieve my personal goal. With my first baby, every time he took a nap, I would run off to do contortion training, cardio, and full-body workouts. This left me exhausted most of the time.

Looking back, I realize that was a mistake. Planning too many workouts and pushing myself to be in perfect shape as soon as possible was not the way to go. Yes, I achieved my goal and started to perform just a few months later, but my excessive activity caused me not only mental exhaustion but also the loss of my breast milk at only three months postpartum. Our first baby’s needs should have come first.

baby Leo Mergen Kee supported by the hands of both his parents

That is why, after I gave birth to my second boy, I decided to be more aware and carefully balance my postpartum physical activity, even if it meant losing weight more slowly. My biggest fear was losing my flexibility.

But I was able to bend throughout my pregnancy. In the first two weeks, I slowly started my backbends with bridges and splits. I noticed changes in my bone structure— specifically my hips, which got wider and a bit stiffer. Because of that, I began to contort slightly differently, adapting to my changing body.

Instead of concentrating on gaining more flexibility, I decided to gain even more muscle mass to support my body through any modifications in the ways I contorted. For example, I did minimum movement strengthening exercises with control such as hip rises, sides and abdominals. (It bears mentioning that I always used my belt around my belly to support the muscles, and only gradually stopped using it as my strength permitted.) For me, Pilates helps a lot; I believe it is one of the best systems to concentrate on small inner tissue workouts.

I continued to be super flexible even after my second child because I had been practicing throughout my pregnancy. That gave me the opportunity to begin performing just two months after delivery. As I was not focusing on losing weight as drastically as I was during my first postpartum period, for the first few months, I was not performing in my preferred shape. Nevertheless, slowly, all returned to normal. Even now, a year later, I am in good shape, ready for the stage and breastfeeding my baby. So that little compromise was totally worth it. 😉

I find that raising a baby in the circus world is the most wonderful gift you can give to your child. The time we spend with our kids while traveling and performing is priceless: full of love, magic, fantasy, and endless imagination. Circus kids grow to be more open-minded and ready for everything in their lives ahead.

Ladies, don’t be afraid, and believe in your inner voice. Stay on your path to becoming a mother. It is the
best gift life can ever offer. And after the hard work of being pregnant and delivering a human being into this world, please nourish yourself. Take care of your body with love and tenderness… but still, don’t forget your responsibilities to stay tuned and fit for the stage 🙂 And hopefully, we will share the stage soon together.

Hugs to all.

Circus family photo of Viktor Kee, Leo, Ulzii, and Ellio Mergen Kee

-Ulzii, Viktor, Leo and Ellio

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Ulziibuyan Mergen
Circus Performer -Mongolia
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