Serena Williams lived a lifetime of firsts in his 40s. And the tennis champion added another twist to her extensive CV last week: her retirement.
In a long, honest and provocative essay for Vogue, Williams said her desire to have a second child with husband Alexis Ohanian — and the health risks and parental obligations that come with it — meant saying goodbye to a sport that she loved, dominated and redefined.
Once again, experts say, Williams has stayed true to her authentic self in a way that will serve as both an inspiration to other women at such a crossroads and a catalyst for change in the sport.
“Serena was criticized for speaking on the court, for her hair, for being from Compton, for her body type, for the clothes she wore, for having a baby, for coming back after having a baby, so I am just grateful to have been able, especially as a black woman, to share some understanding of her lived experience,” says Akilah Carter-Francique, Dean of the School of Education, Health and Human Services at Benedict College in Caroline from the south.
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“She just says, ‘I’m human, and at some point we all have to transition and step into a new aspect of our lives,'” she says., she went ahead and said i am making these choices for me and my family. She said, ‘You will be repelled whatever you do, so you might as well do it.’
Specifically, Williams’ declaration of independence has the potential to deepen conversations about the changes needed in professional women’s sport, whether it’s freezing tennis rankings after childbirth or holding positions. football during maternity leave.
“Serena may be unique in many ways, but she’s not alone in how many athletic women have spoken out about the lack of support for motherhood,” says Rachel Allison, associate professor in the department of sociology at the Mississippi State University.
“It’s fascinating to see someone with so much power, wealth and fame who still thinks that being a mother and competing at a high level are incompatible goals for a woman versus a man,” says Allison. . “Her feeling is that she can’t have it all.”
In her Vogue essay, Williams was blunt and talked about the sacrifice it took to give her daughter — 5-year-old Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., who goes by the name Olympia — a sibling.
“Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think that’s fair,” Willaims wrote. “If I was a man, I wouldn’t be writing this because that I would be there playing and winning while my wife did the physical labor to expand our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.
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Women are still expected to be the “primary caregivers”
Allison says that despite the progress men have made over the past few decades in terms of taking more responsibility for child-rearing, “heterosexual families still expect the woman to be the primary caregiver. taking care of feeding, bathing and transporting her. Not being there for that often generates a feeling of guilt.
Williams admits in her essay that she has the resources to ensure good care for her child. But she found she couldn’t and wouldn’t give up that responsibility.
“My husband will tell you I’m too practical,” she wrote. “In five years, Olympia has only spent one 24-hour period away from me. Last year, when I was recovering from a hamstring injury, I was able to pick her up at the 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 and saw me waiting there for her. The thing is, nothing is a sacrifice for me when it’s is about Olympia.
Letisha Engracia Cardoso Brown, an assistant professor in the sociology department at the University of Cincinnati, says she cried while reading Williams’ farewell letter.
Partly out of sadness, because it represented the end of a career she had followed with admiration since its inception. But partly out of pride and admiration in a gesture meant to have a ripple effect.
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“She makes so much possible just by using her huge platform to talk about motherhood,” Brown says. “But make no mistake, what she’s also saying here is that you don’t have to be limited by the expectations of what the mainstream culture dictates.”
Brown also points out that Williams’ brief mention in Vogue of conversations with her therapist also strikes a blow at a cultural taboo against seeking such professional help.
“By doing this, she opens the space for others to do the same,” she says. “This‘It’s not an easy thing to admit, knowing all the stigma surrounding therapy and black women. But it’s a real thing, look at Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles (the tennis player and gymnast who was criticized for walking away due to mental strain). There’s no doubt that our minds and bodies are connected, and if you’re not in mental space to perform, you can hurt yourself.
Williams raises the reality of the dangers of pregnancy for black women
Another topic Williams raises in the essay is the inherent danger of pregnancy for older women, especially women of color.
“If you know the horrors and trauma associated with being a pregnant black woman in this country, you know what she’s talking about,” Brown says.
Black women are three times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Factors include “variation in the quality of health care, underlying chronic illnesses, structural racism and implicit biases.”
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In her farewell essay, Williams made it clear that she gave tennis her all after giving birth to her daughter. This elated experience led to a shortness of breath that troubled the tennis star. She had to convince doctors to investigate, which led to a life-saving procedure to remove a blood clot.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist and winner of 23 Grand Slam championships was pureyouing Margaret Court’s record of 24 wins from the pre-Open era with vigor, pushing through the difficulties in the process.
“I had my chances after I returned from giving birth,” she wrote. “I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a Grand Slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I performed during postpartum depression. But I didn’t. Should, would, could. I did not present myself as I should or could have.
“But I showed up 23 times, and that’s great. In fact it is extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis take over and build my family, I choose the latter.
There is a sense of peace in this line, a sense of being true to oneself that puts us beyond the incessant barbs of our commented culture.
“I don’t have any sadness for her, I’m thrilled for her,” Carter-Francique said, noting that Williams’ new goals include not only having a second child, but also putting in the time and effort. money to support women and businesses. of color through Serena Ventures, her investment company.
Allison can’t wait to see if Williams’ Vogue arc will end up “contributing to real change in the policies and cultural ideas around women in sport, (but) we will have to wait and see.
For Brown, the result is simple. “Serena showed so many of us that you can be strong and powerful and yet not be male or white,” she says. “For so many reasons now, she is, ultimately, the greatest of all time.”