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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.

4 Responses to “Once In A Lifetime”

  1. anne Says:

    I couldn’t agree more. Except for the part about women NOT being questioned when they dial back on career for the sake of family/having a kid. I have at least one friend who’s experienced this, and it hurt her greatly. But I do agree that maternity leave is odd and special and FAST, and like you, I’m afraid she won’t be able to savor it.

  2. BigLittleWolf Says:

    It’s a fascinating discussion, isn’t it?

    And you’re right. No two mothers are alike. But I will admit that during both my maternity leaves, I worked. Not my usual hours (and I wasn’t paid), but as much as anything, because I would have gone nuts if I hadn’t. So while my first two weeks or so may have been utterly without thought to my job, beyond that, the 10 or so hours I worked (and more as I approached the end of the leave, best I recall) were my great leveler…

  3. shelby Says:

    All of the talk about work/life balance continues….there’s no right answer…just the right answer for each of us. I’m about to experience (Lord willing) my first maternity leave and I’m wondering – Will I love it? Will I be bored? Will I miss my full-time work? How much will I still want/be able to do – charity or paid work? It’s, as you say, a once in a lifetime (or a few in a lifetime) opportunity…and I wouldn’t want to miss it. I wouldn’t want to miss the recuperation period from the trauma of delivery, the bonding time with my baby and the mental recuperation from years of pent-up, work-related stress. That being said, I still find myself mentally justifying the time off with thoughts about how my company will benefit from my rejuvenation.

  4. Rebecca Hanover Says:

    Gale, I had the same thoughts as you – and I also worry that, as one of the few women who can be an “example” to others, she’s brushing off maternity leave in a way that’s not great for all the working moms out there. My HOPE is that she’s said this to ensure Yahoo employees & shareholders that she absolutely will be “in” the game, but that she actually does plan to spend some time just her and her baby. With the right help, I suppose it’s possible she can get all the chore parts of maternity leave covered and enjoy the bonding time, while also working. (Though honestly, it took a month before I even felt not nauseous enough to do ANYTHING, much less check email or run a company!)

    Another thought: Yes, this may be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but so is working at Google as the 20th employee, staying there 13 years as a VP and making $300 million from it! Will this be all it’s cracked up to be? If she turns that company around, she’ll go down in history… though the odds of that are very low. ;)