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)