Serena Williams just dismantled the myth of the modern superwoman

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Moya Crockett
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The tennis ace says “postpartum emotions” caused her to drop out of a tournament. She’s admitted that she can’t always do it all – and that’s really, really OK.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when the myth of the modern superwoman took hold. It certainly came after the women’s liberation movement of the Seventies, as women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and began to ascend to higher and higher professional ranks – while continuing to shoulder the lion’s share of domestic and childcare duties. While many feminists questioned whether this was fair, generally speaking, the idea that women should simply take on more and more responsibilities went unchallenged.

By the early 21st century, the superwoman myth had embedded deep in our cultural psyche. In 2002, Allison Pearson published I Don’t Know How She Does It, her novel about a fictional “hedge fund manager, wife and mother of two”. The book’s long-running presence on bestseller lists suggests that thousands of readers – most of them female – were deeply taken with Pearson’s protagonist Kate Reddy, who juggled a high-flying career while maintaining an enviable domestic life (and just about holding onto her sanity). Clearly, many women wanted to believe that it was possible to – shudder – ‘have it all’.

In recent years, though, some women have begun to let go of that concept. We’re conscious that corporate success isn’t everything, and accept the fact that it’s not always possible to keep every single ball in the air (something that’s especially true for working mothers). We’re aware that the pursuit of perfectionism can be bad for our mental health, and try to recognise our own boundaries and limitations. We know that sometimes, the most productive thing we can do is step back, not keep going. 

Serena Williams with husband Alexis Ohanian 

Serena Williams has now thrown her support behind this line of thinking, explaining that she decided to pull out of a tournament after struggling with “postpartum emotions”. On 4 August, Williams – who gave birth to her first child in September 2017 – withdrew from the Rogers Cup in Montreal, citing “personal reasons”.

In a follow-up Instagram post, the 23-times grand slam winner expanded on her decision to drop out of the competition, saying she had been “in a funk” and worrying about “not [being] a good mum”.

After talking things through with her own mother, sisters and friends, Williams said that she realised “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.”

Most mothers “deal with the same thing,” Williams observed. “Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art.”

She concluded: “I’m here to say: if you are having a rough day or week – it’s OK – I am, too! There’s always tomorrow!”

Williams is frequently held up as one of the ultimate examples of a modern superwoman, and has occasionally – and legitimately – courted that image herself. This year alone, she returned to tennis six months after going through a traumatic birth, won her first match, placed second in Wimbledon 2018 (after Angelique Kerber) and launched her own clothing line. It would be easy to look at her and feel as though you’re letting the side down; as though you could be doing more, more, more.

How refreshing, then, to hear Williams champion the importance of recognising our own limits. She realised that she wasn’t up to competing in the Rogers Cup – and rather than forcing herself to go through with it, she gracefully stepped back and gave herself the space she needed heal. She accepted that she couldn’t do everything. 

And while we might not all live like Serena Williams, we think there’s a lesson in that for us all. 

Images: Getty Images