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November 20, 2006

The Mother of All Tough Choices

Elizabeth Vargas was settling into one of the most prestigious gigs on TV: co-anchor of the evening news. But then, a tragedy and a miracle changed everything. A frank conversation about life on the mommy track.

Elizabeth Vargas

Photo Credit: Photo Illustration: Eric Cahan

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The Mother of all Tough Choices

Is it possible children live here? I think to myself as I glance around Elizabeth Vargas's immaculate, shmutz-free New York City apartment overlooking the Hudson River. What's with the pale hues, just begging to be sullied by tiny, sticky hands? Where's all the plastic crapola? Order reigns: There is the hum of a television from another room — I recognize the deep woof of Clifford, The Big Red Dog. The scent of garlic wafts in from the kitchen, where the cook bustles about silently. Vargas, deposed co-anchor of ABC's World News Tonight and now co-anchor of that network's 20/20, is dressed simply but expensively in jeans and a formfitting sweater; she is in such great shape, she looks like a woman who has given birth, well, never. Even while nursing her gorgeous son, Samuel Wyatt, born just five weeks ago, Vargas is a model of cool, almost steely efficiency. Quietly, I begin to hope he'll projectile-vomit on the couch. Is that so wrong?

"My 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Zachary, was having an enormous meltdown moments before you came," Vargas says cheerfully. "I was praying he would stop!"

OK, I feel a little better now. It has been a tumultuous time, professionally and personally, for the 44-year-old newswoman. In the past year, she has seen the death of an esteemed colleague (Peter Jennings) and the severe injury of another (Bob Woodruff). She was handed one of the most powerful, prestigious jobs in the news industry, and — depending on whom you ask — she either gave it up or had it taken away. And did we mention the baby? The baby, who — again, depending on whom you ask — may or may not have played a role in Vargas's leaving the anchor desk.

The past year has also seen an unusual amount of upheaval on network-news shows. Katie takes CBS, Meredith takes Today, Charlie takes ABC's World News Tonight, and Diane Sawyer — well, reportedly she could have taken whatever she wanted, but she decided to stay put. And with all this change, the networks are still very much in trouble. Network-news viewership has been cut in half since 1980, with the launch of CNN and subsequent rise of the Internet as a news source. And while it's not exactly in free fall, that explains the retooling; one prominent news anchor likened all the changes this year to "shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic."

Baby in her arms, Vargas sat down to talk to Marie Claire about this year — the upheaval at ABC, and in her own life as well. It's no wonder the subject she chose to cover for her fall comeback on 20/20 after maternity leave is, "Can a woman have it all?"

MC: How's maternity leave treating you? You look beautiful, but a little...fuzzy around the edges.
EV: There are no regular going-to-bed and waking-up times, which is part of the problem. I'm in that fog that every new mother experiences, and that we all conveniently forget later.

MC: You're tired? I can't imagine why!
EV: I keep saying to my husband [singer/songwriter Marc Cohn] that I wasn't this tired when I had Zachary. He did point out, logically, "Well, you didn't have another baby then!" The mantra of "sleep when the baby sleeps" doesn't work when you also have a 3-and-a-half-year-old who needs his share of TLC and looks like he feels betrayed every time he looks at you...like, "Why did you bring this other person home?"

MC: You have been gone from 20/20 for several months, but you're still often on the air.
EV: I banked a lot of work before I left, and I just had this two-hour special on called "Last Days on Earth," about all the ways, potentially, humanity could come to an end.

MC: So...20/20's version of a romantic comedy, then.
EV: Um...

MC: That should be the show's promo: "Rely on us to scare the shit out of you." So work must seem far away right now...
EV: Hey, I have this job I can't wait to get back to! And I know I would be under pressure to come back a lot sooner if I were in the anchor chair on World News Tonight. Those hours were non-negotiable. You had to be out the door at 8 a.m., and you weren't back till 8 p.m.

MC: What was that like?
EV: I'll be honest: My husband felt that Zachary really paid the price for that.

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