Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, recently announced that she is pregnant with twins. As part of that announcement she informed the world that she would be taking limited leave during her pregnancy and after the birth of her newest children. The blogosphere then erupted with opinions about her choice and its effects on her family and Yahoo. Was she being a bad mom, a bad CEO, or just bad at everything? Some came to her defense while others piled on. Yet, as is so often the case when people explode with opinions about something that has no direct impact on their lives, no one was really talking about Mayer or the welfare of her family or company. What they really were talking about was themselves.
Mayer is the 40-year-old, CEO of a Fortune 500 company with personal assets of over $300 million. At this point in her life there are no basic survival decisions she needs to make that are in any way limited by money. If she lived solely off her current assets for the rest of her life she'd have the equivalent of a $7.5 million salary for the remaining 40 years of her expected lifespan.
So why do people care about the choices made by someone so far removed from their own experience? The energy fueling this explosion is the frustration with discussing work-life issues in terms of someone like Mayer, a woman with seemingly infinite power to choose what she wants to do with the rest of her life. Mayer really does have the option of taking 18+ years off to raise her children while maintaining access to financial resources most families only dream of (the median household income in the U.S. is about $50,000). Most mothers and fathers have to work 40+ hours a week just to keep their families fed, clothed, and sheltered.
Yet we talk about parenthood as though it's the same thing regardless of income and position. Mayer can afford a nanny. She can command her company to put a nursery in her office. She can force work to fit the life she wants or leave at any time with no real danger to the health or safety of her family. Many parents consider themselves blessed if they keep their job after an unpaid day off to care for their sick child.
People aren't upset that she may use help from her husband, child care providers, and company to raise her children. They are upset that those same options aren't available to them BUT they will be judged as if they were. When the context of parenting is ignored people feel like they must set Mayer and other hyper-privileged celebrities (who are doing it all) as their role models, however divorced those celebrity lives are from anything they could reasonably experience or achieve.
So like Aesop's fox staring at grapes on a high vine he can't reach despite all his efforts to do so, we declare those options we can't expect to access sour and Mayer a bad mother for using a nanny and similar work-life tools. In psychology this defense mechanism against self-doubt and feelings of failure and loss is known as rationalization because we come up with rational sounding explanations for why we wouldn't really want what we can't have.
Declaring Mayer a bad mother is a way to avoid having to ask ourselves why we don't use a nanny or take months off and realizing it's because we don't earn enough to afford to do so. In U.S. culture, where success, work, and earnings are huge parts of our identities; admitting that we don't earn enough to do anything is very uncomfortable. So instead of confronting why we might need more work-life support but can't afford or access it, we lash out at those who are using those supports to prove our disdain for them. Though these outbursts of the parenting wars may shield us from feeling bad about our lot they don't change the underlying reality: some people have more work-life tools than others.
We don't need Mayer to be like us or to throw away any of her tools in a meaningless show of solidarity. It's equally unfair to demand that she take time off from a job she must love to validate our experience as it would be for her to demand that we work non-stop through early parenthood because she can fit her work and life together on her terms.
What we need is for people like Mayer to say publicly that they are not our role models; to recognize that while their own wealth of options make the work-life policies and laws that they oversee irrelevant to them, those systems are essential to the rest of us. Mayer has done some of that by improving Yahoo's parental leave policies. Now she and every other leader invested in a family-friendly brand needs to demand that their organizational culture recognize not just the importance of work-life fit, but that the options for achieving it are fewer and often more risky with each level you go down in the organization.
Simultaneously, we need to rethink how we approach this conversation. Rather than disparaging other people's choices we should be asking why only some people get to make choices. We need to focus on our frustration with this disparity of choice and how we might maximize everyone's options. We need to push back on cultures that assume women will leave work for children and men will leave their families for work. We need to broaden the scope of work-life conversations to discuss self, child, and elder care as one continuous thread in a tapestry of economic options so that no one has a reason to start crying "sour grapes."
If there is a baseline that we as a society believe all people should be able to access then let's make sure that everyone has a real option to do that without penalties like uncertain employment, unequal income and bullying attacks on personal and professional reputations.
Most importantly we have to stop bashing others' work-life choices and help one another succeed, and openly grapple with why things are the way they are. Time to end the pointing fingers at one another's lives so no one will question our own.