Katie Whyatt hears how Helen Ward juggles being a mum of two with leading the Welsh attack in the fourth of her week-long series ahead of tomorrow’s eagerly-awaited World Cup qualifier at Rodney Parade.
Under British law, it is illegal to discriminate against someone if they have children, are pregnant or are planning to start a family. Still, it happens: data from graduate recruiters Debut estimates twenty-three per cent of women have been asked about their future family planning in job interview. It is also illegal to ask about childcare arrangements, or how old these children, existent or otherwise, may be.
It is with frustration that Wales’ Helen Ward, 32, recounts the afternoon it happened to her. Ward is Wales’ all-time leading scorer with 42 goals in 70 internationals. She is also a mother of two. Daughter Emily is three, and son Charlie will be one in September. In a playing career spanning more than a decade, she has played for Watford (in two spells), Arsenal, Chelsea, Reading and Yeovil.
“It was the end of the season, where you have your chats with your managers and coaches,” Ward begins. “It seemed to me that they were in two minds about whether I was going to have another contract for the next season, and one of the reasons for potentially not having one was because they’d heard I was thinking about starting a family.
“I didn’t say anything at the time, because I was a bit taken aback, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, that’s not really fair’. For a start, who knew if I could have children? Secondly, it was a rumour – she hadn’t spoken to me. It was a bit of a kick in the teeth, and the more I thought about it, the more I thought, ‘Well, it’s not really a reason. If a manager or a coach wants you, they wouldn’t use that. It’s more of an excuse’.”
That was the first time, but not the last. “People seem to think that they know whether I can cope with a certain schedule or whatever, because of my family commitments. Rather than asking me, they seem to assume that they know whether I can do something. It’s an easy one to pluck out of the air, ‘You’ve got kids – it will be difficult for you’. It’s disappointing, but I’m hoping that things like that change and there are a few more provisions in sport for women who have children. Seeing how fantastically Serena [Williams] has done at Wimbledon – to write-off a woman just because they’ve had a child is unfair. Hopefully we’ll see a change over the coming years, with more and more high-profile women having children and getting back to the highest level they can.”
There are a host of mums in sport and athletes who have returned to competition after pregnancy: Williams, of course, and Jessica Ennis-Hill, and Paula Radcliffe, and former Chelsea footballer Katie Chapman, as well as Jo Pavey, who reached her fifth Olympics aged 42, having had two children. But there are still precious few mums in football. Only one per cent of players in the English Women’s Super League are mothers, according to data from Fifpro, the global players’ union. Only three per cent of top division clubs worldwide provide creche facilities, and in December 2017 Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, then three months’ pregnant, termed the lack of childcare support for professional women footballers an “absolute disgrace”.
One of Ward’s reasons for signing a new contract this year at her hometown club Watford – a part-time club who have moved down to the third tier following the restructuring of the football pyramid – was because they were “very supportive of my family situation”.
Ward works behind the scenes at the club but “they’re not expecting miracles. They’re not expecting me to be in an office nine to five, because they know I’ve got children. Of course, they expect me to do my job properly, but they also understand that there will be days when I’ll say, ‘Can I start a bit later today because I take Emily to school?’ They love having the kids around on game day. I did speak to one or two other clubs, and there were fantastic facilities and great teams, and I could have fitted in quite nicely on the football front, but it’s come to a point in my life where there are other things to think about. Watford appreciated that with what they’ve offered me work-wise. The roles and responsibilities they’ve given me really fit around me and my family.”
Ward reflects that other clubs “don’t have those opportunities” but that “it would be nice to think, if more and more female players are having children, maybe there can be some sort of provision set up – either for an actual facility while you’re training, or the support to have childcare elsewhere while you’re training. But I don’t know if there’s enough of a demand for it at the moment for it to actually be a problem for other teams.”
Ward was “in a bit of a lull in my career, anyway” when Emily was born in 2014, and “it made me realise when I had that break that I’m still ready to play”. She began the season on maternity leave, but returned to help Reading win the WSL 2 title. Three years later, while she was at Yeovil, son Charlie came along as “a bit more of a surprise”. However, the timing worked well, and she missed the WSL Spring Series but very few internationals.
Parenthood was, for Ward, “always something I wanted to do. I think when you’re younger you just assume you’re going to be a mum, and as life takes over, things change for people. I never thought that I’d be playing football while I did it – I was always thinking I would wait until the end of my career, or if I got pregnant that would be it. But when I fell pregnant with Emily and Charlie I knew that I wasn’t ready to stop playing. I think the right time is when you feel ready – it’s not about anyone else or anything else that’s happening. You have to take that and worry about what you’re missing out on later. It was a challenge to me that I wanted to attack with everything that I had to get back to a level that I was previously, if not higher.”
