Why Marissa Mayer isn’t actually ruining everything for working moms everywhere

Marissa Mayer has provided me with a lot of air cover over the years.

She had her first baby right around when I told my manager I was pregnant with my first child, then announced being pregnant with twins recently, just when I came back from maternity leave with my second child.

Both times, it felt easier to talk about being pregnant, being on maternity leave, and coming back as a working mom because of her.  The concepts around being a working mom were in the public discourse, they were top of mind.

There’s a lot of criticism around her decision to return to work so quickly after her children, both times.  Her reported two weeks seems, to any “normal” working mom without a staff of thousands, unreasonably short.  She’s been accused of setting a bad example by going back to work a few weeks after giving birth.

No way.

She’s setting a great example.  A great example of how work-life balance can work.  In her case, being named CEO of Yahoo means that ‘work’ tipped the scales over ‘life’ right then.  She’s saying, “I can be a powerful woman and a mom at the same time.”  For all sorts of reasons the world hates that idea.  But I love it.

Even more, I love that her decisions are causing people to talk about all this.  I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve come back from both of my maternity leaves to a team that believed I was coming back and gave me more responsibility.  But I know myriad women who feel like having had children set them back on their careers, independent of what they would have wanted.

The Byzantine set of laws around parental leave and equality at work have left employers afraid to ask a woman if she is pregnant.  Unable to talk to a woman about work while she’s on leave. Scared to ask about a woman’s plans.  I know why these laws exist and I believe they protect women.  But they also hurt women.  They hurt women by not having childbearing and its associated logistics an audible part of the discourse.

These laws and rules make it hard to make a plan like “I’d like to take 6 week off entirely, except for the one video I didn’t have a chance to edit before I left, then be on email lightly for 5 more weeks, then start coming in to the office once a week for a few hours for 3 more weeks, then come in for half-days for a week before returning full time except for when I have daycare drop off (when I’ll be a little late) pick up (when I have to leave a little early), my kid has pinkeye (when you don’t want me to come in anyway) the Jewish holidays in September (a day off for each) and the 60 minutes each workday when I have to express breastmilk, which I’ll do for 3-9 months depending on how soon it makes me want to jump off a bridge.”  But that’s a real life plan.

I don’t think most women should be forced to take only two weeks of maternity leave prior to returning to work.  I wasn’t in physical or emotional shape to do that.  And I think that’s only reasonable to do if you have full-time help who follows you around including overnight, which most of us can’t afford.  And even then, it may not be reasonable physically or emotionally.  But it was for Mayer.  And my eagerness to return to work after the regulated 12 weeks seemed rushed for other people.  It’s pretty personal what works for whom.

People keep saying, “but twins, so different from single babies, she doesn’t know what she’s in for,” but you know what?  She’s an adult with extraordinary access to tools that would enable her to find information (see what I did there?).  She is going in eyes-wide-open.  And she may change her mind once the babies arrive.  But she may decide her plan will work fine.

What’s important is that people are talking about it.  Her right to privacy notwithstanding (because she did choose to be CEO of a publicly-traded company), her decisions are opening a long-needed conversation around how to support women who want to have high-powered positions but also want to have families.

And when you all figure it out, please put the answer in the comments.  Because I would like the recipe for that.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *