On the surface, like many sports fans, I have little in common with Serena Williams.
I am white, not much of a tennis player and the biggest pressure I faced growing up was whether or not to take the SAT twice. I have never felt the sting of racial prejudice, my clothing choices aren’t critiqued by millions and I have no concept of what kind of personal sacrifice and drive it takes to become an elite tennis player, let alone the best woman to play the game.
Yet like 24.1 million women today, there is one thing I do have in common with Williams, something so central to my identity and daily rhythms of my life that it makes me feel as though I have some kind of understanding of what it is like to walk in her shoes.
I am a working mom. Because of that, I can’t help but stand back in awe of Williams as she attempts to win her 24th Grand Slam title this week just 53 weeks after giving birth to her daughter.
Williams is not the first athlete, nor tennis player, to mix a career and motherhood. Margaret Court won three of her 24 Grand Slam titles after giving birth to her first child. Evonne Goolagong won two of her seven Grand Slam singles titles as a mother. Most recently, Kim Clijsters won three of her four Grand Slam titles after giving birth.
None of those Grand Slam wins, however, had the type of impact that a win by a 36-year-old Williams would have. All three players were in their 20s when they had their first child. And, whether it be because of the constraints of their era or simply because they felt it was the best way to be for what they were trying to accomplish, all three went about their business fairly quietly.
Williams has never done anything quietly. Nor has she ever shied away from the uncomfortable, which is why her story of motherhood has already had a big impact beyond the tennis court.
This winter, Williams went public with the story of her brutal childbirth experience, detailing how she almost died from complications the day after delivering her daughter, Olympia, via C-section. In the same article in Vogue magazine, she talked about how difficult her adjustment was to motherhood, admitting how at many times the responsibility of it all had brought her to tears.
This spring when she returned to work and the French Open refused to give her special seeding, it opened national conversation about the hurdles women face in the workplace after returning from pregnancy leave. Earlier this summer, she touched a nerve with many working mothers when she admitted in a tweet that she cried after missing her daughter’s first steps while she was on the court.
Just before the start of the U.S. Open, Williams and Chase released a nuanced commercial that depicts the journey that women go through to balance both the desire to have a family and career. The scene opens with Williams cuddling her baby daughter and then putting her in a crib while another woman, presumably a nanny, tucks her in. Williams then heads to the tennis court to practice. As she serves, images of her daughter are spliced in, indicating how she draws strength from both roles while learning how to balance them.
Why is this important? If Williams, an elite athlete with enough money to buy the best health and childcare, can struggle to make the transition to motherhood, it’s something we can admit to too. It’s something that society needs to start acknowledging and supporting, rather than judging women for their decisions.
Williams has always been an advocate for change, so it’s no surprise that she has taken on this issue. She could have presented the world with an overly idealized picture of motherhood. Instead, she has tweeted about breastfeeding, weight-loss struggles and toddler vomit and the joys and challenges of returning to a job she clearly loves.
In other words, she’s sent a message almost as powerful as her 125 mph serve. Now, it’s up to us to figure out what to do with it.