“Should I be carrying on with a football career when I’ve got children to look after?”Helen Ward
Wales’ record goalscorer Helen Ward has been around the game for a long time now.
There have understandably been plenty of hurdles along the way – that’s only natural when you’re competing at the highest level – but there is one thing that stands out as the biggest challenge of them all.
Ward has two children, Emily and Charlie, who are rightly her first priority along with the rest of her family.
But that doesn’t stop the feelings of guilt you get as a mum when a club and international football career can often see you away from home for long periods at a time.
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“I’d say it’s motherhood – the mental side and the guilt that you get,” she explains when asked about her biggest challenge.
“Should I be carrying on with a football career when I’ve got children to look after?
“That’s probably the biggest thing, and also feeling guilty for not being with them, and also feeling guilty that I’m relying on parents and grandparents to look after them while I go and pursue my football career.
“They’ve given up a lot of time to help me and my husband still works very long hours in his job so there are times when either one of us can’t be at home, so the children are shipped off to nanny and papa’s house.
“There’s that side of things, especially with trips away with Wales that can be a long time – 10 days or a week – where I’m not with them, and I know it’s hard looking after children.
“There’s guilt all round that but thankfully my husband and my family are very supportive, and they’ve never ever said ‘look don’t you think it’s time to give up and spend more time at home?’
“They’ve never said that, and I don’t think they would unless it was something I wanted to do.
“I’m probably one of the lucky ones, not everyone has that, and has somebody who can help them out, but I am one of the lucky ones.
“Even then it’s probably still the biggest hurdle I’ve had to, and continue to, overcome in terms of football as well.”
“You don’t understand the strength of the human body”
As well as the juggling act of being a mum, there’s also the physical impact giving birth entails when you are still playing.
Emily was born in September 2014 while Ward was at Reading and the Wales striker had to withdraw from a contract at Yeovil after she announced she was pregnant with Charlie.
But getting back to match fitness after becoming a mum is no easy feat either – it takes an incredible level of dedication.
“Until you experience it you don’t understand the strength of the human body and the resilience of it,” says Ward.
“But also, on the flip side, it doesn’t just happen.
“Once you set your mind to it and you decide ‘right I’m going to get in shape, I need to get fit and I need to get myself in the best condition I can be to compete in whatever sport it might be’, then there’s a lot of work that needs to be done.
“Some people might think it just happens but at the same time you do doubt yourself and think ‘no that’s not possible, there’s no way I can go from how I feel now to how I felt pre-children’.
“That’s where your resilience and the strength of your own body comes into it.
“It’s just learning the best way to do it. Every single journey is so different, and women have such different experiences going through pregnancy, childbirth and beyond.
“But you can’t treat everybody the same and what might have worked for Sarah [Wiltshire] may not have worked for me and vice versa.
“Anybody else who has done the same thing, it’s so hard to compare.
“But again, at the risk of contradicting myself, it’s still really nice to have those role models to look up to and think ‘if she can do it then I’m going to give it a good go myself’.”
Being a footballing mum is also becoming more common with more women electing to take a break before coming back after pregnancy.
Current Yeovil player, and Ward’s international teammate, Sarah Wiltshire was one of the most high-profile examples of that as she returned to playing less than seven weeks after giving birth to her daughter Alexa-Rose in 2017.
For Ward she has seen that collection of footballing mums develop into a community, without strictly being anything formal.
“There’s more and more women doing it now,” Ward adds.
“Especially in football – not necessarily in the top league – but certainly lower down there’s so many mothers playing.
“It’s amazing to see. I don’t know them, but you sort of give them that acknowledgement – like when you see two bus drivers drive past each other and they give each other a little wave.
“It’s a little bit like that and you think ‘I know what you’ve been through so fair play’ and it’s quite a nice little community, without being a community.”
“Imagine if that came into women’s football – it would be carnage”
Last month 78% of respondents in the BBC Elite Sportswomen Survey said that they were conscious of their body image.
It was one of the most striking results from the survey and underlined how intense the subject of body image can be.
It’s something that not only affects athletes but potentially anyone else in this world where ‘perfection’ is so often bombarded at you through marketing and social media.
“I had a conversation the other day with a friend, I saw something to do with a contract,” Ward explains.
“I don’t know who it was – it was in the men’s game – but I was reading an article and there was something in a contract about having a wage decrease if they put on a certain amount of weight.
“I said to my friend ‘imagine if that came into women’s football – it would be carnage’.
“Already I’ve seen all through my career – from when I was young to now – not only the pressure that players put on themselves but what clubs and international federations put on players to look a certain way or be under a certain weight.
“I think it’s a really dangerous place to put players in because women and men in general, especially now with the Instagram era where everything needs to look good for the gram, nobody wants to be photographed looking anything but their best.
“Again, I keep saying fine balance, I don’t want to put a picture up where I don’t look great, but I’m not obsessed with it. If I don’t look perfect but I still like the picture then I’m going to put it up.
“But some people aren’t comfortable enough with that and will put themselves under too much pressure or do too much training or under eat because of that feeling where I can’t have someone take a picture of me looking anything but slim and toned.
“What type of comments am I going to get and what kind of abuse am I going to get? That’s not a healthy place to be in.”
For Ward the results of that survey showcased just how tough a subject it is to approach, whether you are a coach, manager, teammate or a friend.
There’s much more to it than simply measuring weight after all.
“I’m not surprised by that stat at all,” the Wales striker continues.
“I’ll say, obviously, I’ve tried to look as good as I can. I’m not obsessed with it, but I am aware of what I look like and my body image and I probably, if it went a certain way, I wouldn’t want to be photographed.
“It is a really delicate subject and one that is hard to broach. If you’re a coach or a manager you have to be really careful with how you speak to players, particularly females, in how you word things and how you make a person feel.
“It’s not simply a case of saying you need to lose a bit of weight to be a better footballer.
“It suddenly becomes a mental battle – ‘I’m not good enough, I don’t look good enough, therefore I can’t play good enough’.
“It’s an intense subject and is something that needs to be carefully monitored.”
What does a female footballer look like?
Regarding body image there’s also the perception society places on women’s football, and women’s sport in general.
Quite simply female athletes are subjected to body image critiquing that you just don’t get in men’s sport, which is an issue that needs addressing in itself.
“If you ask me to describe, or anyone else to describe, a female footballer you’d probably get a very similar answer,” says Ward.
“A high ponytail, possibly some makeup on, a slender physique, wear your shorts in a certain way and you have a nice fitted shirt.
“So yeah, I suppose it does go under the radar and subconsciously as players ourselves we probably do look at each other and say, ‘oh yeah that is what I should look like’.
“You don’t get that with men’s football at all really – or men’s sport – but women are supposed to look a certain way.
“Not be too strong, not be too bulky, because then you look manly, but you can’t look too feminine because then you don’t look like you can play football because you look to girly.
“It’s a real balance of trying to get it right in other people’s eyes.
“Fortunately for me I’m at an age and a stage in my career where I just need to be comfortable.
“I’d rather be comfortable playing football than worry about how short my shorts are or how tight my shirt is.
“It’s a tough one and it’s one of the many pressures that players have coming into the game now.”
Interview: Alasdair Hooper
Words: Alasdair Hooper
Image credits: With thanks to Helen Ward and NA Sport
All music in this episode is courtesy of Dan Henig
Extended thanks goes to NA Sport for their help in securing this interview