When Cheyenne Parker found out she was pregnant last year, there wasn’t much discussion about how it would affect her playing career. Instead, Parker thought there was no way she was going to miss this WNBA season, determined to make it back by the time training camp started in April.
The Atlanta Dream forward could have waited until 2023 to return after giving birth to a baby girl in December.
“Not a chance, that was never an option,” Parker told USA TODAY Sports when asked if the thought entered her mind.
For Parker and the almost dozen mothers that compete in the WNBA, balancing motherhood with the stresses of an athletic career that can take them from home and meaningful relationships can be demanding. But they push on, determined to set an example for not only their children, but other working mothers who might be in similar situations.
Las Vegas Aces forward Dearica Hamby and Washington Mystics forward Tianna Hawkins know exactly what Parker is going through, both having had children during their professional careers.
All three spoke with USA TODAY Sports about those challenges as the season opened Mother’s Day weekend.
This season, the WNBA season consists of 36 regular-season games, with half on the road, taking them away from their families. Parker, Hamby and Hawkins are planning to take their children on some trips this season.
Parker, who is entering her eighth season, says her life has changed for the better and she has a sense of fulfillment knowing that her daughter, Naomi, will be with her every step of the way for the rest of her career. Her spouse and her mother are also helping and will split caretaking duties when she is traveling.
“It wasn’t easy, it was definitely a journey. A lot of long days and hard work. When I am tired, I just push through the fatigue. We are known for mental toughness and fortitude, so just being able to do that and realizing that nothing really compares to birth. It gave me this extra drive,” Parker said. “It changes my perspective of life in general. I used to be like ‘ball is life, ball is life’, but now Naomi is life.”
Parker started getting her body in shape for the season immediately after giving birth.
The hardest part, Parker says, was getting down to her playing weight. She is listed at 193 pounds on a 6-foot-4 frame, but by the time she started to focus on her training, she weighed 180. Parker hadn’t been that light since college.
And her mother was there to help.
Every morning she started with a shake with nutrients and vitamins to stay hydrated in order to produce breast milk, along with meal preparation, which was essential to meet her weight goals.
Next up was six weeks of physical therapy to rebuild her core muscles to withstand the physical toll that occurs when playing in the post. Three to four times a week, she did drills and put up shots to regain a feel for the game.
“I had to do that, because when I gave birth, my muscles were gone,” said Parker, who said she has regained about 85 percent of her strength and stamina. “That has been the toughest thing to get back.”
But her trainer wanted Parker to slow down the workouts, telling her to trust her new body. Parker wasn’t hearing any of it.
“I had to tell her, ‘Lady, I am on a mission,’ ” she said.
Motherhood in the pandemic ‘wubble’
Motherhood took on a different meaning when Hamby and Hawkins took their children to the so-called “wubble” in 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic forced the WNBA to reconvene at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Hamby’s daughter Amaya, now 5, made the adjustment easily.
“It was both rewarding and difficult. I know it was a learning experience for both of us,” said Hamby, a two-time WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year. “She didn’t quite understand in that moment what was going on, but I feel when she is able to look back, it will be one of those things that we can talk about. She made the time a little bit easier.”
Amaya, who Hamby lovingly calls “my little parasite,” was the star of the wubble, interacting with teammates and opponents alike. She has become an unofficial part of the Aces; a fixture at workouts, practices and games.
But the wubble had its downsides as well, from being isolating to making it difficult to find things to do.
Hawkins said the wubble was an adventure for her son Emanuel, now 6, because it was something new to him. While her plate was full, including helping her son with his schooling, Hawkins did have time to think about the social climate – the murder of George Floyd had happened just two months before – and how it would affect her son in the future.
The WNBA dedicated its first weekend of games in 2020 to raising awareness for justice reform and voting rights.
“There was no mental escape, you couldn’t do anything and you are just surrounded by the same people every day,” Hawkins said about her time in Florida. “It was just basketball every day.”
