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Opinion Serena Williams’s choice shows: Pregnancy humbles every body

Serena Williams holds her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr., and the ASB Classic trophy in Auckland, New Zealand, in January 2020. (Chris Symes/AP)

The big news in Serena Williams’s cover essay for the September issue of Vogue is that one of the greatest players to take on the game is planning her departure from tennis. But the piece matters most for its illustration of an enduring, and newly salient, truth: Carrying and giving birth to a baby mean being at the mercy of one’s body — even for an athlete as historically dominant as Williams.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade prompted a renewed conversation about what pregnancy — so often lauded as natural, as what women are built for — does to the person who experiences it.

As Irin Carmon wrote in New York magazine, carrying a baby under the best circumstances can “estrange you from the person you once were” as you’re beset with prolonged symptoms such as nausea, dizziness and lumbering fatigue. At worst, the experience might look more like what Annie Lowrey described in an essay for the Atlantic. Carrying her children activated an autoimmune condition that made her so itchy her skin became like lichen; because of her pregnancy complications, she now has permanent liver disease and diabetes.

Bald recitations of pregnancy-related conditions and raw testimonies still can’t quite capture what it’s like to be pregnant for someone who hasn’t experienced it. And going into it, there’s no way to predict how any individual pregnancy, labor and delivery will progress.

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This is true even for women who make careers out of their bodies. Williams and her sister, Venus, aren’t merely tennis champions: They are credited with transforming their sport by bringing new athleticism and power to the women’s game. More so than almost any other woman in the public eye, Serena Williams has spent her career perfecting not merely her body’s form, but its function.

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And yet, her experiences are stark proof that it’s impossible to optimize one’s way out of childbirth-related uncertainty. Williams delivered her daughter by Caesarean section after the baby’s heart rate dipped precipitously during labor. Immediately after giving birth, Williams experienced a pulmonary embolism and a major hematoma; she coughed so hard that her C-section incision opened again. Her husband, Alexis Ohanian, told Vogue at the time: “Consider for a moment that your body is one of the greatest things on this planet, and you’re trapped in it.”

Later, Williams wrote on Instagram about the tensions between perfecting her body for her job and wanting to be present for her daughter.

“I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be,” she said in a post about the fact that postpartum emotional challenges — which are linked to both hormonal changes after birth and physical stresses such as sleep deprivation — can linger for as long as three years. “However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing.”

In her new essay, Williams is clear-eyed about the long-term career impacts of devoting her body to her daughter — including her quest to match or beat Margaret Court’s record for grand slam victories.

“I had my chances after coming back from giving birth,” she reflects. “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.”

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And while Williams writes that “if I have to choose between building my tennis résumé and building my family, I choose the latter,” she’s blunt about the unfairness of that choice.

“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,” she explains in one of the essay’s most striking passages. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”

In recent years, other famous women have acknowledged finding ways to outsource the work and physical toll of pregnancy.

Kim Kardashian hired surrogates to carry her third and fourth children with Kanye West after experiencing preeclampsia and needing multiple surgeries to remove retained placenta from her earlier pregnancies. Her sister Khloé recently had a second child via surrogate after learning she was unlikely to be able to carry a second child to term. And earlier this year, actress Jamie Chung was candid about the fact that she and her husband chose to hire a surrogate so she wouldn’t have to interrupt her career.

But there’s no way around it: For a baby to come into the world, someone has to give her body over to the process of creating life. If the capriciousness of biology can humble a transcendent athlete like Serena Williams, it ought to inspire awe and caution in us all.