When I first heard about Sara Bjork’s struggle to get Olympique Lyonnais to uphold the FIFA Maternity Regulations, I thought it was too crazy to be true. Even though being a footballer is a very particular kind of occupation, surely a high-profile club couldn’t deny a woman rights that they would be entitled to in any other line of work?
Then I got mad. This isn’t a small club with part-time players; this is an organisation that has been leading the way in women’s football for a long time. I was so disappointed with their reaction and, honestly, a little terrified that this could have even happened in the first place.
When you feel like you have been living in a society that is learning and developing, and things seem to be slowly but surely looking up, something like this really hits you in the face. You have to take a step back to realise that we’ve got such a long way to go.
I think back to my own experiences of pregnancy ten years ago. I think to myself, how far have we really come if these are the kinds of issues that players are still having to deal with today? I was so young when I had Lucas in 2013, just 19 years old, and I hadn’t heard of anyone else in the league having a baby. There were no guidelines to follow, so I just got on with it. There were no special training sessions for me, no follow-up from the club or the physio – either during the pregnancy or after the baby was born – and I generally was just left to it.
Three weeks after I had Lucas, I remember talking to one of my team-mates who was wondering when I’d be back to training and I was like, “Oh I was thinking today, maybe?”. And I did. I showed up at training with my baby, and just got on with the same exercises that everyone else was doing. There were no adaptations, no special allowances. The only difference is that I had to put in more time in order to get back in shape quickly.
I was so tired. My body just wasn’t ready for that kind of pressure. I pushed myself, I pulled through, and I’m always going to be proud of myself for that. However, I honestly don’t think I would manage now. I think I would have given up, and that’s the sad reality for a lot of players that have to choose between their careers and motherhood.
For me, I was lucky there were no complications. I was so young that bouncing back was easier than it would be for most new mothers. But when I look back at it now, I’m like, how did that even work? Lucas practically grew up in a football changing room. I always said he was going to end up hating or loving football because he was constantly surrounded by it. Luckily, he’s decided on the latter.
If I was to be pregnant today, I would be much more forceful in demanding a training system that was adapted to my situation, especially now that there are regulations in place that clearly stipulate my rights. And that’s just the thing though: because of the maternity regulations, there shouldn’t have been any ambiguity in Sara’s case. For the club to treat Sara the way they did was just so disrespectful. We should be beyond this.
I’m hoping that her success on such a high-profile case means that it will be harder to mistreat expectant mothers in the future – and that players will be more aware of what they are entitled to.
I also hope that we continue to fight for improvements for mothers in football. Right now there is a push to raise the average age of retirement for women footballers, which presents another blockade in starting a family. We can’t wait until we’re 40 to start thinking about having children, and it is yet another step that forces a decision between reaching the peak of our careers and becoming mothers.
Wages are better now than they were ten years ago, but there are still lots of full-time players out there who have to take a second job in order to get by; making women choose yet again between an education, financial stability, or their careers as players. Throw raising a family into that, especially without reasonable maternity standards? It becomes impossible.
If clubs want more longevity out of their players, they need to give us more stability in our careers. Give us longer contracts, make it easier for us to have kids, and offer us the rights that we would be afforded in any other workplace, then so many more of us will have the freedom to stay in the sport and reach our full potential.
In all my years as a player I have never had a team-mate that fell pregnant, which seems crazy. One of my friends though, who is also a footballer, fell pregnant shortly before her contract was due up and the club didn’t renew. However, once she had the baby and was ready to play again, they offered her another one. This seems so wrong to me – they just side-stepped any responsibility that they had towards her as a person and an employee, let her fend for herself, and then took her back on once she was ‘useful’ to them again.
Thankfully I’ve heard a lot of talk about instigating a law that would see women offered support in these cases, with mandatory contract extensions for pregnant players. This would have made a huge difference for her, and I hope that others are able to benefit from this protection in the very near future.
We’ve come such a long way. There are many pregnant players that are safely integrated into trainings and club life well into their third trimester, who are financially secure, and who have a postnatal plan in place to help them return to play at their own pace – which is really encouraging. However, we need to keep pushing to ensure that this is the rule, not the exception.
Every woman has the right to be a mother. No-one should have to sacrifice their career or professional development in order to realise that right.