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Maternity in women’s football: What’s it like becoming a mother while playing?

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Jessica McDonald celebrates with her son Jeremiah after winning the 2019 World Cup

When Jessica McDonald had a bad game or a bad training session, it was apparently because of her son. He was, as she was told, a “distraction”.

The same son who would sit in his pushchair on the side of the pitch while his mum trained, because she couldn’t afford childcare.

And the same son who sprinkled ticker tape over his mum’s head after she had helped the United States win the 2019 World Cup.

“My kid is why I’m still inspired to pursue my dreams, he is the one who pushes me day in and day out. I just look at the kid and think ‘let’s go, let’s do this for you’,” she tells BBC World Service Sport.

But when McDonald gave birth to Jeremiah in 2012, professional women’s football and motherhood did not go hand-in-hand. Many will say they still don’t, but times are slowly changing.

This month, Fifa is expected to approve new maternity cover regulations aimed at protecting women footballers.

The rules would entitle players to a minimum of 14 weeks of maternity cover, on at least two thirds of their salary, with clubs not meeting the new standards facing transfer bans.

For McDonald, it shows Fifa “has our backs” after her despair at watching fellow professionals retire early in order to start a family.

“It took a long time, but baby steps, we’re getting somewhere,” said the 32-year-old.

“It’s absolutely amazing because it’s going to be easier for us, especially for the future mums who want to continue their dreams as a professional soccer player.”

‘I got backlash just for being a parent’

North Carolina Courage forward McDonald thought her career was done and dusted when she unexpectedly fell pregnant with Jeremiah.

Then just 23, she was already out with a long-term knee injury, several years away from breaking into the US team. Then-US captain Christie Pearce (formerly Rampone) was the only player she knew who had juggled football with motherhood and there was no-one McDonald felt she could relate to.

Following a brief spell in Australia, McDonald did return to playing in the NWSL, but found herself being traded from team to team, constantly unsettling her son to move elsewhere in the States.

“It was so hard. There were times throughout my career where my son would literally be sitting in his stroller on the sideline at training because I couldn’t afford a babysitter or day care,” she said.

“I have been traded so much throughout my career that trying to find someone to just trust to watch my kid when I was training was so hard.”

Some teams were helpful to McDonald’s situation. Others “didn’t give a care in the world”. She faced a “backlash” just for being a mum who wanted to play football.

“I’ve had plenty of coaches who weren’t parents, which made it even more difficult for me, so there were times when I had a bad training session or a bad game, just like any normal player would have, and sometimes I get it thrown at me that my kid is the distraction,” she said.

“It hurt me badly. My kid was the reason I was out there.”

Jessica McDonald with her son Jeremiah as he holds the Women's World Cup trophy
Jeremiah was in France to watch his mum win the 2019 World Cup

Hiding IVF and faking an injury

It’s the same backlash that Djurgarden and Iceland goalkeeper Gudbjorg Gunnarsdottir feared when she decided to start a family.

Having put off having children until her thirties so as to not jeopardise her career, her journey to motherhood wasn’t without further difficulties.

After three years of IVF, a process she decided to keep secret for her team-mates and coaches, she gave birth to twins in January.

She had previously seen how “frustrated” other players were after an Iceland team-mate fell pregnant, and felt she needed to fake an injury to cover up the physical impact the procedure was having on her.

“I felt like the club thinks you’re not going to put football number one,” she told BBC World Service Sport.

“Of course football is number two, and I think it’s so unfair because if you look at men’s football, it’s a positive thing if a male football player has children because then they look at him as a family man.

“It’s only negative for women because you’re not playing and then you have to take care of the kids, you gain weight, they don’t know about your form. If you come back really early, you get questioned – are you a good mum?”

Gunnarsdottir called her head coach immediately upon learning she was pregnant, because she feared she would otherwise be seen as “some kind of traitor”.

After William and Olivia’s arrival on 31 January, she rushed to get back to football to prove she was worthy of a new contract, which she is still negotiating. She could have returned earlier, she thinks, had she not been breastfeeding.

“I just wanted to prove for me and everyone else that it is possible. I was determined to show them it’s not an obstacle and it can make you better,” said the 35-year-old.

“If I had a longer contract and the security that you know you’ll get your salary, I think I would have been a little bit more laidback, maybe breastfed for longer and maybe I would have slept instead of trained. I prioritised training much higher than sleeping and that’s not healthy.”

Swedish side Djurgarden, which has a pregnancy policy, told the BBC: “We’ve been very transparent with the player’s pregnancy and told our fans about it in October 2019. Her comeback on the pitch is incredible. Such a strong person and soul.”

A step in a ‘positive direction’

Under Fifa’s proposals, clubs will be “under an obligation to reintegrate” players to the club and provide “adequate ongoing medical support”.

The regulations also state clubs will be permitted to sign players outside of the usual transfer windows if short-term cover is needed to replace a player on maternity leave, and new mothers must be offered the opportunity to breastfeed and/or express milk.

Fifa’s proposed minimum of 14 weeks’ cover does not go as far as the statutory amount in many countries, including the United Kingdom, where maternity pay is available for up to 39 weeks.

It’s perhaps not enough, but for McDonald it’s a step in a “positive direction”. She now wants to see NWSL clubs follow in the footsteps of the US national team in providing nannies who travel and stay in hotels with the squad.

At the time of the World Cup win, she was the only mother on the national team and one of only seven in the NWSL. An image of McDonald celebrating with her son went viral around the world.

“I’ve had a couple of old team-mates reaching out to me who are not parents, but they want to be one day and they mentioned how beautiful that moment was,” she said

“There are people who didn’t even want to become parents but said just seeing that image of my son and I might have changed their mind.

“I am so grateful to have that impact.”

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