By Mary Pflum Peterson
I’ve always been a Serena Williams fan. As a wannabe tennis player, I’m in awe of her strength on the court.
But my admiration of Serena these days has little to do with tennis, and everything to do with her approach to working motherhood.
She’s arguably done as much for working moms in the past year as she’s done for tennis in the past decade.
So often when celebrities talk about new motherhood, they make it sound so, well, easy.
Famous moms show off their fabulous figures and flattened abs weeks—or, in the case of Hilaria Baldwin, even days—after giving birth.
Social media feeds are filled with beautiful images of celebrity babies that never seem to cry and only seem to sleep in sweet, Hollywood-perfect poses.
And breastfeeding issues among famous moms are seldom talked about in anything but glowing terms. Take, for example, that now-infamous image of Giselle Bundchen from a few years ago, in which she sits, a vision of sophisticated glamour and perfection, nursing her infant daughter while getting hair and makeup done, not a hair out of place, not a worry line or dark circle beneath her eyes to be found.
On the rare occasion when the darker sides of motherhood are discussed by celebs, it’s usually only after a happy resolution to the challenge has been found—as was the case when Chrissy Teigen detailed her bouts of infertility *after* successfully conceiving and discussed her bout of postpartum depression *after* declaring her newfound love of motherhood.
As a society, we never really get the sense that anything is amiss when we bear witness to the glowing accounts of celebrities. If anything, we get the impression that motherhood, that messiest and smelliest of all callings, is a walk in the park.
That’s why Serena Williams’ approach to working motherhood has been so refreshing.
The days after childbirth? She told us how hard they were—noting her health scare and noting, too, that her observations of ways in which new moms are treated (or mistreated) caused her to rethink our medical system. All of us moms who’ve ever had a doctor speak to us in condescending tones in the delivery or recovery room nodded in knowing, sympathetic agreement.
Her initial return to the court earlier this year? She didn’t sugarcoat it: it was a challenge. She’d lost her ranking. And she was re-finding her footing, in a post-pregnancy bod. Posting a photo of herself on the court wearing what looked like a Nike wetsuit, she tweeted, “Catsuit anyone? For all the moms out there who had a tough recovery from pregnancy—here you go.”
And when she spoke last week at a press conference about her difficult decision to quit breastfeeding her young daughter, in a bid to lose weight? All of us moms were right there with her. We got her. She spoke our language. She was saying what so few celebs dare to admit—that motherhood, at almost every juncture, is comprised of a series of tradeoffs. She revealed in that presser that the road of motherhood isn’t a linear one and is seldom a well-lit one. Often it’s a series of stumbles and stabs in the dark.
Then came Serena’s biggest gift to working mothers. Over the weekend, she came clean that while it might have looked like a picture-perfect week on the courts of Wimbledon, it was a hard one for the tennis great on the personal front. In a candid tweet, Serena wrote she missed her daughter’s first steps because she was working. “I cried,” she tweeted.
When we read that—the rest of us moms cried, too. Lord, how we cried. And understood.
As a working mom, I forgot all about Serena Williams, tennis goddess, and was reminded of Serena Williams, human being. I wanted to reach through the computer and hug her—tell her what I tell all new working moms, about the times I was out on assignment when one of my little ones did something big: rolled over, said a new word, figured out how to blow kisses or use the potty.
The thing is, motherhood *is* hard. And Serena, by openly admitting to that, on numerous occasions, has given all of the rest of us moms something incredible: she’s given us *permission* to acknowledge it’s hard. If the woman who’s been deemed the greatest female tennis players of all time—one of the greatest athletes in any sport, male or female, of all time—says motherhood’s not a bed of roses, that’s saying something.
If she who can serve balls at rates that exceed 100 miles per hour and win 23 Grand Slam titles can admit that the days can be harrowing, that’s big.
It tells the rest of us no, it’s *not* in our heads—no it’s *not* just us—no, we’re *not* alone when we have the less-than-perfect days. Serena is telling us motherhood isn’t pristine. It’s wonderful albeit in a complicated, messy way.
It goes without saying that I’m rooting mightily for Serena this week. She’s one of a half dozen moms competing for the single’s title at Wimbledon this year. All six of the women are reminders that working moms are capable of big, awe-inspiring things, even after giving birth.
And even if Serena doesn’t reign supreme—doesn’t claim yet another Grand Slam championship this weekend—she’s still a winner.
At a time in which so many moms, including a lot of us mere mortals, work like mad to airbrush out the tough parts of motherhood, hail to the woman who knows how to keep it real, on the court and off.
Mary Pflum Peterson, a mother of four, is an Emmy-Award winning journalist who’s spent times in war zones and at royal weddings. She’s also the author of the New York Times bestseller, White Dresses: A Memoir of Love and Secrets, Mothers and Daughters. Follow Mary at @maryelizpflum or check out more of her workat marypflumpeterson.com.
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