25 September 2018

Serena Williams: career and motherhood - having it all

Serena Williams’ controversial behaviour at the 2018 US Open Championships women’s singles tennis final, and her insistence that sexism was at the root of it, has led to an increasing number of viewpoints on the subject. My aim here is to take a variety of viewpoints about Serena directly or related to the issues at stake, as expressed in newspaper articles worldwide, and one essay from a book, and to select interesting or relevant points from them. I shall add my own comments and reflections on the situation Serena found herself in and what may have led her to this point. While Naomi Osaka of Japan was the player who deserved all the credit for winning the singles final match, the focus of this piece will be on the professional tennis player and wife and mother, Serena Williams, who lost the match. 

Serena Williams career tennis professional and devoted mother

American tennis player Serena Williams, soon to be 37 years old (on September 26, 2018),  has been involved in what is likely the greatest controversy of her career, while playing the women’s singles US Open Championships final on September 8, 2018.

Serena, using outspoken, accusing comments against the umpire Carlos Ramos during the match, in which she was down a set, started a flurry of newspaper articles and analyses from a number of different perspectives. I have selected just a few here, in an attempt to cover several different angles, though not to explain them all thoroughly. I recognize that there were many ways of perceiving her actions and motives, and will examine some of these, as well as the background to what happened, and give my own thoughts on possible reasons for what happened. 

To begin, it was just over a year ago that Serena gave birth to a daughter, Olympia (no future hopes intended there), and while not the first professional tennis player to give birth in the midst of a career, she has been the one to gain the most attention by doing so, and presumably experience the most anguish and risk from the birth and postbirth or postpartum experience (see After Serena Williams gave birth, Everything went bad Jan 10, 2018). An emergency cesarean section, followed by blood clots including a pulmonary embolism led to Serena being at risk of death, soon followed by several procedures and surgeries; then, several months to recover enough to be able to resume training. For a career woman, this must have been devastating, although Serena has always put her infant daughter first in her thoughts, telling her fans that motherhood was the most important part of her life.

The reality of it seems to be that Serena’s career may have been as high up there as having a child, although that is not something women are supposed to say for fear of being branded an unfit mother. If she wanted it all, who could blame her, and if she had not really wanted to lose time to being pregnant, seriously ill through childbirth, and recovery, who could blame her for that?

In an article on the ‘sanctity’ of motherhood, Anne Kingston explains,

The premise that motherhood is not a one-size-fits-all role shouldn’t come as a surprise in 2018, given the rise of the “childless by choice” movement or an international decline in birth rates. Still, it’s received as an affront to the “sanctity” of motherhood and the entrenched belief that the maternal instinct is innate and unconditional—despite ample historical evidence to the contrary (‘I regret having children,’ Feb 2018).

Whether or not she really wanted to become a mother under those terms, there would have been some social expectations and pressure put on her, for her to see motherhood as more important than her career. Age 35 when she had her child, soon to be 37 (on September 26, 2018), she left it almost past the point of being considered too old to have a baby without risk.  Serena gave birth on September 1, 2017, marrying Alexis Ohanian on November 16, 2017. A year later, after a few minor setbacks in her recovery, she was competing in the 2018 US Open Tennis Championships.

In times past, when many women had no real power, they were often accused of being ‘hysterical’ when they objected to rules imposed on them by their husbands and became distraught. Luisa Tam explains the roots of the word and its significance today:

The word “hysterical” and its root “hysteria” originate from the Greek “hystera”, meaning “womb”. Hysteria was an 18th century term used to describe a mental disorder caused by an affliction of the uterus; an illness exclusive to females.

Although hysteria is no longer recognised as a medical condition, the word and its counterparts are still used to describe extreme outbursts of emotion and excitement. And a number of media outlets pegged Williams’ outburst as “hysterical”.

How can we defy sexist attitudes if even the English language continues to uphold such outdated usage? Although these writers may not have been aware of the significance of such a term, they – and the rest of the English-speaking world – must be made aware of this if we are to evolve into a truly equal and tolerant society.  (‘Serena Williams’outburst at the US Open final was a misguided way to tackle sexism in tennis,’ Sept 17, 2018).

I do not believe that this incident Serena was involved in was mainly about sexism. I see it as very likely that Serena’s recent problems with childbirth and recovery could be a source of high emotions at this event, as Luisa Tam’s article in the South China Morning post reminds us.  I am not saying that Serena suffered from a mental breakdown, that her womb betrayed her, causing her to react emotionally, only that being a mother – and becoming one – in today’s world, for career women and stay-at-home mothers, can be fraught with indecision, frustration, guilt, and regret. On top of that, Serena is getting older. In fact, she and Roger Federer were both born in 1981.  In mentioning this coincidence, we should be reminded that, in the same time frame, Roger has managed to produce two sets of twins, while Serena has managed to reproduce only one small child.  That is not sexism, but it does indicate that some differences between men and women cannot easily be changed.  

