It's not easy being an athlete-mother, and we salute those who are pulling it off
Pregnancy can be absolutely wonderful, but also difficult and hard
This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
Mother's Day is coming up and as I scrolled through images of the Met Gala on social media, I saw that Serena Williams — one of the greatest athletes of all-time — chose to reveal her second pregnancy at the famous event in New York City. Williams is one of the most recognized mothers in sport. During the U.S. Open, her final tennis tournament before retirement last September, her daughter wore an outfit to honour her mom's legacy.
Serena's husband, Alex Ohanian, often sat with baby Olympia in the stands and many marvelled at this beautiful and successful family. It is excellent that Williams's husband is publicly caring for their child as Williams works. Williams also brought attention to the fact that Black women suffer from systemic racism in health care when she shared the story of her birth experience and being ignored by nurses after the delivery.
Although Williams normalized taking her child to practice and tournaments, not all mothers have that option. Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher had to fight to allow her nursing baby to even come to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while Canadian boxer Mandy Bujold had to win a legal battle to secure an Olympic spot after missing time while pregnant and postpartum. They had quite the battle even before reaching Tokyo to compete.
As much as motherhood is celebrated in May with grand marketing campaigns and touching commercials (yes, I cry when I watch them), women are still challenged when it comes to parenting their children and playing professional sports. They don't always have the most necessary parenting resources like childcare support or even changing tables in arenas and stadiums.
WATCH | Kim Gaucher, Mandy Bujold's fight to compete in Tokyo:
Hockey legend Mélodie Daoust has played for Canada with her son, Mathéo, cheering for her. And most recently, Natalie Spooner's new baby, Rory, attended the women's world championships and watched his mom win the silver medal.
There are formidable couples who balance playing sport at the highest echelon while their partner cares for the children. At the recent women's hockey championship I ran into Julie Chu. She was caring for her children while wife Caroline Ouellette was working behind the Canadian bench as a coach. Both women are decorated players and highly successful coaches with the Concordia University women's hockey program. Their children are being raised in rinks and around incredible role models. But it can't be easy.
In a CBC Sports piece from 2020 on motherhood and sports, 800-metre runner Melissa Bishop-Nriagu talked about how being a mother brings changes one just can't avoid.
"We're doing what we can," she said of having to train as a new mother during the COVID-19 lockdowns. "We have a running stroller now. I never used to run with a stroller, but now I am because I don't have any other choice."
Adaption is just part of a mother's mantra. Our children rely on us to solve problems, provide comfort and basic needs, and be superwoman. Yes, that is unrealistic, but sometimes that is what we are faced with. It doesn't always manifest gracefully, but there it is.
This moment. 🥰 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/WomensWorlds?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#WomensWorlds</a> <a href="https://t.co/BpO0XoBiqu">pic.twitter.com/BpO0XoBiqu</a>—@TSN_Sports
And there are also women who have given birth then returned to the playing field to work. Pregnancy can be absolutely wonderful (I have had four healthy pregnancies) but it can also be difficult and hard for the body — even for professional athletes. When a baby is born, irrespective of your professional background or training, it can be completely overwhelming and exhausting. Immediately following my deliveries, it was hard for me to do stairs let alone get back to vigorous exercise. But the love of sport never wavered.
In 2021, I had the privilege of writing an episode of Spinsters, a podcast about basketball. The episode was titled "It Takes A Village" and was about professional basketball players who were/are moms. I got to speak with Gaucher, who told me about the physical rigours of breastfeeding and training at the Olympics, and with Pamela McGee, a former pro player and mother of NBA and WNBA players.
McGee's interview was harrowing because she mentioned that when she was in her early 20s and found out she was pregnant, she made an appointment at a women's health centre. Professional women's athletes must consider so many things, including when they might want to have children. I also interviewed Terri Jackson, the executive director of the Women's National Basketball Players' Association who negotiated a deal for the players that included parental support for players and families.
That episode made me think about my own experience and the experiences of other women in the sports ecosystem. Women do not have the same circumstances nor the same options.
The U.S. women's soccer team has a few mothers on the roster, including Crystal Dunn and Alex Morgan. But Captain Becky Sauerbrunn, 37, chose to freeze six embryos so she can play in this summer's World Cup. She is making a choice to hold off on family plans because of her desire to keep competing.
Perhaps we underestimate the fact that women do have choice. You can carry a child, be a devoted partner, have children or not have children — but all the decisions have an impact on your life, your body and your mental health.
There are tremendous pressures on women to keep up with their excellence and to manage so many things at once.
WATCH | Melissa Bishop-Nriagu wins inaugural Mom Olympics:
And not all systems are supportive or well thought out. In 2019, Allyson Felix wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about how poorly she had been treated by Nike. Yes, Nike, the brand that professes to support women. It was a scathing commentary on her experience because of her choice to have children as a pro-athlete. They offered Felix and her 11 Olympic medals a 70 per cent pay cut for the same role. Felix left Nike for a lucrative partnership with Athleta.
This week I am speaking on a panel with two women, Dr. Sabrina Razack and Christa Eniojukan, about motherhood and sports for the Canadian Sport Psychology Association. It is also the same weekend as the pre-season WNBA game that will be held in Toronto. For many women, in addition to our full-time jobs, we are coordinating birthday parties, children's practices and so many other logistics. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like if I had to be in a pool or on a pitch full-time, not just mentally drained but even more physically exhausted beyond the normal way moms are.
I count myself extremely lucky to have a partner and supporter in my husband, Mark. Pamela McGee was 23 years old and a single mom playing basketball overseas and I can't begin to imagine how difficult that was for her. But as she told me in the interview, she prayed and felt "it wash over me like a waterfall." She knew that she wanted to be a mom and —as with other formidable athletes like Candace Parker — it seems impossible but absolutely worth it.
As moms, we don't only play our sports, teach, coach or report, we also manage lunches, fill out forms, and make it to the rink, court or office on time looking professional and ready to do the jobs we love. My most impactful role in life is as a mother and my four children (between 17-23 years old) have taught me so much about myself and what I love.
For professional athletes who mother, I can't imagine our stories being entirely different. The joys, the struggles and all the chaos that comes along on the journey. I hope these women get the support and advocacy they need. I hope the experiences are not glossed over and I hope that there are wins in potty-training and on the scoreboard.