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How do we continue to open up the conversation about female athletes having children?

The conversation is becoming more prevalent but the concerns and worries of female athletes surrounding having a baby during their career are still there. It’s more than a decision to start a family, it can feel like a decision about ending a career, letting team mates down, losing a place in a squad or being financially impacted through loss of sponsorship or funding.

Photo Credit: Ben Lumley

Whilst global giants such as Nike are starting to recognise the importance of celebrating pregnant women and mothers participating in sports, there is still a long way to go. Wasps Netball Captain Sophia Candappa recently announced that she is expecting her second child in October, but something that is supposed to be so positive, was shadowed in concerns for Sophia who was keen to share her experience.

Talking with the NPA, Sophia said “There were a lot of emotions this time around. After having Otis, I always planned to return to the court, but my return was unfortunately hindered slightly due to the COVID pandemic and the season delay.” For Sophia and her partner, Murray, having a second child was also always on the cards and having them quite close together in age was something they were keen to do.

“There is no perfect time to have a baby as an athlete. You are always going to miss out on something. I didn’t want to miss a whole season. Coming back from having Otis, I was so motivated and inspired to get back out there and when that did eventually happen in February in Wakefield, I loved every minute of it. I felt really proud of how far I’d come. It’s really difficult, I was always going to sign for this season but as an athlete I guess it makes you question whether you’re supposed to give your coach a heads up that you’re trying for a baby. I don’t agree with that. You wouldn’t do that in other professions, it’s a personal process and everyone’s journey is different.”

Typically, many athletes who want to become mothers plan their pregnancies at the end of their career amongst a wide misconception in sport that female athletes cannot continue their careers whilst entering parenthood. In more recent times the conversation has intensified with a number of prominent sportswomen choosing to start a family mid-career. I always knew I wasn’t going to wait until the end of my career to have a family. I wanted to be a young mum. I actually found out I was pregnant the day I got back from the first weekend in Wakefield. It was a strange feeling at the time, I was really happy but there were also mixed emotions about what that meant. I was going to have to stop playing sooner than I thought. There was also this time 12 weeks of knowing that I was pregnant, which was 12 weeks of knowing I was going to have to let my coach know at some point and a feeling that I would be letting the team down. I felt a lot of guilt this time and found it really difficult to deal with the emotions.

I also saw my body changing a lot quicker than in my first pregnancy. I was going to games feeling like I had to hold my stomach in, I had more morning sickness and managing that with the increased travel due to COVID was really difficult. It has been a really challenging time. I would literally get on the bus and sleep all the way to Wakefield. I made my decision about when I wanted to stop playing to coincide with when we had a bye weekend, I thought this would give my coach time to replace me in the team. I had my 12 week scan the day after the Mavericks game and then the next day I told my coach. She was so supportive, really lovely, but I knew I had dropped a bombshell on her. I was captain of the team, this wasn’t as simple as losing a player, there was a leadership role to fill as well. It was a lot for a coach to take on but Mel has been incredible. I’m still taking on a leadership role off court, I can’t go to everything because of COVID and numbers being minimised, it’s tough to have to watch matches from home but we are all in a really challenging time.

Photo Credit: Ben Lumley

Going back to the feelings I had about telling my coach, it was a week later that I announced to the netball world. I had a lot of guilt, we are halfway through a season. I actually went through a process prior to the announcement of writing down all the negative things people would say about me, fans and team mates. Pregnancy should be a wonderful thing, but as an athlete I felt I had to go through that process. On reflection now, I think it’s a powerful thing that I felt I had to do that and be prepared for that. Letting a team down is very different to telling work that you’re pregnant. In terms of professionalism, netball and sport is on a very different level. In the professional world there is an understanding that staff are going to get pregnant, you have maternity cover, you move on. But in sport there’s still very limited space and provision for athletes to have children during their careers.

I worry a lot that players in the league are scared to start a family. We are sort of time capped in sport, but having children younger also means I’m still young, I still have time to get back. You know when I returned from having Otis, I got lots of comments about how amazing it was that I was back, people saying I was in the best shape of my career. It was great to hear and I felt I was in the best shape of my career but I don’t want that to be a great shock. You can have a baby and return to play at top level, we need to normalise that.”

There have been several high profile mums in sport that credit motherhood as improving their performances with many proving that rather than signalling the end, having a family can breathe new life into an elite sporting career. Progress for sporting mothers is beginning to gain momentum but female parental visibility is something which still needs greater advocacy in sport. Sophia is now calling for greater conversations about maternity and management of that in netball. “It is so often pushed to one side and just dealt with when it comes up. We need to look at what provisions we can put in place to allow our athletes to have families and come back and play. People can go and have families and it can make them stronger as individuals and benefit them as a player. I am in the best shape that I had ever been in. I enjoyed training more than I ever have. I put in the extra hours more than I had. My discipline and determination has been better since being a mother, coaches and clubs need to see it that way.”

This article was written by Amy Cowd


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