Aging In America

Most academics don’t write for mainstream audiences, but Germaine Greer is one who has always been ready to give her views and engage with the press.  Greer was certain the Mark Knight cartoon published in an Australian publication was not only racist but sexist also, explaining that the image of Serena, in her view, was both “coarse” (racially unecessary) and “grotesque” (sexist). But mainly, she said, the cartoon missed the point, that it was not about race or sex, “when what she had really done is thrown the match” (see ‘Serena Williamscartoon was sexist, according to Germaine Greer’ Sept 18, 2018). There could be some truth to that, and Serena is the only one who could say for sure, but by the time the interactions between her and the umpire happened, she was already down a set. She had probably realized her chances of winning the next two sets were slim.

The fact that Serena had had such tremendous accomplishments, as a female playing professional tennis, made her loss and the ensuing conflict with the umpire more tragic. After the semi final, much was made of the upcoming final match between Serena and the youthful Naomi Osaka playing for Japan. This article explains two aspects of it, in terms of Serena winning, two days  before the event:

With one more victory, Williams will earn her seventh US Open championship and her 24th major singles trophy, equaling Margaret Court for the most in tennis history.

A few weeks shy of turning 37, now comes a chance to take a title and become the oldest woman to win a Slam in singles (‘Serena Williams toface 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in US Open final,’ Sept 7, 2018).

Not much pressure there! Fancy becoming the oldest woman to win a Slam in singles!  I wonder what she thought when she read that. As each year goes by, there would be less opportunity for Serena to break previous records. In a similar manner, the NY Times, writing the day after the match, gave us more on what it must have been like for Serena to play Naomi Osaka and be thoroughly beaten by her:

What embarrassed Williams might also have been the feeling that, in Ramos’s penalty, she was being disgraced before a young woman who worshiped her, before millions of young people whose adoration sponsors like Nike are wooing. That final was a battle between versions of herself, for how she wants to be seen — as a mother, a woman, a legend, a victor, as elegant, honest and true — versus the many ways she’d been perceived and, on Saturday, misperceived (‘Serena Williams Came In on a High Road. It MadeHer Fall More Devastating,’ Sept 10, 2018).

Motherhood, autonomy and morality

What happened between Serena Williams and Carlos Ramos, the umpire, is described coherently and thoughtfully in an article from New York, one step at a time, explaining how the misunderstandings happened. At one point, she makes a declaration and a demand, to Ramos, in front of the crowds, at home and watching live:

“You owe me an apology,” she said to Ramos, loudly emphasizing certain words. “I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and I stand for what’s right for her and I have never cheated. You owe me an apology” (see ‘Serena Williams vs. NaomiOsaka: How the U.S. Open Descended Into Chaos,’  Sept 9, 2018)

