I never had any doubt that Serena Williams could rock a catsuit — or even a tutu, as she did this week at the U.S. Open. And I definitely never doubted her ability to win another Grand Slam title one year — almost to the day — of becoming a mom. She is a superstar athlete who does everything with one goal in mind: winning.
Perhaps that’s why, in previous years, it never crossed my mind that Serena is just like me. But as she opened up about pregnancy, her harrowing birth story and the vulnerability of motherhood, we all started to feel that way. Last week, on the eve of her return to the U.S. Open, I sat down with Williams on "Today" to talk about her Grand Slam goals, embracing her critics and how she works through "mom guilt" with the help a few million friends on social media.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
Walk me through your year.
Williams: Oh, it's been an amazing year. Having the baby and then coming back — it's so special to have Olympia turn one soon. Maybe I'll be playing on that day and I'll just have those memories of being in the hospital and giving birth to my daughter. It's been an amazing year, and I really look forward to getting back [to competing]. It's going to be great.
Do you feel joyful?
Williams: You know, I feel a different joy. I've always been this joyful person, but now it's just totally different. I feel just light. I feel lighter and happier. And it's just a great feeling.
You're back in New York and people are saying it's a comeback. You very eloquently stole a line from L.L. Cool J. and said, "Don't call it a comeback." Why?
Williams: I was gone so I guess it is a comeback if you break it down. But for me, I was always there mentally. I always was watching and being a part of it. And I never wanted to hang up my racket at that point. So, I'm just still trying to compete and win Grand Slams — and do it while I have a daughter.
Does it show how tough people are on women? I'm guessing when your husband went back to work after Olympia was born, no one called it a comeback tour for him.
Williams: Exactly. Right? But it is true. No one called his work a comeback, and he had to take time off, too. But, yeah, women definitely have a double standard in so many different things.
And that's what I'm doing now. I'm lobbying and trying to break down all these double standards that we have to face on a daily basis. And just let people know that we're here to stay, obviously, and we deserve to be treated just like our male counterparts.
Is it more important to win as a mother than it was before?
Williams: You know, it's hard to say — I want to win, whether I'm a mom or not. Obviously I want to win while having Olympia. One day I'll tell her that, you know, she was born and I still kept winning. But at the same time, I don't have to win another match in my whole life. I've done so much in my career, and right now I want to just focus on having fun out there. And ironically enough, that's when I started to play my best tennis.
Most of us would have guessed, given your training and travel schedule, you would not have your baby by your side, but you have. And you're not taking it as a burden. You're taking it as a gift.
Williams: I am taking it as a gift. We spent every day together since she was born, and I work around her. But I'm really fortunate. A lot of women don't have that opportunity.
And, you know, in a weird way I'm kind of doing it for those women that can't. Being around her every day is super important, and I want her to have just a great upbringing, the best way that I know how.
I'm really using social media in a way to help me understand my struggles with my baby.
You've shared this year that sometimes you worry that you're not going to be a good mom. All of us have that fear. But with you, everything you've ever done, you're excellent at. Who's guiding you through this?
Williams: I have my mom. She's had five kids, and so that's really cool. But what I think is super interesting is the fact that I'm relying on everyone else. I think in this age of social media, it presents a different opportunity.
I feel like moms are all — you know — we're all the same people.
So when I'm feeling down or I'm feeling stressed, I literally will write about it. I'll go on either Snap, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and I post an article. And I get the most impressive feedback and help. And I feel like I'm getting so much help from all the moms — and dads, by the way — and parents out there.
Like, when I missed Olympia's walking and I posted about it, and so many parents wrote in and said, "Don't worry about it. I missed it too!" And I didn't realize that it was almost more normal to miss it than to make it. And so when I realized that, I was like, "Wow. This is great." So I really kind of rely on everyone's help out there, and it's been so, so, so amazing.
We all have that guilt. What have those women and men told you?
Williams: It's been so unreal. Another time I said I didn't feel like I was being a good mom, and everyone was just chiming in and so supportive. And saying, "By the way, we felt this way too." And so for me, it makes me just feel okay.
I feel like moms are all — you know — we're all the same people. It doesn't matter what race you are, what color you are, what background you're from. I feel like we all have a connection. We just want to help each other out. So I'm really using social media in a way to help me understand my struggles with my baby.
Do you ever worry that sharing this much only gives a narrative to the critics who want to doubt you?
Williams: I don't feel like I'm doing too much and giving critics a narrative. In fact, I love critics. I feel like you need the good and need the bad. Superman needs Lex Luthor.
And someone once told me — Billie Jean King — that pressure is a privilege. And I'm in a position where I feel that weight on my shoulder's actually a privilege for me.
I've always been this joyful person, but now it's just totally different.
What do you want to say to New York — to the world?
Williams: Well, this is just the beginning. And for every new mom out there, this is the beginning of a new life. And it's how I feel. This is the beginning of a new career for me.
I'm not going be gone after the Open. I'm going be in the next Grand Slam and the next and the next and the next and the next. It's just going to keep going. And so yeah, I'm going for this one, but if not, there's one in January and there's four more. And there'll be eight more. So, for me, it's just the beginning..."
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