Serena Williams headed into the labor and delivery rooms four months ago armed with every advantage imaginable.
Williams is an elite professional athlete in a sport that demands incredible physical stamina. Her body is the prototype of powerful and she long has been known for her determination and mental strength. Most importantly, Williams can afford the very best in health care, given that she was the highest-paid woman in all of sports last year.
Despite all this, Williams revealed last week in Vogue magazine that she had a brutal birth experience and nearly died from complications the day after delivering her daughter, Olympia, via C-section.
The article, which also details her adjustment to motherhood, was published on the heels of Williams’ announcement that she would not be playing in the Australian Open this month because her body was not back to where she wanted it to be.
Williams, who won last year’s Australian Open when she was two months pregnant, was confined to a bed for six weeks after giving birth. She told the magazine that the first couple of months of motherhood have tested her in ways she never imagined.
“Sometimes I get really down and feel like, man, I can’t do this,” she said. “It’s that same negative attitude I have on the court sometimes. I guess that’s just who I am. No one talks about the low moments — the pressure you feel, the incredible letdown every time you hear the baby cry. I’ve broken down I don’t know how many times.”
Williams always has been a trailblazer, and in motherhood, she is no different. Her decision to talk graphically about her difficult birth experience and the emotional roller coaster she has been on as she gets ready to go back to work have the potential to be a game-changer for women both in and out of sports.
A number of professional and Olympic athletes also are mothers, but none of them has the high profile Williams does. WNBA guard Bria Hartley played for the Liberty last season, taking the court for the first time just four months after giving birth to her son, Bryson. Hartley, who currently is playing in Turkey, where she brought her son, said Serena’s story is an important one.
“Serena is the best in her sport, so it makes a statement and sends the message to a bigger audience,” Hartley said in an interview via text. “I think it’s very good for female athletes because so often we hear that women can’t do both, especially as an athlete due to the effect it has on our body. I think more and more people are starting to see that with the right mindset, it can be done. Women can do both and don’t have to choose between having a family and an athletic career.”
Nor do they have to keep their struggles and challenges to themselves.
By talking about her postpartum experience, Williams has helped to continue to take the once-taboo subject of pregnancy, childbirth and recovery out of the shadows and recognize it as a normal part of life. If someone as strong and successful and affluent as Williams can have a difficult delivery and struggle with the transition to motherhood, you can bet it’s something that many of us go through.
More and more, this is something that society is beginning to recognize. Yes, progress has been infuriatingly slow, but it is real.
In the 1960s, my mother was forced to quit her teaching job when she became pregnant with me because the sight of a woman with a swollen belly was seen as an unfavorable influence on students. Thirty-seven years later, I felt my first labor pain while covering a Giants practice 24 hours before giving birth. Three weeks ago, New York State instituted a Paid Family Leave act that allows employees, like parents, to take up to eight weeks off at partial pay to take care of a loved one.
It’s been decades since women stopped hiding their baby bumps and started sending pictures of them on Christmas cards. Perhaps now, thanks to Williams, we can begin to talk frankly about the less picturesque realities and what happens after the pregnancy without worrying about sounding weak.