What Your Patients are Hearing

For women athletes, motherhood can bring unique challenges


All working mothers navigate tensions between work, family, and leisure. But, for the mother who also is an elite athlete, in some nuanced ways, the challenges can prove greater.

That’s partly because, to remain competitive, such athletes engage in physically demanding training for hours at a time. And at the same time, like all mothers, many feel the pull of meeting cultural expectations of what it means to be a good mother “and the resulting guilt experienced when taking time to train.” (Psychol Sport Exer. 2018 May;36:41-9). Serena Williams is a case in point.

For Ms. Williams, giving birth to her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. – known as Olympia – took a physical toll that included a pulmonary embolism and hematoma that required a series of surgeries. Past this time of peril and with progressively improving health, she now finds her time torn between career and home.

“Millions of working parents wrestle with this question every day. In cubicles and call centers, at restaurants and on assembly lines, a large portion of the world’s workforce consistently thinks about their children. That concern can be deep, gnawing, even painful for anyone, but no working mother on the planet is quite like Serena Williams,” Sean Gregory wrote in Time magazine.

“Professional tennis all but requires selfishness – the time needed to train, to travel and to maintain competitive focus blots out virtually all else,” Mr. Gregory wrote. “Parenting is essentially the opposite. You are no longer the point. Yet, at 36, an age when even the greatest champions tend to lose a step, Serena is determined to show that it doesn’t have to be so.”

“Some days, I cry. I’m really sad. I’ve had meltdowns,” Ms. Williams told Mr. Gregory. “It’s been a really tough 11 months.”

In the article, Ms. Williams also described the difficulty of being told by her coach that she needed to stop breastfeeding to improve her tennis game.

Ms. Williams said she has found support in a group of other mothers. She also has her husband, family, and what the article refers to as “child care help.” Meanwhile, researchers encourage sport psychology clinicians to work with mothers who are competitive athletes to help them forge their new identities.

Click here to read Mr. Gregory’s article in Time.

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