At different times, Serena brings up the subject of her barely one-year-old daughter, in a manner resembling an awareness of how motherhood has throughout history been seen as a moral ‘career,’ a duty women have undertaken to raise their children according to strict standards. To be seen as cheating, or to have her character attacked, as she says, when Ramos penalized her for the hand signals that her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, had displayed, was something she claims she would never do. But was she that intent on protecting the image of the good mother, or was there an underlying reason for her putting it that way? Here was a woman with one of the grandest careers, achievements unlike most celebrities could hope to aspire to, through hard work and talent. Was she just another woman susceptible to the pressures placed on her, or did she truly yearn to be the best mother she could possibly be as well as the best tennis player? Did she want it all, but was not able to achieve it?
At a recent interview with Mia Freedman of Mamamia (pronounced mama mia), part of the Mamamia’s Women’s Network in Australia), Serena opened up about how she felt after her ordeal at the US Open, saying,
“I got in the car, and Olympia was in the car. It was so weird, and she started giving me kisses, she never gives me kisses. She doesn’t even know to give kisses, and she just grabbed me, and I was like this little baby is so smart. It’s just hard to be too down when you have a little one… when you have someone to take care of.
“Like I have to take care of this person, and I have to do this type of stuff, it puts everything in perspective” . . . “I’m doing the best that I can to try and move forward,” she said. “But most of all, spending time with Olympia, she’s here in the background… you realise the most important things that really matter(see ‘Serena Williams tells Mamamia the firstthing she did when she left that US Open court,’ Sept 23, 2018).
Once again, Serena’s focus is on motherhood – womenhood as defender of morality, sometimes to the extent that it must surely be interfering with her tennis. In Mother Time, a collection of essays on women’s experiences of aging, Professor Margaret Urban Walker discusses the idea of autonomy in the lives of many older women, seeing the life course as a kind of “career” that leaves a lot at the end that becomes devalued in terms of moral and social identity (p. 104, ‘Getting out of Line: alternatives to life as a career,’ 1999). 
Walker situates the idea of autonomy within its wider meaning, within a cultural theme, that extends throughout each person’s life, calling it the “individual life as a career” (pp 100-101), a concept that takes in more than the traditional idea of career that is familiar to us, based on occupation and paid work.  After the “life career” is over, Walker says, as it once would have been for women who did not work, or men post-retirement, the career self endeavours to prove that they were once socially acceptable before their adulthood expired (p. 104), easier to do if one has had a traditional career, but a new task to face, nevertheless. I would add that once motherhood is over, the individual would face acquiring or acknowledging additional facets of an integrated life, following what is known traditionally as the menopausal transition or “the change of life”.
Although Serena Williams has led a different kind of life from many women and men, in which her tennis career was real, resulting in greater autonomy and recognition of her worth, the career life of any tennis player is bound to come to an end at some point. Some might wonder why Serena allowed motherhood to interrupt her career, and why she appears to have a particular mindset about it, and her new daughter, that places as much or equal value on the little person as she has done on winning at tennis. Is it cultural, or a personal desire Serena has, to want to experience motherhood, or to “have it all,” or to pass on her genes, or just to want someone special in her life in a way only motherhood can?   
The remainder of Margaret Urban Walker’s essay focuses on three ways of integrating a life, without resorting to reflecting on the traditional life stages open to us, but this has little to do with Serena’s life, unless she does find herself seeking a third way of integrating a life containing fragments of her personal history which are disconnected from being a “whole life” due to her career as a professional tennis player. Travelling, and moving on, over and over again, can result in leaving memories and loyalties behind, sometimes making life seem meaningless. More so, in today’s world, this is the kind of life people lead, not lived in one place only, and not working at one career only.
In Serena’s situation, she is firmly set within the model of an autonomous individual, and has now managed to firmly attach herself to motherhood as an additional source of meaning in her life. As a result of her indiscretion on the tennis court she has had to pay a hefty fine and had her life torn apart (as if it hadn’t been already) by the media. The trauma associated with becoming a mother has probably left her susceptible to the kinds of physical changes that many ordinary women experience as they grow older. But there is much more to her life’s journey than her extraordinary career as professional tennis player or being the best mother ever, or even having her life submitted to scrutiny. When we examine the variety and depth of the public’s and media responses to her tennis match against the 20-year old Naomi Osaka, we realize how her life has affected women in general, and men’s in their attempts to explain just what happened. 
Power and credibility
Serena appeared to be coming from a position of power, not of powerlessness, when she confronted the umpire, Carlos Ramos, about his decisionmaking, which makes a difference when thinking of abuses of power. It is one thing to have someone with no power be verbally abusive towards another when fighting for their survival, but different in effect when it is known that the person with material power who is being abusive has the power to do the other harm to their life in significant ways - whether loss of job, of home, or a relationship. When there is no mutual sense of being equal to one another, or fighting for the same cause, one of the two is often more vulnerable than the other. In the case of the umpire, while his fairness – or not - towards her has also been part of the debate it is questionable which of them has the most power, and the most support on their side, or whether this is a rocky road each of them has to navigate as they continue on.

Serena’s husband Alexis’s nurturing response to his wife Serena’s ordeal was to use statistics to prove her point, that this was a matter of the sexes not being treated equally by the umpire Carlos Ramos, or on a wider level, during professional matches on the whole. Which one of them has more credibility – Serena or Ramos - to not have their career suffer, or their life, is debatable.

George Bellshaw, writing on Alexis Ohanian’s use of statistics from a sports perspective, provides us with a convincing article complete with wedding pictures – their own and at the Royal wedding -  graphs, stats, and a list of code violations before stating his conclusion, based also on what other experts tell him, that sexism on the tennis court is hard to prove. Quoting an expert on technology and a university professor he writes:

‘Maybe that’s the thing from now, if you want to get more empirical evidence from how to understand whether there’s bias in there. There’s a whole hash of new data that’s required to actually be able to do that.’ (Tim Wade – a senior director of technology company Dimension Data).
. . . 

So could we produce accurate statistical results that prove sexism is at play?

‘With certainty? Almost certainly not,’ Professor [Alan] Nevill added. ‘It’s highly unlikely that you’d be able to demonstrate that’s a major attribute in the situation’ (SerenaWilliams’ husband Alexis Ohanian is right about sexism stats – but is desireddata actually possible? Sept 21, 2018).

