Attention Women: You Are Not Pathetic

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What high-profile working mothers say carries weight with other working mothers whether we like it or not. By Stefania Pomponi (Co-Founder, Clever Girls Collective)

Sarah Lacy’s article on Marissa Mayer’s life as a working mom suggests that women who are critical of Marissa Mayer’s statements that she wasn’t planning to take much of a maternity leave and that her baby is “easy” are “pathetic.” I agree with much of what Lacy says, including that we don't need Marissa Mayer's "permission to decide how to balance career and family," but unlike Lacy, I do think what high-profile working mothers say carries weight with other working mothers whether we like it or not.

Marissa Mayer and I live in the same neighborhood and I drive by her house every day. My kids trick-or-treat at her house on Halloween because not only does she have the best decorations (think Pottery Barn meets the Griswolds and she does it up for every holiday), but she hands out the best (full-size) candy. This year, I admit I got a secret thrill from seeing her handing out candy while holding her baby.

She is someone I admire because raising a family and holding a job — high-profile or not — is not easy. It takes a village, and I’m interested in women I admire honestly sharing about what that village looks like.

No, Mayer didn’t thrust herself into the role of being the most highly visible woman in tech,” she IS the most highly visible woman in tech. What she says — whether about babies or Blackberries — matters.

Besides lack of sleep, nothing causes a new parent more grief than comparing what you are doing to how other parents are doing it. We don’t want to do it wrong, so we read dozens of books, blogs, and baby sites and query our other parent friends to death looking for any shards of brilliance that might help us to do it “the best way,” instead of focusing on the best way to do it for our own families.

I remember my mother hanging around for one of my weekly mom’s group baby “play dates” and making the observation that we all spent so much time talkingtalkingtalking about parenting. I think her exact comment was something like, “My generation didn’t spend so my time talking about taking care of babies, we just tucked our Dr. Spock's under our arms and did it.”

Marissa Mayer’s “reality” has little to do with mine, but like Marissa Mayer and Sarah Lacy, I’m trying to raise a family while also “raising” a company. I'm interested in having an honest conversation about what that is really like.

Yesterday, as I was finishing up a meeting with my co-founder and a potential advisory board member, I got the call from my toddler’s daycare that he had a fever and could I come and pick him up, please. And no, he would not be welcome at daycare tomorrow due to their “24 hours with no fever” return policy.

I raced to pick him up because I didn’t want him to be sick at daycare one minute longer than he had to. When I collected him he was flushed and warm and definitely not himself. I knew that the rest of my work day was probably shot, at least until he went to bed. And I wondered what to do about the next day.

A day without childcare.

The day of our very first investor pitch.

This is the reality of so many mothers who work. A child gets sick on the day of a very important something. And if you are a single parent like I am, reality is always top-of-mind because avoiding the curveballs is harder.

I am thrilled that Yahoo! hired the best person for the job and she happened to be a pregnant woman. I am in her corner rooting for her to succeed. I don’t doubt that in order for Marissa Mayer to do her job effectively she has an army of people helping her, and that is as it should be. I don’t fault her for that. I also think it’s awesome that Sarah Lacy can start a company out of her house with the help of a devoted caregiver because that is also as it should be.

But that is not the reality of so many women who either have to work or have to stay-home because they can't afford to do both. Or who work but can’t afford enough childcare so some part of a day is always uncovered. Or who stay home and would love a break once in a while but can’t afford help. Or who would love to work from home with their babies at their side instead of in an office 15 freeway exits away.

When you are a mother and running a company, you especially look to other mothers who run companies to see how they prioritize different demands. It’s why I especially took note of what Marissa Mayer said about maternity leave. And was bummed.

When my co-founders and I started Clever Girls Collective, we put pretty much all of the money we earned back into the company for the first year. We paid our employees before we paid ourselves.

Women tend to run their startups very conservatively. We felt we had a responsibility to take care of our employees (we now have 23) as well as to ensure that we always remained in the black with a nice cushion in our bank account because you never know.

Eighteen months after launching Clever Girls, I had my third child. I went back to work after seven weeks — luxurious by Mayer’s standards, a pittance by Google standards — for a variety of reasons. I went back because I wanted to go back, but there is no question that I was conflicted about it. And that’s normal.

About then, we could afford to finally pay ourselves a (below-market-rate) salary, and all of my paycheck — not part, ALL — went to childcare. I was still with my kids’ dad at the time so we had his paycheck, but anyone who lives in Silicon Valley on one paycheck knows what a struggle that can be.

As women founders, my co-founders and I are very mindful of being positive examples not just to our employees, but also — for the three of us who have them — to our children. I have two daughters and a son, and I want them to be proud of the choices I have made. The choice to work, to build something, to show them what women can do. That we have a choice. This is why, when it came time to craft our own maternity leave policy, we ensured it was more generous than what our benefits provider recommended.

As so many people have already pointed out, I wish Marissa Mayer had said, “I’m not sure how long of a maternity leave I’ll take.” Or “My baby is easy and I am so lucky to have help.” Maybe she did say that. Maybe it’s none of any of our business. But as a woman founder and a mother of three who listens carefully to what other women founders say, I would have welcomed temperance.

I have some help now. My children are well-cared for, my laundry gets folded sometimes, and my house is about as tidy any small house filled with three kids and three kids’-worth of stuff can be. I can complain about having to do dishes or change diapers or pack lunches, but I’m not going to pretend that my complaints are anything compared to women who do it all on their own.

Yes, we are all responsible for raising our own children the best way we know how AND it does matter what high-profile women say on the subject. Too many women will hear what Mayer has to say and make choices that will be wrong for their families. Or will be depressed. The answer is not to call them “pathetic.” The answer is to be the kind of women who say, “How can I help you?” Or, “Trust yourself.” Or, “How about I come over and take the baby for a walk while you sleep…or finish that balance sheet.”

The answer is to be the kind of women who ensure that the women who work for them have all the support they need to make the best possible choices for their families.

The investor pitch went fine.

My mom ended up watching my sick boy because whenever I am in a jam, she always says, “Yes.” Later I took him to the doctor and now he is asleep and I will catch up on all the unread emails in my inbox and get back to my co-workers about things that I owed them today.

Tomorrow I will get up, make sure my kids are sorted, and go back to work. And so will Marissa Mayer. And so will Sarah Lacy. During tough moments, I might wish I had a team to run my household or a full-time nanny who allows my son to remain at home while I work. It might make me “pathetic,” or it might motivate me to support working women any way I can, and to continue being honest about my experience.

This post was originally published at City Mama. About the guest blogger: Stefania Pomponi is the co-founder and President of Clever Girls Collective. She leads business development and corporate communications efforts. She is a respected social media thought leader and respected writer and has had articles published in the August 2008 issues of Good Housekeeping and Redbook, and the June 2010 issue of Redbook. Her work has appeared in various parenting publications. She lives in Palo Alto, California with her three children. Follow her on Twitter at @citymama.