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Serena Williams’ career decision makes an important statement about motherhood

Serena Williams

Having children has helped many athletes return to their sports even stronger, but in different ways.

Last week, Serena Williams made headlines again, but not for the usual reasons. The 23-time Grand Slam champion recently announced that she would not be participating in the Australian Open, despite tournament officials’ hopes and assurances back in October that she would compete. The reasons were not entirely clear, at least by her statement. After giving birth to her first child – a daughter named Alexis Olympia – a mere four months ago, amid numerous complications both during and after the birth, the number-one ranked women’s singles player in the world does not feel prepared to compete at the championship level, and so is taking a step back from the international stage for a while longer.

Cynics might be quick to point to William’s choice to pull out of the Australian Open as evidence that motherhood can leave women the worse for wear physically, and cut a promising career short. Her daughter was born by emergency C-section after the baby’s heart rate decreased to dangerous levels, and Williams suffered pulmonary embolisms that led to numerous procedures, requiring bed rest for six weeks after the birth.

But what Williams has likely discovered – as many other moms, elite athletes or not – is that motherhood does change us, but often for the better. Even with scary medical setbacks.

Motherhood: The secret to balance

With her announcement, Williams is proving that motherhood truly “changes the game” – but not necessarily in a bad way. This is not the first time that Williams has spoken about how empowering motherhood is and how it’s influenced her performance on the courts.

“When I’m too anxious, I lose matches, and I feel like a lot of that anxiety disappeared when Olympia was born,” Williams said in a recent Vogue interview. “Knowing I’ve got this beautiful baby to go home to makes me feel like I don’t have to play another match. I don’t need the money or the titles or the prestige. I want them, but I don’t need them. That’s a different feeling for me.”

And she’s not the only one. Another female sports icon, Kerri Walsh Jennings, one half of perhaps the greatest beach volleyball team of all time, has expressed similar comments. “Before I had kids, I was like, this feels trivial … I’d been playing for so long, and I was like I need balance,” Walsh Jennings told Redbook. “All my eggs are in this one basket and it’s very self-centered and self-focused. They [my family] gave me that perspective and balance I thought I was missing. It took my game and my desire and my passion for life to the next level. I am hugely indebted to my children.”

Some of the other ways that motherhood can make us better:

We become better problem solvers …

We’ve all heard of “mom brain” or “pregnancy brain,” but there is evidence to suggest that motherhood can actually make us sharper. Research also suggests that motherhood can increase our emotional intelligence and sensitivity. And as a whole slew of mom-owned businesses can attest to, motherhood can also make you a better businesswoman and entrepreneur. Says Katie Hintz-Zambrano, co-founder of Mother magazine, and founder of the In Good Company conference: “Parenthood is about resourceful problem solving, which is a great business skill, too.” Having a baby has even been called “a revolution for the brain,” as parents must navigate all the new challenges that kids throw at us.

It’s impressive that Williams can even say that she feels “super close” to ready for an international tournament after giving birth in September – not to mention that fact that she was playing tennis again competitively by the end of December. But perhaps that’s why it’s even more notable that the tennis superstar has the humility to take a step back and continue recovering, all while taking in the ups and downs of new motherhood – a new job she is clearly loving.

Motherhood can make us stronger …

Few people could hope for the amazing biceps that Serena Williams has from years of professional tennis. But for the rest of us, increased physical strength is a great benefit. My arms have never been more toned in my life, thanks to an adorable, chubby, 26 (!!!) pound 10-month-old I call Gabriel. Carrying Gabriel around all day is better than any arm workout I could give myself – and carrying him up and down the stairs is no joke for my legs, either. But even moms of more petite kids know the strength that it took to birth that baby – whether they delivered their baby, or spent weeks recovering from the grueling surgery that is a C-section.

Thanks to these women and others, it is encouraging that there is now an entire roster of amazing female Olympians who have come back to their sports better and stronger than ever after having babies.

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