A lot can happen in nine months. For Scottish women’s football it can cover the entirety of a season contrasting the most exuberant of highs with the most despairing of lows. An emotional rollercoaster that can leave your skin tingling as endorphins pulsate through every pore one minute before rising nausea grows from the pit of your stomach the next.
It’s also a timeframe that can see new life brought into the world, a helter-skelter that make a Sunday afternoon at Petershill Park seem almost meditative in comparison. The arrival of the next generation in your dynasty could come as a result of months of meticulous planning or come to the fore as an unexpected joy. For female footballers in Scotland, whether a new arrival is planned or not, a new face in the family is as life changing off the park as it could be career defining on it.
So what happens when the pitter patter of tiny feet come calling? To understand more about the journey female players go on as they adapt to motherhood editor Chris Marshall spent some time speaking to Hamilton Academical forwards MT Gardiner and Dionne Brown to discuss their journey from the moment they first found out their news to the rewards they feel they have reaped since.
“I always wanted to be a mum, it was something I always thought about and the best thing I would ever do with my life.” starts Gardiner who has had three children, Aidan, Olivia and Jack along with being step mum to two teenagers Amy and Katie. She has returned to action on each occasion and had started the 2020 SWPL season in sharp form having scored against both Queen’s Park and Stirling University before the enforced shut down.
The arrival of most recent addition Jack for Gardiner was one that was met with expectation but for her strike partner at Accies Brown, joint top goalscorer in last season’s SWPL2, the news that her son William was on the way was less expected but greeted with excitement nonetheless, “I have always been around children and having a large family with 3 sisters, two nephews and a niece well, lets just say life’s entertaining! From around my early 20s I knew that I wanted kids but never knew when. I was three and a half months pregnant when I found out. It wasn’t a planned pregnancy at all both of us were shocked but happy. As soon as I found out I stopped training, I was terrified I had already caused any harm to the baby being so far on and doing so much.”
In recent months videos have gone viral featuring a heavily pregnant Alex Morgan going through her training paces, designed as a symbol to demonstrate that pregnancy doesn’t mean an end to a new mum’s relationship with the game and how each sport, including football, supports expectant mothers is a continued topic for debate.
The physiology behind motherhood doesn’t change. Medically the safest time for a women to nurture a child is during their twenties and so for female players with designs on starting a family a decision will have to be made during what will most likely be the most prolific spell in their careers.
It is a decision that also requires a degree of support from a player’s club. Both Gardner and Brown, who were at Celtic albeit a few years apart, found that support forthcoming when they received the maternal call. “The club took it fine.”, muses MT, “I didn’t really expect anything to be honest, it’s something that clubs have to expect when working with females.” Dionne continues, “They were all supportive, the girls and staff were very understanding and sent their best wishes.”
With the news that a baby is on the way comes the realisation that football, for a while at least will have to take a back seat for any player. In Scotland the majority of players remain amateur and so the financial risks are reduced but in countries such as Spain, where professionalism has been in place for some time, strike action was required to protect the rights of those players who step away from the game to start a family.
A resolution didn’t arrive quickly though as it wasn’t until February 2020, three months after Primera players had initially taken a stand, that an agreement was reached relating to a raft of improvements to working conditions for women’s footballers in the country including a provision for maternity leave.
Of course with the physical changes there is a mental battle that players, who will dedicate large portions of their free time to the game, will have to contend with too. “I have always been extremely active throughout my life”, says Gardiner, “I found not doing anything very difficult. I was a runner before a footballer so didn’t know how I would cope not playing.”
“I found it very difficult. You see everyone else continuing and moving on and you don’t fit in anymore because you can’t. I used to have crazy dreams at night thinking I was playing but then obviously I wasn’t. You don’t realise how much you need football or how much more football does for you other than just exercise until you don’t have it. I never take it for granted.”
“Thinking about it,” she continues, “I guess in a way it is the same as having a long term injury, but you are blessed with a beautiful baby at the end.”
With the news that she was three and a half months pregnant coming somewhat out of the blue it was a quick adjustment for Brown, “Going from so much football to none so quickly was strange but I knew there was lots to look forward to and at that time I already knew I would try my hardest to get back to football.”
Knowing you want to come back, and successfully managing to do so though are two different things. Perhaps the most well-told recent example of a player coming through that challenge is that of Rachael Boyle. The Hibernian midfielder gave up on a potential World Cup opportunity to start a family, a decision she has often said she wouldn’t change for the world, and after working her way back to full fitness she returned to the game, first with Hibs, and then in this March’s Pinatar Cup in the blue of Scotland.
