The Mother of All Tough Choices

Baby or Job?

Elizabeth Vargas
Elizabeth Vargas
(Image credit: Eric Cahan)

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, "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.

The Mother of All Tough Choices, cont.

MC: Take me back in time a little, to April of last year, when Peter Jennings was diagnosed with lung cancer.

EV: I had been filling in, myself and Charlie [Gibson], from the day Peter was diagnosed. Charlie and I did it until August, when Peter died. Then, starting in September, Bob [Woodruff] and I switched off. In December, they offered the job to Bob and me. We had this blueprint for the show, which generally involved one of us at the desk and the other out in the field. It was exciting and a huge success, we felt. Then I found out I was pregnant.

MC: You mean, you didn't plan it?

EV: It was a big surprise. A friend of ours said, "Who gets pregnant naturally at your age?" My parents are very strong Catholics, and they've always said they believe things happen for a reason. Now, nine months later, with this beautiful baby boy, I couldn't feel better about this. But I admit, my initial reaction was, I can't be pregnant. I just signed on to this big job!

I told my husband, "Let's wait three months before you freak out, sweetheart." So many women my age have early miscarriages. But then I started to feel really sick. And the pace was pedal-to-the-metal, no time off. People must have known something was up — I was nauseous all the time. And then everything went down with Bob.

MC: Tell me about the day you heard Bob Woodruff had been injured.

EV: It was a Sunday, predawn. The phone rang — the phone never rings at that hour with good news. It was Paul Slavin, my boss. He pulled no punches. He told me how bad it was. It was only 45 minutes after the bombing. Lee [Woodruff's wife] didn't even know yet; they were trying to find her. She was with her kids at Disney World.

So we bundled up Zachary and went to the office. That night, I anchored the news. It was the lead story everywhere, and you're in the uncomfortable position of covering the news when the news is you. It was a really, really hard day. It was especially hard for Marc, because I'd been in Iraq several weeks earlier, and Lee had made a point of calling him and soothing his fears.

MC: How is Bob doing now?

EV: He really has defied the odds. But at that point, all we knew was, Bob's injuries were life-threatening. The network had to figure out what to do. I was still only nine or 10 weeks pregnant, and I would have liked to have gotten through the first trimester before saying anything, but it wasn't fair. They were game-planning, and they needed to know. By August, when I would have the baby and take leave — and because of the difficulty of my first pregnancy, I knew I would be having a C-section — a show designed to have two anchors would have no anchor. What was going to happen on 9/11, the fifth anniversary? What would happen if something momentous, a hurricane or another terrorist attack, occurred?

MC: So if Bob hadn't been injured, you still would have been the co-anchors?

EV: Undoubtedly. Bob would be in that chair, with someone filling in for me, and I'd return — perhaps.

MC: Why "perhaps"? Did the idea of having two small children seem daunting?

EV: Other female anchors, like Katie Couric and Soledad O'Brien, also have children. But Katie's are older now. And Soledad does a morning show, so she's there for them in the evenings. While I was doing the news solo, Marc and I saw the toll it took on Zachary — he would refuse to go to sleep till Mommy came home. It was heartbreaking.

MC: In May 2006, Charlie Gibson, who had reportedly lobbied hard for the job, was named sole anchor. When the news got out that he'd been given the job instead of you, you became a poster child for women shunted aside because of pregnancy. NOW joined with the Feminist Majority Foundation and the National Council of Women's Organizations to protest your departure. In a letter sent to ABC, they called your move to 20/20 a "clear demotion" and "a dispiriting return to the days of discrimination against women that we thought were behind us." NOW president Kim Gandy told the Washington Post, "It seems unlikely to me, having survived and thrived through her first pregnancy, that she would logically give up the top job in TV a few months out, anticipating she couldn't handle it. It just doesn't strike me as a logical explanation. I don't think there are too many men who would be happy to be removed from the anchor chair."

EV: I salute 100 percent these organizations. But I will tell you, nobody from any one of them ever spoke to me. No one ever asked, point blank, "What happened to you? Did you get pushed out because you're pregnant, and are you upset about it?"

MC: If they had called, what would you have said?

EV: [pause] I would have said, "Listen, this is a tremendously difficult decision for me to make, but this is what's best for my family. I'm rolling the dice, I'm gambling, I think it's a good bet that I'm gonna have another shot at a job like this. Charlie likes to say he's the victim of circumstance. In many cases, we all are. There's a whole panoply of things that happened in the last year-and-a-half that I could never have anticipated — and that teaches you that life isn't something you manage. It happens, and you deal with it.

MC: Still, it couldn't have been too great to open up the article about you in New York magazine and see yourself described as "collateral damage."

EV: You know what? I don't think this is a business for pansies. You don't get into this business if you can't take the heat. It's brutally competitive. The fact that someone else may have desperately wanted this job and fought hard to get it doesn't erase the fact that I knew, for me, I was struggling with the demands of the job, and the demands of motherhood with young children.

MC: So in your 20/20 special, when you examine the issue of whether women — even women with fame, prestige, and plenty of money — can have it all, your answer would be...

EV: No!

MC: What do you think of the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric?

EV: I think they're bold and trying a lot of new things. And now that I'm not there...listen, I love seeing a woman sitting in that seat. A woman, and not another white male.

MC: So what would you say to working women facing a choice like this?

EV: Every working mother faces my dilemma. I can't think of a single one of them who has ever said, "It's easy." It's not. But I would bet that every single one would tell you it's worth it. It's really important to let every woman find her way. And it would be great to support their decisions, whether it's to take two years off or to take six weeks off. Working mothers have a hard enough time as it is, wearing a zillion hats and juggling all these balls, and meeting a lot of people's expectations. What we don't need to do is pile on more pressure, and insist that she do it the way we would do it. Let her figure out the best way for her. [baby squirms and looks like he has to burp] My husband has been sleeping in the den at night because of this.

MC: It is awful being a baby. It is just very, very tough.

EV: [tenderly burping him] That must be why they don't remember it. Otherwise, they'd all be in therapy at 4.