At the beginning of last month, when Serena Williams stepped back on to Wimbledon's Centre Court less than a year after giving birth, she was hailed a "torchbearer" for her sex and a "wonder woman".
However, after losing the final to Angelique Kerber, the seven-time Wimbledon winner was asked by an interviewer if she was, indeed, "supermum" – to which she shook her head and replied: "Just me. To all the mums out there, I was playing out there for you today and I tried."
After pulling out of last weekend's Montreal tournament citing "personal reasons", Williams went on Instagram to explain to her 9 million followers that her inability to compete was down to feeling as though she was falling short – both professionally and personally.
In a post that will resonate with working mothers everywhere, torn between baby-proofing their careers and being there for their children, Williams said: "Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom.
Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there. I work a lot, I train, and I’m trying to be the best athlete I can be. However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes. I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week--it’s ok--I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!
A post shared by Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) on Aug 6, 2018 at 3:24pm PDT
"I read several articles that said post-partum emotions can last up to three years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends lets me know that my feelings are totally normal." She added: "It's totally normal to feel like I'm not doing enough for my baby. We have all been there."
We certainly have. Like most of my friends, the latter part of my 30s has been spent occupied with childcare and working an office job – and the endless battle to balance the two dominates almost every conversation.
Those friends who have continued their careers with scant pause – usually the lawyers and management consultants – face large childcare costs, and even larger amounts of guilt for never being at pick-up, sports day, cake sales or bedtimes.
The ones who quit work after their first or second child (usually the second, which is very often the tipping point in terms of childcare costs and logistics) say they sometimes feel unfulfilled, worried the working mothers they know are sneering at them, and fearful of being left behind when their children are older and they're left to pick up the remains of their careers.
The likelihood of finding an interesting, well-paid profession that allows for a 10-year break is not, naturally, something many can rely on. And then there are the ones like me, who have gone freelance or part-time since having children, and worry they're not doing a good enough job at either home or work.
When I gave birth to my first daughter in 2010, I remember my own mother saying: "The minute you give birth, you start to feel guilty about every single decision you make." And I did: breast or bottle feeding, time working, time spent apart from them – something you crave, and then feel guilty about.
Though the days of mothers not mentioning the struggles of parenthood are fading – it was less than a decade ago that a long-time fellow freelancer confided she hadn't told her editor she'd given birth because she didn't want to appear unprofessional – it has taken, as it so often does, a celebrity contingent to shine a light on the issue.
Today I say Olympia fall... but she got back up. She fell again almost immediately.... and almost immediately she got back up again. She always had a smile on her face. I learned a lot from Olympia today. Thank you my baby love. pic.twitter.com/pn0iUCZG6Q— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 19, 2018
Now, thanks to the likes of Williams, Victoria Beckham, who admitted to taking just one proper week off following the birth of daughter Harper before spending the rest of the summer working "with my boobs out, breastfeeding", and Beyonce, who in next month's issue of Vogue in the US explains that a traumatic labour with her twins last year led her to spend six months giving "myself self-love and self-care" rather than rushing to return full-pelt, there seems to be less stigma around new parents asking for flexible working. Or admitting they've barely slept.
This week, UK cyclist Laura Kenny picked up her second gold medal at the European Championships in Glasgow, less than a year after the birth of her first child, Albie. "I was up five times last night – and he didn't actually fall asleep until nine o'clock, the little sod," she joked after the race.
"But you get used to it," the 26-year-old quadruple Olympic champion continued. "I don't even feel like I've had a lack of sleep any more – I just come in and get on with it. I was thinking I didn't want to leave Albie for nothing because he wasn't very happy this morning. [But] I'm glad I've got another medal to take home to him.
"If you'd asked me [when I was younger] if I'd be a mum with four Olympic and 12 European gold medals I would have said no, that's not the way my life is going to pan out."
But for every heartwarming story like Kenny's, there are plenty more like Williams who, in the middle of last month's Wimbledon championship, berated herself for missing her daughter's first steps.
"I was training and missed it. I cried," she wrote on Twitter – an acute portrayal of the reality so many working parents experience.
She took her first steps... I was training and missed it. I cried.— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 7, 2018
"Those early years are the hardest for guilt," agrees Neom founder and mother of two Nicola Elliott.
"In those early days, especially after your first child, new mums are on that hamster wheel of trying to be all things to all people but feeling like they're failing at everything. We feel we should be having these amazing careers, but we also feel we should be at nursery pick-up every day, or with our children all the time. The guilt is exhausting."
By the time my second daughter arrived in 2013, I was, like most second-time mothers, less anxious and more confident in my decisions. And as I watched my daughters grow into confident, bright little girls, I realised three days a week in childcare had done them no harm whatsoever – and enabled me to continue in a profession I truly enjoy.
The guilt is still there at times, and I still have days where I look at a mother on Instagram, enjoying midweek sunshine with her little ones, and feel a pang of guilt that I'm sat in an office. However, like the pain of childbirth, this also fades as your children get older and more independent.
"Like Serena, I did feel guilty when my children were younger and in childcare," says Elliott, "but now they're older and they need me less and love going to after-school clubs and seeing their friends, and I have a career that I love. So the pay-off does come."
Or as Alexis Ohanian, Williams's husband, said after her Wimbledon defeat: "She'll be holding a trophy again soon – and she's got the greatest one waiting at home for her."
Written by Maria Lally. Republished by permission of Stuff.co.nz.