Since Serena Williams advanced the extraordinarily sane proposition that women coming back from having a baby should have a protected ranking and be seeded in tournaments, we have seen a lot of speculation on the “fairness” of that to other players who chose to put off having babies (or don’t want babies at all) and have worked hard to earn their seeds. And a lot of this silliness has come from people who a) haven’t gone through childbirth, or b) will never go through childbirth, and c) think they understand childbirth and its aftermath because they 1) saw some movies, 2) heard about it, 3) saw their wives cope with it–heroically, of course, and with their full support.
I’m going to break down the logical case for maternity leave, but first allow me to get a primal scream out of the way.
Some time in the second week of sitting on a hemorrhoid cushion fitted with an ice diaper, the thought came to me that comes to every new mother: Nobody told me it would be like this. People tried to tell me. Women who were older, wiser, looked me straight in the face and told me labor would be the worst pain I’d ever experienced. Brooke Shields wrote a book explaining what postpartum depression felt like–a book I only bought after I had postpartum depression. Friends who had cried on the phone to me about their problems trying to get the baby to “latch.” Everyone told me, but no one could tell me.
And that’s the problem with this whole conversation. There are some experiences (and childbirth is definitely one) where you can imagine you understand, but you can only truly understand once you go through it. I think about this every time I see that photo of men in Congress deciding the fate of women’s health.
That’s a little what tennis twitter has felt like this week.
But I’m going to admit that before I had a child, I would only have been slightly more ready to opine on what childbirth is like. I would have told you I’d readily prefer the pain of childbirth to drugs during delivery (yeah, fuck that!) and that I wouldn’t allow the fact of motherhood to “change me” (whatever that meant) and that being a healthy 35 year old who danced right into her 38th month, I’d be sure to have an uncomplicated delivery and recovery (it was 45 hours, with lots of intervention, and I now routinely see my pelvic organs protruding from my vagina).
YES I am sparing you NOTHING. Because you need to know. All y’all. Probably if you polled WTA players what they thought about seeding players who had babies, you might get an answer. But if you polled the same group after they all had kids, you would get another answer.
But even if you haven’t experienced the pleasure of bringing a human into this world, the information is out there that would lead any sane person to conclude that no organization–most especially an organization founded on the well-being and rights of women–should incentivize women to “wait” to have kids until after their careers are over, or end careers precipitously in order to have a kid.
You tell women to “wait” and you are killing them. Lest you think I exaggerate, I bring you the mournful maternal mortality chart.
And the stats for African-American women are even worse. Serena Williams is how old you say?
You are also asking them to risk never having a child at all. Here’s the fertility chart by age:
For those who say, well it’s a woman’s choice to put her career before having a child, it’s only a “choice” if you’re not punished for doing so. I put off having a child until I got tenure. I took the risk at 35 years of age. But I might have done it earlier, had my campus not had a retrograde maternity leave policy when I was hired, whereby you had to accumulate enough sick days over the years to use as maternity leave. Read that again and see how fucked up that is. When a chancellor (a woman and a mother) finally instituted a real maternity leave policy, there was a population explosion among women on the tenure track (which, given you have to get a PhD to be hired, typically is the years between your late twenties and, ta-dah, 35, during which you must write a book in order to get tenure while teaching, etc., etc., etc.)
So I’m disgusted with a lot of the opinions I’ve seen advanced on twitter over this issue. But in truth, I’m more disgusted with the WTA. They need to fix this, and they need to fix it today.