Marissa Mayer’s 2-Week Maternity Leave Sets an Unhealthy Standard

VauvaFor a brief moment in time, Marissa Mayer‘s appointment to Yahoo! CEO at five months pregnant felt like a victory for working mothers. If a pregnant woman could be hired to run a Fortune 500 company, this could mean that attitudes toward working mothers had finally shifted. No longer seen as a liability, pregnant women could be viewed by executives and business leaders as valuable contributors to an organization, even if they need time off to give birth and care for their infants.

Then, Mayer took a two-week maternity leave and came back to the job only to kill flex-time and work-at-home programs, which are more often utilized by working parents. These drastic moves feel like Mayer is sending a message to her employees: Yahoo! comes before all else. Instead of Mayer’s appointment signaling a giant leap forward for feminist mothers, her first year as CEO feels more like a throwback to the Old Boys’ Club.

While Mayer can’t legally require her FMLA-qualified employees to return to work before their 12-week unpaid maternity leave expires, executive leadership sets the tone for what is considered acceptable in an organization. Mayer’s own post-pregnancy choices made it clear that it was perfectly reasonable to expect a new mother to return to a highly demanding role before her stitches even heal. If the most powerful person in the company doesn’t feel comfortable pausing for a rest after the birth of a child, how are less powerful “Yahooligans” viewed if they choose to take the full 12 weeks they’re entitled to?

Without judgment, every woman should be trusted to make her own choices about what is best for her family – that is, if she has any choices at all. But as the only industrialized nation in the world without a single day of paid maternity leave, American women already face excruciating pressure to punch the time clock mere moments after becoming mothers.

There’s a reason all other developed countries offer paid maternity leave: it’s healthier for mom and baby to have time off together. Postpartum healing and the establishment of breastfeeding are extremely difficult tasks to accomplish in less than a few weeks. Whether or not a woman makes the choice to return to work immediately postpartum, her body and her baby have needs that only time and rest can fulfill.

It takes approximately six weeks after a birth for the mother’s body to fully heal and return to the pre-pregnant state (and longer if you’ve had a cesarean, any significant tearing, or other complications.) Whether or not a mother experiences any external soreness, there are significant processes taking place inside the uterus that require rest and recovery.

Another consideration about when a woman is ready to return to work is that, after the birth, and the placenta is expelled from the body, it comes away from the uterine wall, leaving behind a dinner-plate sized wound that will bleed and slough tissue until it heals. This healing occurs over a period of approximately six weeks as the uterus shrinks back down to its pre-pregnancy size, a process called involution.

However, over-exertion in the postpartum period will aggravate the wound site causing bleeding to increase. This can result from as little as running to the grocery store, standing on your feet too long, or even walking up stairs too often. In the early post-pregnancy days, it doesn’t take much at all. When this happens, the uterus will clamp down to slow the bleeding, sometimes causing excruciating “after pains” that some women describe as hurting worse than the labor itself. At this point, obstetricians and midwives advise getting back into bed for the day and resting. Repeated over-exertion will only slow the postpartum healing process.

Additionally, it takes approximately 12 weeks for postpartum hormone levels to regulate, which is why mothers and babies need just about that long to fully establish breastfeeding. Mother and baby separation in the early postpartum period often disrupts the delicate supply and demand lactation process, which can cause breast infections in the mother and poor weight gain in the infant. Mothers can substitute pumping breast milk in lieu of breastfeeding while they are separated from their babies, but until lactation is thoroughly established, pumping itself can cause milk supply problems.

None of this even addresses the exhaustion that comes with round-the-clock feedings and diaper changes. But why, in the world’s most powerful country, are we still arguing whether or not women physically need and deserve time to recover from childbirth? Why do we question a woman’s commitment to professionalism if she chooses to take care of her body and her baby for a few months before jumping back to the grind?

This debate rages on because women in America are held up to impossible standards and judged by how quickly they rebound from birth. In a country that guarantees no paid leave, women often feel forced to have their baby on Friday and punch in on Monday. For the women like Marissa Mayer who have plenty of paid leave, the message is still loud and clear: If you want to retain respect as a fierce business woman, you cannot let a little thing like childbirth slow you down.

