The first time I met my niece, I asked my sister what the birth was like. She looked me dead in the eye with the kind of chilling stare usually reserved for military veterans retelling the horrors they saw in action. After describing the different degrees of vaginal tearing a woman could potentially sustain when pushing out an eight-pound baby, she tried to reassure me with the comforting words: "Most women will tear to some extent during childbirth".
Suffice to say, pregnancy and giving birth are probably the hardest challenges a body can undertake. After this display of superhuman physical fortitude, one might rightly expect to enjoy a break – to get a bit of rest while finally tearing into all the raw fish, soft cheese and hard booze you've been missing for nine months.
Not if you're Jessica Ennis-Hill. The heptathlete won gold at the IAAF World Championships in 2015, just nine months after returning to training following the birth of her son Reggie. Ennis-Hill confessed that she found the period after Reggie's birth – during which she had to get back to training and give up breastfeeding – incredibly tough. So tough, in fact, that she even considered quitting athletics altogether.
She isn't the only sportsperson to have shifted from childbirth back to elite athleticism in an astoundingly short timeframe. Paula Radcliffe returned to running just 12 days after giving birth to her daughter Isla in 2007, then went on to win the New York Marathon later that year; in 2009, golfer Catriona Matthews became the first Scotswoman to win the British Open, doing so just 10 weeks after having her second child; and shortly before Christmas 2016 the former world tennis number one Victoria Azarenka gave birth to a son, then vowed to quickly resume her career on the court. Women are strong as hell.
Returning to international competition just months or even weeks after giving birth feels yet more impressive in the context of the focus afforded to injury and recovery time in professional sports. Commentators agonise for hours over whether or not an injury holds the potential to impact an athlete's performance. Usain Bolt's hamstring was dissected with such scrutiny in the run up to the Rio Olympics that you'd be forgiven for thinking it was a more impressive feat to overcome than, say, carrying another human inside you for the best part of a year.
The narrative around injuries can be technical and insightful, but it can sometimes slide into wild conjecture about someone's mentality in overcoming a setback. When pregnancy and childbirth are mentioned in the same context, however, they are almost framed as some sort of human-interest angle. The notion of a woman winning gold just months after becoming a mother is pitched as a fascinating story – like putting away 1,000 chicken McNuggets in Beijing – but not a technical feat in which an athlete conquers a gruelling physical challenge. Despite having comparative healing periods, recovery from serious injury and recuperation after childbirth are conceptualised differently in professional sporting contexts.
Perhaps this is down to the way women's family planning choices are regarded more broadly. Women are widely expected to take on their role as mothers dutifully and quietly. Despite some developments in the way employers deal with maternity, pregnancy and childbirth are still commonly regarded as lifestyle choices made by women – and not by men – who wilfully submit themselves to a career hiatus, stagnation or even termination in order to indulge in the luxury of having a baby.
By this logic, any interruption to someone's athletic career that comes about as a result of childbirth is a choice; in contrast, an injury can't be predicted and needs to be gallantly recovered from. Contrary to this misconception, getting pregnant often isn't a conscious decision.
Ennis-Hill is a prime example of this, having admitted that her pregnancy with son Reggie was completely unexpected. While the surprise was a pleasant one, it was not part of the plan for a professional athlete at the top of her game. U.S. Olympic athlete Sarah Brown also found herself being unexpectedly faced with the prospect of motherhood, despite using a contraceptive coil. Brown made it back on track to compete just four months after giving birth, but an unplanned pregnancy is obviously not ideal in a career that relies on maintaining total control over your body.
For a better insight into this I spoke with Mark Buckingham, a physiotherapist with the Northamptonshire-based practice Witty, Pask & Buckingham. Having helped a number of elite athletes return to form after giving birth, he explained that planning pregnancy around major championships is commonplace among those who want to balance family life with competitive success.
"I've got one client who I've known for 15 years, since she was a student," Mark told VICE Sports. "After her first baby she came back and ran the Commonwealth Games marathon.
"This lady decided to have her second baby recently with a view to the Commonwealth Games in two years time being her goal [for a return to competition]. It's very much [about] planning the years effectively."
What exactly is involved in returning to form when you're expecting and an athlete? If Daniel Sturridge can be laid up for 167 days with a hip injury, you'd imagine the recovery period after pushing a living being out of your vagina is fairly substantial. Buckingham told us: "The old wives' tale that it takes nine months to get there and nine months to get over it – in my experience, that's not far wrong. It takes you a good few months to really get back your strength, your control, your stability, your speed.
"Notwithstanding the fact that babies don't necessarily sleep through the night and so you're feeling tired, you're also producing milk, you're in energy deficit, you're in sleep deficit. Getting back to full training and asking your body to perform at the highest level again is tough."
Surrendering a high-intensity training regime and peak physical form can be hard, and these changes aren't always easy for elite athletes to accept. Asking a sportswoman to listen when her body is telling her to slow down or stop can be the biggest challenge for physiotherapists like Mark. Discussing her determination to keep training while she was pregnant, Paula Radcliffe admitted: "The athlete in me doesn't like being pregnant."
Alex Lancaster is one of the Liverpool Roller Birds, a roller derby league where she skates under the name Atomic. Having given birth last year, Alex is now back skating in the A squad and being a total badass. Nevertheless, after years of skating she found it harder than anticipated to get back to her previous level: "I had confidence I would return within weeks, but the reality was very different. After giving birth I struggled lifting my legs out of bed, needed help standing, and struggled walking for the first few weeks.
