A Working Mum’s Love Letter To Serena Williams

We have a new heroine and she just happens to be The Greatest Of All Time.

By Jamila Rizvi


We have a new heroine and she just happens to be The Greatest Of All Time.

By Jamila Rizvi

One can be truly triumphant even in the face of defeat. Just ask tennis superstar Serena Williams, 36, who claimed the runners-up trophy at Wimbledon last month, less than a year after giving birth and simultaneously making herself a hero to working mums everywhere.

“It was such an amazing tournament for me,” Williams told an enthralled crowd following the match. “I was really happy to get this far. It’s obviously disappointing, but I can’t be disappointed because there’s so much to look forward to. To all the mums out there I was playing for you today, and I tried.”

Serena Williams grew up a little black girl competing in what was very much a white man’s sport.  The discrimination she and sister, Venus, faced during their rise and rise in the sport is well-documented. Children can be especially cruel, often expressing the same prejudices but without that thin veil of civility that their parents do. The brutality of that racism taught Serena Williams to be tough. She learned that by winning you prove the haters wrong. When you win, they can’t touch you.

Back in July 2016, before the birth of her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, Williams was interviewed ahead of another Wimbledon match. A journalist threw her one of those easy warm-up questions, asking how she responded to being called one of the greatest female athletes of all time. Williams didn’t skip a beat before declaring, “I prefer… ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’”.


“The truth is I miss my body being able to do other kinds of amazing things. I miss playing tennis. Mostly, I miss winning. Winning’s always been the way I define myself.”


Serena Williams is unquestionably a once-in-a-generation sporting talent and since becoming a mum she’s cemented her status as a bad ass feminist icon too. This year, Williams became the first mother to reach a Wimbledon final in almost 40 years (the last being Australia’s own Evonne Goolagong-Cawley in 1980). She’d given birth just 10 short months prior and almost died in the process. Williams suffered a potentially fatal pulmonary embolism and required multiple surgeries to recover. Unable to train, she couldn’t leave her bed for six weeks following her caesarean section.

Strength is a peculiar concept. So often we associate being ‘strong’ with masculinity; physical power that is characterised by a ripped upper body and the ability to lift great weight. Whereas we consistently underestimate the kind of physical strength that is uniquely feminine; the strength involved in birthing a child. A woman’s ability to withstand enormous pain, to grow and bring a human being into the world – under tremendous stress to the body – and then recover. Her ability to balance both, combined with an incredible mental toughness, makes Williams extraordinary.

Yet it’s a different set of attributes entirely that make Serena Williams so damn appealing. In fact, what has transformed her into the modern mum’s pin-up girl, are the utterly ordinary struggles of being a working parent. Williams’ entry into motherhood isn’t entirely relatable (my husband didn’t fly me to Italy on a private jet for pasta when I had a craving for carbonara – or at least not often). She has the kind of help and resources that are a galaxy away from yours and mine. However, the emotional and systemic challenges she’s come up against are remarkably similar.


Image credit: Getty Images

Earlier in the year, Williams withdrew from the Australian Open, physically not ready to compete again yet. So by the time the French Open came around, she entered the competition unseeded. Despite taking a break from the sport as the number one player in the world, Williams was ranked at 453rd when she returned to tennis. Tennis draws are designed to maximise the chances that the higher ranked players will compete in the final, so being seeded so low meant Williams faced tougher matches earlier in the tournament.

The WTA rules allow a player to preserve their right to enter a tournament while on maternity leave but not maintain their world ranking. In tennis, taking a break can mean the death of your career. Like in so many professions, the time away from work women have on maternity leave can mean they’re disadvantaged for the remainder of their careers. You think you’ve hit pause on your workplace success and return to find it has been on rewind. Williams has since lobbied other major tournaments to amend the rules and ultimately entered Wimbledon seeded 25th.

Williams has also spoken in sporting press conferences about breastfeeding and her struggles with postpartum weight loss. “I was training and everything,” she said in frustration. “I feel like everyone says, ‘You’re so thin when you breastfeed’”, mirroring the exasperation so many mums feel when they come up against pregnancy and birth ‘universal truths’ that aren’t universal to them. According to ESPN, after Williams made these comments one journalist in the briefing room muttered audibly in solidarity, “That’s a lie”.


“What I’ve learned through the experience — everybody is different, every person is different, every physical body is different.”


Talking to HBO for a documentary about her life, Williams talked with remarkable honesty about her relationship with her changing body. “The truth is I miss my body being able to do other kinds of amazing things. I miss playing tennis. Mostly, I miss winning. Winning’s always been the way I define myself.” Like so many other mums, I watched her say those words with tears in my eyes. As anyone who has given birth knows, it’s not just about aesthetics. The functional changes to your body during pregnancy and birth are enormous, often confronting and sometimes painful. Oh Serena, I miss my body too.

Dispelling the one-size-fits-all myth about women’s bodies and how they change after birth, Williams said: “What I’ve learned through the experience — everybody is different, every person is different, every physical body is different.. for my body, it didn’t work, no matter how much I worked out, no matter how much I did, it didn’t work for me.” The frustration of your mothering experience crashing up against an established norm is painful. It reassures me to know Williams hasn’t shied away from that.

Over the past year, Williams has been similarly candid about what she’s given up in order to make space for strength, conditioning, training and competition. She spoke on Twitter about missing her daughter’s first steps (“I was training and missed it. I cried.”) and giving up breastfeeding because it wasn’t compatible with what she needed her body to do on the court (“I cried a little bit, not as much as I thought”).

In a world quick to judge women – especially mothers – for every decision they make, Williams’ honesty is both refreshing and rare. She may have an army of helpers, but Williams still struggles with guilt, vacillation and inadequacy. She unashamedly talks about the exquisite hypocrisy of being a working mother. That every minute you’re together you want a break from your baby – to stretch your muscles or your brain – and yet when you’re apart you fear letting them down, spending hours in the loo staring lovingly at photos of them on your iPhone.

Inspiration is a term that gets overused in the era of Instagram but it justly applies here. Serena Williams inspires not just fellow tennis players – many rising stars, particularly women of colour, say Williams is the reason they fell in love with the sport – but working women everywhere. It feels trite, yet Williams’ combination of feminism, dedication and hard-won achievement deserves no lesser descriptor.

As she wrote in The Guardian back in 2016, “What others marked as flaws or disadvantages about myself – my race, my gender – I embraced as fuel for my success. I never let anything or anyone define me or my potential. I controlled my future.” Be still my beating heart and that of working mothers everywhere. We have a new heroine and she just happens to be The Greatest Of All Time.



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Maxing Your Maternity Leave

Mamas and working mamas-to-be? We’re all in this together.