SPORTS | Childbearing and athletic glory need not be mutually exclusive for women in sports today
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Arguably the greatest female tennis player of all time, Serena Williams, is retiring after the U.S. Open to focus on expanding her family of three.
She fired a parting shot in announcing her retirement, complaining that female athletes are unfairly forced to choose between motherhood and athletic glory. But is that really the case?
Had Williams won the U.S. Open—Australian Ajla Tomljanović eliminated her from the women’s singles event on Sept. 2—she would have tied Margaret Court’s record for Grand Slam singles titles with the 24th of her career. Even had she done so, however, the 40-year-old earlier indicated she was willing to forgo a shot at breaking Court’s record to focus on her personal business ventures and devote more time and energy to raising children.
Williams won the Australian Open while pregnant with her only daughter, Olympia, in 2017. Williams says she “adored” being with child, despite the challenge of winning one of tennis’s four major tournaments. But several months later, she suffered a life-threatening artery blockage in her lungs after giving birth via cesarean section. The resulting medical complications left her bedridden for six weeks.
Which perhaps explains why Williams believes it’s unfair that she must “choose between tennis and a family.”
“If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family,” Williams explained in Vogue. She then added, “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity [to be male]”—Brady being the 45-year-old NFL quarterback with seven Super Bowl rings in 22 seasons, and possibly counting.
There’s no question that by virtue of biology, bringing children into the world impacts male and female athletes differently: Men need not take time away from their sport to give birth and let their bodies recover. But that doesn’t necessarily mean motherhood is a barrier to athletic accomplishment for women.
Case in point: The WNBA. The pro basketball league’s players union negotiated a collective bargaining agreement in 2020 that some consider exemplary for working mothers: Players not only receive fully paid maternity leave but reimbursement for fertility support and adoption fees, a $5,000 childcare stipend, and mental health support services.
Allyson Felix, the most decorated female track star in history, severed ties with Nike in 2019 after the shoe and apparel company tried to slash her endorsement compensation by 70 percent after she gave birth to her daughter Camryn. Felix went on to win two medals at last year’s Summer Olympics in Tokyo wearing her own shoe brand.
That’s not to say things are perfect for mothers in sports: The National Women’s Soccer League, for instance, offers none of the benefits that the WNBA does. But as pro sports organizations move toward providing greater support for female athletes’ unique needs, balancing motherhood and athletic careers becomes ever more possible.