Not that it was easy. Pregnancy actually offers elite athletes a range of performance benefits: blood volume and blood cell mass increase, improving aerobic capacity. But there are also difficulties. After Emily’s birth, Ward contended with diastasis recti, or ab separation, when the space between the abdominal muscles widens to accommodate a baby. There are also psychological hurdles: Ennis-Hill, for instance, was far slower after pregnancy. To an extent, Ward can empathise, though she actually feels quicker than she did before Emily’s birth. “It is a tough one, because as much as you think you’ll never forget, my first few training sessions were as if I’d never played football before,” she recalls. “My head was thinking things and my body couldn’t do it. I did have to take a step back a couple of times and think, ‘You’ve only just had a little one. You’ve got to give yourself a bit more time’. I put a bit too much pressure on myself at certain points.”
Then there are the emotional pulls. Ward accompanied the Wales squad to Russia in October, six weeks after giving birth to Charlie. She admits that “the guilt never goes away”. She missed Emily’s first birthday to be away with Wales. “It’s hard, of course it is. You feel bad. Charlie didn’t have a clue that I was away, because he was too young to realise. With Emily, it was a bit different. She was three by then and understood more. ‘When are you coming home, Mummy? I’m going to miss you’. That does pull on your heartstrings, and it’s also the pressure that I was putting on my parents and my husband. It’s a lot for them to deal with to be on their own with the kids for ten days. But, at the same time, they’re all very supportive and they know football’s not going to last forever. They know how much it means to me. It’s what makes me happy. But I’m hoping that when the children are old enough and they grow up and look back, they’ll be proud of what I’ve done.”
Ward prepared for Charlie’s birth by consulting exercise and medical professionals and trained throughout her pregnancy: Wales’ strength and conditioning coach, Bethan Lloyd, carries a qualification in pre- and post-natal training and designed Ward’s fitness programme. Ward, too, was part of FittaMamma’s Pregnant – Not Powerless campaign and says with relief that, in general, there is “not too much of an issue” in sportspeople’s perception of pregnancy.
“Anyone I spoke to within football was really supportive. I think it’s those who maybe aren’t used to high levels of exercise who are a bit more concerned – understandably, because they don’t know the science behind it, what is good for you and what isn’t. But it was nice to be a part of that, because it opened my eyes to how many people were in the same situation.
“I was going to the gym and the last session I had was six weeks before I had Charlie. I was obviously quite big at that point, so you do get a few glances. But if you’ve done your research and you’ve spoken to the right people, then there’s no reason why you can’t carry on to quite a high intensity. It’s all about how you feel in your body. I stopped running quite early, not because it was unsafe or anything, but because it was just uncomfortable for me. I decided to switch and work on other things – a lot more strength-based stuff, which is really good for you and your baby.
“Of course, I wouldn’t have done anything that was likely to put myself or the baby at risk. As long as you’re not going over the top and doing things you’ve never done before, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t carry on. I think that more and more people – not just women – realise that and get behind these women who want to carry on and do something for themselves, as well as carrying their child.
“I wanted to challenge myself, so I set myself little targets and milestones to hit within certain times. It wasn’t easy, making myself available, but I always wanted, when I saw the fixtures, to be involved in some way. I knew I wouldn’t be playing after six weeks, but when I hit that, I thought, ‘Right, there’s no excuses’.”
Ward started the final two games of Wales’ Cyprus Cup campaign in March: “When I played in those game, I realised how far off the fitness I’d need to be at that level I was. But that gave me the time.” She targeted Wales’ June two qualifiers, against Bosnia and Russia, and started both. It was then she “really thought I was back”, providing the assist for one of Kayleigh Green’s goals in Wales’ 3-0 win over Russia, then a top two seed.
“I thought, ‘Yeah, you’ve done it now – now is the time to push on and become even better and even fitter’,” she explains. “We beat them really well – we battered them, by our standards. Second half, we came out and we absolutely nailed our game-plan to perfection. It was a hard two games at the end of a very long season. Everybody was dead on their feet. I just collapsed when I came off the pitch because I had nothing left. But it was relief more than anything, and a realisation that we really are close to what we want to achieve. And whatever happens in the England game, we’ve done more than we’ve ever done before.”
As it stands, Ward and her Wales team-mates are just three points away from reaching the first Women’s World Cup in their history. Ward will walk out at a sold-out Rodney Parade – but there will be two faces she’ll be looking out for above all others.
“Being a mum is fantastic – the best thing in the world for me,” she smiles. “It’s just nice to have them while playing – I think it was right for me. Some women will want to wait until after their career, but I felt that the time was right for us. I’m happy that I have my two little fans on the side whenever I’m playing.”
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