This week, Serena Williams won her first match at the French Open, a big game after she gave birth to her baby daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, in September 2017. She did so wearing a black catsuit, an outfit she said made her feel like a “superhero” and a “warrior” and a “queen from Wakanda”. She looked strong and powerful and happy – and her win was a significant triumph for mothers everywhere. Here is Serena Williams, 36 years old and mother to an eight-month-old baby, proving that a career, even a sports career, can carry on – can actually flourish and grow and get better – after pregnancy and childbirth. It felt significant, her tournament appearance, momentous and inspirational.
And when, a day or two later, a Serena Williams quote about the disorientating, exhausting effects of new motherhood surfaced, it only made her victory look sweeter, more impressive. Speaking to Harper’s Bazaar, Williams admitted to feeling floored by motherhood. “I remember one day, I couldn’t find Olympia’s bottle and I got so upset I started crying,” she told the magazine.
As made clear in the interview, Williams was suffering from postnatal depression: she had been through a traumatic and dangerous birth with her daughter – suffering life-threatening blood clots in her lungs – and the physical and emotional toll was immense. There is something in that quote, though, that will speak to women everywhere, women who may not have been through the incredible highs and lows of a life like Williams’, but will nevertheless recognise the tears of frustration, the tears of exhaustion, the tears that don’t make any sense but spill and slop anyway.
Even Serena Williams, a multimillionaire sportswoman, cannot stop the tired tears from falling. She can find herself undone by a missing bottle, by something so simple or silly
This week, for example, I have cried because foxes ripped the bin bags outside my flat, scattering rotting food across the steps. I have cried because a sausage dog in Cheshire blew up to three times his normal size after his windpipe was damaged. I have cried because someone asked me a question over email – and the question mark, with its suggestion that I take an action – felt too much, too big, too demanding.
I cried when the toilet wouldn’t flush properly. I cried when the train was delayed.
I have not given birth in the last eight months and I have not won any major sporting matches, but I have had a tiring few weeks. There’s been the gruelling Irish abortion referendum and a busy work schedule and my husband has been unwell. Exhaustion has seeped into my bones and my psyche. And so I’ve cried.
It feels like a woman’s response to tiredness, this crying, and I wonder why. Is it that the alternatives to tears – the shouting or the stubborn refusals or the drinking to let off steam – are deemed inappropriate for our gender? So, instead of anger or destruction or even just rationally demanding that we get a few hours’ sleep no matter what, we cry.
Or is that as women we end up more tired – and more prone to tears – in the first place? After all, a study published last year found that having children drastically affected how much sleep women got – but not men. We know that women take on the bulk of the caring and the cooking and the cleaning in the home, loading themselves with chores, until they crack and cry.
Even Serena Williams, a multimillionaire sportswoman, cannot stop the tired tears from falling. She can find herself undone by a missing bottle, by something so simple or silly. But she can also pick herself up and put on her catsuit and make an attempt on a Grand Slam title. And there is comfort in that – in watching her, this superhero in black, and remembering that she too has shed the tired tears. That we all have.