This week, Serena Williams was in London training for Wimbledon when her 10-month-old daughter Alexis Olympia took her first steps. Williams missed them. She tweeted about it.
She took her first steps… I was training and missed it. I cried.
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 7, 2018
The response was almost uniformly positive and kind to Williams, with many working parents— celebrity and civilian alike— offering support and stories of their own missed “firsts.” My favorite was this little bit of mommy rationalization, which I may have used in my own life.
It doesn’t count until mommy sees it. Nothing counts until mommy sees it.
— Jaime Primak (@JaimePrimak) July 7, 2018
It’s not new for Williams to be open and sometimes vulnerable about her journey into motherhood. She famously won the Australian Open while several months pregnant, then told her traumatic birth story to Vogue shortly after Olympia was born.
If I recall correctly, I missed the first steps of my second daughter, but I was the first to capture them on video, and everyone knows it doesn’t count until it’s Facebook official.
But here’s the thing. I don’t actually recall, and that’s okay. These moments are important, but they are also just moments in a full life. A full life does not allow for a mom to be with every child in every conceivable moment. Some moms are there more often than others are, some have more children than others do. Some don’t work outside the home, or work but don’t travel for work, or work but aren’t historic, world-class professional tennis players.
There are a thousand reasons for missing one of your kids’ firsts. Some moms may have just been in another room making breakfast when it happened. It doesn’t feel great, but it’s not the end of the world. Williams seems to get that. Her next tweet is this one:
And then this:
— Serena Williams (@serenawilliams) July 7, 2018
She practices my mantra for modern motherhood: Make your decisions, mourn your moments, and move on with confidence.
There is no perfect version of life, no alternate reality in which you get to achieve everything you ever wanted in your career, travel anywhere you ever wanted, and still experience every first in your children’s lives. There is also no ideal policy paradise that makes all things possible at all times for all people. That is simply not how life works.
As many a successful woman has noted, you can have it all, just not all at once. We are fortunate to live in a time that affords us more choices and career configurations than at any other time in history, and many a great mind has bent to the task of determining why such changes are correlated with a drop in women’s happiness.
If you are fortunate enough to be able to make some of those choices, make them with confidence and live them without shame, for your kids.
I’m convinced the most powerful example my mom set for me was not working outside the home, although she did and she was dedicated and great at it. She worked outside the home and never seemed ashamed of it. She missed things. We had fewer afternoon playdates and scheduled activities than some kids and more than others, but she never seemed to second-guess herself, and we didn’t second-guess her. Whether her decisions were made out of necessity or preference, she was secure in them.
She made her decisions, she mourned her moments, and she moved on.
The New York Times ran an article in April entitled “Job Description For the Dumbest Job Ever.” Spoiler alert: The job is being a mom. Some bits rang true for me, although the piece as a whole missed the fundamental richness in the role. But perhaps the most telling phrase was this one, which appeared several times:
Become unnaturally intrigued by what gets stains out of clothing, trade tips with other moms and hate yourself for it, bookmark stain chat blogs and hate yourself for it, share hot tips (sunlight! vinegar!) with your friends via text and hate yourself for it.
Here’s an idea. Don’t hate yourself. Embrace new interests, enjoy new phases of life and all the mundanities and wonders they bring with them, enrich yourself with new friends who are on the same journey.
Another celebrity mom, Mindy Kaling, posted an Instagram story this weekend of herself prepping fresh baby food for her daughter. “I know that there are so many good, prepared, organic baby foods out there you can buy, but because I work, I like making them on the weekends because it makes me feel like I’m part of my daughter’s life,” adding she’d never done such things before she was a parent. Maybe next year or next week, that’s not the trade-off she makes, but now it is, and she’s enjoying it.
I’m still relatively new to this, but a lot of parenting is about letting go—letting go of your own preconceptions of what your life would look like, letting go of the power mommy-shamers have over you, letting go of your timeline for when and what your child would do and be, and eventually letting go of your child bit by bit as she learns to succeed on her own.
Williams offers a real-time, high-stakes, public glimpse of what this looks like in practice. She thought or hoped she’d see everything, even if it was unrealistic. The reality is she cannot. This isn’t license to full-on “Cat’s in the Cradle” your kid, but it is a suggestion to give oneself a break.
It’s worth being upset about, for a moment. But her follow-up tweets suggest she’s not wasting time hating herself for it. She has a life to live, a child to love, and work to do.
Her husband brought Olympia to the court to see mom the next day. This week, Williams will play for her eighth Wimbledon title. The whole family is learning, as we all do, the struggle is real but the juggle can be beautiful.