The subject of mental health in professional sports is a multilayered one. No doubt, the rigors and demands of being in the small percentage of humans able to perform at an elite level takes its toll in a number of ways. Sometimes, it manifests in the form of stress, anxiety, burnout, depression and eating disorders, just to name a few. One severely overlooked matter is postpartum depression. One could argue that the subject is treated in the same manner as Encanto’s Bruno – we just don’t talk about it, especially in the world of sports. The truth of the matter is that the condition occurs more than you think, as evidenced by a 2018 study conducted by espnW. The outlet interviewed 37 anonymous athlete-moms and 32 percent reported experiencing symptoms.
Despite the challenges and circumstances influenced by pregnancy – time away from the sport, game planning for the coaches, and concerns of that nature – most reported that their announcements were met with support. More than 87 percent say their teammates and coaches offered sufficient support while a whopping 94 percent felt that their fans had their backs. That doesn’t mean the news was shared without apprehension — and understandably so. The excitement of new life is quickly met with questions: “How long will I be out?”, “Am I letting my teammates down?”, and “Why now?” … to name a few. Throw in the fact that slightly less than half of the women interviewed shared that their pregnancies were unplanned, and you can understand the rollercoaster of emotions.
Elite athletes are very in tune with their bodies and are used to functioning at a high level. Some follow very meticulous nutrition plans and engage in strict workout regimens to retain their skill and fitness level. That control goes out the window when it comes to pregnancy. The process of growing a human is a marvel and varies from woman to woman. Some get right back into playing shape, while others are forced to take a slightly different route back to peak fitness. Then there’s Alysia Montaño. At 34 weeks pregnant, Montaño ran her signature race, the 800 meter run, at the 2014 USA Track and Field Championships. The then-28-year-old finished well off her personal best — 35 seconds slower to be exact — but crossed the line to loud cheers from the crowd. She knew that a win was unlikely, but she had consulted with her physician and continued to run throughout her entire pregnancy. Three years later, in 2017, the seven-time national champion again lined up in the 800 meter national championship; this time she was five months pregnant. Although she continued to train, even she could not escape the sometimes unavoidable tolls that carrying a baby can take on the body. She recently stepped away from her signature event on the track and completed the 2022 Kilimanjaro Marathon in Tanzania back in the February. Afterwards, the Olympian revealed that she’d spent the last year recovering from postpartum depression and surgery to repair diastasis recti, a side effect that some experience with pregnancy. Her experience with postpartum effects, both physical and emotional, prompted her to become an activist for working moms.
Shortly before welcoming her third child in 2020, Montaño co-founded &Mother, a non-profit aimed at helping mothers “thrive at home and at work.” One of the challenges athlete-moms face after childbirth is balancing training with child care. U.S. track and field’s most decorated Olympian, Allyson Felix, sought out a solution, helping to create child care for moms competing in the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games. The Women’s Sports Foundation teamed with clothing brand Athleta to establish a $200,000 grant to fund Felix’s initiative. &Mother hopes to establish similar support.
That certainly alleviates some of the stress, but there are still several women who have spoken of the guilt they experience when they feel as though they have to choose between their children and their careers. Such was the case with fellow runner Kara Goucher. She was told by her doctor that she had to choose between breastfeeding her son and running the customary 120 miles per week in her training regimen. In fear of losing out on compensation, she scheduled a race only three months after the birth of her baby boy. The two-time Olympian said she felt guilty about having to leave him in the hospital to race after he fell very ill. Goucher’s need to rush back to work is one that non-athlete-moms share as well. It is customary for employers to allow six weeks maternity leave before employees are expected to return to work. However, until recently, athletes risked loss of income as they recovered at home with their newborns. The majority of the anonymous mothers interviewed by espnW said they felt supported by their teammates, fans and coaches — everyone isn’t so lucky, however. Montaño described how “she taped her abs together for races and even shipped breast milk home to the states while competing at the 2017 IAAF World Championships in Beijing.” Situations like this can definitely give way to mental health battles accompanying motherhood, so it comes as no surprise that the now-mom of three struggled with postpartum depression.
Worrying about financial stability contributes greatly to the prevalence of postpartum depression in athlete-moms but sometimes it goes even deeper than that. Enter Serena Williams. Arguably one of the most dominant athletes of all time, regardless of gender, the younger Williams sister was subjected to criticism and racist attacks following an incident during the 2018 U.S. Open finals. A heated exchange with umpire Carlos Ramos over a few controversial penalties was headline news on sports pages and websites throughout the country. The confrontation was the tip of the iceberg, the straw that broke the camel’s back after a long trek to this destination. After giving birth to her daughter in 2017, post-delivery complications gave way to postpartum depression. Recovering from a pulmonary embolism and an abdominal hematoma kept the tennis star bed-ridden for six weeks. In August of 2018, she opened up in an Instagram post:
“Last week was not easy for me. Not only was I accepting some tough personal stuff, but I just was in a funk. Mostly, I felt like I was not a good mom. I read several articles that said postpartum emotions can last up to 3 years if not dealt with. I like communication best. Talking things through with my mom, my sisters, my friends let me know that my feelings are totally normal. 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.”
“However, that means although I have been with her every day of her life, I’m not around as much as I would like to be. Most of you moms deal with the same thing. Whether stay-at-home or working, finding that balance with kids is a true art. You are the true heroes,” she continued. “I’m here to say: If you are having a rough day or week— it’s ok — I am, too!!! There’s always tomm!”
Williams returned to competition just three short months after giving birth. It is not uncommon for elite athletes to desire a return to routine. According to psychotherapist Dr. Chantal Marie Gagnon, “For professional athletes who are accustomed to structure, clear goals and a measurable bar of success, motherhood can be disorienting.” The window for the condition is not limited to a few months or a year. It actually peaks when the child is around four years old, according to Gagnon.
Motherhood is already a daunting task for the everyday woman; the scope intensifies when you’re talking about world-class athletes. For all the physical and mental toughness on display in the field of competition, the quiet rumble of postpartum depression can leave even the biggest of superstars feeling weak, guilty and alone. As the discussion of mental health becomes less and less taboo, let’s make sure we’re checking on the backbone of our society as well.