Kim Clijsters may only be 26, but the Belgian tennis player says she has had two careers, each with astonishing success. It is in her "second career," however, that she has achieved the greater accomplishment: winning the US Open as a wild card with her 18-month-old daughter, Jada, in the player-guest box. She is the first mother in 29 years to win a Grand Slam title; the last was Australia's Evonne Goolagong, who won the Venus Rosewater Dish at the 1980 Wimbledon Championships.
Her first career -- that is, pre-baby -- was a good one; she won the U.S. Open in 2005. But at the time, she was seeded and in her athletic prime. She took two years off to get married and become a mama; this is only her third tournament of career number two -- the working mother years.
Clijsters is a much-needed champion for working mothers, who have had something of a nasty run in the media of late. The moms who have hogged the headlines this summer, like Nadya Suleman (Octomom!) and Kate Gosselin, have proved that they'll do anything to provide for their family; and that's exactly the problem.
The beauty of Clijsters' victory is not in its attention-grabbing nature, but in its quiet. Yes, her daughter was there when mama won the final points against Denmark's Caroline Wozniacki, and enchanted photographers and fans with her blond curls and toddler antics. But Clijsters isn't known for anything more than her consistently good play and her friendliness. Mothers often struggle with the feeling that they have to make compromises to prove their mettle, or struggle to overcome the "mommy track" stigma upon returning to work. Clijsters managed to competently and uncompromisingly return to the game without skipping a beat.
Sure, it's a lot simpler to juggle the stresses of new motherhood if you're already in the rarefied financial air of professional athletics, and Clijsters freely admits to having completely ignored the world of tennis in her daughter's first year. Most American working mothers wouldn't have had the financial stability to take such a lengthy maternity leave, and in this, Clijsters' privilege shows. But perhaps it's an example of how seamlessly mothers can bounce back and pick up where they left off (or even do better), if they're given a respectable 12 months to recover and immerse themselves in new motherhood.
I'll call this an inspiration both to other working mothers and moms-to-be who worry they'll never be "themselves" again; and likewise an inspiration to employers who doubt whether women can take such a long time off and return to contribute to the organization. The long maternity leave, and new motherhood, flatter Clijsters, and would do the same for millions of moms like her, if they were given the chance.
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