In The Quint's new video series, Motherhood or Medals, we bring you stories of Indian sportswomen who fought off a system that has no provision of maternity leave for female athletes, and embraced motherhood – some managed to find their way back, some the system has lost forever. Support our special video series.
"When you announce you’re going to take a break to start a family, the first thought that comes to everyone's mind is – 'She’s done. She’s not going to come back. She’s put her husband and her family before her career'," recalled Dipika Pallikal Karthik, in the year 2022.
This is a woman who is among the greatest squash players of this country, the first Indian to enter the top 10 in the world squash rankings, with four CWG, four Asian Games, and five World Championship medals.
That Dipika took time off to have her twin sons at the peak of her career and made a successful comeback in 2022 is a testament to her strength, self-belief, and conviction. It has very little to do with the Indian sports ecosystem that makes little to no room for any female athlete's aspirations of motherhood.
Dipika Pallikal Karthik and her husband welcomed twins in October 2021. The announcement they made on social media encapsulated the joy of their growing family, the names of their newborns – but it didn’t speak of the struggles they faced to get to this day.
In the months that followed, Dipika won a medal in each of the major events she competed at, winning two doubles World Championships golds in April and a mixed doubles bronze at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. The entire country joined in celebrating her wins, her medals – a stark contrast from just a year back, when the system had all but forgotten her.
Stepping Away, No Easy Decision
"I know for a fact when I took time to have my children, a lot of people around me thought my career was over. There are a lot of sponsors who don’t sponsor me after having the kids," shares Dipika as she recalls the decision to take time away from the sport to start a family.
"You know when you’re at your peak, and have another 6-7 years in your career – it’s a very hard decision to make," she adds. "What really helped me was that I had a husband who could financially support both of us. Not many people are in that position, and it made the decision a little easier, that I could forego my career for a while. I cannot imagine what other athletes go through when they’re not in this privileged position," she says, talking about the sportswomen who are the primary, and at times only, breadwinners for their families.
There is not one single sports federation in India that has a maternity policy. There are no fixed guidelines for female sportspersons who want to take time off to have a child, or any guidelines on how they can return, if at all.
There are only unanswered questions – Can she take time off to have a child? Will she have the support of her federation while she's away? Will the government continue to provide them with the grants? Will she be allowed to return to the same level she left at?
'Route for Comeback Can be Made Easier'
Now while the decision to step away itself is an extremely tough one, the journey back is even tougher. If the system, and its sponsors, could abandon India’s most successful squash player in her prime, what precedent does it set for young women who wish to walk on the same path someday?
"I feel like the route to get back to getting back to being part of the team, of part of leagues, part of tournaments can be made easier,' suggests Dipika. "Having that support, just having that thing where they say, 'It’s okay to have kids, it’s okay to start a family, there’s nothing wrong with it. And when you come back and we will help you.' I think that will go a long way in helping women make the decision to have children," she adds.
"Having said that, my federation was extremely supportive in helping me return to squash. I know with a lot of federations that doesn’t happen. I feel the route to come back for women who want to have kids can be a lot more easier and a lot more transparent."Dipika Pallikal Karthik
A Voice in India's Silent Struggles of Infertility
Even as Dipika dealt with questions, doubts, and judgements on her decision to embrace motherhood, she dealt with yet another struggle many women face, much of it in silence.
For three years, after stepping away from the sport to have a child, Dipika underwent fertility treatment to have her twin sons.
"It’s definitely not spoken of – in terms of fertility, miscarriages, and struggling to have a kid. I did start trying in 2018 – and it wasn’t as easy for me to get pregnant, so I had to go through a lot of fertility treatments to get to where I am today and get the kids," she says.
Fifteen percent of couples trying to conceive struggle with infertility, but the taboo around the word in the country is comparable to the ignorance and insensitivity of Indian sports administrators.
And just like she had stood her ground and single-handedly forced the squash federation, back in 2016, to provide equal prize money to female and male squash players at the Nationals, Dipika has now opened up about her struggles with infertility in the hope of giving a voice to a topic that should not be mentioned in hushed tones, to a battle that should not be fought alone.
"I did start trying in 2018, but it wasn’t as easy for me to get pregnant, so I had to go through a lot of fertility treatments to get where I am today. It comes from a vulnerable place in my life and a lot of women don’t want to talk about it, and that’s okay. At the end of the day, we all need to be put into positions and conversations where we’re comfortable in talking about it."Dipika Pallikal Karthik
Not every woman has the courage Dipika has shown repeatedly in her life. Not every woman has the strength to even start on a motherhood journey. Not every woman has the support to stand up to the system. But the question one needs to ask – why should they have to fight for what is naturally and rightfully theirs?