At 40, Serena Williams is living the prime of life. And the tennis champion last week added another twist to her already impressive career: retirement.
In a long, honest and provocative essay for Vogue, Williams explained that her desire to have a second child with husband Alexis Ohanian — and the associated health issues and parental duties — meant saying goodbye to the sport she loved, dominated and redefined.
Again, experts say, Williams has stayed true to who she really is, an inspiration to other women at the crossroads as well as a catalyst for change in sports.
“Serena was criticized for being vocal on the court, for her hair, for being in Compton, for her body type, for the clothes she wore, for having a baby, for coming after a baby, so I’m just grateful. Aquilah Carter-Franchik, dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services at Benedict College in South Carolina, said they were able to share some insights about the lived experience, especially as a black woman.
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“She says simply, ‘I’m human, and at some point we all have to transition and enter a new phase of our lives.’ “Throughout her career, despite the criticism she’s faced, she’s moved forward and said she’s making these choices for me and my family. She’s saying, ‘No matter what you do, you’re motivated, so you do it.’
In particular, Williams’ declaration of independence has the potential to fuel discussions around needed changes in professional women’s sports, whether it’s freezing tennis rankings after childbirth or holding soccer roster spots during maternity leave.
“Serena may be unique in many ways, but she’s not the only one with many women in sports talking about the lack of support for motherhood,” said Rachel Allison, an associate professor in Mississippi State University’s sociology department.
“It’s very interesting to see someone with such power and wealth and fame who feels that being a mother and competing at a high level are goals for a woman that are incompatible with a man,” Allison says. “Her sense is, she can’t have it all.”
In her Vogue essay, Williams spoke out and her daughter — Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., 5, who attends Olympia — talked about the sacrifices it takes to provide a sibling.
“Trust me, I didn’t want to choose between tennis and family. I don’t think it’s fair,” Williams wrote. “If I were a man, I wouldn’t be writing this because I would be out there playing and winning while my wife is doing her physical labor to grow our family. I would probably be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.
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Women are still expected to be the ‘main caregiver’
Allison said that while there has been progress over the past decades in boys taking responsibility for raising children, “in heterosexual families, there is still an expectation that the woman is the primary caregiver in terms of feeding, bathing, and so on.” transportation. Absence of that often creates feelings of guilt.
Williams admitted in her post that she has the resources to provide intensive care for her son. But she realizes that she cannot and will not give up this responsibility.
“My husband will tell you that I am very practical,” she wrote. “In five years, Olympia has only spent one 24-hour period away from me. Last year, while I was recovering from an injury, I picked her up from school four or five days a week, and I always looked forward to seeing her face light up when she walked out of the building. There for her. But the truth is, when it comes to Olympia, it doesn’t matter to me. I will not sacrifice.
Letisha Ingracia Cardoso, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cincinnati, said Brown cried when she read Williams’ farewell letter.
Partly out of sadness, as it marks the end of a career she has followed with trepidation from the start. But partly out of pride and fear it has a ripple effect on the signal.
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“She makes it possible for her to simply talk about motherhood by using her huge platform,” Brown said. But make no mistake, you don’t have to limit what she says here to what the dominant culture wants.
Brown also pointed out that Williams’ brief description of her conversations with her therapist undermines cultural taboos against seeking such professional help.
“By doing this, she opens up space for others to do the same,” she says. Acknowledging the stigma surrounding medicine and black women is not easy. But seriously, look at Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles (tennis player and gymnast who quit due to mental stress). There’s no doubt that our mind and body are connected, and if you’re not in the mental space to execute, you can hurt yourself.
Williams raises the reality of pregnancy risks for black women
Another topic Williams brings up in his essay is the inherent dangers of pregnancy for older women, especially women of color.
“If you know the horrors and traumas associated with being a pregnant woman in this country, you know what you’re talking about,” Brown said.
Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy than white women, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Reasons include “disparities in the quality of health care, chronic conditions, structural racism and blatant discrimination.”
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In her farewell essay, Williams made it clear that she gave tennis to her daughter after she gave birth. That heightened experience has caused the tennis star to suffer from shortness of breath. She had to convince the doctors to examine her, which resulted in a life-saving procedure to remove the blood clot.
Margaret Court, a four-time Olympic gold medalist and winner of 23 Grand Slam championships, was setting a record for winning 24 pre-opens and overcoming adversity in the process.
“After I gave birth, I got my chances,” she wrote. “I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played with postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Pole, Pole, Kaya. I didn’t see it in a way that I could or should have.
“But I’ve been there 23 times, and that’s good. It’s really unusual. But these days, if I had to choose between building my tennis resume and building my family, I’d choose the latter.
There’s a sense of peace in that line, a sense of being true to oneself that lifts one above our incessantly think-happy culture.
“I’m not sad for her, I’m excited for her,” said Carter Franck, who explained that Williams’ new goals include not only having a second child, but investing time and money in supporting women and businesses. Colored by Serena Ventures, her investment company.
Allison is excited to see if Williams’ bowing out will ultimately “contribute to real changes in policies and cultural attitudes around women in sport (but) we’ll have to wait and see.”
For Brown, the bottom line is simple. “Serena showed so many of us that you can be strong and powerful, but you can’t be male or white,” she said. “Now, for a lot of reasons, she’s the greatest of all time at the end of the day.”