When the headlines first erupted this week that “the first ever pregnant CEO of a Fortune 500 tech company” had been hired I thought, “it must be a man.”
I mean that would be news, not to mention a medical breakthrough. In 2012, can it really be headline-worthy that a highly successful and brilliant 37-year-old could be both pregnant and able to run a company?
Alas, apparently it is. Shortly after Marissa Mayer, a vice-president at Google with a stellar résumé as an engineer and designer, was introduced as the newly minted CEO of Yahoo, the Twittersphere, including a tweet from Ms. Mayer herself, erupted with the fact that she was also expecting her first child, a boy, in October.
“The intensity of reaction is kind of depressing,” tweeted salon.com’s Rebecca Traister. “Kind of as if they’d hired a yeti.”
The reaction to her pregnancy ran the gamut from pointed criticism of Ms. Mayer for assuming she could fit a new baby into the gruelling schedule of a CEO (she stated she planned to take off only a few weeks and would “work throughout”) to a piece by respected writer Lisa Belkin on Huffington Post wondering if Ms. Mayer had an “obligation” to all working mothers to demand and perhaps create better maternity leave – notoriously stingy in the U.S. – and working conditions for mothers.
It’s all part of the larger roiling debate over work life-balance reignited last month when Anne-Marie Slaughter, former director of foreign policy in the Obama administration, published a lengthy cri de coeur in The Atlantic, detailing how she had left her top post to be with her teenage sons. (She returned to teaching at Princeton.)
Working life at the top, she wrote, with its brutal hours, travel and non-stop meetings, is perilously unfair to working mothers.
Ms. Slaughter subsequently told Katie Couric that "hundreds and hundreds" of the one million readers that clicked on her article began their response with two words: “Thank you.”
Of course women were grateful. Anyone who is or has been a working mother – which now includes the majority of women in the work force – knows how hard it is to be an excellent worker and an equally excellent mother. We never stop trying.
Elitist thinkers (especially childless ones) sneer that work-life balance should not be society’s concern and that it essentially is a problem only for privileged women who want to “have it all.” They argue women should wake up and admit they have a “choice” and those who choose babies should be prepared to be “mommy-tracked.”
Really? Why is it that companies still have trouble creating conditions that make sense for parents of both sexes who race from the last meeting to the day care and then home for the second shift? Why can’t more law firms who want to hire the best and the brightest switch from the billable-hour system to one that allows productive, intelligent and capable parents to do their best work and bring up great kids? And why is there not more acceptance that part-time work – though obviously not for CEOs – can be productive? That’s society’s part and we’re not there yet.
As for working mothers, we’re not there yet either. It’s up to us to tell the truth about our lives. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg caused a stir recently when she admitted she goes home at 5:30 to have dinner with her kids (she presumably resumes work afterward).
Women who are ambitious at work often don’t tell the truth about their lives. They don’t want to be perceived as whiners, or passed over for promotion. So they lie. I know one recent new mother, self-employed and working at home, who wasn’t even going to tell her main client – a woman – she had had a baby. “I’ll wait until I’m at full speed again,” she told me.
Sometimes women do let on how hard it is to be good at both their central tasks, but they don’t confess how much they want to be with their kids, how satisfying it is when their children respond like flowers who have been watered to the special attention that only a mother or father can give.
It’s important to tell the truth because in all its messiness, it gives equal weight to the challenges of both work and families, and it makes us a more humane society. It also creates stronger domestic situations, in which neither parent feels disconnected from either work or family.
Politicians blather on about helping families raise good kids, but many of them focus on an outdated concept of having Mommy at home. In these economic times, both parents often need to work, and more important, in a great many cases, want to work.
One of the central questions that defies any generational or gender stereotyping is how do I live the best life possible? We were getting at that question in meaningful discussions before the latest round of recessions hit. Now all bets are off.
The current subtext is: Work until you drop and be grateful you have a job. Kids suffer in different ways when parents feel pressured and worried.
Marissa Mayer, one of the first high-profile female engineers in Silicon Valley, clearly soars above the crowd. I look forward to a few tweets in the fall about the gloriously complex tug-of-war between babies and boardrooms, but I bet we will hear nary a peep. The show must go on.
Editor's note: Sheryl Sandberg is chief operating officer of Facebook. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.
Follow us on Twitter: