My first two bosses were women, both high profile politicians in New York. This was in the late ’70s and early ’80s, when feminism was fresh and the Equal Rights Amendment still a cause. I learned a lot about the unique challenges facing women in politics: Their hairstyles and clothes were a constant source of conversation and gossip. I often held their purse, producing hairspray or powder before interviews on the fly, and learned to carry extra pantyhose in my backpack. Their sexuality, too, was a topic of speculation; neither had children but both spoke fondly of nieces and nephews.
I thought about my bosses — both brave and inspiring — when I read the story of Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo. She faces one of the biggest challenges in business today, reviving a technology company that is on the verge of following AOL into obscurity. Her pregnancy, and her announcement that she will work through maternity leave, has ignited a familiar discussion, one I remember from more than 30 years ago. Can women have it all? Is Ms. Mayer a role model, or does her wealth and status make her unique? And does her ability to hire unlimited child-care encourage a false expectation for other women in the workplace that they, too, should work through their maternity leaves? If she fails at her job, does it set somehow set back other working women and prove they can't have it all?
What most people seem to agree on, of course, is that we wouldn't being having this conversation if the name of the Yahoo CEO were Martin and not Marissa. Here's what so obviously has not changed: Women bear children and continue to bear the majority of child-care responsibilities, although men have increased their share dramatically. (As children in the ’60s, on the very rare occasions when we would see a father in the stands watching our grade-school soccer games, my friends and I would wonder if our teammate's father had lost his job.)
At the risk of venturing into unlicensed territory, I point out that there is a body of psychological literature that suggests women play an essential and irreplaceable role in first three months of a child’s life. At life's earliest stages, the infant is literally unaware that he is an "other" ; the bond with the mother is critical at this stage. Fathers, or siblings, relatives or nannies, can play a crucial supportive role, but the real nurturing in these earliest days is coming from the mother. As the child develops, the emotional role of fathers expands; fathers become the first safe place to venture as the child begins to individuate from the mother.
Lest you think you've clicked on a parents' blog instead of a political one, here might be the relevance of these musings to our politics. We are having the wrong dialogue again about women in the workplace. Women now often do society a triple service: They work, they bear children and they provide the key emotional bond. We ought to be figuring out how to help and celebrate them more. (We also ought to do some of that for fathers, too, but that's another post.) Our businesses, churches and communities should be bending over backward to give women better child care and generally making it easier for them to balance their exhausting roles. Government can help make this a priority.
Our families, our society and our government all have a huge stake in helping children grow up healthy emotionally and in the women who work while raising them. This should be more of a political issue. It would certainly liven up the discussion.