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Marissa Mayer: Damned If She Does, Damned If She Doesn't?

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Twitter Marissa Mayer

Late last week we heard from Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for the first time since she had her baby two months ago and I'm guessing it's going to be the last for a while.

Between her insistence that her statement that day was all she planned to say about motherhood and then she's going back to being silent... and the enormous reaction to her few statements... my guess is this -- unfortunately it's probably going to be a while before she says much about motherhood and managing her career. In case you missed it, and hey, I missed the official confirmation that Princess Kate is actually pregnant, so no one is judging you if you missed it -- here's what Mayer said:

"The baby's been way easier than everyone made it out to be. I think I've been really lucky that way but I had a very easy, healthy pregnancy. He's been easy. So those have been the two really terrific surprises: the kid has been easier and the job has been fun!" Mayer said.

And if you were wondering, or thought she'd change her mind, she did go back to work after a two-week maternity leave.

So do you have a reaction? Do you wince when you read her happy commentary on her easy baby or do you release a sisterhood cheer for her that she's able to have an easy baby and be the CEO of a Fortune 500 company? Do you think her comments do nothing to support working women who struggle to return to work with a NOT easy baby or who are fighting for a longer maternity leave? Or do you think our job as women is to support working women, in particular high-profile ones who at least generate headlines on important issues facing parents in America, no matter if you actually agree with what they are saying?

I believe work-life issues are one of the most important and interesting things to discuss... So as a parenting blogger, I absolutely cannot resist responding to Mayer's recent comments, but I thought I'd weave in the thoughts of someone with a different perspective to try to cultivate a productive conversation about managing work and careers and how we talk about other women. So, to help balance out this topic, I turned to my friend, Valerie Young, advocacy coordinator of the National Association of Mother's Centers, who blogs on the intersection of motherhood and public policy as Your (Wo)Man in Washington.

Valerie's job focuses on public policy and issues facing working mothers and I've noticed on Facebook, in particular, not only does she post extremely interesting article links but she's always incredibly neutral in comparison to, well, moi. So there couldn't be a better person to join me in this discussion of Marissa Mayer and her recent public comments.

First, personally, I winced when I read Mayer's statement about her easy baby. Those words seem almost incendiary to me and like something a savvy business person doesn't say... Particularly from my perspective as a PR person, I would think her communications department would have prepared her for the importance of every single thing she says on motherhood (well, obviously on anything) and to keep it neutral. I really believe that part of what keeps women glued together in motherhood is a sense of camaraderie, even if you don't always mean it, and a comment along the lines of "I'm adjusting and I'm lucky to have such great help and support during this time" would have still been positive, but to associate the words "easy" with motherhood, particularly in the first two months, is frankly, obnoxious. And allow me to be blunt and take it one step further, especially when you are a woman with tremendous means. There are millions of women struggling to pay bills, who have to go to work or they will lose their jobs or who are single mothers -- there is nothing easy for them. But if you are the leader of a Fortune 500 company then you can pay anyone, anything, to help make your transition to motherhood easier and possible. So again, in my opinion, it's just not helpful or very likeable of her to call it all "easy." It also wasn't savvy.

Now -- because I am attempting to show a balance of perspectives here -- let's turn to the fabulous Valerie and get her professional response to this one:

Valerie's Response: This woman is the CEO of a publicly traded Fortune 500 company -- she has rigorous and inescapable legal obligations in that capacity to the corporation and those who have invested in it. In that light, everything she says publicly must convey the message that Yahoo is in good hands and pointed towards profitability.

Wired Momma: OK -- Valerie has a very valid point on this one. But I STILL believe her comments could have been worded differently to acknowledge that motherhood is not what we call "easy" or when it is, we credit the many people in our lives who support us to help make that the case. I think part of my beef with Mayer right now is this: Whether she likes it or not, she has become the poster woman for young working motherhood in this country. Her appointment as CEO of a Fortune 500 company while pregnant, and this appointment before the age of 40, sent a signal to employers everywhere that motherhood and business can go hand-in-hand -- that women can and should be considered for competitive, high-powered and demanding jobs even when they are pregnant or have young children at home. She is breaking glass barriers, and yet she seems resistant to it. We have so few female role models who are also young mothers that make headlines and provoke conversations about working motherhood that to be blunt -- she just disappoints me. And calling it "easy" didn't help.

