Marissa Mayer, the new Yahoo CEO, unleashed a media firestorm when she announced that she was pregnant. Suddenly everyone had an opinion about her plan to take a few weeks of maternity leave and work throughout that time from home. It proved women could handle top jobs in Silicon Valley, some said. It damages future mothers by setting a precedent of a scant few weeks for recovery and new-baby bonding, others said. Many emphatically pointed out that, with a compensation package worth a reported $59 million, she could afford more help and control her time in a manner unlike almost any other mother on the planet.
When I read the coverage I simply shook my head, in equal parts amusement and admiration. I remember weeks of feeling like a zombie after the births of my two children, my body slowly recovering from what seemed like a collision with a bus at high speed, days passing without getting a shower. But I didn’t have a board or shareholders to reassure, so more power to her if she can transition to motherhood while increasing corporate profitability. It was enough for me to locate clean underwear.
With the “‘having it all” furor prompted by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic article still ringing in our ears, it’s deeply satisfying to find media outlets maintaining interest in maternity and women’s experiences. I can remember, not so long ago, when a woman in this situation would have received no public attention at all. I hope these conversations continue for a long, long time – it’s the thin end of the wedge. First, we’ll be talking about rich, educated women in professional jobs; then the conversation will work its way to workplace policies nationwide and the dearth of options most women face when they try to support themselves and their families, and actually create those families. It’s ridiculously difficult, needlessly harder than it should be, and far from inevitable. Mothers in countries of comparable wealth enjoy greater flexibility and economic stability. They insisted on it. We should too.
Here are some worthy snippets from the echo chamber on Ms. Mayer and her impending motherhood:
“But what about women who have already taken the path of an abbreviated leave? What do they make of the feverish parsing of Ms. Mayer’s postpartum plans? In interviews, many said that for women at the top of their profession or running their own show, the decision to not take a traditional leave can feel like an empowering choice — and at the same time, not a choice at all.”
“I didn’t want to lose my sense of myself in my profession. I like art, dance, clothes, travel. So I made a conscious effort to embrace it all … Our country in particular — and the whole world — has a real challenge in bringing more women into engineering and technical fields. It’s good to show that you don’t need to sacrifice your sense of femininity because you are engineer.”
“But, compelling as they may be, these stories have pretty much no bearing on whether everyone else can have it all. And without structural supports such as paid leave and decent child care, we can’t. Instead of star-watching, you might expect us to be talking about the fact that the United States is one of just three countries — and the only developed country — not to guarantee any paid maternity leave. Or that it’s been years since there was any serious political effort to make American child care better and more affordable. Yet, even in an election year, there is silence from both parties on these subjects.”
“Wilderotter says she occasionally had to remind herself that she couldn’t control everything. Once, while she was at work, she learned that her husband was making repairs on the roof of their home – with their baby son right next to him, nailed in place by his clothing. (The child, Chris Wilderotter, was fine, and is now a firefighter. He jokes that his stint on the roof was the “sacrifice” he had to make for his mother’s career.)”
NPR’s “Tell Me More” program did a great 17-minute panel discussion about this topic yesterday. You can listen in, or read the transcript.
‘Til next time,
Your (Wo)Man in Washington