Serena Williams is always going to carry that baby weight
The tennis star mothers out loud, changing a conversation dominated by white women
On the first morning of the US Open at Flushing Meadows, it won’t matter whether or not Serena Williams shows up in a catsuit looking like a superhero the way she did at the French Open last spring.
Or if the mother to a nearly 1-year-old daughter brings her A-game in a pink Versace sheath dress and a matching fascinator hat like she wore for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s wedding in mid-May.
No matter what she wears, how fit she looks or how powerfully she serves, the 36-year-old winner of 23 Grand Slam singles titles and the world’s most dominant athlete will never be the woman she once was. She will always be carrying her baby weight.
Do you know the weight I’m talking about?
It’s the weight of dramatically less time, exponentially more responsibilities and a whole new future of greater expectations. It doesn’t necessarily correlate to the readout on the scale, although it might. But it’s every extra, add-on thing that comes with bringing a new human being into the world grafted onto the bones of the woman you used to be. Williams gave birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. via emergency cesarean section last September. A pulmonary embolism caused her to spend six weeks in bed, and she’s publicly detailed her struggles to heal, regain her form and combat postpartum depression while juggling the demands of motherhood.
“Last week was not easy for me,” Williams posted on Instagram earlier this month. She was in a funk, she said. “Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom.”
She’d read up on postpartum depression and concluded: “It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be.” She declared solidarity with all the women trying to make that balance thing work. “I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!! There’s always tomm!”
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Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week–it’s ok–I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!
Except for that world-class athlete part, most new mothers can relate. But Williams is not just any new mother; she’s thinking out loud as a black mother in a nation with a long history of commodifying, politicizing or devaluing black motherhood. This country has a dangerous habit of codifying black mother stereotypes — loving mammy to white babies, dangerous breeder of welfare-dependent black ones — while hollowing out, discounting or simply ignoring the joys, complexities and interior lives of black women with children.
Williams is in process as a mother, laughing, crying and openly sweating the details. Since giving birth, she’s both made it to the finals at Wimbledon and suffered the most lopsided loss of her 23-year career. A US Open win would give her a record 24 Grand Slam singles titles, but given her new proportions, competing at this level may just be the second most revolutionary thing she’ll be doing.
Watching Williams “experience coming into motherhood has been awesome for me,” said Erika Nicole Kendall, a personal trainer and nutritionist who writes a blog called A Black Girl’s Guide to Weight Loss. She calls motherhood its own endurance sport. “I have a tween and a toddler, and I think about the amount of mental energy I spend managing appointments and schedules and responsibilities, making sure everybody has what they need when they need it.” She marvels at Williams and the “mental energy of being on the court, but also knowing, ‘Oh, God, did I order this? Did I take care of this?’ ”
At a news conference before competing at Wimbledon in July, Williams talked about struggling with her weight after she resumed training and her decision to stop breastfeeding, which allowed her to shed 10 pounds. “Every person is different, every physical body is different,” Williams said. “I think it’s important for us to share that message.”
In a July tweet, Williams wrote that she cried after missing Olympia’s first steps because she was training. On Aug. 16 she told Time magazine, “I’ve had meltdowns. It’s been a really tough 11 months. If I can do it, you guys can do it too.”
There are shelves full of literature on being a mom, “but how many of us look at that kind of stuff and we don’t see ourselves?” said Kendall. She battled postpartum depression too, and she called Williams’ Instagram post on the subject groundbreaking. “Because, as black women, we are rarely given the opportunity to say, you know what? I am actually hurting. I’m not just struggling, I am hurting. And I need support, a very particular kind of support.”
The demands of reacquiring yourself as an athlete only compound that need. WNBA players such as New York Liberty guard Bria Hartley, whose son is a toddler, have talked about the frustration of “doing something that seemed easy before, and now it’s a lot harder.”
Pregnancy brings differences in spatial awareness and muscles may have atrophied, even in a pregnancy and childbirth that went well. Williams, who has a history of blood clots, told Vogue magazine that after her daughter was born, “everything went bad.” Medical personnel didn’t believe her when she told them she was having a pulmonary embolism after her C-section, and she almost died.
