Tomorrow, Serena Williams will step on to Centre Court to play her 10th Wimbledon final. She will play Angelique Kerber, in a hotly anticipated match; one that could see Williams equal Margaret Court’s record of holding 24 Grand Slam titles. It’s a big game. And it’s attracting a lot of press attention – not just because it’s Williams, who is indisputably regarded as the best player of the Open era, and not just because it’s the Wimbledon final, but because, just 10 months ago, Williams gave birth.
“This was not inevitable for me,” Williams, 36, told reporters after her 70-minute semi-final on Wednesday. “I had a difficult birth, multiple surgeries, I almost didn’t make it. There was a time I could barely walk to my mailbox. It’s such a pleasure and a joy [to be in the final] because, less than a year ago, I was going through so much.”
She was. Her C-section delivered a healthy daughter, Alexis Olympia, but was followed by pulmonary embolisms, rendering her bedbound. Unable to walk, let alone train, Williams was not expected to return to her career with the skill she is known for. Except, she did.
If being a 'mum' was something that was always treated with respect, then perhaps things would be better – fairer – all round
Since giving birth, Williams has played three tournaments and, this month, playing her fourth, upheld her incredible feat of not having dropped a match at Wimbledon since 2014. And the headlines and the conversations, have inevitably followed. The Mirror ran a story this week pointing out that Williams could become the “second mum to ever win” Wimbledon (though, according to this piece from 2010, two women with kids have previously won the tournament). She has been hailed a “supermum” (several times). When she met Evgeniya Rodina in the fourth round on Monday, the BBC ran a report saying Williams would “face fellow mum” Rodina. “They are worlds apart in terms of titles and profile,” the BBC said, “but 23-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams and qualifier Evgeniya Rodina, who meet in the Wimbledon fourth round on Monday, have one big thing in common. Both are mothers…”
Instinctively, it feels… icky to speak about women – professional, remarkable, women – as “mothers” in their place of work. It’s so rare that we hear of “fathers” killing it or meeting on the court at Wimbledon that it becomes a natural point of contention – something that can’t be balanced and therefore feels unfair. In the workplace, that’s especially true – it is unfair. Work, pregnancy and motherhood aren’t exactly a harmonious mix for women – statistics from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that by the time a woman’s first child is 12 years old, her hourly rate of pay will be 33% behind a man’s. More broadly, words about motherhood – mother, mothering, mumsy – are already loaded with intention. They’re so frequently used reductively and weaponised in order to condescend that they easily spark defensiveness.
In Williams’ case, this isn’t so. Her extraordinary performance this year is an incredible feat and it’s entirely relevant that she’s doing it all after such a traumatic birth. We don’t talk about men – “fathers” – in the same way because their bodies do not perform pregnancy the same way; they don’t risk their lives and they don’t suffer physical change or trauma.
And isn’t it refreshing to see someone not just cope, but thrive through new motherhood and for that to be celebrated so fervently? If being a “mum” was something that was always treated with respect, and not used to throw a bit of shade or diminish a woman in her job, then perhaps things would be better – fairer – all round.