I don’t think anyone would mistake me for Marissa Mayer—the newly-appointed 37-year-old CEO of Yahoo who’s raising hackles all over town with her very public promise to return to work two weeks after delivering her first baby. For one thing, I am not a blonde (it wouldn’t be a good look for me, seeing as I am the approximate color of tracing paper and hirsute enough that old Russian women speak to me on the subway in their native tongue). Also, no one has ever wanted to make me the CEO of anything, ever. I think it has something to do with the fact that when you run my credit score, instead of a number, you get a slot machine tableau in which three skulls-and-crossbones roll into a line and then start laughing hysterically. But I digress.
I’m also unlike Mayer in that I didn’t publicly vow to return to work after two weeks. Or six weeks. Or even three months. Instead, once I’d used up most of my maternity leave, I asked for more time to stay home with my baby, and I got it. And then my editor and I decided that it would be mutually beneficial for me to start this column instead of returning to my former post as managing editor. The truth is, I didn’t want to go back to a full-time job. I wanted to freelance and stay home—to be, in the acronymic shorthand of mommy bloggers, a WAHM, or work-at-home mom. It may sound like a dyslexic George Michael cover band, but it’s my choice, and so far I’m happy with it.
The question of whether to return to the office after having babies—another cultural Seussian Butter Battle that rages on with no détente in sight—has been around as long as women have been in the work force, and it’s come to the fore again lately, with Mayer’s public vow to continue to work through her (very short) maternity leave arriving on the spiked heels of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s controversial Atlantic article, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” If Slaughter’s thesis—that a high-powered career can only come with at least some cost to your children’s emotional needs—seemed depressing, Mayer’s appointment should have been an uplifting, knocked-up Cinderella story of a retort. After all, look! It’s a pregnant woman—fecund and famished and and chock full of crazy hormones—running a Fortune 500 company! She can have her baby and leave it with a nanny, too! If she doesn’t have it all, then who does?
Mayer’s hiring is unquestionably good news for women looking to climb the corporate ladder. But her eschewing anything approaching a reasonable maternity leave doesn’t set a great precedent. It seems to suggest that recovering from childbirth is some sort of vacation—an indulgent postpartum Shangri-La of beatific repose and the triumphant consumption of alcohol, sushi and other luxury items on the pregnancy prohibition list—that ambitious women really should be able to go without. I wish we lived in a society where it was as acceptable for a high-powered career woman to take a full three-month maternity leave without apology as it is for a high-powered career man to spend the entire month of August on golf courses in the Hamptons.
Most women I know—who are of course not nearly as high-profile as Mayer—already feel pressure to bounce back, as if they’d had all that time “off” to simply rest and recuperate. But anyone who’s had a baby knows that time spent with a newborn is not time off. It’s not like say, getting a gallbladder or appendix removed (I’ve never had either surgery, but from my understanding, neither organ is capable of screaming in the night, demanding to be fed, once it leaves the body). Instead, it’s a sink-or-swim period of training in which you are forced to be “on” all the time—a 24-hour nanny, personal chef, chauffeur, maid, court jester, teacher, tour guide, body guard, punching bag and feedlot to a miniature boss who, if left to his own devices, would surely perish, or at least urinate unwittingly on his own face.
That’s maternity leave in practice. In theory, it should serve the dual purpose of allowing a mother to heal after the decidedly taxing exercise of labor, while also giving her time to bond with her baby and catch up on her DVR queue while she waits for her nipples to stop leaking. The catch is that no one knows exactly how much time should be allotted for these activities, so governments decide … and as with erectile dysfunction medication, results may vary.
In Austria, to use an extreme example, new parents receive a collective two years of paid parental leave. In America, the Family Medical Leave Act entitles new parents to up to 12 weeks without fear of losing their jobs, but none of that time is legally required to be compensated. Some companies offer the option for longer leaves—a woman I know who’s a junior associate at a major law firm got six months—but most don’t. (In the interest of full disclosure, I took unpaid FMLA leave from The Observer, and when I didn’t return after 12 weeks, my medical benefits automatically expired.)
I’m inclined to doubt that Yahoo’s official benefits package includes a clause ordering new mothers to fire up their BlackBerrys while waiting for the afterbirth to pass, so Mayer’s decision is probably a personal one, meant to reassure shareholders that she will only take her hands off the wheel for the half day or so it takes her to extrude another human being from her body. More power to her if this is what she truly wants. But I can’t know. Neither will she, until she pops that kid out. That’s why parental leaves are so important—they allow time to adjust to a completely different life, one in which, while your day job may still be waiting in the wings, you’re busy learning the ropes to a frightening and powerful new position you are probably (mentally, if not biologically) totally unqualified for.
Hell, I’m 10 months in and I still don’t know anything. Except that I wish I lived in Austria. If not for the healthcare, then at least for the pastries.