Before showing up in Florida during the pandemic’s early days and when a mask mandate was in effect, Hawkins said she and her son were at a grocery store in Maryland when Emanuel noticed a child with a mask covering his entire face walking around a parking lot with a toy gun.
Her son wanted a mask and gun too, but Hawkins quickly put a stop to that notion and explained to Emanuel why that wasn’t a good idea.
“The sad truth about being African-American is you have to be mindful of your skin color,” she said. “It could be one day at any (given) moment he could be punished for having dark skin or brown skin. I can’t allow him to be naïve about things like that. I have to prepare him for what’s to come.”
Emanuel is a happy-go-lucky kid, easily transitioning from smiling at everyone to showing off his skills on a lacrosse field. Hawkins says she will try her best to be there for games, and the support she gets from her fiancé and mother in helping him become a strong Black child is paramount and allows her to focus on the court.
Hamby says being away so much is the most challenging part of motherhood.
“The worst part is not giving Amaya all the time in the world,” Hamby said. “I am on the road a lot. I am mentally in and out, just depending on the work schedule. She has helped me navigate this experience.”
Finding other support systems
The difference in compensation and travel between the WNBA and the NBA has been a discussion point for decades and the WNBA continues to try to make strides in improving those areas for players.
The average WNBA salary last season was $120,648, according to Yahoo! Finance. The new CBA ups that to base salary to $130,000 with Diana Taurasi of the Phoenix Mercury and Seattle Storm teammates Breanna Stewart and Jewell Loyd having the highest salary in 2022 at $228,094. Players can make to up $650,000 in salary, bonuses, tournament play, league and team marketing deals.
The WNBA is making sure that the mothers in the league are supported more with expanded benefits for pregnant players and those returning to play after having a child.
Even though Parker was adamant about playing this season, the league gives players alternatives in case they want to sit out and also provides benefits to help ease the cost of childcare.
In the collective bargaining agreement reached in 2020, players receive their full salary while on maternity leave, up from receiving half their salary under the prior CBA. A $5,000 childcare stipend and two-bedroom apartments for players with children are also provided.
Mothers are given comfortable, protected and secluded space for nursing and access to refrigeration for breastmilk. Up to $60,000 in reimbursements are available for fertility/infertility treatment costs, adoption, surrogacy and oocyte cryopreservation.
While many WNBA players supplement their income during the offseason by playing overseas, that option presents mothers with another difficult choice: leave the family or take the family abroad, sometimes to less-than-secure places?
Some mothers playing overseas may not be comfortable taking their children to a foreign land, where learning the language and culture could present challenges.
While the money may be lucrative in overseas leagues, choosing to stay home when the opportunity arose, at least for Hawkins, was a no-brainer.
Hawkins chose another alternative, competing in Athletes Unlimited, which bills itself as the “next generation professional sports leagues.”
Since its inception two years ago, Athletes Unlimited has set up leagues in softball, volleyball, lacrosse, and basketball, giving female athletes a chance to strive in their chosen sports when playing abroad is not an option or when there are limited opportunities to play professionally after exhausting their college eligibility.
“It just depends on the circumstances on if I go back overseas. But Athletes Unlimited allowed me to stay stateside,” said Hawkins, who has played in China and Hungary during her WNBA offseason and averaged nearly 25 points a game during AU’s month-long season.
Hamby says her decision not to play in Italy, as she had for three years, was multi-layered. When in Italy, COVID was ravishing the world, and Hamby had to send her mother and daughter back to the States. She was reunited with them weeks later, but the separation took its toll.
“I like to be around my family. I felt bad that my daughter wasn’t able to be (with) her grandparents and other relatives. I made the decision when COVID hit and when I came home and got to be here. Not a knock (on) the players that do,” said Hamby, who bought a house in Vegas and plans on staying as long as she is playing basketball.
“Do I make less money? Yes. But for me, my priority is my family, so I will take less to be home and be comfortable for the things that matter to me the most.”
Follow reporter Scooby Axson on Twitter @ScoobAxson