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Monday, August 30, 2010

Gigi and Motherhood

I have to admit that I'm a sap for human interest stories in the news. And lately, this dominates what we are fed by the media. I'm even a sucker for the obituaries, which can provide fascinating portraits of people's lives. The story that grabbed me this morning was the one about former tennis champ, Gigi Fernandez, and her quest to have children (
Never mind that I'd never heard of her (apologies to any Gigi fans!).

With a title like "A Dream Deferred: Almost Too Long", I was hooked. Spring forward (to the middle of the story) where she and her female partner now have toddler twins, thanks to a friend who donated eggs and an anonymous sperm donor. (By the way, kudos to the New York Times for not making a big deal that they are a same-sex couple.) When Gigi's friend asked her, "What do you need to have a baby?", she replied "eggs". Love that line. Wish some of my friends would ask me what I need to get exactly what I want, and then say, no problem, I have some and you can have them. (I could use a new car, for anyone who is reading this.)

Gigi struggled to get pregnant. She was over 35, which believe it or not puts a woman in the "high risk" category. I know this from personal experience, even though I did not encounter the same problems as Gigi. In addition to her age, according to her doctor, Gigi's "Hall of Fame career" contributed to her inability to conceive. After seven infertility treatments, her doctor told her that her eggs were old. Ewww... Now there's an image - and it must have stung.  Like many athletes, GiGi's career was dependent on her physical strength and agility, and her body let her down. She is quoted in the article as saying, "As an athlete, you have this attitude. I can do anything with my body... That's how you think. So your biological clock is ticking, but you're in denial."

Gigi soaked up our society's cultural imperative about the value of motherhood, as reflected in her insightful comment: "There is this implication that women are here to bear children, and if you can't bear children, you're useless." Actually, 18% of US women in the U.S. do not have children, a figure that is gradually rising.

In Europe, it appears that the percentages of women who do not have children are higher. In Germany and Austria, one third of women in their 40s do not have children.

Meanwhile, Gigi persevered and got what she wanted: healthy twins. She says that after a career of being very selfish, she is now selfless. One might conclude that this means she no longer works for pay. But in fact, she has figured out a way to balance the care of her twins with her work teaching tennis and running a business. Of course, she has the advantage of financial success that makes a lot of this possible.

According to U.S. Census data, there are at least 270,000 children being raised by same-sex couples. But this does not include single LGB parents or transgender parents, and it is likely that same-sex parents are under-reported by the Census.

I'm glad that of all the puff pieces I see in the news, the New York Times chose to write about a lesbian in a same-sex relationship who opened herself to an alternative form of creating a family, and succeeded.


  1. Sarah Jane BrubakerAugust 30, 2010 at 10:46 AM

    As a feminist sociologist, I agree with your points about the positive aspects of the article. One of the problems I see, however, is that one could come away from this example with a justification for why women should not play competitive sports, that perhaps the age-old belief that it might interfere with their reproductive capacities, finds evidence in this story. As more women are making gains in athletics and support for them doing so increases, I'd hate to see this contribute to a return to those kinds of concerns about women participating in another arena that has long been seen as belonging primarily to men.

  2. I agree. And the notion of "old eggs" needs to be further explored here!

    Also, one of the issues not raised here is the link between weight and ability to conceive. As a former dancer, I was surrounded by women who starved themselves, many of whom did not menstruate (me included). This is pretty common for women athletes, unfortunately.

    Finally, when I googled "women athletes and children", I actually found many articles about pregnant athletes! And some of the articles questioned whether these women should be competing while pregnant... Close cousin to the issue you raise.

    Thanks for your comment!

  3. This is Gigi. I am glad you now know who i am! :-) I want to clarify that i would not encourage any athlete to postpone motherhood in pursuit of motherhood. There is a way to do both and many people are doing it. Its not impossible, but very hard as taking a one to one a half year break from competition usually puts one of the game...Kim Clisjters was able to do it, but it is the exception rather than the rule.
    Thanks again for sharing the story with your followers.

  4. rather postpone motherhood in pursuit of a career!

  5. Hi Gigi! Now I really know who you are! ;-)
    I'm flattered that you read my blog and responded. We need more women athletes - and other visible women, as well as men - speaking out about the importance of balancing work and family. And we need better social policies that allow women and men to value parenting, like paid parental leave and universal child care. Again, many thanks for commenting!

  6. Hi..I am reading this as a former college athlete, woman trying to get pregnant at the age of 36, a woman very into her career and sociologist....needless to say I find Gigi's story and the blog fascinating. The only thing that concerns me is Gigi's comment in the NYT's piece that she was selfish for following her dream to be a professional athlete. I find myself falling into this trap, but the sociologist in me reminds myself that men who follow their dreams and desires are not called selfish. In addition I think this thinking could be erroneously linked to women who choose to never have kids. Are they selfish for putting their own interests first? Gigi's story is a great one to demonstrate the need for improved childcare options as well as the difficulties that women in athletics (due to the physicality of sports) encounter when trying to have a child and maintain a competitive career.

  7. Hello "Anonymous" - Many thanks for your sociological insights. Very helpful gendered analysis re the notion of selfishness vs. selflessness. Certainly, men are not considered selfish when they prioritize their careers...
    As a former dancer, I was drawn to Gigi's story, and now as a sociologist, better understand the need for family policies in the U.S. that support women and men to be involved parents and maintain their paid work.