"At four months post-partum I put skates on and was surprised I could still move relatively fast around the track, but I felt unable to jump, hockey-stop or do any sudden movements. My body was clearly not ready for such an intense contact sport."
Echoing this, Mark said he's had difficulty with athletes who insist on pushing themselves too soon after childbirth: "I've seen people who have rushed back and ended up chronically injured and never returned to being an elite athlete again because they've broken themselves.
"Particularly with professional athletes, they have always felt like they have been in control of their bodies. Their body does what they want it to do. They need to accept and embrace that their body is going to change. They need to roll with it, rather than fight it."
This was something Alex experienced when returning to roller derby and it's still a work in progress as she refines her speed, awareness and skills to get back to where she was pre-pregnancy. She added: "The joy of being back skating is something I didn't quite anticipate. I took for granted I'd be back on skates quickly and when that didn't happen I had to push myself so hard – even with as little as one hour's sleep at times – just to get back to playing the sport I love."
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Parenthood and professional sports both demand a lot of sacrifices. Sarah Brown made it back on track to compete just four months after giving birth, but speaking during her pregnancy she said: "For female athletes it's a tough balance. As an athlete, you can be selfish, and having a family can be one of the most selfless things you can do. I have no idea what to expect."
After subjecting their bodies to the gruelling task of returning to form post-pregnancy, female athletes are faced with the exact same myriad of societal expectations and substandard maternity structures that prevent other women from excelling professionally once they've had kids. England international Katie Chapman went so far as to question the Football Association's policy towards mothers in the team after claiming she was dropped for wanting time off to look after her family.
Perhaps it's down to the inclusive ethos of roller derby, or maybe it's because the sport was created by women and for women, but Alex found that the league worked to accommodate her needs when she became a mother. She said: "Our team [subscriptions] are much lower during maternity leave. I am also fortunate that the league board of directors reviewed our policies to ensure I was able to have my baby with a family member present in the hall while I trained to ensure I could still breastfeed on demand. Without this help I would not have returned to the sport as quickly."
Despite the help provided by Liverpool Roller Birds, Alex still found returning to her sport incredibly challenging. Time was the biggest problem, with training commitments, games and travel all becoming far more difficult as a mum. Alex said: "I have to plan around my baby's feeding times and bed times; I rely on my husband and mum to care for the baby at skating venues or at home.
"More could be done to help women balance work and parenthood as it's often a choice between returning to work full time and paying high childcare costs or staying at home full-time.
"Being able to balance work, parenthood and sport is the ideal, but it's quite difficult. The financial costs of participating in sport also seem to be increasing now that I have a baby, which is something I didn't really plan for. I have to travel to games with the baby and sometimes book places to stay overnight. Financially this is difficult, as statutory maternity pay barely covers bills and runs out after nine months. I will have to return to work earlier than I would have preferred because finances are tight."
Maternity and employment are an omnishambles whether you work in Sports Direct or win gold medals. Certain sports also carry with them the added pressures of peak age and career span for women hoping to return after raising a family. Tennis players often peak in their early twenties and can be done by 28 (with the notable exception of Serena, though it's hardly fair to compare the greatest player of all time with the rest of humanity).
Footballers peak later and can conceivably go until their late thirties, as can golfers, while track and field is different again. Team GB triple jumper Yamile Aldama said: "A lot of female athletes put off having children because in our sport there is never a good time to have a baby." Alex also said that she's known women who have wished to progress in their sport and not wanted to think about having a baby until they retire. The upshot is that women in certain sports can conceivably face the prospect of ending their careers by having children at a certain age.
When women decide to become mothers they are faced with the prospect of taking a professional nosedive by leaving the job market at a crucial moment and not being able to reach an apex that's attainable to men through the privilege of an uninterrupted career path. The difficulty of deciding to take a break in order to raise a family may seem even more pronounced in team sports. For women who play at the highest level, the family planning choices of one individual can have an impact on the entire squad's performance. If your star striker or goalkeeper is pregnant it's going to impact everyone, just as it affects everyone if Diego Costa or David de Gea is injured.
Alex agreed that team dynamics could make it difficult for some women to make the decision to start a family. She said: "I think it would be easy to delay having children because of the impact on the team, especially if big games or tournaments are coming up. [But] I never felt any pressure not to have children.
"I also knew from losing team skaters due to injury or other personal reasons that this change can challenge the team in a good way, allowing new talent to break through. Change can be good in that respect; good teams continue to grow and evolve with their players."
In the face of these challenges, the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) has proven that starting a family doesn't always end a career. Women like Joy Fawcett went on to play in the World Cup and Olympic squads just a few weeks after giving birth. In spite of an ingrained gender division in caregiving and inhospitable maternity structures, these women have proven time and again that mothers can return to their sport and excel despite an added care burden.
Buckingham said he found a number of athletes even became more sensible after having babies: "Often to get to the top level [they have to be] very obsessive, very compulsive and driven people.
"Babies put a bad day or a poor training session into context. Oddly, they make athletes better at time management. People don't tend to over-train as much because they haven't got the time. People become better athletes when they have babies because they become able to put things into context."
My sister described labour as an empowering experience because, in her exact words: "You really feel like you can take on any shit after it." Childbirth is the single most incredible test the human body can withstand and, in bringing life into the world, women illuminate their mind-blowing strength. After all this they are faced with maternity polices that are insultingly inadequate, but in the face of these physical and structural challenges, sportswomen continue to excel. The post-partum triumphs of women like Jessica Ennis-Hill are a glowing testimony to the resilience, force and power of the female body and mind.