Jane Bradley: Don't make sport out of pregnancy

Lauding Serena Williams' tennis triumph while she was expecting a baby only makes other pregnant women feel inferior says Jane Bradley

Serena Williams won the Australian Open tennis while two-months pregnant but reading too much into this puts unfair pressure on women.
Serena Williams won the Australian Open tennis while two-months pregnant but reading too much into this puts unfair pressure on women.
Serena Williams won the Australian Open tennis while two-months pregnant but reading too much into this puts unfair pressure on women.

I take my hat off to Serena Williams, I really do. The news that the US tennis star won the Australian Open while she was around two months pregnant is without a doubt, noteworthy.

“Superwoman!” crowed the headlines.

She must have worked hard to keep herself in as tip-top physical condition as possible - not just to account for her pregnancy, but to ensure she was an athlete at the top of her game.

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Yet, while her achievement is to be admired, this global amazement at Serena’s “achievement” puts pressure on millions of pregnant women around the world who will, now, be comparing themselves to her - and feeling inferior. They should not.

Yes, Serena did amazingly well to be able to combat the underlying physical changes which would have been taking place in her body. From five weeks pregnant, doctors say, a woman is already experiencing changes to her cardiovascular system.

But the fact she was able to play so well - and was able to compete at all - suggests that she must have had a fairly easy and symptom-free pregnancy, at least up to that point.

She is not the only one. I know ordinary women who have breezed through pregnancy without so much as a single off-colour moment and were able to continue the lives - and the level of physical activity - they had had before they conceived. Doing so was not really an accomplishment or something to be admired, as much as a stroke of luck.

Perhaps even a more extreme sight than Serena’s win, athlete Alysia Montano competed in the 800m quarter-finals of the US track and field championships while eight months pregnant.

The then 28-year-old runner, who received a standing ovation after completing the race, was quoted at the time as saying: “I’ve been running throughout my pregnancy and I felt really, really good during the whole process.”

This is the key.

Montano, like, presumably, Williams, felt “really, really good” while pregnant. If they hadn’t felt good, they wouldn’t - like most sportswomen who are expecting a child - have been able to compete.

They are the lucky ones. Pregancy is a game of physical Russian roulette.

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At two months pregnant - the same stage Serena was at while competing in Australia - I could barely make it out of the house, I felt so absolutely horrific. Just drinking a cup of tea or trying to get dressed was such an ordeal that even more than five years on, I can hardly recall without shuddering.

Yet, at eight and a half months gone and the size of an averagely proportioned bungalow, I remember happily crawling around under my desk on my hands and knees trying to fix a computer problem, much to the consternation of the IT man, who appeared to help and was nearly knocked out by my gigantic bump as I nimbly emerged and bounded towards him.

This wasn’t because I was a better person at eight months pregnant than I had been six months earlier - or more mentally capable. It was because I was feeling physically far more well - it was not my choice.

A friend who enjoyed a trouble-free pregnancy first time around was confined to crutches after a few months with her second due to pelvic problems. She could not have played a game of tennis if her life depended on it.

Even British Olympic cycling champion Laura Kenny - a four-time Olympic gold medallist - admits that while she won a competition at around five weeks pregnant, she had to stop cycling soon after that, saying she felt “like it is so intense that I wouldn’t have been able to [compete]”.

Kenny, whose sporting career has been comparable to that of Williams’s, should not be seen as any less accomplished for this. But I’ll wager, hearing the news about Serena, she felt just a little bit ashamed.

Because mothers inevitably compare themselves. As do fathers, who inevitably crow, after their partner has given birth, what a “fantastic job” she did. They do it out of love and admiration (my husband said something similar, even though it was quite clear that I was less well designed to carry a child and give birth than I would be to win a tennis Grand Slam) - yet the “job” the woman did is not really her choice: it is nature’s course.

This fact does not stop us from trying to compete, as if it were something we could control.

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After a traumatic and complicated birth, I felt woozy every time I tried to get out of bed. My daughter was five days old before we even attempted a trip to the shops.

Yet, I felt, while almost fainting with exhaustion and general post-birth unwellness as I dragged myself to the car (where I remained for the rest of the outing), that I had to get out of the house: for I knew that five days after giving birth to her child, my friend had completed a two-mile walk with the buggy.

She’d admitted she felt “a bit tired” afterwards, but this had become my benchmark: five days, I had in my head, was when normal life had to recommence, no matter what.

If I did not manage to function like a normal person within five days of giving birth, a little voice in my head said, I must be an inferior being.

What I should have remembered was that I wasn’t the same person as my friend: her birth had been quick and relatively easy and she’d been sent home from the essential oil-scented birthing unit that afternoon. My experience - on the main labour ward and later in the operating theatre - had been quite different.

But I judged myself, I compared myself to her - and I lost. Looking back, I know that my longer recovery time was not my fault. Then, I felt like a failure.

So while we should laud Serena for her win, as we should for any of her outstanding wins - and congratulate her on news of her impending arrival - we should not exalt her to a higher plain than the average pregnant woman. It is just not fair.