Marissa Mayer's short maternity leave: I get it.

Marissa Mayer maternity leave

Hours after Marissa Mayer, the new CEO of Yahoo!, gave birth to her first baby, critics were already all a-flutter about the fact that Mayer plans to return to work after a one- or two- week maternity leave. 

I understand where they’re coming from. In the homebirth-y world in which I hovered for most of my five pregnancies and births, there’s a lot of emphasis on three things during the immediate postpartum period: rest, bonding, and breastfeeding.

They aren’t even three separate entities, exactly, but a sort of triad: rest makes it easier to breastfeed, breastfeeding makes it easier to bond, bonding makes it easier to keep breastfeeding; the whole thing is seen as a sort of virtuous circle of mothering that leads to happier and more attached moms and babies.

And to a certain degree, I agree. I do think new moms need rest. I am not excited about the idea of a newly-delivered mother, say, having to do laundry or drive carpool, though I also understand that it’s the reality of many women’s lives that they must return to those tasks nearly immediately after having a baby.

I am also a fan of breastfeeding and bonding. Breastfeeding was a great way to bond with my babies (though I would never extrapolate that to mean that not breastfeeding means babies and moms can’t bond.) And resting helped me breastfeed. Three cheers for the rest, breast, bond trifecta!

But here’s where what I believe in theory starts to fall apart in practice: I don’t think Mayer’s plans for a short maternity leave are all that shocking.

I can identify – on some very limited level – with Mayer: within minutes after giving birth to my youngest four children, I was on the computer writing up their birth stories (my eldest was born before I had internet, so I guess I just made a million phone calls.)

Within hours of giving birth to my younger two, I was blogging. Within a day, I was responding to work-related email and negotiating contracts, and within a week I was back to taking regular assignments and making deadlines.

No, those things aren’t anywhere near the same level of work and stress as being the CEO of a multinational internet company, but people looked at me askance anyway.

“Shouldn’t you be RESTING?” I’d hear as I typed away on my computer, my snoozing infant on my chest. I often got the feeling that by refusing to completely check out of the work world – even though I was doing it with a baby in one arm – some felt I wasn’t committing myself enough to getting to know my new baby; wasn’t properly bonding or “experiencing the moment.”

The truth was that while I spent plenty of time counting tiny toes and kissing chubby cheeks, I felt a lot happier, more energized and calmer when I kept a toe in my career.

Blending work and a newborn has always felt natural to me; as natural, in fact, as breastfeeding.

For one thing, babies sleep a lot in those first weeks, and after a while, staring at even the most adorable sleeping baby gets boring. When given the choice between writing and watching daytime TV, writing wins, hands-down.

I liked staying on top of my work every day, a little at a time. Who wants to return after 6 weeks or 3 months and try to deal with a huge stack of stuff that’s been totally neglected…while caring for an increasingly-needy baby?

I’ve had easy, short births and always feel energized during the immediate postpartum period – an initial burst of energy which, for me, tends to wear off by the third or fourth month postpartum.

And during the last month of each of my pregnancies I have been taken over by something I can only describe as “baby brain fog” which completely robs me of motivation or the ability to focus. Giving birth has been a tremendous relief: finally, I can THINK again!

For me, the newborn period is the easy part. I sleep. The baby sleeps. I feel good. I’m so full of endorphins that nothing stresses me out. The baby’s happy to be held by anyone with arms.

It just gets harder from there.

Do I think it’s like this for every woman? Of course not. But neither do any of us know how Mayer feels right now. Maybe her world hasn’t been as rocked as everyone assumes it will be (some women make the adjustment to motherhood a lot more easily than others.) Likely her support system is on a level that we “normal” moms can’t even comprehend. Very likely, she is the kind of extraordinary person who can handle this kind of juggling act on a level many of us can’t or just wouldn’t want to.

And possibly, she has worked out a plan for how she’ll deal with the first year of her baby’s life, which might include taking advantage of a newborn’s sleepiness, immobility and lack of separation anxiety.

I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Mayer no doubt knows that her mothering is going to be under just as much intense scrutiny as the choices she makes as Yahoo’s CEO. If she’s made a mistake or taken on more than she can handle, she’ll learn that quickly enough. We all over- and under – estimate our motherly powers sometimes.

But as a mom of two teens, I also understand that parenting is about the big picture. There is no 6- or 12- or 52-week period that defines you as a mother. There’s no point at which your opportunity to enjoy your child is lost.

Whether Mayer returns to work tomorrow or in six months, being a working mom in a high-stakes, high-pressure job is the reality of her life. Delaying her return by 4 weeks isn’t going to change that reality or make or break her as a mom. She’ll have many opportunities over the years to re-think, adjust, and shift priorities as her life and her child’s needs fluctuate.

So I guess all I have to say to Marissa Mayer is “Congrats” – on the new baby, and for the job.  I think you’re smart enough to figure this out as you go.

And if Yahoo! will let you, you might want to consider saving some of that maternity leave to use when your baby turns 14.


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