My experience is that pregnancies and the toll of raising small children can wear one down physically, writes Mandy Wiener.
I’m the same age as Kim Clijsters. My two children are close in age to her two youngest (she has three). So when she announced a comeback to professional tennis at 36, I was impressed and inspired. Her decision is immense in many ways.
I recently got onto a tennis court after several years off one and felt broken afterwards. Granted, I was never a professional athlete by any stretch so I shouldn’t exactly be the benchmark. My experience is that pregnancies and the toll of raising small children can wear one down physically.
Little humans are exhausting.
This is the Belgian’s third incarnation as a professional player on the WTA Tour. She has come back before, after the birth of her first child Jada in 2008. Not only did she return, but she was triumphant. She won the 2009 US Open while still unranked and as a wild card, beating both Williams sisters to get there. She was the first mother to win a Grand Slam title since Evonne Goolagong in 1980. She also became the first and only mother to reach Number 1 in the world rankings.
She won two more majors before retiring again in 2012. She and her husband basketball player Brian Lynch, had two more children in 2013 and 2016.
Speaking to reporters in a phone interview after the announcement of her return, Clijsters said her decision was based on a primary motivation to challenge herself. She’s done a stint commenting on the circuit and watching other mothers compete at the top level has inspired her to return.
“I have girlfriends now who struggle to find ‘me time’, to live for their passion and still balance being a mum,” Clijsters said. “I do feel that is something that affects me too. I’m 36 years old, I know in four years I’m not going to be able to do this challenge. I’ve always followed my instincts. I was very young when I retired to have my first daughter and came back. To do it now is a challenge for me. I’m not afraid of it. I want to see how far I can push myself and what level I can get to – and embrace all the positives and negatives along the way.”
Don’t forget, Clijsters was a teenage prodigy. Many have described her as the Coco Gauff of her generation. She burst onto the scene as a 16-year-old when she reached the fourth round of Wimbledon where she lost to Steffi Graf. She reached her first Grand Slam final as a 17-year-old. Now Clijsters will be competing against the new young prodigies in the field, 15-year-old Gauff and 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu.
In her seminal book Lean In, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg writes about working moms and balancing careers with raising children while advancing the feminist revolution. She argues that moms should ‘lean in’ to their careers and shift from thinking “I’m not ready to do that” to thinking “I want to do that – and I’ll learn by doing it”.
There’s no doubt that Clijsters is leaning in right now after taking time off to have her kids.
By comparison, foreign policy expert Anne Marie Slaughter’s views in her widely read Atlantic magazine piece about “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All” may also apply here. Slaughter wrote that “the women who have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich, or self-employed”. As a professional athlete who has achieved what she has, Clijsters is probably leaning more towards the superhuman scale of things.
Slaughter also argues that the arc of a successful career should be redefined – instead of a straight upward slope, but rather as irregular stair steps with periodic plateaus. She calls these plateaus “investment intervals”. Clijsters has had the confidence to stair-step her career twice now and return to where she was. I reckon her mind is also going to be so much stronger and more mature three kids later.
And I and working moms everywhere are here for it. I can’t wait to live vicariously through her appearances. It may even inspire me to get back on to the court myself again. At 36 years and 96 days, she is still younger than Martina Navratilova and the Williams sisters when they reached their most recent Grand Slam finals. She’s also younger than Roger Federer was when he won his record 20th Grand Slam (and he’s just a guy).
Clijsters asks in her comeback video, “So… what if I tried to do both?”
And she can. You’ve got this Kim.
– Wiener is a specialist reporter for News24.
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