When the CEO of Yahoo and one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women, Marissa Mayer, mentioned that her baby was “easy,” the internet erupted with cries of unfair advantage. A new “Mommy war” was launched (and god, I despise that term, but I despise even more that it has reason to exist). It wasn’t the ease of Mayer’s infant son that caused so many women to take offense, it was that Mayer didn’t qualify the statement with her rather long list of advantages. She didn’t apologize for having a successful career, money, household help, or a network of support. She didn’t explain in her next breath how rare her position is, or acknowledge the millions of other mothers who don’t “have it all.” Lisa Belkin of the Huffington Post was one of several writers taking Mayer to task, in her open letter “Dear Marissa Mayer, Please Stop Saying Your Baby Is Easy.”
Putting “baby” and “easy” in the same sentence turns you into one of those mothers we don’t like very much. When you do, it makes us feel (more) inadequate; starts us wondering (again) what we are doing wrong.
Yes, we understand that this is partly our fault. You didn’t ask us to watch your every move. You never declared yourself the standard in working mommydom….It’s just that we don’t have a lot of other pregnant Fortune 500 superstars to look to, so we held you up as a role model and now we worry that you’re modeling the wrong thing. [Emphasis mine.]
My thoughts when I read Belkin’s article were the same ones I’ve had for years: Why shouldn’t women be allowed to tell their own stories? How does it diminish my experiences, or anyone else’s, if stories like Mayer’s are different than mine? After all, Mayer wasn’t making the case that her “easy” baby or financially comfortable lifestyle was the norm. She wasn’t telling other women that they were doing something wrong or, in fact, judging other women at all. Instead, Mayer’s one casual aside about her baby’s easygoing nature was turned against her as if she, by virtue of being a public figure, had the obligation to tell ALL the stories of class and motherhood, and not just her own.
The same kind of defensive pile-up also seems to occur whenever celebrity mothers give interviews and fail to mention how lucky they are, or how much more of a struggle it must be for less fortunate others. God forbid, they should lay claim to any of the parental stresses that other mothers know. ”Oh, you’re tired? Well, try raising three kids on your own, on an income of peanuts, with a broken down car, and a husband who’s never home.”
Today, it’s Sheryl Sandberg, the CEO of Facebook, who’s stirring up the promise of a “Mommy war” on the horizon. Her latest endeavor, which the New York Time’s describes as a “book-slash-manifesto on women in the workplace,” and which is scheduled to be release on March 11, is already creating controversy and hard feelings. (And let’s just acknowledge that men have written many, many varied tomes on work and success without nearly this amount of animus.) Who does his rarified creature think she is giving advice to other women? Who can relate to her? What does someone with two Harvard degrees and enough money to feed a small nation know about real life, or the issues of real women?
But isn’t it all real? In a society that promotes individualism and diversity, shouldn’t the life stories and perspectives of women like Mayers and Sandberg be given equal space alongside _________ . . .
Maybe that’s the problem.
Outside of (often dreary) news articles, blogs, and self-published books, the stories of other women and their life experiences aren’t really given their due. The woman with the broken down car, raising three kids on an inadequate income, isn’t perceived as someone who has a valuable or inspiring story to tell. CBS News and The Today Show aren’t knocking on the doors of sleep-deprived mothers with chronically sore nipples and a two-digit bank balance. Oprah’s team isn’t calling disenfranchised women offering to slap a coveted gold label on their self-published books about real life. The New York Times isn’t offering a weekly column to that lower income mom-blogger without an advanced degree who speaks to thousands of other “normal” lives.
That’s the reality, and if there’s a fault in that — and it would appear that many, many women believe there is — then who does it belong to?
We can complain about the cultural and media bias toward those who are more well-off, and the expansive marketing machine that is at their disposal, but the more pointed truth is that our activism for other women — for the stories left untold, for the experiences that aren’t rags-to-riches, for the lessons that aren’t easily digestible — has waned considerably since the halcyon days of the 60s and 70s, when so many resounding, outlier female voices came to the forefront to spark raw, truthful conversations.
There’s been a wave of compassion fatigue since then: Waves of anti-feminism, anti-hard truths, anti-real life sentiments that have washed over the shores of our once inclusive ideals. Women who speak their truths on hard subjects (like motherhood, like race, like politics, like rape) are often ridiculed as sob sisters — their stories lost amidst accusations of bitterness, blame-games, or a “negative” attitude. The new incarnation of determinism and positive-thinking has morphed into a stringent demand that women, in particular, wear blinders when it comes to influences outside of their own lives. They are to look inwards for all the answers (Why am I not succeeding? I must not be trying hard enough, or want to badly enough). They are to be uncomplaining (regardless of circumstance), and wholly inspirational.
This, of course, leaves a deep and often hurtful vacuum in the realm of women’s stories. It also leaves women like Mayers and Sandberg to unfairly take the heat for not using their substantial platforms to speak to experiences that are completely outside of their scope. I don’t believe they have that obligation, and that it would be totally disingenuous for them to try. I believe that their stories have value simply because they are theirs — and they are real, even if they are a hundred degrees removed from my own.
The task of filling the vacuum doesn’t belong to CBS News, The Today Show, Oprah, or the New York Times, but to those who care that such a vacuum exists. It belongs to me, not only in what I write, but also what I choose to read, engage in, and promote to others. Instead of jumping on the kind of useless bandwagon that attacks women like Mayers and Sandberg for telling their stories, why wouldn’t I promote the poetry of Amy Turn Sharp or the moving posts of Maggie May Ethridge? It wasn’t the mainstream media, but thousands of everyday people on the internet, along with her own comedic talent, that catapulted my one-of-a-kind friend The Bloggess, Jenny Lawson, from obscurity to the New York Time’s bestseller list. Why not add my voice to the choirs of those who are talented, whose words move me, but who aren’t yet popular? Who knows? With enough support, they might be able to build a larger platform and find an audience the size of Mayer’s or Sandberg’s. With enough support, I might be able to do the same. Finally, instead of expending so much energy reacting to stories that I don’t find relatable, what if I promote the stories of women I do relate to, or just tell my own?
We could fill the vacuum. There’s no pie in this equation, and no limit to the number of stories we can tell, read, or share. There is room for Mayer, Sandberg, and women on every part of the spectrum. The question is whether we become an active part of the marketing machine, or whether we let the mainstream media alone determine what gets through.