A s pro sports leagues navigated their returns to play in 2020, there was a lot of discussion of the bubble formats employed to ensure player safety and attempt to avoid any outbreaks of COVID-19. Conversation centred around the major men’s leagues, as it always does, and all those athletes were sacrificing, the time they were being asked to take away from their families and cooped up in hotel compounds.
But there was another side to bubble life, one that was convenient in many ways and far more common in women’s leagues. With no need to travel, athletes could stay in the same place in-season for a month or more and establish a routine. In leagues where chartered flights and five-star hotels aren’t the norm, that lack of travel could be a blessing, and for mothers, it meant unprecedented access to both their children and childcare.
“The first time we really got that support was in 2020,” says Jess McDonald, a veteran forward for the National Women’s Soccer League’s Racing Louisville FC, who was with the North Carolina Courage in the bubble. “That was the most help, honestly, that I’ve gotten from this league. Specifically, I was able to fly in whoever I wanted to, to come and watch my kids. I was able to bring in relatives to be my sitter in that bubble.”
Before 2020, many women’s professional leagues in North America lacked any mandated support for mothers, with no stipends or resources for childcare and no protection for mothers planning to take maternity leave. To make the bubble environment possible, though, required an unprecedented leap forward in that support. “That was such a relief. I was like, ‘Where’s this been my whole career?’” says McDonald.
But as welcome and necessary as those changes were, they still aren’t enough. More aware than ever just how much work it takes for mothers in sport to balance their personal lives with playing at the highest levels, we should be past the point where they have to fight and claw for every support — and well past players feeling like they have to choose between their career and motherhood.
Providing for her son has been almost impossible at times for McDonald, whose journey in motherhood has involved navigating multiple leagues and small salaries. “The first five or six years of my son’s life was probably the most difficult as a parent trying to juggle all of that,” she says. “I got traded to six different teams in the first five years in the NWSL, with my son by my side, making $15,000 a season.”
The league’s compensation guidelines lacked any provisions for maternity or parental leave before the 2022 collective bargaining agreement, and with the season lasting just six months, McDonald also had to play in Australia in the off-seasons to supplement her income.
“You’re jumping from place to place [and] it’s not like I’m just moving cities, I’m moving states completely,” she explains. “Anytime I got traded, it was like, ‘Now I need to find someone who will watch my kid, either for free or for pennies, because I have no money to put him in daycare.’ Like we’re not making enough, my paycheques were like $1500 a month — with a kid, right? That’s nothing. Childcare is $1000 a month, roughly, depending on where you live.”
The NWSL’s 2022 CBA, which runs through to 2026, includes a dependent care assistance program that provides a childcare stipend and paid parental leave – though only eight weeks postpartum. While these are clearly steps forward from the conditions earlier in McDonald’s career, other players who contemplate pushing back for longer leaves or financial compensation fear repercussions that could significantly impact the careers they have worked their whole lives for. Examples that lend weight to those fears aren’t hard to find.
In January, Iceland international Sara Björk Gunnarsdóttir shared her story of the reaction by her former team, Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, after she announced she was pregnant in the spring of 2021. Lyon was initially on board with her plan to return to Iceland to carry out her pregnancy and rejoin the team after giving birth, she said, and agreed to continue to pay her salary while she was away.
The first paycheque she was expecting after returning home never arrived, though, and neither did the second. When she flagged the issue to Lyon, the club agreed to pay her, she says, but told her under French law they were only required to pay her for three months of the leave. She says she was told that if she went to FIFA to fight the decision, she would have no future with the club.
Gunnarsdóttir’s case is just one example of the type of fight that pregnant players can be in for if they advocate for their rights. In 2015, the Australian women’s national soccer team boycotted two games against the U.S. amid a standoff with what was then the Football Federation of Australia after the governing body refused the team’s request to pay pregnant players or financially assist their return to play.
“With what we do for a living, [motherhood] is definitely difficult, especially when your employer doesn’t support you whatsoever,” says McDonald. “Now, as moms we get like this little rinky-dink stipend every month — all the moms do. It’s like, okay, this is this is a start, but it still does nothing on it at the end of the day.
“I still haven’t even found a support system here in Louisville,” says McDonald, who was traded to Racing in December 2021. “This has been probably the most difficult place in my career, where I haven’t been able to find a sitter… that’s honestly the hardest part. This is where me as the veteran mom in this league, I need to fight for more for moms in this league, because I don’t want any of my friends who just became parents to go through what I went through in this league.”
FIFA’s current maternity policy states players will receive at least 14 weeks of maternity leave (eight of them postpartum) paid at a minimum of two-thirds their full salary, but the rule was only put in place at the beginning of 2021.
“I’ve had friends from a couple years ago, some of the best talent in the world that I’ve ever seen, who have retired early because they wanted to become a mom,” says McDonald. “And so that’s the frustrating part: to see all of my friends and all of this talent almost go to waste, because we don’t have the support as moms in this league. That’s really crappy, like, no male athlete has to worry about that, not a single one. This is where we need to really change that narrative, big time.”
Of course, professional athletes feeling they have been mistreated as mothers isn’t a phenomenon unique to women’s soccer. In late January, Dearica Hamby was traded to the Los Angeles Sparks from the Las Vegas Aces, a team where she won a WNBA championship, two Sixth Woman of the Year awards, signed a contract extension last June and remained a solid rotational player off the bench for a title contender.
