Maternity Leave: Allowing and Honouring Choice

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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!

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  1. Thanks for writing about this! I was going to suggest that you write a post on it when I first heard the news a week or two ago. So great to hear your perspective! I think that it’s terrible that it’s even expected of Marissa Mayer to take only weeks of maternity leave. In her situation, Yahoo! needs considerable leadership and she is being scrutinized as CEO. I commend her priority to lead, but wonder if there is someone else qualified to lead in her primary duties for a few months. I feel that she is short-changing herself as she doesn’t know if she’ll have complications, postpartum depression, or want more time bonding with her baby. I don’t think that’s healthy for her or her baby. However, even at my most recent job, my co-workers were coming back to work 6 weeks after giving birth because they needed the pay check. (On the opposite spectrum, I took a 6 month leave-of-absence because we didn’t need my income.) Your new addition that parents should choose their maternity leave is important as every family has different circumstances and priorities. I just wish that Americans valued birth and babies a lot more.
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  2. Wonderful Amber!
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  3. it’s interesting watching the debate grow as i write up what could be a poster-child piece about a mum in academia. there are so many areas of discussion on the ins and outs of writing about women, careers, parenting, and choice – would this be written about a man? is it a personal choice or should she make a stand? can we suspend our own judgement? is this typical for all women or is it just a tale of privilege? and so on.

    where’s the debate about the family as a whole rather than the focusing on just the mum? that’s what i’d like to know and thanks for bringing it into the equation.
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  4. So well put, Amber. I agree that this decision, like so many we are faced with in parenthood, is so individual.

    So disappointing that this was in the Style Section…seriously.
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  5. I agree with you Amber, that each mother and father, need to make the best decision for their family and what that looks like wont be the same for each family. I also agree that many women don’t actually have a choice when it comes to maternity leave and that is something that needs to change.

    I don’t understand what ‘having it all means’. It really is an individual perspective. Its sad that society feels the need to comment on the decisions of women in this position. I also don’t know why such a big deal is made about it now. This lady has the luxury of making a plan now and changing her mind after the fact. I am pretty sure ALL mothers have an idea of what their first jouney into motherhood will be like only to be met with a reality check when the time comes. Who knows what will actually play out after baby arrives and really, who cares?
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  6. I couldn’t afford to take time off to just be with my baby. I work at home, so I didn’t have to physically leave, but I did have to stress about clients and money when I should have only had to think about breastfeeding and sleep (and maybe poop). So for someone with that much money and power not to take advantage of that time feels really personal and makes me angry. It also makes me sad for her child, who can’t manage to come in as their mother’s top priority even as a newborn.
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