Wednesday, May 24, 2006

It's Hard Being A Pregnant, Working Mom--Even if You're Elizabeth Vargas

Cross-posted at Feminist Law Professors.

Charles Gibson is the "new" sole anchor of ABC nightly news, replacing the co-anchor team of the injured Bob Woodruff and the pregnant Elizabeth Vargas:

Less than six months after naming Elizabeth Vargas and Bob Woodruff over Charles Gibson as the successors to the late Peter Jennings on "World News Tonight" on ABC, the network announced yesterday that it was scrapping its dual-host experiment and installing Mr. Gibson as the sole anchor.

ABC's move comes after Mr. Woodruff was seriously injured by a roadside bomb in Iraq in late January, sustaining head wounds that have since kept him from appearing on television, and after Ms. Vargas announced in February that she was due to give birth to her second child in mid-August.

So far, I'm not that surprised--ABC has needed stability in its nightly news program since Peter Jennings' death, and with the injury of Woodruff a few weeks in and Vargas' pregnancy it just makes sense to go to the reliable standby. Gibson subbed for Jennings during his illness, and I thought the job was his until ABC announced the co-anchor thing in an attempt to get a younger audience.

But what surprises me are the oblique references to the complicated nature of Vargas' position within ABC after she announced her second pregnancy:

But in the end, Mr. Gibson not only got the job he sought last year, but he also got it alone, as Ms. Vargas was shunted to the sidelines. When she returns from her maternity leave in the fall, it will not be to "World News Tonight," but to the prime-time news program "20/20."

Earlier in the conversation, he had spoken with modesty of his elevation to the anchor desk, saying: "I am to some extent a creature of circumstance to horrendous events, Peter's illness and Bob's injury, and to a joyous event, but nonetheless one that affected all of us, which is the pregnancy for Elizabeth."

Ms. Vargas said in an interview yesterday that she felt "an enormous amount of sadness" that a job to which she had aspired for sometime had slipped from her grasp.

Ms. Vargas, 44, said that her doctors had been hounding her to cut back on her work or risk being confined to "bed rest," and that their admonitions influenced her decision to begin her maternity leave later this month. When she returns to work in the fall, she said, she will limit herself to her other job at ABC, as co-host of "20/20."

Ms. Vargas said she had ruled out returning to "World News" as a co-anchor following her maternity leave because of the stresses of raising two young children.
"I don't think it's fair to a new baby to have a new mom who's off in Iraq or Iran all the time," she said. "I certainly intend to be doing that in a few years. But right now it's not realistic for me." (In February Ms. Vargas was quoted as telling The Philadelphia Inquirer that she expected to return to Iraq soon after her baby was born.)

Okay, not to write another post on the alleged "Mommy Wars," and I do concede that is difficult to raise your children if you're in Iraq--but does it seem like Elizabeth Vargas amended her career plans and parenting philosophy only very recently? I wonder if she changed her mind (which she is entitled to do of course) or whether ABC effectively changed it for her. That is, did she tell them "I won't be coming back to "World News" after my maternity leave" or did ABC say "You won't be coming back to "World News" after your maternity leave? Pronouns make a difference. The language of the article is peculiar--Vargas is "shunted to the sidelines," suggesting that she wasn't the one who wanted to quit the position, and she says that she feels "an enormous amount of sadness" over a job that "slipped from her grasp"--a job, in other words, that she didn't want to let go of.

I'm not alleging pregnancy discrimination per se here--Vargas wasn't really "fired," she will still have a job at ABC when she returns--but it won't be the same job. And the reasons for letting her go from the position don't appear on the surface to be gender or pregnancy related. (It was about "chemistry" and "format") But still, it's a very public reminder of how difficult it is being a working mom is, and how much pregnancy can disrupt your career plans. It's not Vargas' fault that this is the case, and I'm not saying "don't get pregnant or you won't get that promotion/tenure/anchor position." But as Vargas' case indicates, being a new mother trying to balance work and family (whether it means long hours at the firm or going to Iran) is difficult, and sometimes causes the employer to assume that the new mother will be less devoted to her job than a new father would be. And no, this is not fair.

By the way, did you notice that the circumstances around Bob Woodruff's dismissal due to his injuries sustained in Iraq didn't appear to be as controversial? They weren't even discussed in the article. It just seemed a forgone conclusion that there wasn't much to this story--a hero gets injured, is recovering, and can't do much till he heals, poor guy. But he'll be back on his feet running soon enough--unlike the the new mother, who will be burdened with babies in her arms.