England international Chelsea Pitman says it is time to “start a conversation” about miscarriage and the challenges facing female athletes trying to start a family while still competing at an elite level.
Pitman has suffered two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy – where an egg implants in a fallopian tube rather than the womb – in the past two years.
The 32-year-old, who was playing for Australian National Netball League side Adelaide Thunderbirds, posted about her experiences on social media in December and was inundated with responses from people who have been in the same situation.
“I was extremely nervous about opening up completely but then I realised that is part of my healing journey, being able to help not just women but partners who have loved ones or family members go through that,” she told BBC World Service.
“It starts with a conversation. Everyone knows miscarriages are common but there is still that stigma that we should keep things to ourselves.”
‘I felt such guilt’
Pitman first became pregnant shortly after her honeymoon with husband Shayne in 2019.
“Those first few days I cried a lot because I had such a guilt that I was going to let my team down because I was signed for 2020,” she said.
“But then I had such excitement that we were going to be parents so I ordered all these pregnancy books and was already imagining and planning what our life would look like.
“Then within a few weeks that changed again and we lost that baby.”
Pitman says she “didn’t really deal” with the grief before quickly becoming pregnant again.
While in England for the Netball Nations Cup last year, she began to show signs of miscarriage, and tests confirmed she had lost the baby.
“It was really hard to deal with that not having my husband there,” she said.
“I’ve apologised a lot because I just shut him out. If I spoke to him it made it more real and being competitive I just wanted to be able get my job done, which was to perform and play.”
After the series, Pitman returned to Australia just as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold. She became pregnant again, but a scan revealed it was an ectopic pregnancy that needed emergency surgery.
The Sydney-born player, who qualifies for England through her father, told the Thunderbirds, but says she only received “surface-level” support.
“I got more support from England staff members from afar than from ones that were in front of me,” she said.
“Hopefully we open up a conversation about how we can support women or athletes who go through this and help businesses, franchises and sporting teams to not feel awkward about this situation or tiptoe around it.”
‘Genuine empathy and care’
One of the dilemmas facing female athletes is their most fertile years coincide with their peak physical fitness, which often leads to difficult, life-defining choices.
Pitman says trying for a baby should not have a detrimental effect on a woman’s career.
“We have a maternity leave clause in Netball Super League,” she said. “We fought really hard for that over the years and it’s there for a reason.
“You can provide coaching, support and be part of the team without being on court. We are not a waste of space. What’s the difference between pregnancy and a season-ending injury?
“It is hard, but it starts with a conversation, with genuine empathy and care, and starts with being a person, being a woman, and then an athlete.”