My initial response to Marissa Mayer’s announcement that she was both expecting twins and planning to once again take a fleeting two-week maternity leave was shock and righteous anger.
How dare she do such a disservice to working parents? She should be setting an example! Taking six months of paid leave and establishing a new norm! Blazing bold new trails for American mothers and fathers who deserve what every other country in the first world guarantees! I felt scathing contempt for her in-office baby suite (wouldn’t that be nice), plush private office where she could pump or nurse (the rest of us use lactation rooms, thankyouverymuch), and an army of paid help.
Then I reconsidered. How do women feel at two weeks postpartum? Still healing from the physical trauma of the delivery, breasts swollen, bleeding and sore, and the newness of the baby starting to settle down while the reality sinks in of the weeks and months ahead of physical labor and minimal sleep. For me, despite all that, I also felt an intense need to be with the baby at all times and the vital conviction that I was the only one who could meet his needs. When a well-meaning grandparent took him for a while so I could rest, I dozed restlessly or lay wide awake worrying, convinced that he was hungry or wanted to be with his mother. I spent hours just looking at him, waiting for sighs, smiles, coos, and cries. It was almost two years before I could leave for work without double and triple checking for food, drool, or spit-up on my clothes.
So I offer an alternative to the “she is ruining maternity leave for all of us” theory. My suggestion is that Ms. Mayer will feel no different than the rest of us so soon after giving birth. It’s possible that she wants to go back to work at two weeks about as much as the rest of us would. But she is the public face of a very public company, a female leader in what is still very much a man’s world, and perhaps she feels that she simply can’t be away from her job for longer than that. That in the fast-paced world of technology, leaving for three or six months simply isn’t an option.
There are only two women on Yahoo’s board of directors, both over age 65. Perhaps Mayer feels compelled to show that not only can she manage her career and her family, she can do it without needing any type of break. Perhaps she is putting on a very strong public front but in reality dreads leaving her babies just as much as any working mom.
Professional women often feel that they need to do it better, faster, and smarter than the non-parents just to show that being a mother won’t make them fall behind. I have worked with people for months without mentioning that I have a family simply to avoid being perceived as unreliable or less ambitious. I have cried when my babysitter was late and I had to be late for class, knowing that it would be remembered more than the many other days I was on time.
Many of us don’t have choices when it comes to balancing our career and parenthood. Isn’t it possible that as the CEO of a major public company, Ms. Mayer feels that she doesn’t have a choice? That she has to keep herself in the game and prove to her board that there will be no ramifications to her family choices?
Does it make it easier that she has the financial means to make her office a place where she and her staff can care for the children? Absolutely. But wouldn’t the rest of us spend money to make life easier if we could? If money and position were no object, wouldn’t we hire help and set up our lives the way we wanted? I don’t begrudge her the perks that come with hard work and financial success. I also don’t envy her the unrelenting postpartum burden of steering a big ship through treacherous waters when, like the rest of us, she might prefer to heal and recover privately at home.
Many critics argue that she is missing an opportunity to advocate for other working parents by creating better policies within her organization and then setting an example by taking advantage of them. What if she feels just as torn as many of us do? If she does become a champion for this issue, will her male peers take her equally as seriously? If she uses her position to create the type of generous benefits some of her competitors now advertise, will she be perceived as using her position for her own benefit? If she leaves for four months, will shareholders lose confidence in her? It’s important to note that in 2013 Yahoo did expand its family leave benefits, including a paid time off and a stipend.
Yahoo’s future has never been clear or secure since the advent of other firms such as Google. Perhaps Ms. Mayer feels under tremendous pressure to maintain a strong and steady hand at the helm, however much she would like to take the 14 weeks her company guarantees her.
Suddenly I feel fortunate for the option of anonymity and the flexibility of being a graduate student. I do not envy Ms. Mayer having to face her board of directors and announce her pregnancy, nor do I envy her having to put on a suit and high heels two weeks after delivery. It’s easy to judge, but every one us, including the multi-millionaires, face terribly difficult choices as working parents. I can only hope that someday Marissa Mayer will retire in a very different corporate world than the one she has to navigate now.