maternity leave

Actually, How About We Don’t Take Our Babies to Work?

Newborn baby sleeping on a white rug

Like Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer who went back to work with twins in tow, Embark CEO Sarita James, writing in the New York Times, tells her own “take your baby to work” story:  instead of a long maternity leave for her third baby, she put the kid in a sling and charged ahead with client meetings and interfacing—and managed it all on a spreadsheet.

“I learned to schedule spreadsheet analysis for when Uma was sleeping and meetings for when she was likely to be awake; she loved staring at my colleagues’ faces. Uma almost never cried as long as I fed her when she was hungry, changed her diaper when it was wet, and stood up with her if I sensed she wanted a change of scenery. I was fortunate; I don’t remember my boys being as quiet. But I also think Uma enjoyed being in a sling, and baby carrying has been shown to reduce crying and fussing.”

I had to analyze my mixed reaction to this: is James’ story a work-life balance dream, or late capitalist nightmare?

Honestly, it’s the latter. First of all, the account of a CEO who was pleasantly surprised that her underlings didn’t mind her (super quiet, apparently?) kid hanging out in the office reeks of a very narrow kind of privilege, which to her credit, James acknowledges: “If I’d been, for example, a cook, a doctor, a bus driver or a welder, I could never have tried it.”

But it goes beyond that. Because the general idea that workplaces should be flexible and accommodate parents isn’t a bad one at all. I applaud James for promoting the notion that kids are part of life and shouldn’t be shunted away—parents should able to bring babies or kids out and about when they need to, and companies that can afford it should offer onsite daycare.

Here’s the rub though: the underlying assumption in this piece, and in other recent “you go girl!” movements about women and work (ahem! Ivanka), is that the workplace is the place to be: work is where the fulfillment can be found, the dreams realized, work is where the interesting fabric of life is sown. Work is so great, it seems, that even little babies should be there— that’s definitely James’ sentiment. Don’t get me wrong: I like my work, and I’m a working mom (hi, lovely colleagues across the table!) and yes, there are moments when maternity leave can be numbing and isolating and break you down. And yes, middle-class women who now “lean in” were once, pre-feminism, confined to the kitchen in what Betty Friedan slammed as “comfortable concentration camps.”

But allow me to sound a little socialist here: replacing the altar of home with the altar of work isn’t the way to build a compassionate society. Aren’t there other places to find stimulation, companionship and problem-solving outside the strict confines of making money? And if not, why aren’t we creating them? Even if we’re not radically reinventing society, isn’t nurturing another human being for a few short months an acceptable reason to take a break from fun networking events and the enticing world of spreadsheets?

And so, to the moms who crow over how easily they smooshed their infants into their climb up the corporate ladder, it’s hard not to shout: “You’re ruining it for the rest of us!”

I say this as the parent of a 1-year-old who loves my career but also would have loved a long maternity leave in which I could solely focus on my baby, followed by part-time work, followed by a return to full time work just around now. And I’m not unique: there is an easy way to make work and family amenable to each other, and every other civilized country in the world does it. It’s a package of social programs called comprehensive paid parental leave combined with subsidized daycare.

Of course every mother should do as she wants, within limits, without being shamed, and of course, it would be great if workplaces could accommodate parents in myriad ways. But we don’t need more outside-the-box, entrepreneurial, startup-trendy, super rad Lean In style solutions for ambitious moms.

We need national paid parental leave and subsidized daycare, and we needed it decades ago.

The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. Comments are moderated, so use your inside voices, keep your hands to yourself, and no, we're not interested in herbal supplements.

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