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New ChessMom Initiative Encourages Support For Competitors With Children

New ChessMom Initiative Encourages Support For Competitors With Children

NM_Vanessa
| 14 | Chess.com News

Last week, FIDE launched the ChessMom initiative, a pilot project that will offer financial assistance to ten female players traveling with their infants to the 45th Chess Olympiad, which takes place in Budapest, Hungary, this September. All expenses for an accompanying caregiver will be covered, and national delegations are encouraged to consider the child and the caregiver as a part of the official delegation. 

In the press release, WGM Dana Reizniece-Ozola, Deputy Chair of the FIDE Management Board, voiced her support: 

As a chess player and as a mother of four children and as someone who actively played chess, I understand how hard it is for mothers who are professional players to cope with both maintaining their career and living and fulfilling the critical role a mother has in the first year of their child. FIDE, therefore, fully supports this initiative by the Commission for Women's Chess, and we will actively look towards other ways on how we can help and support chess mothers in the future.

Reizniece-Ozola speaks as a chess-playing mother herself.

The Commission for Women's Chess shared their greater hope behind the initative―that it will inspire national federations to create their own policies:

WOM urges National and Continental Federations to review and adjust their requirements for National Teams to include provisions for chess players who are mothers. The hope is that this initiative will evolve into consistent support for professional chess players experiencing motherhood during significant tournaments.

The hope is that this initiative will evolve into consistent support for professional chess players experiencing motherhood during significant tournaments.



Mothers At Their Peak

Over the years, many professional players have become mothers. Several have achieved competitive success and even peak performances while pregnant or after giving birth. In 2006, GM Xu Yuhua won the Women's World Championship while three months pregnant. In 2005, GM Judit Polgar reached her career peak—world number eight—when she returned to the game after having her first child the year before. GM Alexandra Kosteniuk also achieved her greatest success—becoming the 2008 Women's World Champion—by defeating GM Hou Yifan after giving birth to her first child in 2007.

In 2022, while in her ninth month of pregnancy, GM Harika Dronavalli went undefeated at the 44th Olympiad, helping the Indian women’s team win bronze—its first-ever medal. She shared on X what this achievement meant to her:

It's been 18 years since my debut in the Indian women's chess team... I always dreamt about being on the podium for the Indian women's team and finally made it this time.

It's more emotional because I made it at nine months of pregnancy. When I heard about the Olympiad being held in India and when my doctor said that it's possible to play if I stay healthy without any complications, since then my life revolved around making it to the Olympiad and winning the medal.

My every single step has been dedicated to make it possible. No baby showers, no parties, no celebrations, I decided everything will be only after winning the medal. I kept working every single day to make sure that I perform well. I literally lived for this moment from the past few months, and yes I made it: First ever Olympiad medal for the Indian Women's chess team.

I always dreamt about being on the podium for the Indian women's team and finally made it this time.

—Harika Dronavalli

Common Ground Across Sports

To support their competitive aspirations, mothers have often relied on personal resources and assistance. In an inteview with WIM Beatriz Marinello, Kosteniuk shared: 

I was very fortunate when my husband and my mom agreed to support me fully when I told them I wanted to try to prepare and play in the Women’s World Championship when my baby was not even one year old.

When organizations create policies to support players who are mothers, it increases the accessibility of tournament play to a wider range of women in the sport. On the other hand, a lack of clear policies risks creating a barrier for members of an already underrepresented group. For example, in October 2023, WGM Kubra Ozturk Orenli said her federation terminated her monthly salary and dropped her from the national team when they discovered that she was pregnant, though the Turkish Chess Federation denied the allegations (read more on this in a report by Chess.com Journalist Tarjei J. Svensen).

Similiar struggles in the greater sports world give us a wider view of the experiences of competitors who are mothers. In 2023, WNBA Champion Dearica Hamby filed a discrimination lawsuit against her former team, alleging that she faced retaliation for becoming pregnant. In 2019, Olympic runners Alysia Montano, Allyson Felix, and Kara Goucher revealed individual disputes with Nike over pay cuts due to pregnancy. Montano shared her experience with The New York Times:

The sports industry allows for men to have a full career, and when a woman decides to have a baby, it pushes them out at their prime. I’m Alysia Montano. I’m an Olympian. I’m a national champion. I’ve been one of the top three runners in the entire world―And I’m a mother.

When I was pregnant with Linnea, I kept training. I even ran in a big race, and it was a pretty big deal. They even called me the pregnant runner. I wanted to turn stereotypes about pregnancy upside down.

I wanted to turn stereotypes about pregnancy upside down.

―Alysia Montano

Evidence-Based Policies

Numerous studies have been conducted to identify the factors that can help or hinder mothers who return to sport (RTS). In 2023, a scoping review of 22 studies in the British Journal of Sports Medicine highlighted why organizational support is a major factor:

When sport organisations do not provide athletes family travel and childcare assistance, athletes were forced to pay for these expenses out of their own pocket, which they were not always able to afford. Despite female athletes playing at the pinnacle of their sport, many female athletes are considered low-income earners who earn considerably less than their male counterparts.

As a result of their income, many female athletes were often forced to travel without family as well as rely on family for childcare support to enable them to train and compete. These arrangements, however, do not come without significant implications. For example, travelling without family caused many female athletes in this review to experience negative emotions such as guilt, selfishness and doubt about being a good mother. Similarly, over-relying on family for childcare caused some athletes to be subjected to social judgements about their capabilities as mothers.

Barriers and Enablers Influcening Mothers Return-to-Sport

Graphic: Journal of British Medicine.

A 2022 study examined the potential ramifications: "The lack of secure funding for pregnant athletes was identified as a key reason why athletes were considering the financial implications of pregnancy and their careers. When they did not align, athletes chose to delay pregnancy or retired from sport."

The scoping review concluded:

This will help guide the development of evidence-based policies that support female athletes during this unique life stage, as few of these policies currently exist. Postpartum recovery time, time to manage motherhood and sport demands, sport organisation policies, stereotypes and social support were identified as the most significant of factors to influence female athletes successful RTS postpartum.

 Moreover, paid maternity leave offering job security, travel support for carer and child and affordable and accessible childcare are critical policy inclusions to appropriately support female athletes in their RTS postpartum. 

Gradually, steps are being taken to make the competitive world more conducive to mothers. In 2019, Nike revised their contracts to include maternity protections. In 2020, the WNBA created policies for fully-paid maternity leave and support during the season through a child-care stipend and funding towards housing. The Chessmom initiative joins in these steps, supporting new moms in competing at the upcoming Olympiad and setting an example for other organizations in the chess world to consider. 

Montano shared her perspective on the path forward with The 19th News:

We need to really make sure that these are not battles that women or mothers are fighting alone. These are best rectified if we can put them in writing—in policy where it’s known that, ‘Hey, we don’t have to fight for this. These are our rights.’

We need to really make sure that these are not battles that women or mothers are fighting alone. 

―Alysia Montano

NM_Vanessa
NM Vanessa West

Vanessa West is a National Master, a chess teacher, and a writer for Chess.com. In 2017, they won the Chess Journalist of the Year award.

You can follow them on X: Vanessa__West

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