Reshmin Chowdhury makes the case for maternity rights to be extended to sportswomen who take time out to start a family. Who knows, she says, the positive message it would send out might even be good for the governing bodies and sponsors
We are without a doubt witnessing the meteoric rise of the ‘sporting supermum’. Jessica Ennis-Hill ‘s recent World Championship gold will probably go down as the most impressive professional performance of her illustrious career. The heptathlete not only built on her victory at London 2012, but she did it just 13 months after the birth of her first child, Reggie.
She follows the likes of golfer Catriona Matthews, Lioness Katie Chapman, Olympic rowing champion Anna Watkins – who is gunning for Rio 2016 with two children under two – and the woman who arguably began the ‘revolution’ in 2014, mum-of-two Jo Pavey. Incredibly, she became European 10,000 metres champion ten months after the birth of her second child.
This band of women have shown that if you are an elite athlete, motherhood need not be an obstacle to reaching to the top of your profession.
There are a growing number of powerful women enjoying high-profile careers in business and other industries while maintaining a family life. So is it time for sport to recognise this new trend and introduce maternity pay?
The issue of maternity rights was first conceived in 1911 when the National Insurance Act included a universal maternal health benefit. Even as recently as the 1980s, the issue of maternity leave was still a grey area and at the mercy of individual companies. That meant a generation of women may have put off their careers until after having families, or they were forced to make a choice. It was not until almost the turn of the 21st century that women were entitled to paid leave. In 2011, the European Parliament decreed that all companies should grant maternity leave at full pay for 20 weeks, followed by a statutory rate of £125 for the remaining 46. Paternity rights have also evolved since 2003.
However, professional sportswomen, for the most part, do not enjoy these benefits, despite the fact that sport is their job. It is no wonder that when the idea of truly competitive sport was set up during the 19th century – by men, for men – maternity leave was not at the forefront of their minds. But the fact that there is no protection for pregnant athletes in 2015 is, in my opinion, not acceptable. Typically, an expectant mum in sport will be considered to be in the ‘not competing’ category, and would have her funding removed, much as if she was injured. Putting it crudely, it is as if female athletes are at worst punished, and at best ignored, for being biologically programmed to bear children.
Conversely, large sections of the business world have woken up to the fact that mothers are extremely valuable assets. Statute dictates that they will enjoy maternity benefits because they are expected to go back to work. This is by no means a perfect model and many women have experienced the rough end of the system on their return. However, the model exists and that is a huge plus.
Unsurprisingly, a number of leading mothers across sport are calling for change. England and Chelsea Ladies defender Katie Chapman, who cited childcare issues as one of the reasons for her international retirement until this summer’s Fifa World Cup in Canada, is unequivocal in her support. “We are female. We play football. Pregnancies are part of life … it’s been tough for women. Without maternity leave you have to get yourself fit and back to work to start earning your money again. You feel punished for having children. But times are changing.”
Chapman competes in a sport where the seeds of change are already being sown. The FA, as a direct result of Chapman’s situation, introduced a maternity policy into their central contracts in 2012. This move offers genuine hope that their professional status is considered as worthy as their basic right to motherhood.
But while it is a welcome and ground-breaking initiative, there is some concern that maternity pay alone will not cover the cost of returning to work, and all associated childcare costs – which may not be covered by basic funding. Olympic rower Anna Watkins admits that she has had to consider supplementing her income through sponsorship and has called for other organisations to come on board.
“I think you need the wider world, such as governing bodies and sponsors to be supportive. It’s a complete no-brainer for business to support sporting mothers because it sends out a positive message,” she said.
Getting to the gym post-birth is an achievement in itself amid the sleepless nights, nap-juggling and the endless mountains of nappies. But to compete at the highest level – and win, like Ennis-Hill did in Beijing – is simply awe-inspiring. It’s proof that everything is possible. But it has also shed light on the unknown – postpartum elite sports. The heptathlete admits that she and her coach, Toni Minichiello, were stepping into a brave new world when she decided to return to the track, with neither having experience of what top-level training entailed for a new mum.
Yet while there has been no specific scientific study into how pregnancy and childbirth impact athletes competing at the top level, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that motherhood can have a positive psychological impact. Jo Pavey said she felt more content and less pressured once she had her family and could focus on her sport. Ennis-Hill has explained how she battled with the guilt of wanting to relax with her son, but has struck a balance with the desire for success.
I am blessed with two amazing children, aged four and two, born twenty months apart. For me, motherhood has been the most extraordinary gift. It’s also the toughest job I’ve ever had. That proverbial juggling act of being a working mum – and one who travels for work – genuinely leaves me breathless at times and I can testify that no day-job can ever prepare you for it.
What I have learnt, however, is that I have acquired time management skills I could once only have dreamt of. I have a level of stamina I never knew I had. I am more motivated than ever because time is precious and for someone who was only ever interested in watching sport, I now make time to train, which makes me feel great, both inside and out. For me, motherhood has made it easier to balance my life, with clearer priorities. It’s also given me the confidence to realise that like my own mother, I’m now a pretty good juggler, albeit a very tired one!
As a freelance journalist and broadcaster, I too had similar anxieties as I slumped into the maternity abyss, wondering how I would ever get my career back on track, with two small children in tow and my job at the BBC now based in Salford. I was very fortunate to have a wonderful manager who was – and still is – incredibly accommodating and made it as easy as possible for me to return to work between and after both pregnancies.
Financially, however, I took a real hit for the three years I was effectively on the sidelines. While I was mostly covered by my contract at the BBC after the birth of my daughter in 2011, I had no entitlement following the birth of my son in 2013. I apparently hadn’t registered as ‘self-employed’ and therefore didn’t qualify. Being in the throes of life with two under two, I didn’t even have the energy to contest it.
Like the sportswomen above, I have an incredible support network at home, based around my husband, both sets of grandparents and a part-time nanny who all cover the fact that my hours are unpredictable and I may be away for a few days at a time. The advent of paternity leave has helped, but the changing notion that both parents should share childcare duties has been a welcome and crucial part of this evolution.
There is so much evidence to show that working mothers are incredibly efficient and highly motivated employees. With the right infrastructure, sport could really begin to embrace this change – and reap the benefits. Of course, there is a huge financial implication which would take the co-operation of a number of bodies and organisations. But I really believe it’s worth at least exploring this investment. After all, even supermums need love and support!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Reshmin Chowdhury is a presenter and reporter at BBC Sports News and BT Sport. She will be reporting on the UEFA Champions League for BT this season and the Rio Paralympics in 2016 for BBC 5Live Sport, alongside her regular duties. She lives in London with her husband and two children and was recently named an ambassador for HRH Prince of Wales’s charity, the British Asian Trust.
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