Serena Williams Is Fighting for Two

Photo: Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images

No one recognized me as myself for a year after I had my daughter, eight years ago. It would’ve been impossible. I didn’t recognize myself.

The shift started right away: After three days of lactation specialists shoving my daughter’s face into my breast, it just wasn’t working, and I ignored all the well-intentioned chiding that “breast is best.” When the caseworker in charge of my Medicaid account kept challenging the date of conception I’d written on my paperwork, I finally told her that I would know better than she would. Before, I would’ve deferred to either woman’s professional authority. Now, I’m driven by a more urgent sense of advocacy. Now, I’m fighting for two.

The distance between tennis great Serena Williams’s pre- and post-motherhood personalities is shorter. Williams has never been hesitant to publicly practice self-advocacy, as she did in 2015 when she wrote about ending a 13-year boycott of the Indian Wells tennis tournament, where she and her family endured racial epithets and heckling in 2001. But last Saturday’s U.S. Open final was clearly about more than speaking up on her own behalf. She crossed the court and glared up at chair umpire Carlos Ramos after he accused her of receiving coaching, insisting, “You owe me an apology. I have never cheated in my life. I have a daughter and stand for what’s right for her.”

The sound of her voice catching in her throat on the word “never” was resonant. Her mind was on more than just the match: She was fighting for two.

This year is the first that Williams has spent competing as a mother. It’s drawn unique interest and criticism, raised the stakes of each match’s outcome, and forced this already exceptional competitor to push her postpartum body and mind in ways for which she’s had no prior context. Even in the relatively specific world of tennis, she’s not alone. The next chapter of her professional life, which began just five months after a life-threatening postpartum complication, is being written with every loss and advancement, every concession to replace a catsuit with a tutu, every twirl after a victory.

The idea that she’d receive coaching is injurious enough at this point in her career, but to be cited for it after childbirth adds insult injury. There’s an underlying implication that, postpartum, she might need it. That she would push back so hard against the charge makes complete sense to me, given that someday, her daughter will be old enough to understand the importance of this moment.

I’m constantly concerned with this idea of maternal reckoning. That someday, when my daughter’s old enough, she will demand explanations for the things she doesn’t understand or believes I could’ve handled differently. She’s 8 now, and already, she asks me questions. Hard ones: Why do I have a child if I’ve never been married? Why do we live with Nana and Granny, instead of on our own or with her father? Why do I do what I do — at any given moment?

Even though she might not understand some of my answers, I feel accountable for them. I write her letters that I hope will explain, several years from now, how I navigated parenting when I didn’t have money or companionship or when we were in situations where there was no one to advocate for the two of us but me. I am hoping the letters will provide her a blueprint for adult life as a black woman in this country, even if she uses them as illustrations of what not to do. In her adult life, if she’s ever called upon to defend how she was raised, I want her to be able to reference the account of the woman who raised her.

My guess is that Serena Williams is also concerned with what her personal history will mean for her daughter. But unlike most of us, she doesn’t have the benefit of anonymity. She contends for an accurate account of her life out loud and in public.

As it became apparent that Ramos would neither apologize nor rescind the call, Williams called for tournament referee Brian Earley and WTA supervisor Donna Kelso and addressed them instead. She cited the sexism of the proceedings, asserting that male players sidestep penalty for far worse infractions than calling an umpire a “thief.” Then she appealed to both officials’ history with her: “You know me. You know my character. And that’s not right. This has happened to me too many times.”

With over 21 years spent under the public’s critical gaze, Williams knew right away what motherhood would mean for herself, as a competitor, and for her daughter, who’ll grow up in proximity to her mother’s often harsh limelight. In an open letter to her own mother, Oracene Price, two weeks after giving birth, she wrote:

I was looking at my daughter (OMG, yes, I have a daughter 😳) and […] I don’t know how I would react if she has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15 year old and even to this day. […] I’m not sure how you did not go off on every single reporter, person, announcer and quite frankly, hater, who was too ignorant to understand the power of a black woman. […] I only wish I could take your lead. I am trying, though, and God is not done with me yet.

Revisiting the letter now makes Serena’s actions on the U.S. Open court seem prescient. Her message to her mother is about the work of reinvention, about redefining when to push back and when to let things go. That balancing act is ongoing. Williams successfully navigated it on Saturday, both in her confrontation with Ramos and afterward, when she calmed the booing crowd during the trophy ceremony and redirected its focus onto tournament winner Naomi Osaka. The rest of us navigate it in much lower-profile situations every day: our parent-teacher conferences, our conversations with co-parents or extended family, our job performance reviews (especially when there’s a raise at stake). Moment to moment, it’s what motherhood demands. Whether they’re old enough to fully understand or not, our children are watching.

Serena Williams Is Fighting for Two