Valerie's Response: While she is a public figure who first came to mass media attention for being pregnant when she was made CEO, she has not presented herself as a spokesperson for working mothers. Should she make comments about how hard it is being a lactating woman in the corner office, she could send Yahoo stock plummeting. She has a legal obligation to maximize corporate profits for her shareholders. She's not gotten where she is today by forgetting her duties as CEO. You may want her to use her position to improve workplace conditions for new mothers, but it could cost her her job and cost Yahoo shareholders money.

Of course, her position and profile are fantastic for those of us who advocate for working mothers and all mothers. What a contrast between being a CEO with personal staff, an easy delivery and cooperative baby -- see how much wealth and resources must be dedicated to allowing this woman to excel at work? Does any other woman in this country have the same advantages? Can women individually counter these great disparities? Does public policy have a role to play in removing barriers between parents (mostly mothers who do most of the childcare, still, in this country) and a workplace that allows parents, or others with non-workplace obligations, to succeed both at work AND in their family life?

Wired Momma: Valerie is making a great comment here and one that hadn't occurred to me -- instead of viewing her flippant "easy" remark as obnoxious -- she is instead turning it around and saying this calls MORE attention to how much wealth and resources and support is needed to make a career and raising a family possible -- and that is a good thing. I agree with her there. Only I worry that employers elsewhere won't see it that way unless we continue to point that out -- which is why I would like to hear Mayer say as much! To me it's like Angelina Jolie who is masterful at showcasing her children to paparazzi and keeping all her nannies out of sight. She allegedly has one nanny per child. And give me a break, no one thinks she's out there play dating alone with her children all the time while managing her superstar career and keeping extremely thin and fit and beautiful without a team of helpers -- yet she keeps them hidden. Why? I want to hear from more Julie Bowens and Amy Poehlers who publicly thank their nannies and "sister wives" and acknowledge that they need help and support otherwise their careers and their success would not be possible. In case you missed Amy Poehler in particular, here's what she said at the TIME magazine gala honoring the 100 most influential people:

Since I have been at this dinner in 2008, I have given birth to two boys and I've left Saturday Night Live and I started my own TV show, and it's been a crazy couple of years, and I thought who besides Madam Secretary Clinton and Lorne Michaels have influenced me? And it was the women who helped me take care of my children. It is Jackie Johnson from Trinidad and it is Dawa Chodon from Tibet, who come to my house and help me raise my children. And for you working women who are out there tonight who get to do what you get to do because there are wonderful people who help you at home, I would like to take a moment to thank those people, some of whom are watching their children right now, while you're at this event. Those are people who love your children as much as you do, and who inspire them and influence them and on behalf of every sister and mother and person who stands in your kitchen and helps you love your child, I say thank you and I celebrate you tonight.

Now THAT is reality. And given that she noted two nannies, on top of herself and her now ex-husband, that's four people to help raise two children and make a career possible. THAT, friends, is NOT easy. So now I get off my soap box and turn it back to Valerie.

Valerie's response: If women in general and mothers, in particular, want to really work for change so having a child doesn't punish you in your profession, they should concentrate their efforts on organizations like mine and others, educate themselves about what policies could make a difference, then put pressure on their elected representatives to MAKE THESE THINGS HAPPEN. Then having great child care, paid maternity leave, help at home and support at work would be something more parents, and more mothers, could look forward to. Ms. Mayer, I assure you, has a very busy calendar, and will not be doing this work.

Wired Momma: Here, here, Valerie. You are exactly right -- we must feel compelled to DO something about it. And now with more women in Congress than ever before beginning in January, perhaps 2013 is the time to write your member of Congress and advocate on behalf of working parents and family friendly public policies if you haven't done this already. Also, I'd like to address one thing -- this common complaint of how women are trashing each other and we should "leave Mayer alone." I totally disagree with that. This isn't the Oprah show where everyone gets along and life is grand. I believe that conflict is a GOOD THING. I believe conflict, debates and challenging one another (in productive, not mean-spirited ways) provokes dialogues, it generates headlines, it spurs conversations that can help lead to change and motivate others to act on it. So I do not believe it to be anti-woman or anti-mother to challenge one another and engage in interesting conversations about these topics.

I'd love to hear what you think -- is Mayer the poster woman for working moms? Is that unfair to put on her? Is it productive to discuss her commentary on motherhood and work or not? Does it advance our efforts to improve work-life balance even if we don't agree with us or are we working against ourselves by judging others? Find me on Facebook to keep up with the conversation.