The Atlantic: Stop Worrying About Yahoo’s Pregnant CEO!

July 18, 2012

In the summer of 2010, I felt nauseated during nearly every interview I conducted while wrapping up research for my first book. Because it was summer in Afghanistan, and Kabul is home to open sewers and steamy heat, I thought little of it, until I told my friend and housemate, a TIME reporter with a three-month-old baby, that all I dreamt of was eating potatoes.

“You’re pregnant,” she said.

“No way,” I answered. I felt certain I had a parasite that would simply go away.

In a matter of days, however, my doctor at World Clinic, a mobile medical service, told me that I indeed had a parasite, but, he joked, “it’s not the kind that goes away.”

So it was that I realized my first baby would arrive 10 days before my first book. The book for which I had quit a job I loved in finance, the book to which I had dedicated the last three years of my life. I kept clicking “refresh” on the Baby Center calendar, stunned at seeing the due dates collide.

Reading the big news of Marissa Mayer’s naming as Yahoo CEO and then hearing a few hours later that she would be “wwp” — or “working while pregnant” — I was struck by the fact that life evolves in unexpected bursts, and, especially if you are female, these moments of momentous change might collide in unanticipated ways.

What was exciting was how unfazed those at the center of the story seemed by the timing: Yahoo’s board saw her pregnancy as non-issue, Mayer had her plan for a working maternity leave, and it seemed to me that the case was closed for everyone else.

But not so fast.

I caught the last few minutes of Morning Joe yesterday just in time to watch Mika Brzezinski toss to CNBC’s Brian Sullivan for the latest business news, which included a dose of unsolicited armchair advice for the new CEO:

She said she's going to work during the maternity leave. That's gonna be tough. Y'know, take some time off. Yahoo's been in trouble for years. My advice: take some time off. Get your baby. Raise the kid for a little bit, and then, work on the company when you can.

I nearly leapt off my couch. (And, judging by her decidedly sideways glance, Brzezinki clearly shared this astonishment.) When was Sullivan’s last maternity leave? And what did his view of new motherhood have to do with Mayer? Almost immediately, women watching took to Twitter to berate the anchor for his post-natal counseling.

“Just figured I’d take a poll – any working moms out there need advice from @SullyCNBC? Marissa Mayer is so fortunate to have his input,” tweeted Change the Ratio’s Rachel Sklar.

Several wrote back to say that they decidedly did not.

The gracious Sullivan soon reversed course, tweeting his mea culpa: “Meant YHOO should show support for working moms by not encouraging Mayer to rush right back. Example set at the top & this is huge step for working moms & busting glass ceiling.” And a bit more from Sullivan a few minutes later: “Ugh. Apparently I came across completely opposite of my intent. Only meant to suggest birth is magical time to be savored.”

But the scrutiny was hardly finished. Later in the day, the venture capitalist Fred Wilson praised the Mayer choice in a blog post titled “Yahoo is No Longer Dead to Me.” He made no mention of Mayer’s upcoming addition, but readers picked up the thread, with one noting that Yahoo had “made history” by hiring a “pregnant CEO.”

Wilson responded that he’d seen no reason to include that detail in his post. “At the end of the day, they hired the person they thought was the best fit for the job. And that’s how it should be.”

Another reader disagreed. “It’s a handicap,” wrote the commenter (who identified himself as male). “She has a tremendous job ahead and she needs to be firing on all cylinders. Being pregnant with your first child at 37 is an issue and will be a distraction.”

Now, something tells me that the accomplished Mayer can not just handle, but make the most of, any “distractions” that come her way.

For months my husband and I kept to ourselves the news of our own upcoming “distraction” and our decision to temporarily relocate to the East Coast so that we could begin the book tour by car a few days after the baby’s birth. When we finally did talk about it with other people, I braced myself for the blistering questions that inevitably came: “How can you do both? What if something goes wrong? Why don’t you change the book’s date? Don’t you know that the baby comes first now? It is not just about you anymore, don’t you realize? Sounds selfish to me.”

Frustrated, I called my aunt, a survivor of breast cancer and domestic violence who embraces life’s vicissitudes with greater relish than anyone else I have ever met.

“Never import other people’s limitations,” she said, reminding me of how many roller coaster rides life already had taken us on during the past three decades, most of them involving helping loved ones exit life, not enter it. “No one else is you. Don’t ever try to please them, because you won’t. Just do what is right for your family.”

The nervousness my publishers felt when they finally learned of the timing was palpable. But I knew the truth of what I learned from my aunt, and from all the other women I grew up with: Life is about getting on with it with grace. Every day, all around the world, women do far more with far less. And you’d better know enough to say “thank you” when it’s a blessing, not a tragedy, that reroutes your plans. Then you tell everyone else who asks that it is none of their business.

“If I commit to being there, I will be there,” I told my publishers. “Outside of that, don’t worry about it.” They were incredibly supportive from there on out.

In the end my husband, sister-in-law, new son, and I had a grand, Partridge Family-kind of book tour (minus Susan Dey and the bell bottoms). The little guy spent his first few weeks napping in a car seat in the publisher-provided black Tahoe up and down the East Coast, enjoying his strolls through hotel lobbies and touring New York City streets. His grandmother came, too, and we made the most memorable adventure imaginable out of his arrival.

To be honest, we were all rather hung over when it ended and the band went back to real life, because life on the road, all together, had been far more fun than stress. The awkward timing turned out to be a backhanded blessing – one we never would have designed ourselves.

I have no doubt that Mayer, a respected tech veteran, will engineer all the changes ahead for her with the same clarity and precision she showed at Google over the past 13 years. That includes her very private decision to embrace new motherhood while scaling new professional heights. And I imagine she will handily tune out the legion of self-picked advisers keen to offer the unsolicited advice heaped on expectant mothers every day.

Personally, I wish her all the best.