Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave is her problem. Choosing her as a role model is yours.

Marissa Mayer

So Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo announced (yet again) that she was taking limited time off for the birth of her twin girls in December. “Limited time” here refers to two weeks. Yes, you heard right.

Depending on where you are in the spectrum of mothers, babies, careers and work-life balance, this is either a complete blow or totally motivating. This is also incongruous at a time when companies like Flipkart in India have just started warming up to extending maternity leave

I have been hearing a lot of “how dare she?” and “what does this mean for mothers?” and “how can she set a precedent?” and other such outcries on social media and it’s amusing that history has repeated itself so soon. The reactions were not very different three years ago, and I had responded here to Mayer’s first micro maternity leave announcement.

A few months later, in a lean-in blog post, Mayer explained the circumstances surrounding her decision:

After 13 years of really hard work at Google, I had been envisioning a glorious six-month maternity leave. However, if I took the new job, a long leave couldn’t happen. The responsibilities were too big, and time was of the essence—it just wouldn’t be fair to the company, the employees, the board, or the shareholders for me to be in the role, but out for an extended period of time.’

Soon after that, she issued an internal memo to her employees on introducing a ban on working from home. Needless to say, the memo sparked a debate on whether remote working leads to greater productivity and job satisfaction or kills creativity and is just a chance to slack off.

Is this the same woman? Doesn’t this sound dichotomous?

But then, motherhood is the biggest dichotomy anyway. There are ways and ways of negotiating it and there is no right or wrong about any of them. There are those like my mother who get on with it, leaving the baby with family and formula (those were the glorious joint family days). She was a school teacher, so her hours were good. She loved her job and retired from the same school 36 years later. There are others who do daycare, nannies, grandparents, or a combination thereof, depending on what their sanity or salary can afford. There are those, who like me, decide that jobs can be got back, but baby time can’t, and plunge into full-time baby care.

If you do the former, you are often looked at sceptically as someone who chose career over motherhood, money over emotional bonding, bottle over breast. If you choose the latter, you are looked upon as someone who was using motherhood as an excuse to sit at home and ‘do nothing’, who is an emotional sucker waiting to be manipulated by her child, who wanted out of the rat race and has found her way.

Not that quitting work is an option for most women – you need a partner who is willing to put the bread on the table, sometimes jam and cheese too, for an indefinite period of time, while you play primary caregiver to the baby.

So damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Your reasons for going back could be as compelling as your reasons for staying at home. Money, of course is the biggest reason, considering that two incomes are better than one, now that there is an additional member in the family.

What about caregiving to the newborns, you may ask. It’s evident that Mayer won’t be breastfeeding her twins (most of the times, twins are not breastfed anyway as there is never enough milk). It’s silly to even ask if she has support because she can afford the entire daycare industry. She can build one right next door to Yahoo if she so chooses.

And why is no one questioning her husband’s paternity leave? Isn’t that equally important in a power couple scenario? Why is he not being judged for that?

It strikes me as odd that we are discussing Marissa Mayer only when it comes to her maternity leave, and never for the work she does (which must be a lot, as Yahoo! CEO). And that, I think is a greater crime against feminism than questioning the signs she is sending out, coming to work two weeks after popping twins.

If she joined Yahoo as CEO when she was 28 weeks pregnant, her game is clearly different from millions of other mommies. So why judge her for playing what is clearly not every woman’s game?

Of course, the US has a dismal maternity leave policy and surely the law in the country should be strengthened to guarantee paid parental leave. But the jury on when is it okay for mothers to return to work post-childbirth is still out there. I would certainly judge her if she applied the same rules to her employees, but she hasn’t done that yet, has she? In fact she has changed maternity leave policies and granted eight weeks or more of paid maternity leave.

The point is, none of you is Marissa Mayer, and so your motivations will never be same as hers; her stakes are very different from yours. She signed up to be the CEO of Yahoo, not a maternity leave role model; she is only doing what it takes to keep her equity as a CEO intact. If she has decided that much rides on her FaceTime with the investors of a much crumbling Yahoo, that is her strategy. It need not be yours.

Marissa Mayer is not asking you to give up your maternity leave for your career. If that’s what you are reading as a subtext of her decision, that is clearly your problem, not hers.

(A version of this post appeared in indusparent.com)

(image courtesy: glamour.com)

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Fast forward mommy: What Marissa Mayer’s blink-and-miss maternity leave means to the rest of the world

Marissa Mayer is a woman who many love to hate – for having more zeroes in her salary than most people can ever dream of, for staying in the game through her pregnancy, for, in fact, raising the career bar by being hired as Yahoo CEO when six months pregnant. And now because she is back at work two weeks after having her baby, thereby availing the world’s shortest maternity leave. Time magazine called it the “blink-and-it’s-over ” maternity leave.
The internet is abuzz with debates over the sort of precedent she is setting for other working women. And, of course, a lot of ominous warnings are floating around about the perils of underestimating the challenges of motherhood and how she has no clue what’s coming to her.

