As you may have heard, Elizabeth Vargas recently announced that she was going to be stepping down from her co-anchor position at ABC news because she is about to have another baby. When she returns from her maternity leave, she’ll go back to her less stressful and less dangerous (read: not requiring frequent travel to a war zone) job as co-host of 20/20. Of course, analysts and feminists everywhere have taken this as an opportunity to comment on the State of Working Motherhood in America, and so I figured that I’d join in on the fun, too.
The Washington Post quoted a guy named Andrew Tyndall, a consultant who studies evening news content, as saying that, “by effectively demoting Vargas when she returns from maternity leave, ABC sends the wrong message to young women. What is the worst workplace nightmare the pregnant employee faces? It is the fear that her employer will find some way not to guarantee her job back on return from maternity leave.”
Ah, I love it when men expound upon the worst fears of pregnant employees.
Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fears about what would happen when I returned from my maternity leave. I worried about my boobs leaking during meetings, I worried about how I would manage to escape during the day to take my daughter to her monthly checkups, and I worried about what I would do if my nanny ever called in sick. But I didn’t worry much about the security of my job. I felt pretty confident that the Americans With Disabilities Act and the Family Medical Leave Act pretty much insured that it would be there for me.
The more interesting issue, for me at least, is not about your employer guaranteeing you your job when you return, but rather, about whether you even want the job when you return. Unfortunately, what seems to be happening a lot these days is that women are waiting until they’re older to have children so that they can focus on their careers. But then when they attain their career goals – partner in the law firm, top seller in the company, network news anchor – and finally do become pregnant, they then become faced with having to make a horrible choice: the all-consuming career that took blood, sweat and tears to achieve, or meaningful time with their babies. Because you can’t really have both - the hard truth is that when you’re hot you’re hot, and you’d better not drop off the face of the earth to go breastfeed for three months, because by the time you come back somebody else will be channeling the sun instead of you. Yeah, your job might be waiting for you, but the buzz around town about how great you are might not be.
Carol Rivers, a professor of journalism at Boston University, told the Boston Herald that, "[Replacing Vargas] does send a worrisome signal. … a message to all women taking maternity leave that you missed your shot.” But I disagree. I think that the message it sends to women is that you’d better think carefully about what you want from your life and from your career, because becoming a mother means having to make hard choices sometimes. “I won't lie to you,” Vargas said. “This was a difficult decision to make and I make it with a great deal of regret because I really enjoyed my time here [at ABC].” But, she said, “this broadcast needs someone who can give 150 percent - day in and day out. I am not in a position to do that right now.” Some find it hard to believe that she made this choice on her own, and that ABC didn’t put pressure on her to step down; Emily Rooney, host of “Greater Boston” on WGBH-TV and a former ABC “World News Tonight” producer, said that “No one steps down from a network anchor job.” But I wonder if Emily Rooney is a mom. And if she is, I wonder how she’d feel about reporting from Iraq in a bullet proof vest while a nanny sat at home with her newborn.
One more thing: Vargas said that “every woman has the right to make that decision [about what is best for her family] for herself and her family without anybody judging it.” But of course everyone is judging it, women especially. And this is what really sticks in my craw (assuming that I have a craw – not really sure what that is, exactly). Aren’t liberals supposed to be about freedom of choice? Excuse me for making the analogy, but why is it that we defend choice when it comes to terminating a pregnancy, but yet, we seem to be so totally against it when it comes to terminating a career for the sake of one? I’m pretty much as far to the left as it gets without being an out and out communist, but this one I just don’t get. Because at the end of the day, there is no right answer for how to be a working mom. It’s all just a series of choices.