“Being traded is part of the business,” Hamby wrote in an Instagram post after the deal. “Being lied to, bullied, manipulated, and discriminated against is not.”
Hamby, who is currently pregnant with her second child, says she guaranteed the Aces she would be ready for the start of the 2023 campaign, but was then told she signed an extension “knowingly pregnant” and didn’t take precautions to prevent the pregnancy despite the fact the Aces “need bodies.” The WNBPA has since announced they are “seek[ing] a comprehensive investigation” into the situation, and will ensure Hamby’s rights under both the league’s 2020 labor agreement and state and federal law.
The WNBA’s collective bargaining agreement, which was ratified in 2020, states that players will receive their full salary during a maternity leave, as well as a childcare stipend. A maternity cap exception also permits teams to sign a replacement player at the applicable minimum if they don’t have salary cap room.
“[Maternal protection] was something that was heavily in consideration in our last CBA. And since, we’ve been seeing protection of salaries for planning mothers and players that want to start families, and I think that’s trending in the right direction,” says Nneka Ogwumike, forward for the Los Angeles Sparks and president of the WNBPA. “I think what makes things a little bit more difficult, which I fully believe will evolve, is what that means for guarantees, salaries and replacement players and resources for players who are no longer playing while they’re pregnant. There’s so much around this conversation that, in my opinion, can lead to some really monumental changes from us being able to even step into this realm from the last CBA.”
In the league’s previous collective bargaining agreement, some players earned as little as half their salaries while on maternity leave – minimum base salaries in the league are roughly $70,000. After fighting for better maternal care, players now receive mat leave compensation of almost $130,000 on average, as well as two-bedroom apartments provided by the league, workplace accommodations that provide privacy for nursing mothers and a childcare stipend of $5,000 per season.
Still, despite the advances, players rush back into action. With her Minnesota Lynx down to nine players and slipping below .500 in her absence, Napheesa Collier returned to the court just 10 and a half weeks after giving birth in May 2022, even though her position and salary were protected. The same pressure will be there for Canadian forward Natalie Achonwa to return and help the Lynx win as she is currently pregnant and on leave.
Players also continue to face the fear of potential backlash for starting or growing a family. Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is currently pregnant with her second child, has said she didn’t tell anyone about her first pregnancy throughout the 2018 season with the Dallas Wings. She worried about repercussions and, after returning to the league, dealt with post-partum depression.
During negotiations leading up to the 2020 CBA, Diggins-Smith’s voice was one of the loudest in the fight to ensure that more mothers were protected when it comes to being able to go through with a pregnancy while also playing in the WNBA, a league that has fewer than 144 available roster spots. The agreement that resulted in 2020 offers mothers far greater financial supports, but, as in Hamby’s case, doesn’t protect them from being traded.
“What’s tough for me is that we have teams with owners who celebrate the players who are planning moms, knowing that they can play, but also still want to remain competitive, and this is something that I know will come up in future negotiations,” said Ogwumike. “Being able to replace a pregnant player with adequate value, as it’s reflected in a contract, with another player is imperative to maintain the competitive nature of this league. A lot of that can be solved with a soft cap.”
It’s no secret sports are a business, and owners and managers want to remain competitive while their players are on maternity leave, but plenty of businesses have built in adequate or even generous supports for parents without any negative impact to the bottom line. While the last three years have seen major strides in the protection of mothers in the WNBA and NWSL, there are still bigger pushes to be made.
The Premier Hockey Federation made waves when it announced a doubling of the league’s salary cap for the 2023-24 season, up to $1.5 million. But despite that indication of the league’s financial health, the PHF still does not have any written policy regarding childcare support or maternity leave, and only announced plans in 2022 for players to receive full health care benefits, improved facilities, and more frequent practice opportunities.
“I never get told that I can’t do something or that my family has to come second. I think that we do a good job in providing support and resources where we can, but everything costs money, especially things that involve kids,” says Madison Packer, forward for the PHF’s Metropolitan Riveters, who has two children with her partner, former PHF player Anya Packer. “I think that it’s an evolving process, and now that I’ve been through it, it’s something that I am certainly more attuned to and care more about — making things better for future generations of athletes.”
As she imagines what the future could look like for parental support in women’s hockey, Packer looks to other North American leagues for inspiration, chiefly the WNBA.
“I think that the WNBA comes as close to getting it right as anyone in the sports world in my opinion,” she says. “They provide support for players who have kids in the accommodations on the road and things like that. They have, obviously, all the health benefits tied into their reproductive program.… It’s a really complex, involved process.
“No matter how long our sports careers are, our sports careers are temporary,” Packer continues. “When you become a parent, hopefully that becomes your title for the rest of your life. You risk losing a lot of some of the best players in the world in various sports, if you say to them, ‘We’re not willing to budge on this and there’s just no way that we’re going to provide resources and benefits.’
“Players will just stop playing.”
Some already have, forced to choose between raising a family and pursuing their athletic dreams. It’s a decision no one should have to make. And hopefully, if women’s leagues continue to provide greater supports for working and soon-to-be mothers, soon no one else will.