Arin Wright puts face on NWSL’s need for maternity leave, day care

The Red Stars defender is working hard to get back nearly a year after having a C-section.

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Arin Wright was six weeks pregnant with son Grady when she walked into the Red Stars’ locker room and broke down in tears to coach Rory Dames. 

She wasn’t feeling the joy of pregnancy.

Instead, she was overwhelmed by disappointment. It was a pivotal time in the Red Stars’ 2019 season, about a month before they would advance to their first National Women’s Soccer League championship game. 

At that moment, sitting in the locker room with Dames, Wright felt as though she had let her team down by being pregnant. 

‘‘The way he reacted was so comforting,’’ said Wright, a defender. ‘‘He was like: ‘This is bigger than the game. You’re going to be a mom. Don’t cry!’ That reassured me that my team would be behind me.’’ 

Wright’s reaction to her pregnancy was not unique for women playing professional sports — and certainly not in the NWSL. 

Entering its ninth season, the NWSL does not have a collective-bargaining agreement, and there is no maternity leave worked into the current compensation guidelines. Players are left to figure things out as they go.

Depending on the team they play for, that can be quite challenging. 

Red Stars majority owner Arnim Whisler slowly has improved the team’s parental benefits year by year. 

Sarah Gorden’s son, Caiden, was 2 during her rookie season in 2016. He has grown up as his mom has grown into an elite defender in the league.

In those early years, the Red Stars didn’t provide child care. Gorden, who was making $10,000 a season as a rookie, relied on her family because the cost of day care was more than her monthly checks. 

Whisler now pays for child care for four hours a day, four days a week, Wright said. 

Wright is the Red Stars’ first player to take unofficial maternity leave since Michele Vasconcelos missed her rookie season while pregnant with daughter Scarlett in 2017. 

Wright turned to Orlando Pride forward Sydney Leroux Dwyer for support, asking questions that ranged from recovery to child care. Outside of her conversations with Leroux Dwyer, Wright followed other players’ pregnancy journeys on social media for direction.

Wright recalls seeing a video of Alex Morgan playing while pregnant with daughter Charlie at the same time she was expecting. She turned to her husband to say: ‘‘Grab the balls. We’re going out.’’ 

Wright ended up playing until she was six weeks pregnant. She earned her full salary, despite missing the final few games of the 2019 season, and was given the same bonuses as her teammates for their appearance in the semifinal and final. 

‘‘There needs to be something written within the rules that guarantees your full salary and other protections,’’ Wright said. ‘‘I don’t think the extra stress and worry is needed, especially in a woman’s league.’’

There are 11 mothers playing in the NWSL. Wright has struggled to determine whether any others have recovered from a Caesarean delivery, as she is.

Wright and Gorden have discussed organizing an NWSL mothers coalition to discuss how the league should address maternity leave and parental benefits moving forward. 

The WNBA added motherhood and family-planning elements to its CBA for the first time in 2020. Its new eight-year CBA runs through the 2027 season. 

Wright is hopeful it won’t be another 16 years before the NWSL adds those elements to its guidelines. She’s also confident the league will have its own CBA soon. 

In her seventh season with the Red Stars, Wright is in a unique place. She fluctuates from feeling close to 100% one day to back down to 40% the next.

What she’s working hardest to get back nearly a year after having a C-section is her explosiveness. 

‘‘The progression of coming back after having a baby is one step at a time,’’ she said.

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