Mothers in sports: A sparring match

- May 14, 2023
| By : Ahona Sengupta |

Women, who have been professional athletes, say motherhood has come as a blow to their sports careers. Their medal tallies dried up as the women athletes were put under societal pressure and family responsibilities. However, they hope to surmount these challenges, one day at a time

In the career trajectory of female athletes, pregnancy and motherhood bring in a significant transition, which may often lead them to quit their sport or take a break long enough to make their rankings redundant.

While athlete mothers has been a growing social phenomenon, with increasing numbers of female athletes returning to elite level sport post motherhood, those whose career suddenly hit the brakes outnumber the rare success stories.

Societal pressure and expectations on women to play the primary role in the upbringing of children and the constant burden of postpartum body shaming don’t make the path easier for mothers.

Lack of support system

Parul Goswami, 36, has lived through it – from being a national and international level Tennis player for over two decades to her sports career coming to a pit stop.

““Today, the sports infrastructure is so much better , with more sponsors and financial support for athletes. For me back then (90s – 2012) there were no job opportunities for women athletes and therefore after a stage one would wonder ‘now what?.” Therefore tennis remained my passion and I moved on to a different profession,” said Parul, who has been out of practice for 10 years now.

Soon, Parul’s life transitioned from being a professional athlete to playing Tennis in close circles “for fun”. What her day earlier looked like completely changed upon embracing motherhood.

“You know with toddlers, sometimes even working a job becomes overwhelming. Leave aside sports, which needs hours and hours of practice. It’s not just dedication. One needs to give sports time if one has to compete otherwise you are lost in the competition. When I was playing for Delhi and for India as well, five hours of training was minimum. Right now, I don’t have even one hour to myself because I am jumping from one task to another as a mother,” she said.

In the peak of her career, she played tournaments by International Tennis Federation (ITF) in the countries like – Malaysia, Indonesia, Morocco, Algeria, Sri Lanka, Romania, Thailand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Australia, South Africa, Spain, USA and China.

“There are many women who resume sports after childbirth but that is a minuscule number because we lack that support system for women. It’s almost negligible. We are constantly expected to be there for our children 100% and no one cuts a slack for us. It’s not the same for men though. For all the male athletes, there is a wife or a mother who takes care of everything,” Parul, who now works as a Senior program manager at Thrissur, Kerala, said.

Her exemplary Tennis career also got her into Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College.

Even elite athletes have spoken out about the challenges that women face after delivering a baby. After bagging 23 grand slam titles, legendary US tennis player Serena Williams told the world how difficult it was for her and her body to come back into the arena. Her words were echoed by many other Female Athletes and working moms who could relate to her intense struggle.

Competitive disadvantage 

Another major issue that crops up because of pregnancy is the ranking. In sports, a lot changes in one year. A woman loses her elite status during the break she takes for her baby. She has to then undergo the gruelling task of proving her athletic mettle to the selection committee by working five times harder and with added responsibilities.

This controversy occurred when Serena Williams came back after giving birth. When she came back from her maternity leave, her ranking dropped from number 1 to number 453. This made her face much tougher competition and she had to play many more rounds to qualify. This led her to acquire an injury which then forced her to withdraw from the French Open. Serena was extremely vocal about it and said it was completely unfair to treat a woman in this way, and that women should not be penalised for giving birth.

“It’s not everybody’s cup of tea because not all women are privileged with that kind of huge support system. A mother’s job is emotionally and physically taxing on the brain. You wake up early in the morning and get your toddlers ready, their food prepared and send them to school. Then, you have your own office work to be done. By the time, you get some time off from work, it’s time for your children to return home. So, you see there is no respite from the vicious cycle of chores that mothers have,” Parul rued.

She yearns to return to Tennis, but for now, she is waiting for her four-year-old child and a toddler to be able to at least do things on their own.

Thirty-two-year-old Sonia Shah, a boxing athlete, who used to compete in club level has been on a three-year-long break since motherhood.

“It’s normal to gain fat after delivery. Even in basic surgeries, people gain fat due to their medical condition and the drugs they are prescribed. And we are talking about giving birth to a whole human. If a woman has had to go through a C-section, it’s worse because she is vulnerable to many other kinds of illnesses. So, their bodies will definitely change. Plus, one cannot be in calorie deficit, which is required to lose fat, because of breastfeeding. This is an added burden. In order to compete, there are weight levels, if you are heavy then your category immediately changes and you have to take on a similar weight category person who may not have had the same pregnancy history and usually is just more muscular. So you are running at a disadvantage,” she said.

Shireen (28) has faced a similar challenge with her weight. “You cannot be 70kgs and lifting 80 kilos. You will lose. The higher they weigh, the heavier they have to lift to win the competition. I started powerlifting at the age of 17 and by 24 I had climbed to the top in my weight category that was 60. But since I became a mother two years ago, things in sports only went downhill for me. Initially, I was trying my best to manage but any problem arose, the first response to it from my family was ‘why don’t you quit powerlifting’ instead of coming forward to help take a little load off me,” she said.

Body image 

It is often seen that these new mothers have a lot of fears- will they get back to the previous fitness level, can they top their game again, how will the post-baby body look?

Sonia further stressed on how the physical changes weigh mothers down. “You cannot escape the nasty remarks that people throw at you. They will expect you to have a baby and at the same time get back to your athletic bodies immediately after that. It’s torturous. Eventually, you become a recluse because you don’t want to continuously face that harassment. You hate to see yourself in the mirror and gradually lose confidence to get back to the ring,” said Sonia, who is currently a homemaker.

Battling odds, Sonia has been able to practice at home “because of not having to go for a job”. “I invest that time to keep training for my sport,” she said.

“Both Serena and Indian boxing star Mary Kom could pursue training because their partners took care of the children while they were away. They still had to make many sacrifices, but many women do not have the luxury of having such supportive partners,” she said.

For Parul, it has been a mental skirmish to come to terms with her post-partum body and to be at the receiving end of unsolicited opinions from people. “My mother often advises me that I should take out time for working out. It’s hard to hear all this. We try our best and are always exhausted so these are not alibi but real obstacles,” she said.

Today, when Parul reveals her athletic past in social circles, she receives a surprised reaction from the audience because she “doesn’t look fit enough”. “The first response is ‘oh, what happened’,” Parul said.

Dr Geeta Choudhury, former Head of the Department of Gynaecology at the Calcutta National Medical College elaborated on the medical aspect of motherhood. “Changes in an athlete’s body during pregnancy can increase the risk of overheating, dehydration, and low blood sugar. Pregnancy may also make some problems worse in athletes, such as loss of bone density, anaemia, pelvic floor dysfunction, incontinence, and different musculoskeletal problems,” she said.