The insulting question that makes new mothers like Serena and me livid
WHEN I saw Serena Williams smashing her racket on court last weekend, I recognised immediately what was going on. The world’s greatest woman tennis player has been back at work after having a baby for six months now, but she’s still trying to prove she’s got it, that motherhood hasn’t diminished her fighting spirit.
Serena’s baby Alexis Olympia is one year old, my second baby Xanthe, a bit older at 16 months. We have both been gripped by the madness of new motherhood. We are crawling and clambering our way back, sometimes inelegantly. And it’s hard.
Despite nearly dying in childbirth, Serena had no choice but to quickly get back on the circuit. The Women’s Tennis Association operates a potty system where a player loses their ranking, or seeding, the moment they stop playing. Serena went on maternity leave ranked world No 1. She returned ranked a ridiculous 451.
That meant she was pitted against top-ranked players in the form of their lives in the early stages of tournaments. Thankfully this rule looks like it’s about to be junked.
In my case I was BBC Newsnight’s political editor when I became pregnant with my first child – now a lively boy aged four. Eight months into the pregnancy, just before I went on maternity leave, my BBC editors made it clear I would have to fight for my position when I came back.
After one particularly fraught meeting, I had my last antenatal appointment before my due date but the stress of the meeting had caused my baby’s heartbeat to rocket. Unless it calmed down, the midwife told me, she would have to induce it. Thankfully the heart rate did return to normal – but that was the point when I gave up fighting my bosses.
When I returned to work after six months, my (male) editor said to me: ‘But the question is, Allegra, are you hungry?’ Yes, I was hungry. And tired. And terrified that I would never be the same journalist again. I was desperate to prove I was up to my job. Like Serena, nothing I had done before felt like it counted. I was starting all over.
Second time around my new employers, ITV News, were much kinder to me. When last year’s snap General Election was called, I was on the second day of my maternity leave, waiting to drop, and a boss rang to alert me. It was thoughtful of her. She was just keeping me in the loop and I was grateful. But when I took the call, I was at the top of a playground helter-skelter with my toddler and I was, well, stuffed.
But that insensitive and insulting question – ‘are you hungry?’ – was like a worm in my mind. And I knew then that I had to be back on air for the Election night programme – even though it was going to be precisely four weeks after my second baby’s birth.
So the first days of Xanthe’s life were spent laying next to her in bed feeding… and holding my iPhone up above her reading hundreds of constituency profiles. Trying not to drop it on her. Come Election night, I squeezed myself into the smartest nursing dress I could find and loaded a taxi up with quite an entourage: my mum, my baby, car seat, crate of baby bottles, breast pump – and my sleepy head. Off we went to the TV studio.
Throughout the eight-hour marathon live broadcast, I was surveying the results from constituencies, analysing what the shifting picture meant. But my producer and I were also looking for something else: boring bits.
AS MY fellow presenters, Ed Balls and George Osborne were munching Haribo (and c hort l i ng o ver Mrs May’s humiliation), I’d quietly slip off set into the green room where my mum sat knitting, keeping a watchful eye on sleeping Xanthe. I’d go to the corner, strap myself into my horrid breast pump, express milk, then head back to the studio.
The whole operation got off to a disastrous start. At around 8:30pm, I was sitting in the make-up chair ahead of the polls closing and I couldn’t work out what the odd stain creeping across my chest was – until I realised I’d forgotten my breast pads and was leaking milk. I burst into tears.
I felt preposterous. I hadn’t actually been reporting on the campaign trail as I would normally have been and as I think you must to get the pulse of the country. I had been joggling a baby. Not so much an armchair journalist as a rocking- chair journalist. I was a phoney and my punishment was going to be leaking milk live on television. I was going to become a national laughing stock.
As it was, I swapped into my back-up nursing dress, put double layers of breast pads on and pulled myself together.
No one foresaw the results that night and it turned out that I was as well placed as anyone to discuss what happened. After that, I went back on maternity leave for another four months.
My point isn’t that women should be awarded medals for taking minuscule maternity leaves. There is already an unhealthy whiff of female machismo in the competition to go back to work the earliest.
Five to six months away felt right for me and my babies. But I passionately believe that organisations, from the BBC to the Women’s Tennis Association, need to understand that, if they treat women well on maternity leave, they’ll get back so much more in return.
This isn’t frilly virtue signalling, this is corporate self-interest. The woman who walks back in the door is often more motivated than when she left. New mothers have a drive to get back to where they were – a drive that pushed Serena too far last weekend.
But given such hunger, if I was a boss, I’d want more new mothers on the staff – even if we do suffer the occasional meltdown.
MELTDOWN: Serena Williams during her on-court outburst last weekend