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Serena Williams Loves Mothering. It's Motherhood She's Questioning

There's only one Serena Williams. Yet you can see Serena in so many mothers and so many mothers in Serena.

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Opinion
5 min read
Serena Williams Loves Mothering. It's Motherhood She's Questioning
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The woman who prefers the title "the greatest athlete of all times" over "the greatest female athlete of all times" is retiring. Serena Williams knows it's time to "evolve away from tennis". Some argue it's the right time – the world of high-performance sports is ruthlessly ageist that way. She is 40, and her sports stats show fewer finals; her last grand slam victory was in 2017. Serena will still be a brilliant player, even if we won't see much of her game because elite sports are only for younger players. And she will be missed.

Serena, of the lovely catsuit dedicated to mothers who had a difficult pregnancy (they banned her from wearing it). Serena, who said she doesn't love her arms because they're "too fit" (but she knew they paid the bills). Serena, who always spoke up – against sexism in tennis, for BlackLivesMatter, for equal pay. She boycotted a tournament for 15 years after tennis fans hurled racist slurs at her and her family, hoping they could skin her and her family alive. She wrote about barriers women faced, “constantly reminded we are not men as if it is a flaw”. Despite the sexism, the racism, and the brutal scrutiny thrown at her, Serena kept playing and winning until her net worth became $260 million.

Snapshot
  • Motherhood, unlike fatherhood, is yoked to sacrifice; Serena seems acutely aware. Most people with reproducing bodies are, and Serena's statements touch a raw nerve.

  • We know Serena's fame and immense wealth are privileges that set her apart from others, but clearly, the anxieties of motherhood won't spare even a great star athlete.

  • The real clash is between the experience of mothering and the institution of motherhood.

  • The crisis of motherhood is often framed as personal, placing the burden on women's individual successes and failures. But that's a flawed understanding.

  • Serena clarifies that she loved being pregnant. But like many others, she is caught in the patriarchal bind of motherhood. Mothering should mean power, but in a system that devalues women, it's often a loss of control.

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'If I Were a Guy...'

Now, Serena says she must make a difficult choice. She says we have to believe her; she never wanted to choose between tennis and a family. "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 labour of expanding our family," she writes in Vogue Magazine.

Motherhood, unlike fatherhood, is yoked to sacrifice; Serena seems acutely aware. Most people with reproducing bodies are, and her statements touch a raw nerve.

There's only one Serena Williams; there won't be another. Yet you can see Serena in so many mothers and so many mothers in Serena. Like so many mothers we know, she, too, wondered once whether she should ever bring kids into this world, with all its problems. And yet she did. She was never that confident or comfortable around babies. But now she adores being a mother. She clarifies she loved being pregnant. Even though childbirth nearly killed her. She had to battle postpartum depression like so many mothers we know. She, too, wants everyone to know she is very "hands-on" with her child, keen to prove she is a good mother despite her gruelling schedule. She wants to be pregnant again and give her daughter a sibling, preferably a sister.

We know Serena's fame and immense wealth are privileges that set her apart from others, but clearly, the anxieties of motherhood won't spare even a great star athlete.

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The Difference Between Mothering & Motherhood

Can the physical labour of expanding families be delegated? The surrogacy debate is still raging. In the meantime, scientists are making claims that the world's first artificial womb for humans will be ready in a few years. It's mostly for premature babies but will come close to the idea of baby-making machines. I am not sure how many mothers would find that idea appealing. Besides, sacrifices involved in giving birth and bringing up children are seen as ‘virtuous’.

Serena, like many others, is caught in the patriarchal bind of motherhood. Mothering should mean power, but in a system that devalues women, it's often a loss of control.

Mothers will revolt, saying there's nothing better than having a child. Those who choose not to be mothers say there's nothing better than being child-free. Neither is wrong. The real clash is between the experience of mothering and the institution of motherhood, as Adrienne Rich, poet and feminist, already told us in her book Of Woman Born (1976). "The potential relationship of any woman to her powers of reproduction and to children; and the institution of motherhood, which aims at ensuring that that potential – and all women – shall remain under male control."

The choice to reject or embrace motherhood should be a right, not a privilege. Mothering should allow control over our bodies, and this control over our bodies has two aspects, according to feminist historian Silvia Federici: “We want to be free to decide not to have children, but we also want the right to have children. In order to have children, there’s a struggle for the necessary resources so that we don’t have to be dependent on a man.” Federici has argued for years that our capitalist society exploits all reproductive labour – not just mothering but all essential labour, including domestic and care work. From that point of view, it's not hard to see why motherhood and fatherhood don't have the same privileges and sacrifices.

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Crisis of Motherhood Isn't Entirely Personal

The crisis of motherhood is often framed as personal, placing the burden on women's individual successes and failures. This flawed understanding distracts us from seeing that controlling reproductive bodies (socially, culturally, medically, legally) and negating women who aren't mothers are essential to patriarchy. Serena is not dependent on any man, and her procreative partner seems supportive, but the world she lives in is still patriarchal. That explains her sense of loss.

After their daughter Olympia was born, Serena's husband, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, wrote, "I'm grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job." Of course. Most fathers aren't. For the record, Alexis is reportedly a dedicated father who took 16 weeks of paid paternity leave.

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The Need to Acknowledge Women's Labour

It's hard not to think of how reproductive bodies are being denied abortion rights in the US and how women, especially Black women, have been historically denied maternity rights.

Serena is not just a mother; she is a Black mother. Black motherhood has long been viewed as an experience of trauma, mourning, and heroism made precarious by medical racism and police violence. But women like Serena Williams break that mould because their motherhood "isn't rooted in loss". Feminist author Jennifer C. Nash in Mothering while Black writes about the maternal aesthetics of abundance, sensuality, and glamour that rescript prevailing conceptions of precarity, scarcity, and crisis. Serena Williams becomes the symbol of the Black mother who refuses crisis as the entirety of the Black maternal identity. That is why her nude Vanity Fair photo when she was eight months pregnant was defiant in more ways than one.

Not everyone can or wants to separate the experience of mothering from the patriarchal institution of motherhood. Some have the desire and the privilege to remain child-free. Others, like Serena, firmly in the mothering camp, are haunted by the feeling that there's something wrong with what motherhood asks of women. This sentiment won't change until women's labour is rightfully acknowledged and rewarded. The current capitalist economy is patriarchal and won't just hand it to us; this is a feminist battle. Let’s hope Serena will be as bold a venture capitalist as she was a performer and will invest in projects that are overtly feminist and starving of funds.

(Noopur Tiwari is an independent journalist based in Paris and the founder of the feminist platform “Smashboard”. She tweets @NoopurTiwari. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Serena Williams 

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