Leaving Mat Leave by the Wayside?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The day I gave birth to my son, I was also scheduled to do a phone interview with a celebrity for a magazine. I remember emailing my editor saying that I — get this — could still do it since the contractions are kind of spaced out. Then I caught myself and wrote another email. This one said:

On second thought, let Christine do the phoner and I can write it up from her notes. I’ll be out of here in a day or so and can get the piece back to you soonest.

I’ll pause here while you wipe away your tears from laughing. When I think back to it, I laugh too, and roll my eyes and shake my head and then cover my face with a blanket, embarrassed. Outrageous.

Fun at the office with the bebe belly just days before things got really real. (Photo credit: Nikki Beland)

I ended up having an emergency Caesarean and stayed in the hospital for five days. Then when I got home … well, there were the cracked nipples, the C-section nightmares, the scar, and the newborn to remind me that, uh, I JUST HAD A BABY!

Last week, when I read about new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy, I was happy for her. As happy as I could be for someone I don’t know at all. But then when I read that Mayer said her maternity leave (she’s due in October) will be “a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it,” my eyebrows went up.

Now, I know the whole spiel, and I’m with you on it:  To each his own … making the decision that’s right for her … smart enough to create her own plan … will have the money (pay package worth $129 million) and resources to hire help … yes, yes, and yes. And I understand that isn’t necessarily about trying to have it all (or reconciling that you can’t), but about our own sense of fulfillment. However, I’m still uneasy with the idea of maternity leave been sidelined as unnecessary. There was even this piece in the New York Times over the weekend, where a woman featured in the story asks,  “Is maternity leave an outdated notion for high-achieving women who have lots of demands and flexibility?” And now my brows are furrowed.

I guess I’m trying to see this clearer without having judgment cloud my lens. Understand in a true sense how maternity leave might be considered outdated or, worse, a “false construct.” I keep thinking about that email I wrote to my editor three years ago, and how utterly oblivious I was about what lay ahead on the new parent path. As a freelance journalist and (thankfully) my own boss, I was so grateful for the time — the weeks and months right after becoming someone’s mother — to just breathe a bit. Settle into the enormity of it.

But maybe it doesn’t matter if I ever “get it” or understand the choices of another mother. What counts is, I’m wishing Mayer all good luck — with her baby, motherhood, and the very real uphill battle she’s facing trying to revitalize Yahoo.

I’m rooting for her.

  • 1
    Kristin says:

    When I worked at Friendly’s, my manager worked up until she gave birth. Really, right up until she gave birth. And she was back at work in three days. Seriously. So, actually, I think the whole maternity leave thing is shaped like the picture in The Little Prince. The one that looks like a hat, but it’s actually a snake that ate an elephant. You know that one?

    I say this because I think that the women at the very high end, the ones that have gone through a lot of crazy challenges and head-butting and personal sacrifices in order to get to the tippy-top, don’t want to give up what they’ve fought for during their youth. (Kind of like 10 times what some of us have felt about choosing to stay at home and leaving our Master’s degrees in the dust.) And the women at the low-end of the scale can’t afford to take maternity leave because every moment not working equals less money. House cleaners, waitresses, babysitters, and anyone with a job that’s hourly or part-time, lose lose lose. It’s a choice, sure. But an impossible one. So, I take it back, not a choice.

    Those of us in the middle, who can afford (albeit painfully) to make the choice (even if it’s an difficult choice), can moan on Twitter and groan in conversations and growl at the unfairness of the inequity in the USA. But still, it’s a choice because we’re willing to consider either side.

    Don’t know if that makes any sense. I just remember my manager at Friendly’s never complaining, never even doing more than shrugging. She just started doing what she had to do because she didn’t have the wiggle room or time to consider the alternatives.

    • 1.1
      Ms. Mary Mack says:

      Makes total sense, Kristin. It’s a real and true and sobering fact that many, many (too many) women have no choice when or if they return to wrok after having a baby. There are mothers who have to return almost immediately to their jobs (or two jobs) in order to keep the family’s collective head above water. However, I’m not talking about those women in this post. I’m following the NYT’s original question: Is maternity leave unnecessary for women executives?

      I worry about that kind of thinking, worry that we may eventually move closer towards this notion that taking the time off to catch your breathe after having a child is some frivolous indulgence for the weak of heart.

      It’s similar to the current climate of busyness we’re in most industries: you MUST answer your company emails at midnight or on a Saturday afternoon, you MUST always be on, always available or else maybe you’re not in this game for the winning.

      As I said, obviously, I don’t know Ms. Mayer. For all I know, she might be like your former manager at Friendly’s and might not think twice about any of this, might not be troubled in the least but the debate that her decision has sparked. But what about the the “middle of the pack” mothers? For them (for us) I feel like we need to protect that choice. Hell, I want the U.S. to catch up to the rest of the world with a proper maternity/family leave policy first before we start stripping things back even further.

      • 1.1.1
        Kristin says:

        Very true. I think the way to achieve it, frankly, is to fight for parental leave instead of maternity leave. The Park Slope Food Coop (oh no!) had a 12 month policy per birth. The parent/s could split it up any way they wanted. 6/6, 1/11 12/0,3/9. You get the idea. Perhaps, with women sometimes making the higher wages, that’s the way to go – let parents make the choice.

        And regarding Mayer, I think it’s personal. I know some execs who are thrilled to be back, others agonize over it. Same all around. No answers from me, that’s for sure.