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Zhang: Athletics and motherhood are not mutually exclusive

The Daily’s Cybele Zhang shares her thoughts on female athletes and motherhood

As I took time this weekend to celebrate Mother’s Day, I was shocked to see the lack of attention that major sports media gave to mothers (and women in general). Browsing sports news websites Sunday morning, I noticed the only times women were even mentioned on the home pages were the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and Jessica Andrade’s strawweight victory, while in contrast, men had hundreds of headlines. I’m not trying to discredit the male athletes’ achievements and their newsworthiness, but the lack of mothers in the news on this day in particular perpetuates a dangerous narrative: Motherhood and athletics are mutually exclusive.

Unfortunately, pregnancy in athletics is too often seen as a career-ender. To quote the NCAA’s Pregnant and Parenting Student-Athletes Resources and Model Policies, however, “Plain and simple, this is a myth. Unlike a knee injury, pregnancy is normal and healthy for the female body. Although pregnancy may require temporary accommodations, there is no evidence that post-partum women are not capable of returning to and even improving upon their athletic form … in fact, most athletes who are mothers report pregnancy as a positive event physically, adding to their strength and stamina.”

Despite this policy and the research supporting it, the myth of motherhood as a death sentence in athletics persists, and athletes who are mothers are still stigmatized. The NCAA itself admits, “Student-athletes have reported feeling forced to have an abortion or risk losing their athletic award.”

One percent of female athletes become pregnant in college, but the NCAA writes that “Few athletics programs are prepared to effectively deal with pregnancy.” Eighty-five percent of Division I programs lack any written policy to guide athletics departments’ responses to student-athlete pregnancy and parenting concerns, and I was unable to find anything explicitly on the subject published by Stanford.

Carrying a child certainly changes the way the female body looks and functions, and giving birth requires any mother to cut back on and stop athletic activity for months. The fact that many incredible athletes are also mothers and have continued to complete at an extraordinarily high level despite the stigma and lack of resources should garner more respect.

Unfortunately, this same harmful narrative carries over into professional play. I grew playing volleyball and idolized athletes like Kerri Walsh Jennings ‘01, who has three children, born in 2009, 2010 and 2013. Yet after each birth, she came back to her sport, and continued to compete at the highest level despite the physical and mental labor that being a mother inherently demands. She won Olympic gold medals in 2004, 2008 and 2012 with partner Misty May-Treanor, and was five weeks pregnant during her victory in the London Olympics. Contrary to popular narratives on pregnancy, Walsh Jennings still played at her peak, and the duo became the first women’s beach volleyball pair to ever win three consecutive gold medals.

Too often, media portrays family and athletics as diverging tracks, but we need to publicize empowering realities like Walsh Jennings’ to paint a new counter narrative of strong women athletes, who successfully wear so many challenging hats.

Serena Williams won the the Australian Open in January 2017 while two months pregnant. A few months later after giving birth, Williams halted her daily regiment of blood thinners to allow the surgical wounds from her C-section to heal, only to have bloods clots nearly cut her life short. But like any mother, Williams was resilient, not only healing but bouncing back onto the tennis circuit with gusto. She made two Grand Slam final appearances in 2018 after a 14-month maternity leave, performing as if she had never missed a day. Her pregnancy in athletics should not be seen as a curse or setback (as it was sometimes portrayed in the media) but normal.

Although motherhood is a natural part of life and cannot be seen as mutually exclusive to athletics, society needs to give more credit where it is due. Successful athletes who are mothers rarely get credit for their role in the domestic sphere and do not always have the needed resources to balance a busy life as both mother and athlete.

Pregnancy in sports should be celebrated instead of shunned. For any mother, balancing their own wellbeing and a child’s is challenging, but adding a professional sports career on top of that is, frankly, heroic. While most athletes come home from training to rest and refuel, these mothers return to the challenges and demands of raising a child. It is selflessness that too often goes unacknowledged in the sports world where most value, money and attention is placed on the scoreboard or podium.

Contact Cybele Zhang at cybelez ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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