It has been a historic 2020 U.S. Open for women, as three mothers all reached the quarterfinal round for the first time in tournament history. Earlier this week, Serena Williams, Victoria Azarenka and Tsvetana Pironkova became the first trio of moms to compete against each other on the court for a chance to advance to the semifinal.
Of course, the fact they were mothers was hard to miss if you watched even a smidge of the coverage on ESPN. While the motherhood angle is worth celebrating and acknowledging, especially in tennis when the physical demands on the body are extreme, the reminders from ESPN’s women’s singles commentating team, lead by Chris Fowler and Chrissie Evert, of the women’s child-bearing status were constant to the point of frustration.
This is partly a tick of broadcasting and media in general: Once a juicy storyline that resonates with an audience presents itself, people are loath to let it go. So instead, they hammer at it at every available opportunity. It isn’t just ESPN that has latched onto the moms storyline; plenty of print and online publications have hyped up the moms angle. But it’s ESPN’s near constant shoehorning of this narrative into places where it absolutely doesn’t belong that is most grating. Instead of making this an inspiring, uplifting or productive storyline, ESPN’s tennis team has made it frustratingly reductive and frankly, somewhat offensive.
There are multiple threads to unravel here, but what rankles most is the narrow focus and framework ESPN has chosen to take in how it deals with this theme. For the past two weeks, the through-line for the women’s tournament has been a banal “motherhood is hard” sentiment, yet ESPN has glossed over all the reasons why, structurally and physically, motherhood remains not just exceedingly difficult in the U.S. and around the world, but downright deadly.
They’ve mostly ignored the physical trauma of childbirth, barely mentioned how women’s tennis is extremely punitive to moms who take time off to mother and focused instead on the emotional and mental strain of parenting.
Throughout the tournament, the mothers have been lauded as heroes (which they are!), but by treating them as such, the network just advances the trope that all the suffering and hard work that go into motherhood is inevitable, and that there’s nothing we as a society can do to help ease that burden. That’s clearly not the case. Better family leave policies, free day care, better access to health care would all go a long way towards making motherhood less of an actual killer.
For those who need numbers, here are the distressing stats of pregnancy and childbirth in the United States.
A USA TODAY Network investigation found about 50,000 U.S. women are severely harmed and about 700 die because of complications related to childbirth every year. The U.S. maternal mortality rate was more than double that of Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Canada and Japan. And Black women in the U.S. are more than twice as likely to die during childbirth, according to data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.
In talking about Serena Williams’ performance at the tournament, there have been multiple references to how she’s managing the load, how being a mother has given her a new focus. Yet ESPN seems to have mostly forgotten that part of the reason Williams’ performances have been so impressive is that she almost died after giving birth because of a racist health care system that undervalues the pain of Black women.
ESPN’s coverage also raises more complicated question of identity. Because ESPN has over-emphasized the fact that three great female tennis players are also mothers, it feels like their value on the court isn’t as professional athletes but as mothers who also sometimes find time to lift a racquet. The balance has been so totally skewed that the narrative is starting to feel sexist by omission of all other factors. As many have pointed out, no one is asking the male players how they manage the mental load of parenthood because they don’t need to be asked that. The unspoken answer is that their wives are handling the bulk of child rearing while they are free to concentrate on their work.
Rather than address the inequality inherent in our gender binaries of parenting, ESPN has been content to lean into a feel good rah rah moms! narrative that strips away everything else these women also are. The constant mom worship also has a sadder and unintended consequence or reminding those in the audience who aren’t mothers —either by choice or because they can not be —that might be seen as lesser then. Child birth isn’t a given for all women, and sometimes can be a painful reminder of what society actually values in them.
During Thursday night’s Women’s semifinal match between Azarenka and Williams, the mom references were too many to count, but at one point a commentator said of Azarenka, “She’s a woman on a mission.” Fowler corrected her with, “You mean a Mom on a mission, right?”
It typified the exchanges that are so frequent on the ESPN broadcast, where the mention of motherhood added absolutely nothing of value to the game being played.
Before her semifinal match, Azarenka was asked by reporters what it meant to have moms be so prominent at the U.S. Open. This is a question Azarenka and others have been asked multiple times throughout the tournament. Azarenka kept her tone inspirational, but her words were clear.
“That’s not the only thing that we are,” Azarenka said.”We are also women who have dreams and goals and passions.”