Exclusive: Tackling the Stigma of Pregnancy in Football

Credit: Sydney Leroux-Dwyer

Pregnancy in football is a subject often tiptoed around. Particularly after England infamously tweeted about the bronze medal winning Lionesses returning “to being mothers, partners and daughters.”

The tweet received a lot of backlash. However, it does beg the question – how many top-flight players are actually mothers? 

Professional football and motherhood has long been a rare combination among elite female footballers. The demands of strict training and playing schedules are seemingly incompatible with raising a child. 

Sophie Walton can strongly corroborate the severe lack of support top-flight clubs have offered expecting mothers in recent history. 

“At the time, I was the only female at the top level that had children. It was an unknown to everyone,” she said about her time at Notts County.

“There was no maternity pay written into contracts, so players were unsure what support they would received if they fell pregnant.”

Sophie Walton featuring for Notts County.

The reality of this is starkly reflected in the statistics. A 2017 FIFPRO report showed that only 1% of footballers in the Women’s Super League had children. 

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“I left [Notts County] and I had no intentions of going back. I had no medical guidance of what I could and couldn’t do – I had no idea if I should have even been running or not,” Walton said.

“The way I was treated was really disappointing. I was the club’s longest serving player and had made the most appearances. With the way I was handled, it was like they were saying ‘how dare you fall pregnant.’

“I had a tough time and had to make contact with the PFA over contract issues and the way they [Notts] managed the situation. Luckily in the end, the PFA were brilliant and managed to help me with everything I needed.”

“I felt like I got punished for having children

The denial of support during and after pregnancy in 2016 tarnished Walton’s relationship with her former club. She also fell out of love with the sport in general.

The midfielder isn’t alone in the challenges she’s had to overcome as a mother and professional footballer. 

This is evidenced by the 2017 FIFPRO study, which showed only 3% of top division clubs worldwide offered creche facilities.

Chelsea manager Emma Hayes has been vocal in calling out the lack of maternity support for pregnant footballers. She branded the statistic on creches as an “absolute disgrace.”

“Just because they are an athlete doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be supported,” the 43-year-old told the Telegraph.

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Hayes was due to give birth to twin boys in 2018 but suffered a miscarriage whilst managing a game against Arsenal. Tragically, she lost her son Albie during her pregnancy.

Former England midfielder Katie Chapman also had a tough time managing family life and her football. “I felt like I got punished for having children,” she told the Telegraph.

After requesting to miss a training camp in 2011 for childcare reasons, it took a further four years for Chapman to receive another call-up to the national team. During this time she missed a World Cup, the London 2012 Olympics and the salary which her contract provided. 

Returning to Football

Despite planning to not to return to football following the birth of her son Alfie-J, Walton was quick to receive new offers. Emma Coates, then Doncaster Belles’ manager, approached Walton with a contract and a promise of sufficient maternity support, hoping to entice her back onto the pitch.

“I was fortunate to receive an opportunity from Doncaster Belles who were absolutely brilliant with the way that they treated me coming back.”

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Complications during birth prolonged Walton’s recovery time, meaning the midfielder was out for longer than expected. 

“It took six to seven months after giving birth before I could even exercise again,” Walton said. “The mini spring-series helped me to regain match fitness. In my first competitive season back, we won the WSL 2.”

Orlando Pride’s Sydney Leroux-Dwyer was another to reap the benefits of a strong club system. Her return to preseason training five-and-a-half months into pregnancy in 2019 brought heavy backlash from social media.

In response to her critics, the striker wrote, “I listen to my OB, who knows more than people on Twitter telling me what I shouldn’t be doing with MY body.”

Pride are just one of the many clubs striving to be more supportive of their expecting players. Walton fondly remembers her own personal time with the backing of her club.

“If I struggled for childcare, I could take him [Alfie-J] to training with me. They were really accommodating – we had physios babysitting him on the side-lines,” Walton laughed. 

“I remember taking him on the team bus down to Oxford because I had no childcare. We had a four-hour coach trip with a one-year-old and they made it all possible. I couldn’t have asked for any more from Doncaster and my experience there. 

“Alf’s been able to share a lot of my footballing memories with me. Doncaster realised that simply, pregnancy is going to happen. You shouldn’t be punished for it.”

Sophie Walton featuring for Nottingham Forest.

Tackling the Stigma 

The tides are changing with how pregnant footballers are supported by their clubs. Walton believes attitudes are becoming more positive.

“I think in the future you’ll see girls at 25-26 who realise they can start a family and still play at the top level.”

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The 30-year-old boasts three FA Cup finals and featured in the U20 World Cup in Chile. Walton began her senior career at just 15-years-old, playing alongside the likes of Sue Smith and against star players like Eni Aluko.

“I’ve already seen the change in support that players get, so the more that continues, the more common it will be in the top levels.”

This attitude can already be seen to have been adopted by Siobhan Chamberlain, who gave birth to her daughter in January 2020. The shot-stopper told BBC Sport: “I still feel I’ve got a number of years left in me at the very top level. I intend to come back better than before.”

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Further household names like Alex Morgan and Casey Stoney are helping to tackle the stigma around pregnancy in football. Stoney currently manages Manchester United whilst being mum to three children.

USWNT’s Alex Morgan announced her pregnancy in October 2019 and continued to follow an impressive training regime to maintain her fitness levels.

“Life doesn’t have to stop”

Chamberlain plans to return to WSL action to fight for the No. 1 jersey with Man United. She will face a battle though, after Mary Earps helped the Reds to a fourth-place finish in their debut season in the top-flight. 

When asked what advice Walton would offer to players who find themselves juggling football and motherhood, the midfielder highlighted the importance of a tight-knit support system.

“We’ve made a good team. I couldn’t ask for anything more from Jake [my partner] and his support. I’m also lucky as I’ve got my parents who are close by. They really help me out.”

Similarly, Leroux has stressed that starting a family whilst playing professional football is certainly possible.

“I think it’s really important to see that life doesn’t have to stop and you can have a family and have a career and be able to do them at the same time.”

Walton also noted the importance of organisation. “If you’re organised, you can do anything. Stay positive, let your body do what it needs to, and you’ll get there eventually.”

It seems her struggle with receiving sufficient support was part of the push clubs needed to move forward.

Her experience has undoubtedly helped pave the way for expecting mums or even those considering having children. It’s an exciting time as we wait for household names such as Chamberlain and Morgan to return from childbirth and take to the pitch once again.

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