My husband and I subscribe to the Sunday New York Times. This week, as I sat down over my breakfast cereal and opened the Style section in search of Social Q’s (I love Social Q’s) I was greeted by an article about Marissa Mayer’s maternity leave. If you’re not familiar, Ms. Mayer is the new CEO of Yahoo!, and she recently announced that she’s six months pregnant. She also announced that she plans to only a few weeks of maternity leave, and she’ll work throughout it.
My first reaction was to wonder why this was in the Style section. Hello, New York Times, stories about women don’t automatically belong in the Style section. This seemed more like a business story than a fashion story, but maybe I just think that because all the estrogen has gone to my head. My second reaction was to think that if a male CEO’s partner was expecting their first child, and he planned to take a couple of weeks off work after the birth (while checking in periodically), it certainly would not be considered newsworthy. However, having given birth and breastfed two children of my own, I do concede that there is a difference when you’re the one carrying the baby.
I spent years on this blog researching and writing about maternity leave. I know how important maternity leave is. I wrote a Maternity Leave Manifesto, which argues for paid, year-long maternity leaves for everyone, as well as dedicated paid leave for co-parents. I’ve taken two such leaves myself, and I was extremely grateful that I was able to take that time with my children.
Having said that, I think that there’s a difference between making leave available, and compelling new parents to take it. Even here in Canada, not every mother who qualifies for a year-long paid maternity leave takes advantage of the whole thing. There are a wide range of reasons why someone may choose not to use all of the benefits available to them, and I believe we need to allow everyone to make their own best decision for themselves, whether it’s Marissa Mayer, or someone with considerably fewer resources. The point is to provide choice, not to dictate one correct choice.
Still, there’s something about the idea that someone can’t take leave that implies there is no real choice. My mother tells me that she wasn’t planning on having any children. When she interviewed for a job at a bank, the interviewer didn’t want to hire her, because he felt that as a young woman she would just get pregnant and leave. She assured him that was not the case, and while she did eventually get pregnant and leave, I think most of us can agree that was her right. In the intervening 30+ years, our societal attitudes have changed. It’s no longer acceptable to say that you won’t hire a young woman because she may become pregnant. That’s a good thing. But as the attention Marissa Mayer is getting shows, we have not come so far that a woman’s decision to become pregnant is a non-issue. We also have not come so far that her professional dedication isn’t called into question as soon as she starts to show.
The more powerful a position that a woman holds, the more likely that her pregnancy is going to become a source of societal debate. We’ll hear that you can’t have it all. We’ll hear that her child is being shortchanged. We’ll hear that she’s not doing her job as well. We’ll hear snide comments about nannies and baby nurses. We’ll hear that no one would speak this way about a man becoming a father. Somehow, we’ll decide that someone else’s decisions about how to combine work and family are our business. And we’ll reflect on what this debate shows us about the state of motherhood and career and gender relations.
If I were to write my Maternity Leave Manifesto again, I would add two more points:
- It’s up to every parent and family to decide how to structure their own leave. No one should feel compelled to take either an abbreviated or extended maternity or parental leave.
- We must protect each parent’s right to choice, and honour that choice when it’s made. This means we have to change the corporate culture so that women aren’t penalized for taking leave, and we need to get over ourselves when we start thinking that women can’t combine a high pressure career with motherhood.
I don’t know the first thing about Marissa Mayer, and in truth this isn’t really about her. I’ve seen the same discussion many times before when high-profile women announced their pregnancies. I imagine I will see it again. Rather than focusing on what any one person decides, though, I’d like to see the debate move towards an intelligent discussion about labour policy and gender equity. Women will not have equal status in the workplace as long as pregnancy is the source of much hand-waving and public debate. And babies will lose out as long as their parents feel forced to make a decision, instead of free to make the best choice for their families.
Have you seen the discussion over Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy and maternity leave? What do you think would be a positive outcome of the discussion? I’d love to hear your thoughts!