Shaunagh Brown column: Deciding to have a baby would end my rugby career

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A couple of seasons ago, Harlequins men won their first Premiership title for nine years. After the match, there were so many kids on the pitch celebrating with their dads.

Why? Because nobody had any.

I am currently with England at the Rugby World Cup in New Zealand and we have one mum in our team: Marlie Packer.

Marlie did not give birth to her son and, as a woman in rugby, it is the norm that you do not get pregnant until you finish your career.

I got engaged recently and I have known for a while that I want children but that will be a huge decision for me.

It is a huge decision for anyone, but for me when I decide the time is right to have kids, I will also be deciding that my rugby career is over.

I am 32 now. You have to stop playing contact rugby as soon as you get pregnant so that would at least be nine months out of the game.

Then you add on however long it would take me to get back after and at that age trying to get back to the highest level of rugby does not feel like a realistic goal.

So often, people forget that elite athletes are humans too with all the same life decisions that other people have to make. That is why I want to talk about this now.

‘Sportswomen have to plan babies meticulously’

Family is a really important part of my life. I live with my mum and my brothers and sisters come and go with their children all the time.

I grew up without my dad and that always made me feel like I did not necessarily need a partner or children.

That changed about eight years ago. I used to be a hammer thrower and in preparation for the 2014 Commonwealth Games I stayed with a family for two months in California to train.

It was a mum, dad and two kids and I saw how cool that family unit was and decided I would love to have that at some point in my life.

Now I am engaged to my partner Benjii and I want to have children. We just have to decide when that happens.

As a women’s rugby player, if you want to give birth it feels like everything has to be meticulously planned.

There are people who have done it. New Zealand’s Les Elder has and Worcester’s Deborah Fleming is a recent example.

If I did it, I feel like I would have to plan it out so carefully that I am almost turning my baby into a spreadsheet, a project.

You would work back from a big competition like a Six Nations or a World Cup. The baby would have to be conceived in a specific timeframe.

If it did not happen, then what? Do you wait another whole World Cup cycle? It is not simple. You have to plan meticulously and you do not necessarily want that to be how you start your family but that is how it has to be as a sportswoman.

The unpredictability of Covid did not help things either. The World Cup we are currently playing in was postponed by a year and that means there are only three years until the next one – that has a huge impact on decisions like this.

‘We are not just small men – we have different needs’

Even though motherhood in rugby is not the norm at the moment, I do have hope that these choices will be made easier for players in the future.

There is a growing conversation about maternity in sport and our governing body – the Rugby Football Union – is bringing in a new policy that will offer us much more support as England players.

Players have been consulted because there is so much to think about. For example: breast-feeding.

If you cannot bring your baby to training, do you have to stop breast-feeding? It is about bringing a bit more humanity into elite sport.

We are women. We are different. We are not just small men. We have different needs.

Good maternity policies make you feel like you belong as a woman in rugby.

Hopefully, with the right support, it does not have to be a choice between getting pregnant and continuing your career.

I hope the policy will kick-start changes in the game – at international and domestic level.

‘We have to make these choices like everyone else’

Another improvement I would like to see is more research and widespread information on how you return to sport after giving birth.

It is not something I know much about and that makes me think there should be more ways to access that knowledge.

For example, what if women’s sports teams were offered information sessions where, if pregnancy is something a player was considering, they could learn more about the effects it could have on their body and how long it might take to return afterwards?

From other players who have given birth, I have heard they went with how their body felt at the time, which is important, but what if that journey was supported by scientific evidence too? I would feel much safer with that support.

I am by no means an expert on any of this, but I wanted to share my personal experience around this decision.

Yes, we are currently at a World Cup and the focus of every England player is centred on our quarter-final against Australia this Sunday.

But we are people too and we have to make these big life choices like everyone else.

Shaunagh Brown was speaking to BBC Sport’s Becky Grey.

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