Last August, Serena Williams announced her departure from tennis in a personal essay for Vogue. She opened the piece with a heartfelt anecdote about daughter Olympia and her desire for a younger sibling, then went on to highlight her shift to the journey that would make that possible. This meant closing the door on her current one—a decision that, of course, would come with some fears and doubts.
Serena Williams did not shy away from acknowledging her unique plight. It felt unfair for her to be faced with this quandary. “If I were a guy, I wouldn’t be writing this because I’d be out there playing and winning while my wife was doing the physical labor of expanding our family,” she wrote. “Maybe I’d be more of a Tom Brady if I had that opportunity.”
The reality of the entanglement of gendered expectations with the professional sphere, while dismal, is not surprising. The most shocking part of the piece were the string of revelations about her efforts to meet personal and societal expectations during a time marked by great vulnerability. Unknown to many readers was that her historic win at the Australian Open in 2017 came at the two-month mark of her pregnancy. Rather than consider the circumstances that make some people feel more compelled to take on extreme physical challenges during a time where it is not advised, major platforms saw the news of the conditions surrounding her historic win as an auspicious moment to shed light on the innate strength of the female body.
Too often, our endeavors to honor women’s agency within the professional sphere leads to a fixation on having and balancing it all. As we approach the anniversary of Serena Williams’ announcement, I urge us to consider the realities uniquely shaping the dilemma of choosing between the family and the career for Black women. Unfortunately, what Serena’s personal feats suggest is that notions of Black women’s unparalleled strength do not just permeate our conditions of living generally. They also infiltrate the sphere of motherhood. What this means is that choosing between the family or the career is not about giving parts of ourselves to either sphere—it is about walking away with the knowledge that we cannot settle at the middle of the pack in either.
It is important to note that these pressures are not limited to Black women in sports. A growing body of literature touches on the risks that accompany Black women’s refusal—or failure—to be exceptional in the workplace. According to a Harvard Kennedy School study, Black women are more harshly evaluated than their peers under conditions of organizational failure, like corporate financial loss. The deeply ingrained beliefs underpinning this phenomenon manifests in other contexts. The controversy surrounding Rihanna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show performance is an example.
In many cases, people acknowledge the vulnerability inherent in carrying a child. It is a major developmental change that drastically alters many spheres of one’s life. Actions like giving up a seat to a pregnant person, helping them carry an item, or holding a door open for them, all speak to the collective understanding that it is among the times where care is of utmost importance. Unfortunately, this obligation is not at the forefront of our minds when the pregnant person is a Black entertainer.
Rather than celebrate Rihanna’s accomplishment of performing on the stage of the Halftime Show while doing the work of growing a baby, people found themselves denouncing Rihanna for falling short.
Rather than interrogate deep-seated notions regarding Black womanhood and performance, people took to their social media accounts to underscore the ways it could have been better.
The impulse to critique, rather than express care, speaks to something inherently backwards about our understanding of Black womanhood. It is an assertion. For America’s Black women, failure ultimately isn’t an option—even during a time period where the rigors of accepting embodied changes make optimal performance difficult. It is no surprise that Black women like Serena Williams find themselves wanting to push their limits no matter the context. We occupy a world where only two extremes exist—we are either amazing at what we do, or wholly inadequate in the eyes of society.
Allyson Felix’s unsettling ordeal with Nike is yet another example. Felix detailed her experience In an essay for the New York Times. She asked Nike to contractually guarantee that she would not face punishment for not performing her best in the months surrounding childbirth—a request they promptly declined. What’s worse, despite Felix’s position as a six-time Olympic gold medal winner and an 11-time world champion, Nike wanted to pay her 70 percent less than before.
Like other Black women, Felix found herself internalizing society’s unfair expectations. In the essay, she expressed feeling pressured to “return to form as soon as possible” following the birth of her daughter in November 2018. Ten months after going under the knife for an emergency C-section for the pre-eclampsia that threatened the health and life of herself and her baby, Felix broke the gold-medal record set by Usain Bolt at the World Athletics Championships. And much like the framing of Williams’ historic feat, news of Felix’s accomplishment was shrouded in the language of exceptionalism and victory. Pregnancy is not the “kiss of death” after all.
For Black women, the crossroads between a family and a career is one that is shaped by a unique set of conditions heightening the difficulty of navigating either sphere. Unfortunately, the burden of perfection and strength is one that Black women cannot escape, even during a time that warrants grace before anything else.