Is Mothering and Top Performance Realistic At All?
The first major tennis event of 2020 opens in Australia, as awful bushfires are devastating the country. Should they play despite the disastrous air quality around Melbourne Park? The show must go on, answers Tennis Australia. So, it does!
For how long? Here is another interesting question to rise, considering Serena Williams’s (38) outstanding domination and the come back of another legend, Kim Clijsters (36).
Parenthood and high-level sport
Parenting in sport is more feminine than a masculine issue. For primary physical reasons, mainly. Pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum intricacies are women’s privileges.
However, Victoria Azarenka or William manage to reconcile their lives as mothers and athletes. It should not elicit more comments than for their men counterparts. Not that true, though!
“Being a mother is the most important thing in my life. To be able to be a mother while pursuing my dreams is a real blessing,” said Azarenka, following a first-round defeat at Roland-Garros 2019. She was returning from a year-long lockdown in the US to fight for her child’s custody.
Being a mother and an athlete should be a more straightforward journey. Sports’ governing bodies tend to understand that. But roads ahead remain unclear and fraught with pitfalls.
Serena Williams is the perfect example. Her return to competition after giving birth (an event that almost took her life) generated loads of acerbic comments. Mostly focused on low side issues, on the edge of sexism and racism. Or was it beyond the line? You decide.
Take the comments on Serena’s outfit at Roland Garros 2018 as living proof. “I think we sometimes went too far. This outfit will no longer be accepted. We must respect the game and the place,” said the French Tennis Federation’s President.
Her panther gear abided tennis rules and met the new mother’s specific physical and psychological needs. But it was called disrespectful to the sport and the stadium. What an expression of old-fashioned masculine taste!
Does it sound anecdotal? Nobody ever asked Milos Raonic to remove his support sleeves. Stan Wawrinka’s shorts at Roland-Garros 2015 became a kind running joke overtime.
Serena Williams is an activist. She has turned her doubts and difficulties into campaigns to support mothers. She urges them to pursue their dreams and activities with pride and courage.
The hashtag she viralized on Twitter and Instagram ) #ThisMama — shares her life on tour as a mom. She posts pictures of herself with her daughter before or after big matches. She supports charities and programs to fight the unknown dark sides of motherhood.
Serena helps transform mentalities. She imposes respect for her private balance between family life and an intense, sometimes hectic career. It is a significant achievement in women sports when talking about periods is already out of line.
Is coming back the new black?
Want it or not, maternity is now something to talk about in women’s sports. Why today? Perhaps because nobody felt like doing it earlier. Common negative biases were a not-to-be-discussed norm. Of which women’s frequent comebacks appear as a direct consequence.
Men returning to a field they quit are exceptions. Their retirement decision is more assertive because it happens later in their career and more freely than most women athletes. Men can’t hear that tic-tac clocking in their tummy, can they?
Mother athletes also have difficulties in achieving a new balance after giving birth. During their careers, they stand at the hyper-center of their lives. Reinventing an identity in motherhood may be disturbing, despite fulfillment and happiness. -
Kim Clijsters, a four-time Grand Slam winner, former world №1, and mother of three, will return to competition after a seven-year hiatus. It will be her second comeback. In 2007, she went away for two years to give birth to her first child, heralding a plain retirement at the time.
At 36, she certainly can compete at a significant level. Which one? Nobody knows.
“I love the game. I love watching and commenting, but I also need to stand in the middle of that court again,” she said to explain her comeback. She also needed to provide herself with the motivation to get back in shape and escape her daily routine as a mother. “I don’t feel like I have anything to prove. It’s mostly the challenge I’m looking for. Some of my friends want to run a marathon. I want to know if I can still perform at a level I find acceptable. This is my marathon.”
Does this sound familiar with what Federer (38) says about retiring? He will quit the game when he will no longer feel able to perform at the highest level. His four children don’t appear in the picture. Neither for him or tennis observers. How come?
I am a writer, speaker, Paralympian, mother of twins, and constant dreamer. I earned bronze in singles and doubles in Beijing 2008 as a wheelchair tennis player.