Sometimes though, as MT explains, that return doesn’t always go as planned, “After I had Aidan and Olivia I felt that I was definitely going to go back but after Olivia I had a very stop start season and actually when she turned 1 I had decided to stop playing. However Gary Doctor (her current head coach at Accies) asked if I would be interested in playing for Hamilton and so I decided to get myself fit and give it a go.”
For Dionne, the break came at a time when she felt she was approaching the peak of her powers, “I personally thought at that point in my career I was playing the best I ever had, so in my head after having the little dude I knew I was going to be back playing. I just never knew how long it would take, who I would play for or even how hard it was going to be. All I knew was that I’d try my very best.”
NHS advice suggests that after giving birth a return to physical exercise for any mother, never mind one returning to the demands of a full-time football calendar on a part-time schedule, should be held off until after their 6 week post-natal check up. That’s a long time away from the pitch and while US star Morgan was still running drills seven months into her pregnancy for both Gardner and Brown, having both made the decision to return, the next hurdle came when presented with their first training session. “I was like Bambi the first session back!”, jokes Gardiner, “Signals from my brain to my feet weren’t working. It’s really difficult to get back into it and at times I did think that it would be easier to quit but you just have to try and not be too hard on yourself and work very hard. After coming back three times after having kids, four months after giving birth, I think I’m becoming at pro at it!“
That feeling of starting anew is a sentiment echoed by Brown, “My first session back with Hamilton was just as pre-season had started. It wasn’t easy, but for me personally the timing was right. I went straight into fitness and high intensity training which helped to motivate me. I knew if I was to sign for Accies at the time I would have to put a shift in and train as hard as possible.“
Fortunately for Accies fans both players would return to make an impact. Gardiner would be part of the SWPL2 title winning side of 2016, before returning again in 2019 in a season where Brown would finish joint top goalscorer in SWPL2 as Accies finished runners up to eventual champions, Hearts.
New life though forever alters yours and both have to juggle parenthood along with the increasing demands of Scottish women’s football in addition to any work they do to keep a roof over their families heads. “I regularly get asked how I do it”, explains Gardiner, “and I don’t really think about it when I actually am. I am a full time PE teacher (we have a 50 minute commute to work), plus having the five kids to constantly think about I do sometimes wonder how both me and my boyfriend Barry manage. I wouldn’t be able to keep playing without his support and it was him who encouraged me to give it another go after having Jack.”
“My mum and dad have always helped out watching the kids for me as well and Hamilton are also very supportive and accommodating around my training schedule. I train 2 out of the 3 nights and I change my nights depending on what we have got on during the week. It’s only when football isn’t on that I wonder how we manage. It is a challenge and can be very tiring, but it is most definitely worth it!”
For Dionne one word is key, “Balance. I train 3 nights a week and play on a Sunday. Being a photographer I can usually work when I do shoots around football and post production time is spent at home when the little one goes to sleep with long nights and lack of sleep included! If it wasn’t for my partner and help from my family being able to train and play wouldn’t be possible, I am fortunate and grateful to have such a supportive circle.”
With no insight to share of my own as a single male, I ask what advice, if any, they would give to any female player who wants to take the paternal plunge?
“If you feel it’s the right time and it is what you want then don’t let anything stop you. Try not to overthink or stress about your career in your sport”, explains Brown, “If you love your sport and want to continue afterwards then there is nothing stopping you, if anything having a child makes you stronger both mentally and physically. I’m not saying it’s easy. If you really want to have a baby and plan on getting back into your sport then yes, set yourself challenges, set goals, train hard, dig deep and just go for it!”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself though”, advises Gardiner, a player who has gone on this journey on multiple occasions now, “give yourself time to get back to where you want to be and don’t give up! It’s really special to have your kids at the side of the pitch cheering for you or asking how you got on. I love that my kids can be part of the memories with me.”
I can’t let the conversation end though without asking one final question, would you do it all over again?
“I think after doing it three times, I’m done!” laughs MT, “I doubt my body would recover a fourth time, that might be pushing it! I love my life and I love my family.”
For Dionne the answer is just as swift, even if its brevity is accompanied with one important caveat, “In a heartbeat! But not right now though, there’s titles to be chasing” she beams.
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