There were parts of Serena Williams’ retirement essay in Vogue on Tuesday that were so achingly familiar to so many women it was painful to read.
Williams, the best tennis player in the history of the game, opens her essay talking about how badly her daughter, Olympia, wants a sibling. She details how Olympia prays at night that she will become a big sister. And Williams talks about how she and her husband, Alexis Ohanian, also want to expand their family.
And then, she hits us over the head with the following paragraph that makes it clear she is leaving the game she loves.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between having tennis and a family,” Williams says in the as-told-to piece. “I don’t think it’s fair. 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. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
Don’t do it, I wanted to scream. You’re Serena Freaking Williams! You’re even bigger than Tom Brady. You’ve won 23 Grand Slam titles, you’re a worldwide cultural icon and are married to a billionaire. If you can’t have it all, who the hell can?
And maybe that’s the point. Williams’ brutally honest essay highlights the impossible decision many women — and, to be fair, some men — are forced to make. She sheds light on the pain of having to step away from one passion for another — of having to choose between growing a career or growing a family.
“I’ve been reluctant to admit to myself or anyone else that I have to move on from playing tennis,” Williams said. “ . . . It’s like it’s not real until you say it out loud. It comes up and I get an uncomfortable lump in my throat and I start to cry.”
Once again, even as she prepares for what will likely be her final Grand Slam at the U.S. Open later this month, Williams has launched another important cultural conversation. She has pulled back the curtain on gender politics and how they operate in both sport and the family.
While Williams makes it clear that it is her choice to leave the game she loves, she doesn’t overly glorify the sacrifice of her decision to prioritize motherhood at this point in her life. In fact, she makes it abundantly clear that for her it is a sacrifice; it is a tough choice to make.
Granted, it is a choice many parents don’t have the luxury to make, but the impactof what economists call “the motherhood penalty” is still an important conversation to have. According to a study in the Harvard Business Review, the financial price a woman pays for leaving the workforce temporarily to raise a family, or what they call off-ramping, is an 18% decrease in earning power on average or a 37% decrease if they leave for more than five years.
Obviously, Williams doesn’t have to worry about finances. Yet, her essay touches on something that economists can’t measure — the emotional toll of having to choose between two things you love, of picking one goal over another.
It’s a choice male athletes don’t have to make. In announcing his wife’s pregnancy in June, Rafael Nadal told reporters that he didn’t know how it would impact his life. He then added, “I have no experience [being a father], but I don’t plan for it to mean a change in my professional career.”
WNBA future Hall of Famer Sue Bird, who is retiring at the end of this season and went public with her decision to freeze her eggs in 2019, told me when she was working in the offseason for the Denver Nuggets that the biggest difference she noticed between an NBA locker room and WNBA locker room was that NBA locker rooms were filled with the players’ kids.
I understand how Williams might look wistfully at Brady and his brood of kids. It’s a “life’s not fair” moment that nearly every woman, who is trying to juggle a time-consuming job with a time-consuming family, has had.
Williams is nearing the end of her playing career regardless of her family situation. Yet, as her sister Venus has shown, it’s clearly possible for her to play a few more years. And it’s clear from the essay that on some levels she wants to. Williams admits that she would love to win another Grand Slam and tie Margaret Court.
“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record," Williams said.
In a few weeks, she will get one last chance to tie it. Whether or not she does, really doesn’t matter. One gets the feeling she's not going to fade from the public eye for a long time.