The outraged argue that when women in power give the impression that maternity leave is dispensable, it is quite likely to send the wrong signals – that it’s easy, that taking time off is an unnecessary indulgence, that other women are making too big a deal of early motherhood months and that they are perhaps not so serious about their careers. Is the Mayer move then reflecting badly on other new mommies who choose to take time off to nurture their babies before getting back to work?

“This is a complex question that really has no easy answers. Are women who choose to take leave then, not committed enough to their careers?” asks Shilpa Phadke, professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a mother to a two year-old. “On the one hand, one must support the right of individual women to make choices that they see as best for them, but equally one must consider what this means for the already fragile rights of women to maternity leave especially in countries such as the US. ”

The US maternity leave policy is rather dismal – it grants 12 weeks of ‘unpaid’ leave, as opposed to Canada which grants paid leave up to 15 weeks and a longer duration of unpaid leave if required. India, for the most part has a 12-week paid leave policy although some companies grant as much as 16-20 weeks. Britain, on the other hand, grants upto 52 weeks of leave, of which 39 are paid. In the rest of Europe, women can take as much as three years off to raise their newborns. Most employers like to claim that they are supportive of new mothers but it is obvious that women are grudged this ‘perk’ – by their male colleagues and even other women colleagues who either opted out of motherhood or stayed single. And perhaps that is why the urge to prove that they can get back in the game sooner than anyone else.

Outside of the Mayer universe, pregnancy is usually regarded as a really expensive hobby, a permanent state of impairment. For some women, the price to pay is their careers, for some, their children’s well-being and emotional security and to most, a race to get back in the game. Staying on top of things post baby is a struggle for all women, no matter what resources they have at their disposal. Perhaps that is why the three-month maternity leave is a key factor in helping new mothers with the transitioning from the cocoon of the nursery to the outside world. The choices are usually harsh. You either rush back to work when your baby is a few weeks old, leaving it in the care of family or strangers. Or, you stay a little longer to nurture them and return when you are both ready. But that is often the tricky part. When are both ready? At six months? At one year? Longer?

The fact remains that the longer you stay away from the race, the harder it is to get back. We all work out our own plan Bs – work from home, freelance, work flexitime, focus on our babies for a few years and not think about it. But these remain, at best, plan Bs. If all things were conducive, women would have liked their lives to go back to being exactly the same.

“I think all around the world, women have the fear that they will not be able to get back to their career with a small child to care for. That may the reason women are wrenching themselves away from their newborns. It is sad that women have to deny themselves care and rest just to prove that they are as good at their work, ” says Nigamaja, physiotherapist and childbirth educator.

While you are away, HR is busy computing your non-profitability. Barring a few foreign banks and MNCs, day-care is still an alien concept in India, flexitime is the biggest scam as far as your pay packet is concerned and breast pumps are still looked at as unidentified flying objects in most offices.

Australia-based Ruth Malik, who runs a birth support NGO in India, says the choices women make must vary according to individual situations. “I hope that Mayer does not become a dominant role model and women feel pressured to reach these dizzy heights. While I may make decisions differently, I feel the important thing is that it is her right to choose. Plus, she can afford all the support she can get” says Malik.

Gayatri Deshpande, a software professional and mother, says she chooses not to be judgemental about Mayer’s choices. She also applauds Yahoo for hiring a pregnant CEO in the first place. “Her choices must be based on who she is as a person. The position carries the weight of the well-being of employees and customers. Maybe she is a superwoman and has put in place a strong delegation plan, ” she says.

We don’t exactly know what Mayer’s plans for infant-management are. “I like to stay in the rhythm of things, ” is what she is reported to have told Fortune magazine. We must not forget that Marrisa Mayer is not a regular woman trying to keep her job, she is a super-duper star. She is a CEO, crisis management is her middle name.

Sonali Shivlani, a pregnancy and lactation counsellor, sums up the debate. “I really don’t believe that only stay-at-home women make good mothers. What makes good moms are women who are first satisfied with themselves – a feeling with gives them the space to attend to their children more wholeheartedly, ” says Shivlani.

(This article first appeared in the Times of India Crest edition on 20th Oct, 2012 under my byline. Link to the article is here:  http://www.timescrest.com/society/fast-forward-mommy-9052)