It comes down to collection of an immense amount of data and interpretation of that data, making it impossible to find the answers one wants, even if technology were capable, Bellshaw says, and money and time were of no concern.

In the article that asks in its title, ‘Is Serena Williams right,’ her behaviour on the court is described as normal for men who get angry, but open to question when women do the same thing. Kieran File explains,  

Most people would comfortably associate confrontational actions and behaviour with men and we regularly see this in male sporting competitions. In other words, such behaviour is seen as normal, or at the very least, not unexpected of men.
. . .

Instances of women being confrontational challenge society’s view of them. That leaves them subject to greater scrutiny. In this case, society’s expectations of women as polite, supportive,
 non-competitive and certainly not aggressive may have indirectly contributed to Williams’ penalties in the US Open final
(Is Serena Williams right? A linguist on theextra challenges women face in moments of anger,’ Sept 11, 2018).

I would suspect that the finger-pointing and other gestures, including breaking her raquet, and her demand for an apology had a lot to do with the penalties given her by Ramos. On the whole, less haranguing and no name-calling (liar and thief) on the part of Serena, but instead an accurate description of where the problems lay, in her view, may have been more helpful and less threatening. But if she were indeed in so much emotional turmoil, about to lose the set and match to a newcomer on the scene, while still recovering from doing what only women can do (give birth), while getting older, with records yet to be broken, and not enough hours in the day, isn’t it understandable? The question, in many people’s minds, is whether women should be able to behave the same way men do. But is that the best solution to the problem, that more women start behaving like men?

Former professional tennis player Martina Navratilova writes, addressing the problem of women behaving like men on the court, and the fact that being treated differently than others, off or on the court, may have been a reason why Serena couldn’t let go of it:

 Just because the guys might be able to get away with it doesn’t mean it’s acceptable.
 . . .

All of this U.S. Open history, combined, perhaps, with always feeling like an outsider in the game of tennis — I know exactly how that feels — goes some way toward explaining why Ms. Williams reacted the way she did, and most of all, how she just couldn’t let go. But what is clear is she could very much not let go (Martina Navratilova:What Serena Got Wrong, Sept 10, 2018).

To sum up, we have a highly competitive and skilled, motivated tennis player – a new mother, but one for whom tennis has been the most important thing in her life – until now. The approach to middle age, for women, can involve a great deal of reflection if the idea of motherhood has not fully been considered. For a tennis player at the top, as Serena Williams is, it must be even more difficult to make a choice between the two – career or motherhood – or to expect to be the best at both. Furthermore, growing older is not the same for a woman as it is for a man. Finding ways of making sense of one’s life and models of how to integrate the various bits of paths the journey takes, to make them meaningful, is a task for women especially, when trying to live up to men’s models for life no longer works.


After Serena Williams gave birth, 'Everything went bad'
By Susan Scutti
Jan 10, 2018   Updated 2:20 PM ET, January 11, 2018

Getting out of Line: alternatives to life as a career.
By Margaret Urban Walker
In Mother Time: women, aging, and ethics (Ed. Margaret Urban Walker).
Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. Maryland. pp 97-111.

‘I regret having children’
By Anne Kingston
2018 February Issue

Is Serena Williams right? A linguist on the extra challenges women face in moments of anger
By Kieran File
The Conversation
September 11, 2018 10.41am EDT 
Martina Navratilova: What Serena Got Wrong
By Martina Navratilova
NY Times, Opinion
Sept 10, 2018
Serena Williams Came In on a High Road. It Made Her Fall More Devastating.
By Wesley Morris
New York Times Critics Notebook
Sept. 10, 2018

Serena Williams cartoon was ‘sexist’,according to Germaine Greer
By Ben Graham
Sept 18, 2018. 9:14AM
Serena Williams tells Mamamia the first thing she did when she left that US Open court.
By Claire Stephens, Weekend Editor
September 23, 2018

Serena Williams to face 20-year-old Naomi Osaka in US Open final
Associated Press
Sept 7, 2018

Serena Williams vs. Naomi Osaka: How the U.S. Open Descended Into Chaos
By David Waldstein
NY Times
Sept. 9, 2018
Serena Williams’ husband Alexis Ohanian is right about sexism stats – but is desired data actually possible?
by George Bellshaw
Metro News UK - Sports
Sept 21, 2018 8:00 am

Serena Williams’ outburst at the US Open final was a misguided way to tackle sexism in tennis
By Luisa Tam
South China Morning Post
Sept 17, 2018, 7:53pm UPDATED Sept 17,  8:48pm