We can’t afford the madness, sisters
Serena Williams and the mom vs. career high-wire act
Motherhood, I once read, is a slow descent into madness.
I’ll never forget that revelation. Reading that as the mother of a 2-year-old, I cupped my hands over my mouth to suppress a scream of validation as I sat in the breakfast room of our Silver Spring, Maryland, home.
I had no words.
I was in the same place that same year when I read to my uncomprehending baby girl the history-making news that Serena Williams had won her first major, the US Open — the first black woman to achieve that prize in professional tennis’ modern Open era.
Saturday, I watched the second set of the US Open women’s final with my now 21-year-old daughter, my hands once again cupped over my mouth as Serena Williams appeared to begin a slow descent into her own world of madness.
I had no words.
My first newspaper byline, and my only article about tennis till now, was a feature piece for The New York Times written as a young weekend hacker and journalism major at New York University. Having taken up the sport at 17, I wanted to spotlight the spike in recreational tennis among blacks in New York City, inspired by the success, grace and humanity of Arthur Ashe.
Now, as a longtime fan of the sport and Serena, and aching for her to win another major, I could have handled her loss. But losing amid a professional meltdown while also championing the cause of mothers around the globe is something else.
What was on display in Arthur Ashe Stadium is the precise nightmarish scenario that career mothers dread and struggle feverishly to prevent. This new moniker, Mommy, and the unbounded love it summons propels you to new heights of human achievement. It is the very same one that can leave you so unbound, so spread open, you may spill out and spiral out of control.
When you’re a new mom returning to your chosen profession, the unspoken or blatant burden you bear is that you must prove you’re still at the top of your game while also adhering to the highest professional standards, including and especially under the most trying circumstances. That is the bar. It is unfair. It is unjust. I’m not defending it. It just is.
In my formative years, growing up poor — Compton, California, and New York’s Lower East Side share some common aspects — breaking through meant venturing where the elites and big boys play, in work and in life.
Part of tennis’ appeal for me was that it was the game of the elites, and yet the black folks I hung out with were claiming it as their own too. Growing up not too far from the original home of the US Open — the exclusive West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills, New York — I was thrilled to witness the city’s first black mayor, David Dinkins, set this tournament on its current grand, public stage. And, eventually, to witness the arrival of the Williams sisters.
The world watched both sisters grow up and dominate the sport, and now Serena’s a mom.
As I moved from reporting roles at The Baltimore Sun, Businessweek and USA Today to careers on the business side of major media outlets and eventually became a mom, I was struck by how the higher I ascended, the fewer mothers there were. There weren’t a lot, but I enjoyed working alongside female vice presidents, editors-in-chief and publishers. Some were single, some married. At my workplaces, scarcely any were moms. I also got to work with many talented men deserving of their promotions and privileges. But I saw more than a few mediocre ones enjoy preferential treatment virtually unheard-of for the women I knew.
The expectation that mothers are incapable of rising to those pre-motherhood standards has been a justification for underestimating women since the dawn of time. And for relegating women to lesser roles. And paying them less in prize winnings and in compensation, regardless of the job.
In this respect, Serena was spot-on: Of course many male players have gotten away with much worse. Every sports devotee recognizes when the rules aren’t being fairly applied. Athletes understand the rules better than anyone. In this context, Serena’s rage appears wholly justified.
That’s where professional sports and the battle against sexism that mothers, women and Serena are daily waging got intertwined in an epic way. The big lead-up to the tournament — #ThisMama — was a motherhood call to arms only a year after Serena had given birth and fought for her life. It seemed she was fighting for every mother, on every field of competition.
We didn’t ask her to. She took up this challenge, for herself and for moms of all stripes. And who better than Serena to annihilate our opponents and the pillars of sexism?
But I can’t shake this: I’ve never seen Serena lose this way. Penalty points and a game in a deciding set? Never. Could motherhood have been a factor? Even moms who haven’t faced the life-threatening childbirth challenges Serena faced find that postpartum depression, anxiety, sleep deprivation, colicky babies and more take a serious toll. Delirious with exhaustion, yet trained and expert in our domains, we return to our professional arenas: the office, the classroom, the sales floor, the stage, the courtroom, the boardroom, the stadium. Going in, we know the battle we’re waging under conditions best described as stacked against us.
What’s more, we can’t let on that we also had to contend with the babysitter who didn’t show up when we needed to head to work. Or the husband or partner who hangs out with his pals and isn’t there to relieve us for a decent night’s rest. Or the breasts that feel like concrete when they congest with milk in the midst of a meeting. Or the call from the nanny describing an infant’s troubling fever moments before the big presentation.
Yes, Serena is having challenging post-birth experiences. We understand because we’ve had ours too.
We’ve come to expect from Serena what we expect of ourselves: to master not only the art of the profession but also the rules of engagement within that profession, despite the inherent unfairness. We don’t know what the exact provocation will be that sets us off. But we know it will come roaring at us, like a well-disguised inside-out forehand, seeking to wrest away our sanity. Somehow, most of us manage to keep it.
Except when we don’t. Or can’t.
However unjust the officiating, every athlete understands there are rules governing the behavior of professionals in every sport. The upper-class, etiquette-bound, country club traditions of tennis — traditions that Serena and her sister, Venus, contested from the moment they first stepped on a professional court — aren’t at all helpful in overheated moments when a title and so much else is on the line.
However unfair the rules, the professional class maintains age-old codes of conduct designed to maintain order and decorum. Every Serena fan has seen anger at unjust officiating spark a higher level of play from her. What was surprising Saturday was that she didn’t issue a single challenge to any questionable — and there were a few — serves or winners hit by her incredibly talented opponent, Naomi Osaka, that could have turned the match. Since I’ve become accustomed to Serena digging herself out of slow starts and tough matches, I thought I knew what to expect. What athlete is better prepared for big-stage pressures?
Regardless of what you think of the officiating, the unraveling began. It was painful to watch.
As soon as Serena began advancing vague, emotional arguments, pleading about “what they get away with” or how “it’s just not fair,” she seemed to supply evidence of becoming unmoored.
Yes, men generally, and male athletes in particular, can get pushed to intemperate conduct too. But I don’t believe it comes as a tandem to fatherhood. They are not defined by their parental identity.
For women generally and mom-athletes in particular, we proceed from an unfair starting point made worse by whatever other expectations we assume. That our pre-baby figures have returned. That we are radiant and energetic. That our partners still find us desirable. That we are perfect role models for younger women, aspiring to accomplish what we have.
Had Serena found a way to do what Osaka set out to do before the match, to just focus on the ball, Serena’s incomparable gifts, experience and professionalism under fire may have won the day.
So, she’s merely human. And Serena is only one year into discovering the myriad and astounding ways motherhood will continue to shape her.
Perhaps caught up in the big buildup, I was unkind in my expectations — expecting Serena at this stressful moment to step into this oft-hostile setting, excel, triumph and take the highest possible road. I know I was unkind to myself in the decades since I rose from copy aide to publisher. Like many women, I’ve beaten myself up when I couldn’t be the ideal mother, employee and partner, always expecting to rise above frustrations at home and at work and be perfect for everyone.
Whatever Serena’s tennis legacy — and I think she’s got plenty of fight and play left in her — I hope motherhood does for her what it’s done, and is doing, for me: making me more human. Which we all know isn’t perfect.