Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, announced this week via her Tumblr that she’s pregnant with twin girls. After the birth of her first child, Mayer returned to work after two weeks, and was inundated with self-righteous tut-tutting over what her truncated leave said about the kind of mother she is. This time she pre-emptively addressed the gorilla-in-the-room: “Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated, and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.” Cue the backlash.
Now, I’ve been called a bad mother for choosing to return to full-time work after having a baby, too, so let me be clear: Motherhood and career are not a zero sum game. And let’s face it—no high-profile businessman has ever had to take that kind of criticism or likely even felt the need to explain on his Tumblr how he was going to make it all work.
But I do worry about the message her pledge to take almost no time off sends about the value of maternity leave, and how it undermines recent efforts by US companies to offer and normalize the idea of longer parental leaves, for both moms and dads.
I live in Canada now, but I gave birth to both of my kids in the United States, and from the vantage point of the Great White North, I can tell you that parents here view the standard three-month American leave as unfathomable and a two-week leave as downright barbaric. After two kids and two very different maternity leaves, I’m inclined to agree. The year after a baby is born is, also “a unique time,” and a chance to take care of yourself and your family during a period of a mind-bending life changes.
When my daughter Chloe was born 10 years ago, I went back to work after 12 weeks, the max amount of time the Family Medical Leave Act would protect my job. Eight weeks of my leave were covered (I got a bonus two weeks of partial pay due to a C-section); my company at the time offered no additional paid or unpaid leave. Honestly, this was pretty generous, because US companies aren’t required by law to offer any paid time off for new moms, and there is no Employment Insurance (and therefore no maternity benefits).
This is what it’s like to have 12 weeks of leave after having a baby, if you’re lucky enough to even have a job that offers it: You begin figuring out child care almost right away; the irony that you barely know how to take care of this little person and now must somehow assess someone else’s ability to do so does not escape you. You join a mom’s group, but a few weeks isn’t enough time to form any real bonds, and you never build that support system that would come in so handy later on. The pressure to look like pre-baby you is intense because it’s not going to be cool to go to work in yoga pants or a T-shirt with wet spots. And then, before you know it, it’s time for your first day.
I floated around the edges of myself through those first weeks back at work—there but not really there. I hadn’t come close to squaring the new-mom me with the old me. My baby was sleeping through the night but I was still exhausted. Physically, I was experiencing discomfort from my C-section, which was exacerbated by hauling my breast pump to and fro on the subway each day. (And oh, what fun it was to be boobs-out pumping in a closet within earshot of my colleagues.) Chloe didn’t seem to care when I left each day, as she was too young for separation anxiety. That made things easier, and yet I wasn’t yet secure enough in our bond to not take a little offence.
Four years later, I got a chance for a do-over when I was laid off from my job when I was nine weeks pregnant with my son Julian. I was lucky enough to get a contract gig that kept me working until my due date, but by the time I delivered, I was jobless and therefore ineligible for any paid leave. That financial hardship came with a silver lining, though: there was no job to rush back to. I was extremely fortunate to be able to take six-and-a-half months off—somewhere in the neighbourhood of what many Canadians take, although nowhere near the 50 weeks parents are entitled to here.
Still, the difference between my two leaves was astounding. I couldn’t believe how much I enjoyed my baby after I had a bit of time to dig out from the torture of sleep deprivation. Certainly, some of it had to do with the fact that I was a more confident second-time mom, but, mostly, I think it was the luxury of time—to heal completely, to get my postpartum sh*t together, to get to know my son, and to revel in the experience of caring for what I knew was my last baby. It might sound strange to say, but I’m grateful for the series of events losing my job set in motion, because those months were among the most profound and precious of my life. Most working American women don’t get that, but I’m so grateful I did.
There are many, many differences between Marissa Mayer and me. She can afford all the help she needs, making lack of sleep and child care worries much less of an issue (although, sadly, you still can’t outsource recovering from labour and delivery). And I suspect as a CEO, her ability to roll with change far exceeds your average postpartum mom’s. But there’s another difference: as a breaker of glass ceilings, her choices have the ability to change minds and maybe even policies. During her tenure, Yahoo has already extended its paid parental leave to 16 weeks for moms and eight weeks for dads. What a gift it would be to herself and to working moms everywhere if she actually led by example and took that time—and then fought for something on par with Netflix’s newly announced up-to-a-year leave. Four months off is a start, but as any Canadian parent will tell you, it’s really not enough. And don’t even get me started on Sweden’s dreamy parental leave…
Sasha Emmons is the editor-in-chief of Today’s Parent, Canada’s #1 parenting magazine and media brand. She lives in Toronto with her husband and two children.