The ‘can they’ or ‘can’t they’ saga surrounding Olympic mothers who are breastfeeding has been like a rousing game of pong—so much back and forth.
If you haven’t been following along, allow us to fill you in.
Due to safety protocols surrounding COVID-19, Olympic organizers were originally not allowing any foreign spectators to attend the Tokyo Olympics, including the participating athletes’ families.
They would, however, allow the events to be filled at half-capacity with domestic spectators—about 10,000 people total. But the ruling left one demographic of athlete (and their kids) high and dry: new moms.
Olympians like soccer star Alex Morgan, Canadian basketball player Kimberley Gaucher, and marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk spoke out about what a hardship leaving behind their babies would be.
“Right now I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom and an Olympic athlete,” said Gaucher in an Instagram video.
And while people have tried to offer solutions, Gaucher explained how complicated it is, especially for athletes training at an elite level. Her team will be away for a total of 28 days. “People have told me to try to pump like mad,” she said. “I don’t have enough milk in me to train as a high-level athlete, get my butt back in shape, and feed her currently, all while stocking a 28-day supply.” She needs her baby with her.
But on June 30, Tokyo organizers ultimately reversed their decision. “After careful consideration of the unique situation facing athletes with nursing children, we are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan,” they stated in an email to Reuters.
For Morgan, that response was not good enough. She demanded more clarity, as her team was set to leave a week from that statement. “Still not sure what ‘when necessary’ even means. Is that determined by the mother or the IOC? We are Olympic mothers telling you, it is NECESSARY,” she wrote on Twitter.
Then came the state of emergency. With rising COVID cases in Japan, the government made the call to add on more safety restrictions 16 days ahead of the start of the Games. That ultimately led to the decision to keep the Olympics completely free of spectators, even domestic ones.
Which led to the question: Were they reversing their decision about breastfeeding babies?
It doesn’t look like it.
Morgan eventually left for Tokyo without her baby. But on Tuesday, Tuliamuk announced that with the arrival of her visa, baby Zoe would indeed be making the journey.
“What a relief it feels not to have to imagine my breastfeeding daughter being miles away from me,” she wrote in an Instagram post.
This has stirred a larger conversation around the lack of support for new moms, and some companies have stepped in to offer support. Babylist, a registry website, is offering $5,000 to up to 100 Olympians to cover the cost of getting their babies to Tokyo and caring for them while they are there.
“When we heard that there were some athletes faced with the choice between competing at the highest levels or caring for their baby, we knew we had to get involved,” said Babylist’s vice president of marketing, Lee Anne Grant, in an email to Women’s Running. “It is an honor to support the women showing the world that becoming a mother doesn’t mean you need to give up on your dreams.”
Tuliamuk was also the recipient of the first round of a new $10,000 child care grant by Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation. The grant was inspired by six-time Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix.
“As a mom and an athlete, I know firsthand the obstacles that women face. I wanted to work with Athleta and the Women’s Sports Foundation to take an important step in supporting female athletes as whole people—both on and off the field—by offering financial child care support to mom-athletes headed to Tokyo,” said Felix.
Gwen Berry and Natasha Hastings are two of the other track and field recipients out of nine total athletes.
As Tuliamuk stated in her Instagram post, this has been “uncharted territory.” The COVID-19 pandemic adds a complex layer to an already overlooked issue. But Olympic mothers are making their voices heard in the hopes that one day they won’t have to advocate for the right to be able to feed their babies without compromising their careers.