If you follow Serena Williams on social media, you’ve probably heard of Qai Qai. Her year-old daughter Olympia’s doll has her own Twitter and Instagram accounts, and even hosted a QQQ&A from Down Under, where the Australian Open is set to begin on Monday.
It’s fun for Williams’ fans to see Qai Qai in a director’s chair courtside for practice or being hugged by Olympia, but it’s also a calculated strategy of engagement. From her own accounts, Williams posts video of intimate family moments, and allows fans to see the dynamic of her marriage with Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian. The lighthearted part of it is just the tip of the iceberg for a woman with some very serious things to accomplish.
The annual Grand Slam campaign is about to begin and, for the millionth time in living memory, Williams has a realistic shot at all four when the Australian Open begins on Monday.
How she is doing it is nothing short of revolutionary. Last year, Williams missed the Australian but reached the final at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon, and the fourth round at the French. Through all of it, she has made motherhood a core part of the process.
“Some people believe that women go quietly and have their babies and the story is on the back end when they come back and they win and they win at the highest level,” former WNBA and UConn star Swin Cash said. “She’s taking the people who may only want to cover the comeback and forces them to cover the journey.”
Cash, who had a little boy at about the same time Williams had Olympia, has related to Williams at every step in this story. In the way Williams presents it, having a baby isn’t the obstacle in a comeback story; it’s just part of the journey. Last week when Olympia wanted to be held while Williams was getting ready for a match, Williams posted photos of her getting her stretching done with Olympia in her arms.
Williams wasn’t always so accessible. There were points in her career where she avoided the media, or sat for post-match press conferences like she’d been issued detention after a loss. In the last few years, that has changed. Even after difficult losses in the final at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last year, she was available and engaged. Her opening remarks at Wimbledon were some of the most candid I’d ever heard.
In London, she discussed in emotional detail the decision to stop nursing as part of her training process.
“Once I got to six months, I felt good about it,” Williams said. “Then it was just emotionally letting go. That was a different thing. I literally sat Olympia in my arms, I talked to her, we prayed about it. I told her, ‘Look, I’m going to stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit, not as much as I thought I was. She was fine. She was totally fine. It was the strangest thing. I just learned from that experience, every physical body is different.”
It wasn’t your usual pre-tournament press conference and it was incredibly relatable for many of the women who have followed her career and try to navigate between obligations.
“Serena being a woman and a woman of color, all the crap that she’s been through and still ‘I’m persevering, I’m keeping it moving,’ that’s amazing,” Cash said. “Having to think of career and all of that, granted I think she has resources that a lot of people don’t, but the intimacy of what she shares and what she is responsible for, even how she trains to come back, it’s so vital and important for the times that we’re in right now.”
Sheryl Swoopes, Kim Clijsters, Kara Goucher, Christie Rampone, Kerri Walsh Jennings and many others have been champions with children. Few, however, have the platform that Williams does, or are doing it in an era when athletes can control such a large part of their media presence.
I’d wager, though, that Williams would still be on the Forbes list of richest athletes even if she didn’t publicly embrace her role as a new mom. Perhaps even more so, and here’s why.
As much as we love to beatify motherhood in western culture, we don’t actually treat mothers very well. We don’t give them much time off work after having a baby, or create affordable childcare solutions. Many parents can’t take off time to care for a sick child without guilt, and all the costs that go with raising an educated, healthy kid are going up.
Even in media, mothering itself is considered soft news. This was brilliantly explained in a recent New York Times opinion piece from Hillary Frank, who has a parenting podcast called The Longest Shortest Time. When pitching ideas on topics related to motherhood to NPR, she’d get responses like “This is just too … small.” Meanwhile, repeated stories on erectile dysfunction were A-OK.
Frank called it a special kind of misogyny reserved for mothers.
But more than that, when it comes to women in the workforce, there is little about becoming a mother that creates the sense that you’ll be better at your job. The mommy-track is still a thing, and this assumption goes double for women who are athletes.
Your body changes, and when your body is your instrument of employment, there is a chance it will not be as efficient afterwards.
And into this arena comes Serena Williams, whose excellence is incontrovertible. Who is wearing her motherhood like a badge of honor. Whose blood clots after a harrowing birth nearly made her another example of how black women are more likely to die in the process. Who faced repeated setbacks as she started her professional comeback, including withdrawing from the fourth round of the French Open against Maria Sharapova due to a pectoral injury.
Branding is one thing, but Williams’ family is modeling what could be a future for working parents. Ohanian has actively called for paid parental leave, and took time after the birth of their daughter to be home. He’s made time to support her in person at many events in conjunction with his own work, and has made parenting as much a part of his public face as she has.
And all of it would be lovely even if Williams had retired two years ago. But she emphatically did not. In full view, she has brought her fans along for the good days and bad as she started training again, stopped nursing sooner than she’d hoped in order to drop weight, won her first WTA matches in March and until the dramatic U.S. Open final loss to Naomi Osaka.
Even in that moment, on the blue Flushing courts against a player who was clearly better on the day, Williams let us see everything that was happening; the unwinding of her composure after a chair umpire’s strict interpretation of the rules, the emotion as a record 24 Grand Slam victories remained just out of grasp, rising to make Osaka’s first Grand Slam title the centerpiece it deserved.
And here she stands, strengths, scars, heart, challenges and mistakes all exposed to the air. Ready to do it again.
Yes we are entertained, but we are also enlightened. Williams’ excellence is unbounded by her sport, and still she plays on.