That “Distressed Baby” Who Tim Armstrong Blamed for AOL Benefit Cuts? She’s My Daughter.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Feb. 9 2014 10:27 AM

My Baby and AOL’s Bottom Line

That “distressed baby” who Tim Armstrong blamed for benefit cuts? She’s my daughter.

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The author's daughter, at bathtime.

Photo by Deanna Fei

On Thursday, within minutes of Armstrong’s utterance, my husband began fielding questions from colleagues: Wasn’t the CEO talking about his baby? Focused as he was on his job as an editor—who then had to assign neutral coverage of this brewing business story—he struggled to grasp that the baby behind the headlines was our daughter. That her near-death was already becoming fodder for reporters to gleefully note Armstrong’s previous gaffes, a titillating item of news gossip for his colleagues to pick over.

At home with our daughter, I found myself again unable to look at her without recalling her clinging to life support. Since her arrival, I’ve rarely been free from some form of torment over her premature birth. The months of pumping breast milk for a baby who might not live to drink it. The anxieties about every milestone: Will she smile? Will she lift her head? Will she crawl, talk, sing? The torturous thoughts of what I might have done wrong during my brief pregnancy, how I might have failed her as her mother.

Because the day of her birth was the furthest thing from a happy event, because so many of her first days were lived under the specter of death, I’ve never had the luxury of taking her presence for granted. Every time she wakes with a dazzling smile and goes to sleep with her soft head against my shoulder feels like a wonder. It can be a struggle to set aside my lingering trauma amid the daily realities of coordinating her care to simply celebrate the fierce, beautiful girl who has completed our family.

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All of which made the implication from Armstrong that the saving of her life was an extravagant option, an oversize burden on the company bottom line, feel like a cruel violation, no less brutal for the ludicrousness of his contention.

Let’s set aside the fact that Armstrong—who took home $12 million in pay in 2012—felt the need to announce a cut in employee benefits on the very day that he touted the best quarterly earnings in years. For me and my husband—who have been genuinely grateful for AOL’s benefits, which are actually quite generous—the hardest thing to bear has been the whiff of judgment in Armstrong's statement, as if we selfishly gobbled up an obscenely large slice of the collective health care pie.

Yes, we had a preemie in intensive care. This was certainly not our intention. While he’s at it, why not call out the women who got cancer? The parents of kids with asthma? These rank among the nation’s most expensive medical conditions. Would anyone dare to single out these people for simply availing themselves of their health benefits?

Once the blowback started, Armstrong issued an internal memo—not an apology—that sought to clarify how he had “mentioned high-risk pregnancy as just one of many examples of how our company supports families when they are in need.” Then he urged employees, “Let’s move forward together as a team.”

But there was nothing high-risk about my pregnancy. I never had a single risk factor for a preterm birth, let alone one as extreme as this one. Until the morning I woke up in labor, every exam indicated that our daughter was perfectly healthy. In fact, had signs of trouble emerged, such as bleeding or pre-eclampsia, the doctors would have had the chance to mitigate the danger, administering steroids to speed up her lung development or hormones to delay labor. Instead, even with the best medical care available, we had no warnings, and we will never have an explanation for what went wrong. This is why the head neonatologist referred matter-of-factly to our daughter’s birth as “catastrophic.”

In other words, we experienced exactly the kind of unforeseeable, unpreventable medical crisis that any health plan is supposed to cover. Isn’t that the whole point of health insurance?

These days, at the age of 1, my daughter is nothing short of a miracle, which is to say, she appears much like any healthy baby. This past week has been eventful for her. Right around when Tim Armstrong might have been preparing for that conference call, she took her first steps, two tiny steps, before plopping down and demanding to be hugged for her efforts.

Our daughter has already overcome more setbacks than most of us have endured in the span of our lives. Having her very existence used as a scapegoat for cutting corporate benefits was one indignity too many.

Deanna Fei is the author of the novel A Thread of Sky.