What It Means To Have It All As A Woman And A Mother (my thoughts on Marissa Mayer’s Maternity Leave)

Women working at a job where juggling motherhood was likely a challenge, circa WWII.

If you haven’t heard about the controversial reactions to Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy and maternity leave plans (former Google executive and hire #20, and recently announced CEO of Yahoo), feel free to read the links above and come back. I’ll be here. We can also take a moment to fume about how an article about executive women in the New York Times ends up in the damned FASHION section of the paper, if you like. I know I am.

Before I say anything further, YES, I acknowledge that anything I say about this is coming from a place of incredible privilege as a white woman with (relative) financial means. Absolutely. Millions of women have taken little or no maternity leave because as a nation  we are NOT guaranteed paid maternity leave or that our jobs will still be there when we return to work. This fact sucks for everyone including fathers, who get almost no paternity leave at all, regardless of where we all fall on the income scale.

That said, I’ve been thinking a great deal about Marissa Mayer’s declaration about working through her maternity leave and I think it’s totally fine. I don’t believe it hurts any other woman for her to work during the first weeks of her child’s life, or while she’s still in the hospital. It doesn’t set a standard for “all women” and she’s not setting women back or advancing them forward by making this choice for her family. Truth be told, her “reassurance” about working through maternity leave was primarily directed at the stockholders of Yahoo and isn’t meant to be a statement for all of womankind. And can we have an amen for Yahoo for hiring a pregnant woman as CEO? AMEN!

Of course, Marissa Mayer has NO idea how she’s going to actually feel about motherhood until it happens. There is no doubt in my mind that motherhood changes you and adjusts your priorities, and teaches you new definitions about what it means to have it all.

I swore up and down to my bosses that I would be back at work early from my maternity leave, that I would never quit my job to raise my daughter. After all, my husband was committed to being a stay-at-home dad anyway so it was a non-issue.

But then my daughter was born. Soon, I took my full leave, plus the extra two weeks that was granted me due to my emergency c-section. I didn’t want to go back to work at all, but for the next year, I went to work every day, and it was TORTURE. I hated being away from my infant daughter. It sucked. I hated pumping milk at work, I hated missing the way she smelled, I hated missing the first time she rolled over, her first smile… all of it. It was awful.

So I quit my job. I found a way to work from home (since not working at all wasn’t an option financially), and I made it work. But guess what? My baby grew into a little girl. A high energy, busy, constantly moving little girl that wanted me to play with her ALL THE TIME. It turns out that I love infants, but toddlers are a challenge for me and I dislike the part of parenting where you get down on the floor and play with your kid. So we started sending her to preschool where she had lots of friends and grownups to play with her. But I kept working from home, because I loved what I was doing and I loved the flexibility it offered.

This worked for our family.

In my smaller blogger way, I was judged for this, much like Marissa Mayer is now. People said that it was foolish of me to quit my safe, reliable job with the great benefits to become a full time freelancer, particularly since my husband was also a freelancer and that meant financial instability for our family. When we put my daughter in school, I was further judged for “dumping her at preschool” because after all, wasn’t I home to be with her? Plus when the economy collapsed and my family hit some major financial hard times, those that judged felt highly vindicated because it proved that I’d made foolish choices and mistakes (which, well, DUH).

But I’ve also seen mothers judged for not working, even when it’s not a financial necessity that they do so. I’ve seen mothers judged for choosing food stamps over working a million hours and having to pay for child care. And now, I’m seeing a woman who is a leader in the technology space and will be earning a million dollars a year+ be judged for not taking her full maternity leave.

Being a mother means being judged.

I’m a feminist, and I was raised by a feminist, and what I love most about feminism is that at the heart of it all is CHOICE. The hard work my mother did breaking ground (by marching and by working in traditionally male roles and then getting a PhD in a scientific field when even her advisors said she couldn’t make it as a woman) means that I get to CHOOSE how I live my life, and how I mother. It means my friends that are full-time moms get to be full time moms, and my friends with full time jobs get to have full time jobs. NO CHOICE IS WRONG.

It also means that Marissa Mayer gets to choose how she mothers, no matter what that looks like. I think we should leave her alone while giving her kudos, because seriously: WELL DONE, MARISSA. You are on an amazing new journey, both personally and professionally, and I have utter faith that you will do it well.


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