Photo by Jeffrey F. Lin via Unsplash
By Liberty Simons
It’s common for male athletes to have children during their careers. They don’t have to experience the 9 months of pregnancy, plus the recovery time after that. Their almost always female partners, do that. But the picture looks different if you are a female athlete. Whether they are in a same sex couple, or a heterosexual one, female athletes are affected by pregnancy and the expectations of motherhood much more than their male counterpart. It is only now we are reaching a point where motherhood is being treated with respect and dignity in women’s sports and mothers and their children are being treated well by big organisations, but this is not always the case. (I will not be including children’s names in this piece out of respect for their privacy)
When I think of the European Championships of 2022 in England, other than the win and the backheel goal from Alessia Russo, I think of that team photo of everyone in their kits, and Demi Stokes is holding her newborn baby. Her baby boy was born just a mere few weeks before the tournament started and symbolised a change in attitude towards parenthood in the game. Likewise, during this summer’s world cup, we saw the likes of Katrina Gorry having her daughter with her during camp, as well as her mother to look after the toddler. Or even Spain’s Irene Parades having her son and wife in camp with her for the first time in Spain’s history throughout their time in Australia.* With the exception of Gorry who went through IVF as a single parent during the Covid-19 pandemic, it has to be noted that all these examples are of the athlete’s partner being the one to carry the child. That being said just this November, Premiership Women’s Rugby player Abbie Ward scored a try on her return to the game, just 17 weeks after giving birth to her daughter. The overall acceptance of female athletes taking time out to become mothers and to carry child of their own has risen dramatically. In just English football alone, Chelsea Women have hired specialised help to ensure those on their team who have carried children, including the likes of former German international Melanie Leupolz, can continue to raise their standards even higher, after giving birth. I highlight these examples as positives in the path towards equality for mothers in supports.. In the last two years alone, this idea of the slow interjection of motherhood into sports has been become more and more prevalent. These examples have been used to demonstrate how the world of women’s sports have welcomed and harnessed mothers to their best abilities in their fields, with the addition of the support they need to thrive on and off the pitch. Their sacrifices for the games they play are being compensated rightly to allow for them to grow as athletes and mothers, simultaneously.
*Whilst I am celebrating this step from the RFEF, I want to also comment that I am aware it was a smoke mirror used for their abuse of power over the Spanish Women’s National Team, to attempt to cover their abhorrent displays of abuse towards these athletes, in the light of the boycotts that took place in 2022.
However, it has not always been as such. Icons such as Alex Morgan have exposed the insecurities and fear they had as athletes who have taken time away to carry children and the comments made by coaches in this. Likewise, some of the biggest clubs in the world are still not treating their players right. Olympique Lyonnais failed to pay Icelandic international Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir after the first two months of her pregnancy when she suddenly fell pregnant in April 2021. After legal battles, including the disparity between FIFA laws and French ones and a FIFA tribunal, the player was properly compensated and she returned to play in March 2022, but something still felt off. She said she felt like she was being treated differently than before, all because she had become a mother and she left the French giants for Juventus that June. I haven’t even touched on the issue of same sex female couples having to deal with the homophobic comments from (mostly) men about a baby needing a father, but if you want an example, look at Lina Hurtig’s Instagram comments to see an abhorrent display of these disgusting thoughts. There is a dirty and secret underbelly in the sports world that doesn’t treat mothers correctly. As female athletes feel comfortable to expose their employers more and tell their side of the story, the steps towards a future where we don’t have to report on these types of issues become smaller and less frightening, for women across the sporting world.
The overall opinions and attitudes towards mothers in the sports and the discrimination they face for simply wanting families of their own unfortunately mirrors the discrimination of the outside world. In a place that should be one’s safe space, there is popular opposites happening, where some are treated well and others not so much. A reoccurring theme in the world is that a man will be celebrated for the same thing a woman will be ridiculed for. This thinking does apply to parenthood. Many times, in sports, male athletes will be praised for their fatherhood and how much will they care for their children, whilst a woman will be blamed for abandoning the child to excel in her sport. Whilst the steps forward are usually happening at the hand of mothers themselves, including Chelsea’s Emma Hayes, there is a need for our male counterparts to understand and offer the same in return. In a time where we saw Hayes leaving Chelsea to go onto new adventures in America, as well as sighting a want to spend more time with her own son, it is an incredible thing that we have these women at the forefront of this unsuspecting movement.
The steps towards a better future for mothers in sports are happening, slowly, but with the acceleration in the sphere happening at a breakneck level, it is surely only a matter of time before there is complete and overwhelming change. I’m not sure if this is a step that needs legal action or it is an individual change from sport to sport, but it won’t get anywhere without the support from men, unfortunately. Their unwavering support is paramount to a change that is long overdue, for mothers and their families across the sporting world.