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Don’t Dismiss the Conversation About Marissa Mayer’s Pregnancy

Do we really need to debate whether commentators should discuss Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy, and its impact both on her role as the new chief executive of Yahoo and on the options for pregnant women in the workplace?

What Ms. Mayer is doing is, by all accounts so far, a first: she is the first person to become the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company while pregnant. It’s a first for a reason. For most of the history of the Fortune 500, women (let alone pregnant women) weren’t even considered for a chief executive role. And pregnancy, while natural, beautiful, joyful and all that, makes many things — simple things, like eating and getting dressed in the morning — more difficult for most people who experience it. When people take on a challenge and multiply that by an extra challenge, like Dara Torres’s trying to make the Olympic swim team, then the rest of us sit up and take notice.

And that’s exactly what we need to do.

As Joan Walsh, writing for Salon, said, “Mayer is birthing her baby right in the middle of a new round in the old ‘having it all’ debates.” But Ms. Walsh and others frame this conversation as pitting Sheryl Sandberg’s “Don’t leave until you leave” advice against Anne-Marie Slaughter’s argument that pretending it’s easy to balance work and family only makes it harder to do.

But where Ms. Walsh sees an “old debate,” I’m focused on the new: that Ms. Mayer and her pregnancy are a factor in the debate at all, and more important, that this is no longer a debate. If we can be more honest about the challenges of balancing work and family, then we can develop better ways of reducing those challenges. Then, maybe young women won’t see a need to “leave before they leave.”

Suddenly, we’re talking openly and almost constantly, about what people have to do physically to go to work and raise a family. What began a long time ago as a debate about whether mothers should work, and how it would feel to leave children for an office or factory, and whether families could handle the emotional toll, has shifted. Those aren’t at issue anymore. No serious person wonders if Ms. Mayer is up to the job. What we wonder is how she’ll get it done.

Pretending that’s not a question is the wrong way to go. Asking it is not, as my friend Amy Keyishian says at Forbes, “assuming that Mayer’s going to fail.” It’s assuming — no, it’s knowing — that without help and structure and flexibility, no woman could make that work. (Without the help women have traditionally provided, no man could make it work, either.) When we ask what Ms. Mayer, who is so in the public gaze at the moment, is going to need, on some level we’re asking what anyone who works and parents through their child’s infancy needs.

Yes, she’s a chief executive, and a wealthy one at that. She can hire, outsource and create her own flexibility to some extent. But every time we become collectively aware what has to be put together to get even the most privileged working mother to her desk each morning, we’re reminded of two things. First, we’re reminded of what has been assumed is already happening in the background for working fathers, and second, of what every working mother, including the 9.9 million single mothers living with children younger than 18, has to put together every day. If we don’t talk about how hard it will be for someone with all of Ms. Mayer’s advantages, when, exactly, will we start looking at how much harder it is for everyone else?

It may be true, to return to Ms. Walsh at Salon, that “not everyone has to approach the birth of a child as a life-changing disruption,” but for most women, it’s necessarily just that. A baby is not just an adorable bundle but something that needs a constant adult presence from the first minute. It’s not condescending, or antifeminist, or demoralizing to point that out, and it’s certainly not just some cat-fight aspect of the “mommy wars.” Fathers help create those demanding proto-humans, too, and it’s long past time we stopped assuming that women are the default provider of that 24/7 care. But as long as we still do, the only way for more women to be in Ms. Mayer’s position, or to succeed at any job while supporting a young family, is to be honest about what it takes to provide it. That’s going to be a conversation worth having for a long time to come.