This Is What Success Looks Like?

In the business world, where male CEOs outrank females in both numbers and pay, the occurrence of a pregnant Fortune 500 CEO isn’t just a novelty, it’s a first. Unfortunately, the announcement of Mayer’s personal decision on her maternity leave (she’s taking just “a few weeks”) has also ended up becoming an inadvertent and sad statement about what it means to be female, successful and powerful in America today.

Initially, it was frustrating to see how much news coverage was devoted to Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy – after all, men everywhere have been fathers, new fathers, and fathers-to-be while getting appointed to top positions, and it was never the subject of commentary. And it certainly wasn’t the subject of speculation like this: will the pregnancy affect her ability to lead? (Thanks, WSJ).

Yahoo has been tailspinning for years now, so what’s a few more weeks of waiting for Mayer to wrap up the pregnancy stuff at this point? What, Yahoo couldn’t wait for someone of Mayer’s calibre, had she demanded the time? No, this doesn’t seem like decision from Yahoo’s end – it sounds like Mayer’s own personal choice in the matter. And it feels very, very wrong to criticize a woman’s personal choice when it comes to motherhood.

How Mayer handles her pregnancy and her child is none of our damn business. Some people are genuinely eager to return to work. This is almost certainly the case for her. People have to find their own balance with these things, and we shouldn’t try to equate our personal motherhood experience with theirs and use it as some sort of guideline for what’s right and wrong.

That being said, like it or not, Mayer has become a role model for women with her appointment. And role models can’t help but becoming role models. They are pioneers in their field, and therefore, they will help set the tone: in Mayer’s case, speedily crashing through the glass ceiling, new baby in tow. And moves like this have a lasting impact on our culture.

We’re already witnessing the fallout: everywhere, everyone has an opinion. Doesn’t she know having a baby is hard? Doesn’t she know that she won’t be able to sleep? Advice comes left and right. It seems invasive, judgmental, and preachy all at once. Other moms are the worst, speaking from their own personal experience. (I’ll refrain from elaborating, but to sum it up as a mom myself: generally speaking, it’s freaking hard, folks).

To all those mothers everywhere shaking their heads in disbelief: don’t worry about how she will handle it. The truth is, it’s going to be far, far easier for Mayer to manage the transition into motherhood because up at the top of the food chain, parents can afford things like nannies and 24/7 childcare – they even have night nurses, I hear. Imagine that! You get to have your babies and your sleep! Men used to have wives for this sort of thing, you know. Now liberated, women just hire child care professionals. Some even have supportive spouses, too! (Of course, supportive spouses also tend to be at the top of their own food chains – success buys flexibility, after all.)  Motherhood is hard, but really, it’s amazing what a little sleep and the ability to hand off your crying child at any given moment can do for a person.

In other words, don’t worry that motherhood will impact Mayer’s ability to do the job. Worry that Mayer won’t be able to save Yahoo, because of all the many reasons why Yahoo might not be able to be saved. Keep the baby out of it that discussion, please.

So while it doesn’t impact Yahoo’s fate, the baby part matters in the entire Mayer/Yahoo story because it has an effect on the American psyche. Today, we American moms already work through pregnancy up until the last minute, barring complications. This is the norm. Even taking leave means barely pausing to take a breath after the baby comes. Seriously, moms – try getting a job after taking a year off from the workforce (and in this economy)!

So while it may be a personal choice, and therefore one we have no right to bear upon, Mayer’s substantial lack of maternity leave simultaneously sets a precedent and sends a message.

The message is that “important” women don’t take maternity leave, and it makes the rest of us feeling guilty when we do…or worse, perhaps – it makes us feel unimportant by comparison. It tells us that leave (we fought for this, remember?) is not a necessity. And it’s very easy for that same mentality to trickle down not just to other powerful women on their way up to CEO, but to regular folks like you or me.

It doesn’t matter what the reality of Mayer’s situation is – maybe the baby is in the boardroom or maybe she sees the child for an hour a day. Maybe she masters balance, writes a book called “How To Be Superwoman,” and we all learn from her. However, for right now, what matters is what the perception of her situation looks like on the outside.

All across the U.S., women everywhere are peering in, and seeing exactly what the shattered glass ceiling looks like. And you know what? It looks kind of crappy to a lot of them: “A few weeks? That’s what success looks like? No thanks.”


Image credit: blank array (Michael Yan), via flickr