“Not having doctors listen to the greatest athlete of our time, knowing that she had that experience the way that the woman who lives down the block from me in Brooklyn had that experience, that’s crazy to me,” said Kendall. “That’s crazy to a lot of people.”
It’s another way that having Williams on the motherhood court changes the game.
Dorothy Roberts, a professor of law, sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, talked about maternal mortality for black women at a meeting of black sociologists this month, and “people shouted out, ‘Serena! Serena!’ ” Roberts said. “She has come to represent, I think, this issue that has been covered up for so long.
“Black women are three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women in America,” Roberts said.
Black women are disbelieved about and undertreated for their physical pain. A 2016 study by the University of Virginia found that white medical residents and students harbored false beliefs about the thickness of black skin and the clotting qualities of black people’s blood.
Stereotypes rooted in slavery and exploitation contend that black women’s bodies are overly fertile while their concerns for their children are underdeveloped, said Roberts. But because of Williams’ “celebrity and the love that many people have for her, her raising these health concerns, you know, it validates what many black women have experienced and haven’t found an outlet for.”
Williams’ story reminded Roberts of Kyira Dixon Johnson, the daughter-in-law of TV judge Glenda Hatchett who died of blood loss after the scheduled C-section of her son last year.
It reminded me of the birth of my third child, when I was in active labor and threw up on myself, and the white nurse attending me hissed as she handed me a container. I remember my apology and humiliation even through the pain. Years before that, a doctor accidentally left the placenta in my sister after her C-section. She hemorrhaged for days before collapsing and having emergency surgery.
Roberts hears these stories from black women of all economic backgrounds. Then Williams started talking and black mothers, along with other mothers, found a champion.
“Catsuit anyone?” Williams posted next to a picture of her with her racket poised, looking strong and taut in May. “For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy—here you go. If I can do it, so can you. Love you all!!”
That issue with blood clots is part of what prompted her decision to wear the catsuit at the French Open. The subsequent banning of it by French Tennis Federation President Bernard Giudicelli, and his tone-deafness about policing female–particularly black female–bodies briefly enraged black, tennis-adjacent Twitter last week before Serena graciously called it no big deal.
Black women “have been juggling it all for centuries, but the reality is we’re not fully formed,” said Tamara Winfrey Harris, author of The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America. Williams allows us to see that, embrace it and make community around it. There is an assumption “that is bound up with the idea of strong black womanhood, that because a lot of our foremothers had to juggle all this stuff, and had to keep working when they had postpartum depression, or when there was difficulty healing after a pregnancy,” that somehow they were especially equipped for it. Or they were “supernaturally strong and could just pick up and do things, unlike other women,” Harris said.
But that’s not true. Just because black women had to do it, “doesn’t mean that’s the natural order of things and we didn’t struggle,” like white women who have long made themselves heard on this subject.
But now we have Williams, telling us how all this new baby stuff feels at every point: Up jive early, miss my baby girl, sleep deprived. Ugh! She’s at the line, serving up her motherhood for public consumption.
“Part of me hates the scrutiny that black women like Serena get because they get it from all angles. They get it from larger white society. They get it from the black community,” Harris said. “Serena, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, these are avatars for black womanhood. You can see it in the criticisms that they get, that we all get. But then it is good to see our experiences reflected in these women and seeing the ways that they’re navigating it.”
Williams is seeded 17th for the US Open after helping pioneer a new policy that would account for a player’s pregnancy in the seeding. Last week, she sat down with MSNBC news host Stephanie Ruhle — #justtwocoolworkingmoms, #Serenasjustlikeus — on the Today show to insist: Don’t call it a comeback.
Williams calls herself fortunate to have spent so much time with her baby. “A lot of women don’t have that opportunity, and in a weird way, I’m kind of doing it for those women who can’t. So for me, being around her every day is just superimportant,” she said.
But center court still calls to her. “I never wanted to hang up my racket,” she said. “I’m still trying to compete and win Grand Slams, and most of all do it while I have a daughter.”
She calls it the beginning of a new career. And black mothers everywhere see a new champion.