I first saw a breast pump when one arrived in the mail, courtesy of Obamacare, a few weeks after I gave birth to my daughter. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the awkwardness of the contraption was jarring: the bottles shaped like bullhorns, the tubes like tethers, the rhythmic gasping and grinding of the small motor, the inescapable sense of being a cow on an industrial farm. There are many things about motherhood that you simply don’t anticipate. While pregnant, I took notes in books about sleeping and swaddling. I avoided honey and unpasteurized cheese. I read novels about art-monster mothers. But nothing readied me for the tears of pain that would spring to my eyes with each early violent latch, or for the flood of love that followed, or for the tyranny of that pump.
The second breast pump I saw belongs to Serena Williams. The pump makes several appearances in “Being Serena,” a five-part HBO documentary that follows Williams from the late stages of her pregnancy to the French Open, and the spectre of it hangs over the final two episodes, as she flames out in Indian Wells and Miami and her comeback to professional tennis stalls. In one scene, a bra holds the shields to her chest while she dresses to go out onto the court, and the clear tubes are bright white with milk; in another, she frets that stress is halting her flow. They are ordinary moments, except for the fact that they are so rarely represented in mainstream culture, and except for the woman attached to the machine.
Few celebrities have performed motherhood in quite the same way Williams has. Her social-media accounts feature countless pictures of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian, Jr., who was born in September. There are tweets about the perfection of Alexis Olympia’s eyes, the volume of her farts, and the difficulty of figuring out strollers. When Alexis Olympia was three months old and crying constantly from the pain of teething, Williams tweeted, “I’ve tried amber beads… cold towels… chew on mommies fingers… homeopathic water (lol on that one) but…” She continued, “Nothing is working. It’s breaking my heart. I almost need my mom to come and hold me to sleep cause I’m so stressed. Help? Anyone??” The two tweets have more than thirty thousand likes and four thousand comments. Last week, at a press conference during the first week of Wimbledon, she spoke extensively about her struggle to lose baby weight. Williams went vegan—and “not French-fry-eating vegan,” she said.
Williams is not merely celebrating her daughter and crowdsourcing teething relief. She has made herself an advocate for new mothers, tweeting in defense of parental leave. And her decision, a few months after her daughter was born, to describe the dangerous complications she faced in childbirth underlined the systemic biases against minority women in American health care. According to the C.D.C., black women are disproportionately likely to suffer from life-threatening pregnancy-related complications and are more than three times more likely than white women to die from them. “Doctors aren’t listening to us, just to be quite frank,” Williams told the BBC. “It may be time for women to be comfortable with having uncomfortable conversations.”
It is easy to be cynical about Williams’s attempts to portray herself as a normal mom having difficulties resuming her career. She has a staff who help her care for Alexis Olympia, cook, and fly to France. And, of course, by drawing attention to her struggles with motherhood, Williams invites us to view her return to the court with that much more awe: the harder the challenge, the more glorious the comeback.
So, for a while, I mostly ignored it. Nestled in the cocoon of my newborn’s nursery, the only vanity projects I were interested in were my own. But as Williams’s comeback started at the Fed Cup, in February, and continued at Indian Wells and Miami, I became more curious, and then fascinated. During the first few months of the year, I spent countless hours watching tennis and reading about it on my iPhone while sitting in a glider, nursing my daughter, which I did between eight and twelve times a day.
If the first half of her HBO documentary is a fairy tale (ending with her marriage to Alexis Olympia’s father, the Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian, last November), the second half is centered around the question of whether she should stop breastfeeding. Her coach, Patrick Mouratoglou, argues for giving it up. Thin, frowning, and an ex-lover, he makes a good villain, appearing in the family idyll and making claims on behalf of her career. She is not in shape. She needs to lose weight. She needs to stop losing tennis matches. He promises that he can help her win again, but only if she puts tennis first. In a second conversation—really, an intervention—he tells her more bluntly that she must stop breastfeeding in order to lose weight. (Breastfeeding can help accelerate weight loss for many women, but, studies have shown, not all. As Williams said last week, “What I’ve learned through the experience—everybody is different, every person is different, every physical body is different.” Other benefits of breastfeeding have been well established.) As they talk, she begins to cry. “I don’t want you to think that I haven’t been doing the work, because I have,” she said. “I work out all day, every day.”
Mouratoglou is right: she has changed. Her life is not measured so easily by titles lost and won. Before Mouratoglou confronts her, Williams tells her husband, “My whole fear is that I’m going to hold her and then she’s going to turn to me, and I’m not going to have any milk. It’s going to literally break my heart.” She looks at her daughter. “Do you want my heart to break, baby? I just want to be sure of myself, you know; I’m basically drowning myself and putting so much doubt in my mind.”
Normally, when a woman will stop breastfeeding is not the stuff of high drama. But it stands in for the emotionally urgent questions that every mother faces, about how to weigh her own needs and desires with the consuming needs and desires of the child. It’s not that no one has aired these questions before—to the contrary, it seems that every day brings another novel or essay that wrestles with the psychological drama of being a mother, often complexly, occasionally beautifully. While my daughter sleepily ate in the dark hours of the night, I read books about mothers by Rachel Cusk and Jacqueline Rose, and too many competing reviews of Sheila Heti’s “Motherhood”; I preordered “That Kind of Mother,” by Rumaan Alam, and revisited Adrienne Rich. Williams’s Twitter feed and self-produced documentary are, by comparison, superficial. After her confession of doubt, she proclaims that she’s simply not going to doubt herself anymore. But there is something moving about watching Williams negotiate the banal practical realities of having a baby. It is complicated, and it complicates her.
In the end, Williams did give up nursing, when Alexis Olympia was about six months old. Whether or not the causation was direct, the weight came off, and the results for her tennis are hard to argue with. In the first round at Wimbledon, Williams looked visibly frustrated, pressing her shots and hitting twenty-nine unforced errors in a win over the hundred-and-fifth ranked Arantxa Rus. But her game improved with each round. By the time she faced Julia Görges in the semifinal, on Thursday, she was close to her peak. Williams’s serve was calm and fluid, unreadable and almost unreturnable. She finished with sixteen winners to only seven unforced errors—a brilliant display of both aggression and consistency. She now faces Angelique Kerber, in a rematch of the 2016 Wimbledon final.
You could say this performance, ten months after her daughter’s birth, is more evidence of how unique, how otherworldly Williams is. But she is now something else, too. When she decided to stop breastfeeding, she said at a press conference last week, “I literally sat Olympia in my arms and I talked to her and we prayed about it. And I told her, ‘Look, I’m gonna stop. Mommy has to do this.’ I cried a little bit—not as much as I thought I [would]. And she was fine.” Williams sometimes half-jokes about wanting to be the greatest mother of all time; it’s a little bit of a relief—perhaps for her, certainly for me—to realize that there is no such thing.