Marissa Mayer and Maternity Leave: How We Parent in America

Marissa Mayer and Maternity Leave: How We Parent in America

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, recently announced that after giving birth—to twins!—she will only take two weeks off for maternity leave.

Two. Weeks.

That’s barely enough time for any woman who recently gave birth to go to the bathroom without searing pain, let alone sit comfortably at a desk while running a major company.

There’s no question that Mayer can afford good childcare; and with twins, she’s going to need it, no matter how long she takes to bond with her new babies. But her decision to take such a short maternity leave has been controversial: critics say it undermines her commitment to women, and even her commitment to children; she is, after all, clearly putting her career first.

“[L]ess than 5% of the CEOs in the S&P 500 are female,” reports Forbes, “and career disruptions (among them, having children) have proven to be impediments to advancement.”

Others say that despite her quick return to her desk, her work performance may be compromised, and that she’s also feeding an unhealthy obsession with success: “[H]er decision seems emblematic of a workaholic culture that leaves too little time for family or even personal health, preventing either men or women from ‘having it all,’” writes Katherine Reynolds Lewis in Fortune.

There’s no question that having a child and a career requires a series of sacrifices. (As I sit here typing this, my daughter, who is turning two next week, is off with her nanny on a lunch and play date with a few of her friends, who are also accompanied by their nannies filling in for busy working parents.)

Handing off our children to caregivers is more common today than at perhaps any other time in history. Relatives, nurses, and nannies have always assisted in the upbringing of children; but  it’s only in recent history that it’s happened so that both parents can focus on their careers.

And that’s worth looking at.

Whatever we feel about women in the workforce, there’s a big difference between a mother taking a break from her children to have a nap, (or even enjoy some time with other adults and/or alcohol), and the mom who is inundated by a career and all the pressures it brings. Whether that’s driven by financial needs or simply career goals, is the mother who is checking work emails while breastfeeding really giving her family the critical attention it needs? What about the mother who foregoes breastfeeding because it’s too time consuming and will interfere with her work responsibilities? Not all mothers can breastfeed, but those who can are encouraged to do it for the countless benefits it provides the child (and the mom: breastfeeding has been linked to a reduced risk of breast cancer).

Yes, women are absolutely entitled to careers and the same opportunities as men (and while we’re on it, the same pay). But when we take on the responsibility of having a child—a responsibility exclusive to being a woman—our priorities need to shift. They have to. That’s not to say we can’t maintain or further our career goals. But being the bearer of children does make us different from men. It makes us stronger, more nurturing, and more capable in many regards. And, for a relatively short period of time, it also makes us beholden to someone (or several someones) else. Should we really be asking our children to sacrifice those few critical months so that we can get back to work? In the big picture, it’s such a short period of time for us to stop everything and simply nurture, connect, and form the bonds that, we hope, will aid our children in developing their own balanced and beautiful lives.

“[Mayer] conveys the image of someone who’s perfectly capable of combining her personal life and her public responsibilities without one derailing the other. That’s a message we should applaud,” Kathleen Gerson, professor at New York University and author of “The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family” told Lewis. “It also suggests that somehow it’s illegitimate for women—and by implication for men as well—to take some time off at critical moments in their own lives and the lives of their children. To that extent, it’s a backward-looking message.”

Mayer’s decision is reflective of her own capabilities, as Gerson explains, but it’s also clearly a decision driven by priorities–and not just Mayer’s, but also the priorities of our culture. Had she been running a company in, say, France, there wouldn’t be as much pressure for her to return to work so soon, because the universal health care system and the generous maternity leave programs reinforce the importance of this incredible time for mother and baby. It reinforces the reality that life is not permanent and certainly our careers are not, no matter how important they seem.

The experience of parenting is fleeting and precious–and the joy of those moments with our children enrich us not just as parents, but as a culture too. But here in the U.S., maternity leave is often treated more like an inconvenient vacation than the miracle it is. So, it’s no surprise that Mayer has decided to attempt the impossible. But she shouldn’t have to.

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Image: Fortune Lives Media

Jill Ettinger

Jill Ettinger is a Los Angeles-based journalist and editor focused on the global food system and how it intersects with our cultural traditions, diet preferences, health, and politics. She is the senior editor for sister websites and, and works as a research associate and editor with the Cornucopia Institute, the organic industry watchdog group. Jill has been featured in The Huffington Post, MTV, Reality Sandwich, and Eat Drink Better.