I don’t know how Marissa Mayer sails through motherhood

It’s way tougher than it looks to combine a senior job with mothering. Sally Pryor

I have worked on Hey You for several years; we now have 45 staff and strong growth. In July last year, we closed a funding round led by Westpac. One month later, I discovered I was pregnant. I was overjoyed and terrified. About the same time, Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer announced her second pregnancy. I’ve followed Mayer’s career with admiration. She’s the archetype of a successful female leader in tech: bright, driven and famously tough. She took three weeks off for the birth of her first child and announced she would be out of the office for just two weeks the second time, when she had twins. Some people criticised her for setting a bad example; the media accused her of setting unrealistic expectations for other corporate women. I was inspired.

Marissa Mayer, president and chief executive officer of Yahoo! was back at work two weeks after giving birth to twins. David Morris

At a critical point in our company’s life, I watched as Mayer headed back to lead Yahoo, travelling to speak at events just weeks after giving birth. She didn’t even look different! Like her, I couldn’t absent myself for months to have a baby. She became my role model. Like her, I would set up a nursery in our unused meeting room and, with the assistance of a nanny, mind the baby at the office. I thought if she could sail through pregnancy without it affecting her work, then so could I. I was wrong: motherhood wasn’t what I expected. Leading my start-up over the past six months through late pregnancy and early babyhood has been the hardest thing I’ve done. Start-ups are tough anyway; nothing prepared me for this.

1. Pregnancy, birth and recovery took a toll on my body and mind

Seven months into my pregnancy, our company faced a stressful personnel challenge, and pregnancy hormones killed my coping mechanisms. I tried meditation and yoga but I couldn’t stop emotions from flowing.  Then the tiredness came. I stopped work at 39 weeks and four days of the pregnancy and returned three weeks after the birth. The last few weeks of pregnancy and the first few back were miserable; I felt like an engine running at 30 per cent efficiency. It was difficult to lead powerfully when I couldn’t string a sentence together.

2. A baby in the office may seem like a good idea and it’s nice to have her close to me.

But navigating the situation is difficult. Every day at 5am, I check my calendar for meetings and express milk into bottles for the nanny to use when I’m out of the office. Fortunately, my baby doesn’t cry much and sleeps most of the day. I realised ducking in and out of a small room to breastfeed her limits the amount I can achieve; I’ve had to cut back on the number of tasks I can get through in a day.

3. I faced an emotional challenge, for I had no idea how I would feel about my baby until I met her.

The love was like nothing I can describe. I still melt when I look in her eyes, and want to be with her all the time. Last week I flew to Brisbane for a speaking engagement and broke down on the plane, even though I was only going to be away for a few hours. Every day I leave her for meetings but she’s always on my mind. I wonder if our bond will be different from mothers who take six or 12 months off to focus on their babies at home.

Challenges of parenthood

I don’t know how Marissa Mayer sailed though her experiences – or even if she did. But I noticed how, at the same time she was scorned for taking two weeks off for the birth of twins, Mark Zuckerberg was applauded for taking two months’ paternity leave. I wonder how we would have reacted to Mayer had she taken extended leave, or shared as openly as Zuckerberg about the challenges of parenthood. No one expresses aloud scepticism a woman could sustain productivity while having a baby, but I’m sure pregnancy raises silent (or murmured) questions among staff and clients. I felt I had to be extra-tough to show it wouldn’t affect my work. Taking too much time off or letting people know I was tired would signal weakness. I suspect Mayer had similar experiences.

I have campaigned for more women to launch technology companies and, perhaps, have glossed over the baby issue. Juggling start-up life, pregnancy and early motherhood is difficult, even with a wonderful partner, supportive investors, nursery and nanny. Most technology founders start companies in their 30s, just when women are having babies. It’s important we talk openly about our challenges.

Yes, pregnancy affected my capacity, but I learnt new skills. Stepping back forced me to encourage others to step up. I’m focussed; I get more done in fewer hours. I’ve developed new levels of patience and empathy that will make me a better leader. And I produced a new human being!