When I was 25, I started to realise I was never going to be a player and a mum simultaneously. I felt I was going to have to wait until my career was over.
Sometimes I catch myself thinking what might have been: if maternity regulations had progressed earlier, if more players had children when I was younger, perhaps I could have been a mother – maybe even to more than one child.
I am still hopeful that motherhood is part of my future, but I know that I will never be the player celebrating a victory with her children on the pitch. That is a choice I felt that I had to make.
However, if you pay attention to any women’s final, you will notice that there is nowhere near the amount of parent-players as you will see in the men’s game. It wasn’t just me that had a choice to make.
Thankfully the landscape is starting to shift now. There are more examples of players who give birth and even return sometimes as better players, with greater focus and determination. Five years ago, if I had seen my team-mate Emma Mukandi and how she came back after her pregnancy, there would be no doubt in my mind that hers was a path that I could see myself on. She has gone from strength to strength. I am so proud to play with a wonderful player and mother.
However, I’m 34 now and if I were to take the time away from the game that would be necessary to have a child, I would struggle to garner the momentum needed to return at the peak of my ability. The problem is, when I was at an age that I could have achieved this, there were no Emmas. There was no support for pregnant players, even less for playing mothers. It just didn’t seem like a viable route for me. I felt I had to make a choice. And I chose football.
My decision really hit home for me when my identical twin, Lotte, told me that she was expecting. For as long as I can remember, we had followed the same paths in life: we studied the same classes, achieved our dreams of being professional footballers, and even achieved the same education as teachers. We both always wanted to have families, and it was this point that opened up the crossroads that would see us take divergent paths for the first time in our lives. It wasn’t an easy decision for either of us.
Six months after Lotte had her daughter, she came to see me play for the national team. I think it was then that it hit her just how much she missed football being part of her life; yet I was on the pitch knowing just how much I wanted a baby just like the one she held in her arms in the stands.
At the end of the day, neither of us regrets our decision. As much as I love my niece, I know that I’m not ready to give up football – it’s my life, and I couldn’t be without it; and my sister, as much as she misses playing, could never imagine life without her daughter. I think we both regret that a decision had to be made in the first place.
Putting my career before motherhood was a difficult choice to make, and it has impacted my life in more ways than the absence of children. The choice to bring another life into the world isn’t just my own, but that of the partner I choose to do it with. I’ve been in a few relationships where the necessity for me to wait was too much for them and, while I understand, it doesn’t make it any less heart-breaking.
Perhaps the fact they couldn’t understand why I had to see this stage of my life to a close first means that they weren’t right for me. But it’s hard not to think what might have been had I had a ‘normal’ career, or even the security at a younger age to take that step with them. Also, with hopefully another few years at the top level, there is no guarantee that the right person will show up in time to take this journey with me, which definitely adds a layer of anxiety.
Although I can’t lead by example, I want to encourage today’s younger players to have it all. I belong to a generation that didn’t speak about pregnancy in football. It was a career-ending taboo with team-mates hiding their desires to be mothers – either delaying them like I did, or ceasing to be players the day they announced their pregnancy, like my sister.
Yes, we now have examples, but there still needs to be more conversation about the topic of maternity; in the changing rooms, with the medical team, and within our contracts. There is still so much work to be done: contract extensions for players who would find their current agreement ending during their pregnancy or maternity leave; reassurances of proper training and care both pre- and post-natal; extra services on hand, such as a nanny – anything that can help women adapt to their new dual role as parents and players.
Even with this, some women may want to wait until they are no longer active and this is a choice that should also be catered for. I took myself to a medical specialist to see what my chances were of falling pregnant in the coming years and, luckily, I received a promising outlook which helped guide my decision to remain in the game. In our line of work, this is an important security that should be offered to all players that are planning their families around their careers; whether this means holding off until they’ve hung up their boots, or starting earlier to ensure they have time to come back and enjoy the peak years as footballers.
I wish these discussions were happening when I was 25 before I made that all-important decision that I hope no future players feel forced to consider. If someone had told me then that I had the power to return to the game, that I could have it all, I think I would have listened and jumped at the opportunity.
Pregnancy is the start of something beautiful and should never be looked at as the end of your life’s work. Although the opportunity to lift my own child onto the pitch as I celebrate the peak of my athletic career has passed, I am determined that, over time, many more women will run their laps of honour with their own children in tow.