My younger son will turn 8 in a few days, and for his birthday, he made one request.
His plea came after I had turned off the lights in his room, and I was grateful for the darkness. Otherwise, he would have seen the panic on my face and known that I had planned to work that day. In our household, we usually celebrate birthdays on the closest weekend days to it, and I was preparing for us to do that again. On Saturday, I figured, we’d spoil him from morning to night with treats, gifts and adventures. His presents right now sit hidden in my closet.
That night, I didn’t want to disappoint him, but I also wasn’t sure I would be able to get everything I needed to get done for work finished in four days. So, I offered the promise that other working parents have uttered in desperate moments: I told him I would do my best.
That conversation happened on Sunday night. On Tuesday, in between scrambling to get three back-to-back interviews completed, I learned that Serena Williams was retiring and had explained why in Vogue. If you haven’t read her words yet, you should. They are raw and powerful. They are also relatable to many working mothers who have felt pulled between building careers and building families.
In speaking honestly about her struggles, Williams validates theirs. She shows that even the most impressive among working moms can’t have it all at once, at least not always.
“The way I see it, I should have had 30-plus grand slams,” Williams wrote. “I had my chances after coming back from giving birth. I went from a C-section to a second pulmonary embolism to a grand slam final. I played while breastfeeding. I played through postpartum depression. But I didn’t get there. Shoulda, woulda, coulda. I didn’t show up the way I should have or could have. But I showed up 23 times, and that’s fine. Actually it’s extraordinary. But these days, if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter.”
Most working mothers will never know what it feels like to stand in front of a crowd of adoring fans. But many can relate to having a career they’ve invested years of their life into, and maybe even love, and how the urge to excel at it doesn’t just go away when they have kids.
I remember sitting at my desk one night, writing a breaking news story, shortly after I had my first child and returned from maternity leave. My body was telling me I needed to pump, but my mind was telling me I needed to get quotes and details about the incident onto my screen as quickly as possible so that we could publish the piece and get it to the public. As I typed, my breasts ached and my milk leaked.
I left the office that night with a scarf wrapped around my soaked blouse, but I didn’t regret my decision. I would have regretted not delivering that story in a timely manner.
As moms, we’re expected to want to give every bit of our energy to our children. Don’t get me wrong, I give plenty to mine. They frequently ask me to sit on the floor with them and play Legos or battle Pokémon cards, and I do that often enough that I have my own designated Lego figures and a binder of Pokémon cards. We’ve also started playing basketball together every weekend.
But my work is important to me, and they know that. I am fortunate to have a job I care about. It is one that takes me into the lives of people throughout the Washington region and allows me to share their stories. I take that responsibility seriously, which often means working long hours. I used to think that work-life balance meant splitting your time 50-50. But I now realize that it is an ever-shifting formula that varies by day and year and person.
The pandemic has asked a lot of everyone, but especially working moms. They were hit hard by job losses and, on top of that stress, had to worry about interrupted school weeks and increasing mental health challenges among children. Our country needs real reforms when it comes to addressing maternal mortality, parental leave and flexible work schedules. But it also helps to hear successful working moms say finding a balance is hard and there are no easy choices.
When I read Williams’s piece, I thought about the leave I took from journalism for a year and a half. My second son had just been born and my husband and I decided to move overseas for his job. It was the right decision for our family at the time, but it was also a hard one for me. I knew I would want to return to journalism and I worried that I had derailed my career. At the time, everyone was talking about “leaning in” and there I was, leaning out.
Williams’s situation is, of course, unique because the job she is leaving is an intensely physical one and she is now in her 40s and wanting to expand her family. As she wrote, “something’s got to give.” But the angst she confesses to feeling about her decision is a mental wrestling match that is undoubtedly familiar to many working parents. It’s hard to give up a part of your identity. It’s also hard not to.
“There is no happiness in this topic for me,” Williams wrote. “I know it’s not the usual thing to say, but I feel a great deal of pain. It’s the hardest thing that I could ever imagine. I hate it. I hate that I have to be at this crossroads. I keep saying to myself, I wish it could be easy for me, but it’s not. I’m torn: I don’t want it to be over, but at the same time I’m ready for what’s next.”
Williams described her retirement as an “evolution.” She wrote that she is “evolving away from tennis, toward other things that are important to me.”
Most working moms, of course, can’t “evolve” away from their jobs to focus on their families. They need the paycheck. But that word choice is empowering. It offers others permission to choose one over the other at times, or switch jobs, and to not see it as a failure but rather as growth.
It eases the guilt that so many of us carry if we take that day off and if we don’t.