Serena Williams reflects on traumatic childbirth and importance of advocating for herself: ‘I fought hard’

Serena Williams reflects on childbirth experience (Getty Images)
Serena Williams reflects on childbirth experience (Getty Images)

Serena Williams has spoken candidly about her pregnancy and her difficult childbirth, with the tennis star revealing that advocating for herself and “being heard” by her doctors meant the “difference between life or death”.

The professional athlete, 40, who welcomed daughter Olympia, four, with husband Alexis Ohanian in 2017, reflected on the pregnancy, as well as the medical emergencies she faced after welcoming her child via caesarean section, in an personal essay for Elle.

In the essay, titled: “How Serena Williams Saved Her Own Life,” Williams began by acknowledging that she had a “wonderful pregnancy” and that she’d enjoyed being pregnant as she’d liked the “positive attention”. The 23-time grand slam champion also noted that it allowed her to settle into a “whole new way of being” where she could relax and not play tennis.

However, she did note that she was “nervous” about meeting her baby, as she hadn’t “felt a connection with her” throughout her pregnancy.

“While I loved being pregnant, I didn’t have that amazing Oh my God, this is my baby moment, ever. It’s something people don’t usually talk about, because we’re supposed to be in love from the first second,” she acknowledged.

According to Williams, she was a “lioness who would protect her baby at any cost,” but she wasn’t “gushing over” her daughter, with the tennis star noting that she “kept waiting to feel like I knew her during pregnancy, but the feeling never came”.

The feeling did arrive, and grew, when her daughter was born, Williams recalled, as she wrote that she “loved her right away”.

“When I finally saw her - and I just knew it was going to be a girl, that was one thing I knew about her before we even had it confirmed - I loved her right away,” she wrote. “It wasn’t exactly instantaneous, but it was there, and from that seed, it grew. I couldn’t stop staring at her, my Olympia.”

While Williams’ fears over her connection with her daughter were assuaged by the baby’s arrival, the athlete noted that her medical concerns had just begun.

In the essay, Williams explained that her daughter had been born via emergency C-section, a decision her doctor made, which she had been grateful for.

“She made it clear that there wasn’t time for an epidural or more pushing. I loved her confidence; had she given me the choice between more pushing or surgery, I would have been ruined. I’m not good at making decisions. In that moment, what I needed most was that calm, affirmative direction,” Williams recalled, while acknowledging that she had wanted to give birth vaginally but was ultimately “happy and relieved to let go”.

The decision also changed the energy in the delivery room, as Williams said: “We went from this intense, seemingly endless process to a clear plan for bringing this baby into the world.”

After the surgery, Williams, who has spoken previously about her life-threatening blood clots, recalled waking up and being unable to move her body.

While she wrote that she was more focused on her new baby, she noted that she wondered as she passed in and out of a haze whether she should ask someone about her blood-thinning heparin drip, as she has “lived in fear” of her blood clots returning since they were first found in her lungs in 2010.

According to Williams, who said that she is at “high risk for blood clots,” when she asked a nurse whether she should be on the medication, she was told that she may not need to be.

“No one was really listening to what I was saying. The logic for not starting the blood thinners was that it could cause my C-section wound to bleed, which is true. Still, I felt it was important and kept pressing,” the athlete recalled, adding that “all the while, I was in excruciating pain”.

At that point, Williams wrote that she’d also begun to cough, and that her coughing ended up bursting her surgery stitches, which meant that she had to undergo her first surgery after the C-section to “get restitched”.

According to Willliams, the surgery “would be the first of many surgeries,” as she had been coughing because she had developed an embolism, a clot in one of her arteries, in her abdomen and blood clots. She also wrote that doctors discovered a hematoma, a collection of blood outside the blood vessels.

After waking up from surgery, Williams said that she again told her nurse she needed to undergo a CAT scan of her lungs and needed to be on the blood-thinning drip of medication, but that the nurse did not listen to her initially.

“She said: ‘I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.’ I said: ‘No, I’m telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately. And I need it to be done with dye,’” Williams wrote. Her insistence worked, as the nurse eventually consulted with Williams’ doctor, who “insisted we check”.

“I fought hard, and I ended up getting the CAT scan. I’m so grateful to her,” Williams wrote. “Lo and behold, I had a blood clot in my lungs, and they needed to insert a filter into my veins to break up the clot before it reached my heart.”

While in the hospital, Williams underwent four surgeries, with the tennis star noting that the timing of the surgeries kept coinciding with Ohanian’s attempts to leave the hospital to shower, so that he ended up showering in her hospital room because he was “terrified to walk out the door”.

Williams then reflected on her team of doctors, recalling how her personal ob/gyn was “amazing” and never made her feel “dismissed”. However, she said that she’d also had another doctor who was “supposed to be checking in,” but that she only saw once.

In the essay, Williams then acknowledged that, in the US, Black women are “nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts” and that many of these deaths are considered preventable.

“Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience,” she wrote.

Williams said she eventually left the hospital a week later, at which point she was able to go home and bond with her daughter. According to Williams, who was bedridden for six weeks following the complications, connecting with her daughter “at long last” was “amazing”.

“It was both the reward and the validation for all I’d been through,” she wrote. “I went from not being able to really imagine her in the womb to us being completely inseparable.”

This is not the first time that the tennis star has opened up about her childbirth experience, as she previously revealed that she “almost died” after giving birth to her daughter in a 2018 CNN essay.

In the essay, Williams expressed her gratitude for her “incredible medical team” and the “state-of-the-art equipment at the hospital,” as she noted that the medical staff knew “exactly how to handle this complicated turn of events”.

“If it weren’t for their professional care, I wouldn’t be here today,” she wrote.

The athlete has also spoken about postpartum depression, with Williams opening up about her experience on social media.

In 2018, Williams revealed that she was in a “funk” because she “felt like I was not a good mom,” before noting that she’d read several articles stating that postpartum emotions can “last up to three years if not dealt with”.

In the candid post, Williams said that talking through her emotions with her loved ones helped her process what she was feeling, adding: “It’s totally normal to feel like I’m not doing enough for my baby.”