Serena Williams — tennis legend, 23-time Grand Slam champion, and perhaps the greatest athlete in our lifetime — has decided it’s time to “evolve” away from tennis to focus on family. More to the point, growing her family.
Serena is something of a hero in my house. So when she made the momentous announcement in a Vogue essay this week, I read it multiple times, getting more and more emotional with every scroll. (Raise your hand if you cried.) I think any mother — hell, any human — could find themselves in some aspect of her story.
But a phrase in the headline kept tripping me up: “Serena Williams Says Farewell to Tennis On Her Own Terms — And In Her Own Words.” On her own terms? Huh?
Serena clearly says that she is retiring without joy. Choosing between tennis and her family was never something she wanted to do. In true Serena fashion, she’s open about the complexity of her decision, relaying her unhappiness with having to choose between the things she loves. She writes, “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
Serena clearly says that she is retiring without joy. Choosing between tennis and her family was never something she wanted to do.
Amen. Whether you’re a tennis pro or — well, me — mothers in America are faced with endless challenges: how we give birth, or don’t; how or when we work, or don’t; how we balance it all, or don’t. The infuriating thing is, none of these are really choices at all: We live in a country where you can be forced to give birth to a whole human being without any leave or other social supports. You’re made to feel like a failure if you stay home with your kid, an absentee parent if you don’t, and a bad mom no matter what. Much as we organize and color code and plan, plan, plan, this isn’t equity — and it sure as hell isn’t motherhood on our own terms.
Don’t get me wrong — whatever Williams does next, including her decision to focus on her family (and continue kicking ass in her VC work), will be inspiring. We all know firsthand that motherhood is an all-consuming job that requires true courage and an all-in mentality; there is no off-season, no rest days. And all of us reach a point where that job needs our focus more than anything else in our lives.
But it’d be wrong to ignore the false sense of choice here. These are not her terms, at least not fully.
This isn’t the first time Williams has been candid about motherhood; she’s openly shared the challenges of being a working parent, including her life-threatening experience giving birth, having her pain ignored as a Black mother in a hospital. And yet, not only have we ignored the warnings of Williams, a woman with nearly every resource at her disposal, including a dedicated partner who shares the burden of child care, we’ve turned a blind eye to the plight of every other mother in America, too.
Much as we organize and color code and plan, plan, plan, this isn’t equity — and it sure as hell isn’t motherhood on our own terms.
While we ought to celebrate the incredible legacy that Williams has carved into our history, I believe she’s asking us to do much more: to re-conceptualize motherhood as a transformative experience, not a subtractive one. To recognize the true value of mothers and fathers, we must increase parental leave across all sectors, institute universal pre-K, and allow and encourage flexible work arrangements, so the next Serena Williams has the same actual choices as a Tom Brady. We must believe in moms, trust them, and truly support them.
In Williams’ words, she isn’t retiring — she’s evolving. And in sharing her reasoning behind the decision, her forced choice, she is opening up the conversation for every mother to talk about their most difficult choices. We should all strive to be more like her, and do some evolving of our own: in the workplace, in our homes, and in our policies. It’s time we evolve to support all mothers and demand that society treat us as people with value and with lives that are precious and worth holding close.
So that we can finally live our lives on our own terms.