Voices: Serena Williams quit tennis and said American moms can’t have it all. She’s right

·4 min read

Today, I am writing from my office, while my two children — ages three and five — watch woodworking tutorials in the basement, which doubles as my husband’s office. Today, it is raining. Today, I slept until 7:00 a.m. and began work an hour later. Today is an okay day.

I mention this because most days, in this summer when camp ended in the third week of July, I am the primary caretaker for my boys. In our New England drought, I wake up at 5:00 a.m., work for four or five hours, and then take the day shift in childcare, shuttling my sons between pools, ponds, and the ocean. I do this for them, and I do it for me, so that, a decade from now, I won’t shame myself into thinking that I was a terrible and absent workaholic mother.

But my work is my passion, which is why I split myself in two like this. Among my countless responsibilities: grocery shopping, cooking meals, a lot of the laundry, bill-paying, general household management, bed-making, and the load of overall remembering. I have to remember which child is signed up for what and requires which checkup. I have to remember vacations and social engagements, who to call and who to confirm with, times and dates and outstanding bills, toilet paper and paper towels, dog food and heartworm medication, and, if I ever get to it, an errant manicure.

I also have to remember my own obligations, the ones that have nothing to do with my family: my deadlines with my editors, the money I’m owed, the invoices that need to be filed, the swirling tornado of my work, the emails that I need to send, the emails that I need to respond back to, the pulsing and never-ending course load that is a business that you run for yourself and by yourself when you are a successful freelance writer. Every once in a while, the bubbling, nonstop force-of-nature that is my work butts up against the force-of-nature that is my home life, and I think: How can one person have two competing jobs at the same time? Who would do this by choice?

Well, it’s not just me. This morning, Serena Williams, ranked the number one singles tennis player by the Women’s Tennis Association for an astounding 319 weeks — the same Serena Williams who won 23 Grand Slam titles —announced her retirement from the sport. In an article in Vogue, told to Rob Haskell, she says, “Believe me, I never wanted to have to choose between tennis and a family. I don’t think it’s fair. 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.”

Williams goes on to say that leaving tennis is not exactly a choice for her. “My whole life, up to now, has been tennis,” she says. She is not leaving tennis because motherhood is better. She is not leaving tennis because she wants to be a mom more than she wants to be an athlete. She is leaving tennis because society — American society, if we get right down to it — gives us no other real options. We either sit with a life that forces us into carrying a brutal, insurmountable load, or we make a choice between the things we love most in this world.

“In the last year,” Williams says, “[my husband] Alexis and I have been trying to have another child, and we recently got some information from my doctor that put my mind at ease and made me feel that whenever we’re ready, we can add to our family. I definitely don’t want to be pregnant again as an athlete. I need to be two feet into tennis or two feet out.”

Serena Williams has vocalized the condition of the American mother. She is all of us, a person with two people inside: half-job, half-domestic obligation. When I’m with my kids, I think about work. When I’m at work, I think about my kids. No structure exists to lessen any burdens. No one pays me for the time spent planning dinner, responding to birthday invitations, or packing to go on vacation.

Can mothers have it all? Serena says we cannot — and she isn’t wrong. We used to believe that we could have successful careers, idyllic home lives, the fairytale. But without the infrastructure to help, and without recognition of the true division of labor, this bill of goods that we sell little girls is nothing more than a lie.

The American mother is always the one giving up a part of herself, after all. “I’m going to miss that version of me, that girl who played tennis,” Williams says. The truth is, we all will.