Twenty three-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams announced her decision to 'evolve away from tennis' earlier this month, citing her wish to have a second child as the reason.
"I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. 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," wrote Williams in Vogue magazine, drawing focus to a much-ignored facet of a female athlete's career – the sacrifice they have to make of choosing between motherhood and their aspirations.
The Quint spoke to Indian badminton star Jwala Gutta about how little acknowledged this sacrifice is, and how little support there is in the Indian sports ecosystem for female athletes who do choose to prioritise their families.
Recently, Serena Williams wrote about her decision to step away from tennis to have a second child. It is a decision only female sportspersons are forced to make – to sacrifice their career aspirations in order to focus on their family.
Jwala, do you feel like that facet of a female athlete's life is just not acknowledged enough? The big sacrifice only they have to make if they want to have children.
I think women are always subjected to these passing comments – "PMS... oh she must be on her periods so her mood is off". For a woman, to take a break from her career to have a child is considered 'normal', but people don’t realise what it takes.
Especially for women who are out there to make a career and an identity for themselves... they first have to fight the patriarchal society to be out there. And then the instincts that tell you that you have to have a family and bear a child, but keeping your career on the side, and what it takes for a person who has had a huge career like Serena Williams.
I too have had such pressure and am still going through the same but I think it has become "normal". So, when I am talking about it, people might say, "Oh, she is a feminist," but only the people who go through it will understand the pressure, and sadly, no man would understand that because they don’t have to go through it.
Studies now show that female fertility peaks at 30 and after that it only gets tougher as one ages. So, for female athletes, the anxiety this may cause isn't even something we think of.
At 30, they are still at the peak of their careers... We are seeing female athletes play till 35-36 now. So, that anxiety might be massive for the women who do want to have a family and also careers. But nobody really talks about it.
In our society, if you're not able to have a child, it’s considered the girl’s fault for some reason, and then there's a number of name-callings. People also say that the woman is not competent enough if she cannot bear a child. That's the kind of taboo we have to deal with. It is difficult, and I don’t think we talk about it often. I think we need to talk about it more. We need to show some courage.
There is so much technology that has come in – freezing the eggs and educating oneself about other methods – I didn’t have all that during my time and I am all up for it. Whatever gives women that little time to do what they want in their career, for their identity, for their independence – I think we need to talk about it more openly and not shy away from it.
There's also not just the fear of losing years of their career, if female athletes decide to go on maternity break, but there's also the fear of losing sponsors. We have seen that happen in America and athletes have spoken about sponsors pulling out. The Pakistan Cricket Board, though, announced a maternity policy last year that allowed Bismah Maroof to play the T20 World Cup just months after giving birth to her daughter.
Do you feel this is an area where the Indian Sports Ministry and the Indian sports ecosystem can step up and do more in way of support?
Moral support is all one is looking for, be it a man or a woman. When it comes to making such decisions, it becomes easier... there is less pressure, less stress, and less anxiety on the body, and the performance in competitions also improves because there's no stress.
I think we need to fight harder for these reforms for women. Especially in India, we see so many women athletes doing so well in competitions, but they need to speak up more for themselves and others who are looking up to them.