Thank You, Serena

Have you watched the Serena Williams documentary series on HBO?

I’d recommend it to anybody, but if you have gone through pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, I’ll encourage you to watch it with something approaching missionary zeal.

Here’s the moment that really got me: Serena is a few months postpartum, about to play in her first tournament after struggling her way back into hitting, running, and serving following her emergency c-section and terribly dangerous pulmonary embolism. She’s in a small courtside room minutes before the match, and you imagine the jitters she’s feeling as you hear her talking to her husband.

And then the camera pans to her—the greatest tennis player in the world, about to return to competition—and she’s pumping.

She’s got that terrible corsety bra thingy on, and two bottles pointing awkwardly off her boobs, and she’s rushing to get it off and put the milk away, just like every other mom who’s ever done the post-pumping rush at work to make it to a meeting on time and look halfway put-together. And she’s letting us see it. This thing that never gets seen.

Well, I started to sob. Joe and I were sitting on the couch watching, and the second she came on screen pumping, tears started, and they did not stop for quite a while. My school had been very accommodating to my pumping needs when I returned to work, and milk had been flowing pretty well; I wouldn’t have said that pumping was particularly hard on me. But seeing Serena pumping released a torrent of buried emotions. Where I live, I see breastfeeding all the time (though it is sorely underrepresented on screen). But pumping? I’d never seen anyone else pump. Only Joe and my best friend had ever seen me pump. It was awkward, animalistic, devoid of the romance of a suckling baby. It’s a mother’s body doing something that only a mother’s body can do, and like so many aspects of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, it’s usually kept out of sight.

With great respect for the strong actresses who have gone through pregnancy and childbirth and come back to their screen careers—I love the story about Anne Hathaway’s female Ocean’s 8 co-stars teaming up to ensure she had pumping breaks—by its very nature, acting is about creating illusions. Actor’s bodies are dressed up, made up, altered; that’s part of the magic. With an athlete, though, the body as it is, is all there is. However much Serena may care (or not care) about how her postpartum body looks, as an athlete, the only relevant question is what her body can do. For her to let us into the process—personal, wrenching, astonishing—of figuring out the answer to that question is a bountiful gift.

Serena is one of the greatest athletes in the world, and pregnancy and childbirth are still incredibly hard on her body. How validating is that to every pregnant person struggling to get shoes on during the third trimester? She has coaches, trainers, an incredible work ethic, and personal cooks, and losing weight and regaining fitness after the baby are still hugely challenging. Oh! Right! I’m not doing something wrong—this postpartum thing is actually real!

And most importantly of all, she has been brave and bold enough to share her experiences with us. She refuses to hide the processes of bodily change and in so doing gives a gift of validation to people who have experienced pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, and a gift of awareness to people who have not. So in closing—Asher is just a couple of weeks younger than Olympia, maybe we could have a playdate one day? And more to the point, thank you, Serena.