Once In A Lifetime July 19th, 2012
After I got over the initial shock that Marissa Mayer is only three years older than I am, I became fascinated with her decision to accept Yahoo’s offer to become its next CEO. I was not fascinated because she’s a women, or because she’s only 37 years old. I was fascinated because she is roughly six-and-a-half months pregnant. (Are you getting this, Sheryl Sandberg?)
I quickly hit Wikipedia and a few other sites to do some reconnaissance work.
What I learned: She went to Stanford. She got into computers through a gen-ed class called something along the lines of “Computer Science for Non-majors.” She discovered her passion for programming and started at Google as its 20th employee when she was 24 years old. When she took the job she estimated that the company had a 2% chance at survival. She’s been a VP for the past several years and is apparently well-known and highly regarded in the tech world. She has an estimated net worth of $300 million.
And, upon further reflection, I also learned that I do not envy Marissa Mayer.
No two mothers are entirely alike. I can no more speak for Marissa Mayer than I can for Queen Elizabeth or a migrant worker. So I will not say that she’s making a huge mistake because I don’t know that she is. This is clearly and truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. She is smart and talented and motivated. And if you are the type of woman who rises to the level of VP at Google by the age of 37, then you are probably also the type of person who accepts the CEO role at Yahoo, pregnant or not.
Nevertheless, I worry about Marissa Mayer. I wish this were her second child. I wish I felt that she knew what she is walking into. I wish that I were sure she understood the significance of the now-well-circulated statement “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not worried about the baby. Mayer will certainly have full-time (if not live-in) help and the baby will be well cared for. And I’m not worried about the company. She knows what’s on the line here and with extensive help with her son she will be able to dedicate the time she needs to her job. What I worry about is that she is sacrificing one of the most seminal moments of motherhood without realizing it.
Those first few weeks at home with your baby are precious. They are also maddening and vicious in many ways. But they are fragile and fleeting. ( They may not be “once in a lifetime,” but for most women they don’t come more than two or three times in a life.) Very rarely does society grant any of us permission to cocoon away for weeks at a time and make our worlds so incomparably small. Maternity leave is one in a very limited cadre of life experiences that allows such an existence, and Mayer has kissed hers goodbye before she even got her hands on it. It breaks my heart.
The flip side to this coin, of course (remember, no two mothers are alike…), is that no woman was ever faulted for not pursuing a CEO position. No woman who chose to stay home, or dial back her career, or coast for a bit was ever called out with the rally cry of, “But how can you sacrifice the chance to gun for a high-powered career when you haven’t experienced for yourself how satisfying it is?” No woman (at least no woman I know) has ever had to defend herself against that question. Marissa Mayer is charting new waters. She is doing something only a very tiny collection of people has done. She is charged with turning around a major organization in dire need of energy and redirection. Perhaps the rush and reward of that experience will far surpass the experience of naps and baby snuggles that defined my maternity leaves. I won’t ever know, though, because I won’t ever be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Nevertheless, there’s a reason that our nation is all a-buzz with talk of what this new pairing means. New motherhood is one of life’s most taxing experiences. So is running a major and floundering company. Doing them both concurrently is a precarious proposition by any standard. And I hope – I sincerely hope – that it works out well. I hope that for Mayer herself, and for every woman whose professional future in any way rests on our culture’s ability to believe in a young woman’s ability to meet a challenge head on.