Serena Williams and the mother of all dilemmas

Serena Williams with her daughter Olympia © Backgrid

“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family,” writes Serena Williams for the cover of this month’s American Vogue. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife did the physical work of growing our family. . . . But I’m turning 41 this month and there’s something to give.”

Williams has decided to “evolve” away from tennis, as she puts it: She will probably play her last match next month. The news has been met with a shrug by many – she is at an age when any professional tennis player might choose to retire – but it is with rare candor that Williams has discussed her reasons why.

For starters, she’s not quite ready to retire: her failure to eclipse Margaret Court’s record 24 Grand Slam titles will haunt her for years to come. As she says in her first-person essay, “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want that record.” But following the complications following the birth of her first child, including a caesarean section, a second pulmonary embolism and post-partum depression, her fitness and mental health have suffered. As she ruefully notes, “I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine.”

It’s better than fine. It is extraordinary. But Williams’ essay hits a nerve. She retreads the age-old, crusty argument: when is it “appropriate” to have a child? Even when you’re at the peak of a career where your strength and power seem superhuman, Williams’ words reveal a very human truth. When it comes to having careers and planning families, women can’t have it all.

Some have dismissed her essay as the excuses of a player who can’t quite admit that her time has passed. Yes, her body is now geriatric compared to her competition: until very recently, she would also have been defined as “geriatric” by the medical profession in the event of having another child. But more interesting to me is her claim that she can’t focus all her energy on match points if she wants to be the “mom” she wants to be.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that I have never been a tennis prodigy or competed in a Grand Slam, but I do recognize the terrible dilemma of having to reconcile one’s ambitions with a desire to have a child. So many decisions have been accompanied by the knowledge that my ovaries are on tie break or worse, even serving for the match. At an interview for a major promotion in my twenties, I nodded dumbly as the boss repeatedly insisted that I “don’t get pregnant” and that by getting married I should give him “at least” a year. Even then, such advice was quite a lot verbotenbut it was offered anyway.

Then, when my daughter was exactly at the age where I should have had another child, I was offered another, long-loved job. I don’t remember making up my mind does not to have a baby in the following years, but one day when I kept not getting pregnant, I realized I wasn’t sure I really wanted another child. Maybe I was being selfish. Or in denial. Or just tired of feeling guilty every day. I did not set out to be a single parent and starve my child of beloved siblings. But over the years of trying to figure out when/how/if to do it, I turned 40 and the decision window started to close on my behalf.

Williams has clarified the old maxim that there is never a good time to have a child. Too young and you may end up doing it solo; too old and you will have to step out of a career. Even despite changing employment laws and the maternity leave now offered by many companies, women are still defaulting to more traditional roles: women were more likely to leave work during the pandemic, and US studies have found that their participation in the paid workforce is now as low as 30 years ago.

The fertile woman is still an object of honor. In this week’s most The Handmaid’s Tale announcement, Vladimir Putin has revived Russia’s Mother Heroine Award. First introduced by Stalin, it will give women a one-off bonus of £13,000 on the first birthday of their 10th child.

The mother dilemma is even tougher in the sports arena, where women must make grueling sacrifices to achieve their goals. There was only one mother in England’s Euro-winning football team. Defender Demi Stokes has a young son – but it was her partner who carried the child, who was born in May. Kim Clijsters won three Grand Slams when she returned to tennis after giving birth to her daughter, joining Margaret Court and Evonne Goolagong as the only female players to have babies and win a title. She became the poster woman for Mother Heroines, but retired in 2012 to have two more children.

To some extent, Williams’ story helps assuage my guilt and sense of inadequacy for having only one lonely baby. If even Williams couldn’t fulfill her dreams and have another child, then this family business is clearly harder than it looks. A larger family involves emotional, professional, and psychological considerations—as well as, of course, joy and wonder—which, on reflection, I have decided not to mourn. That said, how wonderful would it be if, in a dream world, Williams could win the final title? Not that she needs or wants the confirmation: it would just be one for all those career kids who never quite came into the world.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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