LOS ANGELES—Pro soccer player Jess McDonald was traded across six teams in her first five years as a single parent, making it difficult to find, let alone afford, child care in new cities.
She and her then-8-month-old son were often forced to share a hotel room with a teammate—and sometimes she had no choice but to bring him with her to practice.
“If I’d have a bad game, you know, my kid would be blamed for it at times, and it was just like, ‘Oh, was your kid up late at night?’” the US Women’s National Team player said in a recent interview.
Arizona State basketball coach Charli Turner Thorne had three children without taking maternity leave. And New York Liberty head coach and former Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) player Sandy Brondello—acknowledging the difficulties that she would face if she got pregnant—waited to have kids until she retired as a player at age 38.
Juggling the demands of parenthood with those of a professional sports career is just one of myriad challenges female athletes face in an industry that also has been rife with pay disparities, harassment and bullying in the 27 years since the WNBA, the first women’s professional sports league, was formed.
The issue once again drew national attention right before the season began, when WNBA player Dearica Hamby said she had been harassed by her coach for getting pregnant during the season.
Las Vegas Aces Coach Becky Hammon, one of the league’s marquee figures and a six-time WNBA All-Star, denied bullying Hamby; she said the player wasn’t traded to the Los Angeles Sparks because she was pregnant. The trade, she said, had “everything to do with freeing up money to sign free agents.”
Still, Hammon said she may have made a “misstep” by asking Hamby at one point about her pregnancy, and she indicated that the rules in the WNBA “regarding pregnant players and how that looks within an organization” have to be better defined, shining a light on the balancing act of having a family and maintaining a professional sports career.
Women have never been formally banned from the WNBA for getting pregnant; in fact, the first player to sign with the league in 1997, Sheryl Swoopes, was expecting when she did so. But pregnant athletes have encountered attitudes ranging from ambivalent to outright hostile from leagues, coaches, fellow players and sponsors throughout the years.
As recently as 2019, Olympic runners Allyson Felix and Kara Goucher spoke out against Nike for slashing their pay and then dropping them for becoming pregnant. And it’s taken years for professional women’s leagues to provide their athletes with the support systems they need to balance their family and career obligations.
“I’ve been walking on eggshells as a mom in this league since Day 1,” said McDonald, who last week announced her second pregnancy.
McDonald said that back in 2012, she trained up until two weeks before giving birth; it wasn’t until last year that players in the league were guaranteed paid maternity leave. Arizona State’s Thorne told the AP she once returned to work just two days after giving birth.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were, you know, 20-some years ago in terms of people understanding that they have to support women’s rights,” Thorne said. Still, “there is pressure on you as the athlete, as the coach, as that person, that woman either starting their family or having kids, to get back to their job” soon after giving birth.
Under the WNBA’s most recent collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified in 2020, league members receive their full salary while on maternity leave, though each player has to individually negotiate the length of her leave. During the season, players with children under 13 can receive up to $5,000 a year for child care, and a paid-for two-bedroom apartment.
A small number of elite, veteran athletes who have played eight or more seasons can be reimbursed up to $20,000 per year for costs directly related to adoption, surrogacy, egg freezing or other fertility treatments. Per player, the amount is capped at a total of $60,000. Compared to other industries, this is a progressive offering that is inclusive of LGBTQ+ athletes.
“We’ve made strides and everything,” Thorne said, but she added that the leagues still have a long way to go to support athletes who become mothers.
“There’s always this little asterisk, that it has to be after your eighth year of service to get” fertility benefits, said four-time WNBA All-Star Breanna Stewart, who plays for the New York Liberty and has a 2-year-old daughter with her wife. Stewart’s wife is pregnant with their second child now.
Stewart said child care stipends aren’t dispensed freely without requiring something in return: She said she and other players have to submit itemized receipts for such necessities as diapers and babysitters. “If you don’t go to them, they don’t give it to you,” Stewart said. “You have to go and send invoices and it’s a little bit more complicated than it seems.”
Facing these challenges, many women in sports, like Brondello, decide to have kids after they retire—or to forgo parenthood altogether.
“Female athletes shouldn’t have to give up motherhood because they want to be an athlete,” said Dr. Kathryn Ackerman, a sports medicine physician based in Boston and the co-chair of the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s women’s health task force.
Ackerman said there’s a fear that when female athletes become parents, they may not value being an athlete as much. She said that is a fallacy.
The record books are replete with examples of female athletes who became parents and continued to perform at the highest level.
Former tennis star Serena Williams famously won a grand slam when she was about eight weeks pregnant. Professional swimmers, runners and basketball players have all competed while pregnant: Beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings even won Olympic medals.
“Mothers often are better athletes because they learn how to manage their time better, they understand their bodies better,” Ackerman said. “And they may be peaking even later in life.”
Image credits: AP