On the day Serena Williams went into labor to give birth to her first child, Reuters reported that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, said that Serena would have to put her career before her child if she wanted to regain the top spot in tennis.
As a working mother, I deem what Patrick Mouratoglou said to be horseshit, and damaging horseshit at that. The sheer number of articles wondering if working mothers are putting their child or career “first” is itself injurious to women who are trying to get on with their lives without the scorching white glare of everyone’s scrutiny. As if we didn’t suffer enough in debates over birth control and abortion under the microscopic attention directed toward our uteri every moment of our pre-birth lives. And as in the case of those debates, few of the people involved in discussions over working motherhood are actually working mothers. So my temptation is generally to ignore the likes of Mourotaglou (I mean, continue to ignore him) and get on with my life.
But so many people on twitter took pains to let me know that they agreed with him, that I’m resorting to long form response here to take this horseshit apart turd by turd.
First let’s take Mouratoglou’s statement on its face. Its logic implies that moms who are elite tennis players can’t have a career without their kids suffering, or they can’t have kids without their careers suffering. I’m going to take apart that second assumption first, because it’s easier.
I’m not an elite tennis player but I am a professor at a large public research university, where the “excellence as mother or in career but not both” argument is familiar to me. When I was first hired twenty years ago, none of the junior faculty (meaning tenure-track, but as yet untenured) had kids. I assumed, as did the institution, that people who had kids on the tenure clock were nuts, because clearly one couldn’t do all that was required of devotion to your students and research while nurturing a new life into this world. And that idea was ensconced in policy, in that there was no family or maternity leave. If a woman wanted to take a semester off to have a child, she’d have to save up enough sick leave to do it, which would basically take your entire seven years till tenure plus some to do anyway. As a result, of the four junior faculty in my cohort, two of us had kids after tenure (when the odds against fertility start to stack against you), and two never had kids.
But then around the time I got tenure and started trying to have a kid (which by the way took no time at all so don’t try this at home unless prepared), our university hired a female Chancellor—our first ever!—who instituted this strange new policy called “parental leave.” Taken by new fathers or new mothers, it allowed for a partial release of duties (you don’t teach classes, but you do have to oversee your grad students) for a semester after you have your child.
Suddenly, a population explosion. Suddenly, junior faculty started having kids AND getting tenure! The impossible became possible! And new fathers found it just as helpful as new mothers.
Oh, but you would say, being a professor is demanding, but it isn’t a physical career. Well, people used to say that prima ballerinas couldn’t have kids, to the point that even married dancers had trouble getting hired. Now we’re witnessing a population explosion in dance. Practice often changes before perception—a few brave women defy the limitations put upon them, and then others finally accept what has always been true. That mothers can excel at whatever they want. This shift has yet to happen fully in tennis, but it will.
So back to the tougher question: Can a woman have a career without hurting her child?
There is no sugar-coating the upheaval caused by having children. They are time-sucks on your life. They need your attention, and your good attention, not just your “yea yea yea I’ll hold” attention. They change your relationship to your spouse, your family, your friends, and of course, your work. But this change isn’t measurable in terms of more or less time. I’m not sure if I worked more or less than when I had a kid, but I did work differently, and better, when I became a mother. I started saying no to some things I could say no to. I didn’t go to as many extraneous events. I planned my travel more carefully, and considered the impact of it on my husband. I considered carefully what I wanted to spend my work energy doing.
But I also know that I never needed my work more than when I had a kid. Following two weeks of relative bliss after my son’s birth, I started to slide emotionally. At six weeks, I had full-blown post-partum depression. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. My father died when I was seven months pregnant. He never made it to see what would have been his first grandchild, and he wanted to. I wanted him to. It was not to be. I had a lot of time to think about this devastating loss between feedings and naps. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, while was I grieving I stopped eating, but my son never did. Soon I was perilously thin, he was getting hungrier, and I was exhausted from trying to satisfy him with what few resources my body could muster. Fortunately, a doctor listened through my tears and started me on a course toward treatment.
Part of that treatment was returning to work. I went into the office just a few hours a week, but it felt good. I began writing again, finished my next book (working alongside another new mother who was also writing a book), and was promoted to full professor before I was forty. Of course my spouse temporarily reduced hours and I hired some extra help. I learned how to ask for what I needed. I learned that to be a good mother I needed to reconnect to the identity I had inhabited for 16 years before having a child. I would not, and would never be, a stay-at-home Mom of someone else’s dreams. It just wasn’t in me.
It isn’t in a lot of women, but they are excoriated for admitting it. Remember when Hillary Rodham Clinton admitted that as a mother and First Lady of Arkansas, she could have stayed home and baked cookies, but that she chose to continue to pursue her career in law? She was pilloried in the press, labeled a bad mother, an unfeeling shrew, and—even worse—charged with failing to appreciate what a hard job baking cookies was.
Women my age remember that moment well. Coming as it did in the early 1990s, on the heels of decades of growth in the rights of women, it hit us like a slap in the face, whether we then had kids or not. We were working on our careers, and the message we received was “get back in the kitchen” if you have kids, and don’t come out again till they’re in college.
But let’s pause for a moment and consider how motherhood really happens rather than how we think it should happen. How many American women, denied the generous maternity benefits provided in other countries, can stay home for years at a time? How many can afford to be supported by their spouse’s one income (assuming that the father decided to stick around)? How many mothers are really the breadwinners who work while their husbands stay home or work a more flexible schedule (or in the case of marriage to a millionaire, don’t need to work at all)? How many mothers who have five or more kids can give each one the attention that can be lavished—for good and for ill—on an only child? How many immigrant women must leave their homes to work care jobs in another country, sending money back for their children, living with father or grandparents, so that child can have a better life?
In the end we really don’t ask these questions, because asking them would be taking into account men’s work and parenting responsibilities (always appreciated yet rarely assumed). They would also have to acknowledge that the chilly winds of capitalism blow through, as well as around, families—and that parents are always parsing their attention, and their funds, between their children even as they profess to love them equally. It’s so much easier to assume a hermetically sealed family unit, with two parents, including a mother with an either/or choice—time on job or time on kid. These abstract hypothetical problems are easy enough for the likes of Patrick Mouratoglou to imagine solving (as he acts like he has neither a real job nor kids), but the calculations he uses to get to the answers are meaningless. He’s doing addition and subtraction. Real working mothers are juggling so many shifting factors they’re doing calculus.
Not even Mouratoglou knows Serena well enough to forecast how she’ll deal with the months in front of her. None of us do. And the last thing Serena needs—the last thing any new mother needs—is more discussion of the many ways they can fail to live up to our expectations.