Money Smart Athlete Blog

Female athletes, childbearing, and motherhood responsibilities

Mar 1, 2023 | Women Athletes

By Vasilia Polycarpou, The Sports Financial Literacy Academy

According to public perception, it is common to think that there is a clash between motherhood and peak performance in elite sports. Top athletic performance requires such high levels of commitment and dedication to the sport which means that women often need to sacrifice family life, especially when taking into consideration that the window of fertility and peak performance tends to overlap. Unlike male athletes, female athletes are forced to decide about whether they will continue to train and perform in sports, take a step back to embrace motherhood or attempt to take on the major challenge of combining the two, given that the sports industry and society may not be their greatest supporters in this process.

There are definitely cases of female athletes who have managed to combine sports and motherhood effectively, but we should keep in mind that this success did not come without struggles, challenges and difficult life-decisions.

Female athletes who choose to become mothers are usually challenged financially, with potential wage and benefit losses. In addition, they also need to juggle motherhood with training schedules, travelling and physical athletic demands, whilst being in the spotlight, under the scrutiny of the public eye who has specific expectations on physical appearance after pregnancy.

As a result, it is quite common for female athletes to feel uncomfortable about openly disclosing their pregnancy, due to fear of not being perceived as committed to their sport, risking losing funding and their position on the team.

When Serena Williams announced that she would retire from tennis to focus on growing her family, this sparked a great conversation on female athletes and motherhood. In her Vogue interview, she quoted “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. Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”

It is worth mentioning, that in 2017, Serena managed to win the Australian Open while two months pregnant; proving that being a mother and a professional athlete is possible. Increasing visibility of female athletes in their roles as parents, helps change the narrative, and normalize conversations about childcare options or fertility treatments for female athletes.

American sprinter, Allyson Felix, had to fight for her rights and maternity benefits. According to her, her sponsor Nike reduced her contract by 70% after becoming a mother and supported that they wouldn’t protect her earnings if her performance dropped in the months after childbirth.

Another female athlete who did not give up the fight is eleven-time Canadian champion boxer, Mandy Bujold, who was disqualified from competing in the Tokyo Olympics due to missing qualifiers because of having a baby. Bujold appealed in the Court of Arbitration for Sport and won, paving the way for women athletes’ rights.

Although rules were eventually changed to allow her to compete, these examples highlight the urgent need to update sport policy to reflect the fact that pregnancy and parenthood no longer mean the end of an athletic career.

It is clear, that even though steps are made in the right direction, there is still a long way to go to ensure that female athletes don’t have to choose between family and sports. Policy changes are crucial in supporting this as well as encouraging female participation in sport, in an inclusive and supportive environment.

The Money Smart Athlete® Blog is established and run by the Sports Financial Literacy Academy® (SFLA).  Through its education programs, the SFLA has the vision to financially educate and empower athletes of all ages to become better people, not just better athletes.  For more information on our courses, our SFLA Approved Trainer Program®, and how they can benefit you and your clients, please get in touch with us at [email protected].