Mayer could have led a sea-change in this attitude. By taking even the minimum time amount of leave provided by California State law, she could have sent the message to her employees and shareholders that it’s okay to pause to recover from childbirth. It doesn’t make you a less committed or less faithful employee. In fact, self-care ought to be lauded as the first step in creating a more productive and committed asset to the organization.

Every other developed country in the world has discovered that parental leave is good for women, children, and the bottom line. It’s time for America’s women to stand up and demand the same. Marissa Mayer’s two week leave should not be held as the standard to judge all other mothers by.

Gina Crosley-Corcoran, author and advocate behind TheFeministBreeder.com, is a certified childbirth educator, certified doula, and Master of Public Health candidate. She lives in Chicagoland with her husband and three small children.

Image via iStockphoto/Kati Molin

  • Jenn

    ” Without judgment, every woman should be trusted to make her own choices about what is best for her family”

    So why are you passing judgement on this woman? She did exactly that, made a choice that was best for HER family and has caught nothing but hell for it. So what if she chose to go back to work a few weeks after she had a baby. It’s HER body, it’s HER baby, it’s HER family!

    All the women out there that like to say “Mind your own uterus” need to do JUST that, mind YOUR uterus and leave her’s alone!

    • Jenn, I think the larger, and fair, question, is what impact Mayer’s very public decision, combined with a “no remote work” policy has on Yahoo employees, and, down the road, on other corporate employers who may see this as a signal of possible changes in maternity policy. Someone in Mayer’s position, who is a high-profile example of working motherhood, is, for better or worse, going to be watched and her decisions will be viewed as an indicator of what is acceptable. If she was Marissa Mayer, mom down the street but not a high profile CEO, easier to say we shouldn’t care about her personal decision. But when a personal decision like hers becomes a mothering standard, it is fair game to discuss. I suspect her post-pregnancy decision might have been different if she didn’t have the personal funds she used to build a full nursery adjacent to her CEO office.

    • @Jenn – The issue is larger. Sure, she can go back to work all she wants. No one is standing at her door saying we need laws changed saying she MUST stay home until her baby is 6 weeks, or 12 weeks or whatever medical professionals would deem to be safest for mothers. This just sheds light on the lack of maternity leave (and paternity leave) in the United States. Compared to other countries around the world, including China & Mali, we are considered a third world country for OUR system of maternity leave (or lack there of). In a discussion on my personal facebook page about this same post, I discussed the many women and men (and families as a hole) who depend on these incomes with no choice. “I understand that, because there are a lot of women are the main income in their home today, as well as families depending on duel incomes to just get by. Unfortunately it simply isn’t healthy for women. I know after my 2nd son, I was re-hospitalized when he was 5 weeks old. I thought I was ok to do whatever. I wasn’t. The US is a POOR excuse of Maternal and Paternal leave after the birth of a child. We lack behind countries all over the world including China, and Mali. This is an excellent infogram with information about maternity leave and how the US is essentially a 3rd world country : http://womenandtech.com/infographic-paid-maternity-leave/

  • Glasses McGee

    I disagree. If she felt she was ready to go back to work, then she was ready to go back to work. Mayer only serves to reinforce egalitarian ideals rather than the misconceptions that women a) only serve as breeders and b) are weak and cannot handle the stressors of the workforce along with child-rearing. THAT’s what feminism is about.

    • Except there is nothing egalitarian about the fact that she was able to come back after two weeks off because she spent her own money (out of her millions) to build a full size nursery immediately next to her office that would also allow her full-time nanny to be there. I suspect that if all women could do that, they might make different decisions about when to go back to work,as well. No word from Mayer about whether she’ll let other Yahoo working parents have similar accommodations or whether she’s willing to share.

  • When you start giving male CEOs flak for not taking longer paternity leaves then we can talk. This is her CHOICE something that I thought you were all for a woman’s choice. You can’t then fault her for that choice. It’s that thinking which is taking feminism back 50 years. It is not Marissa Mayer’s job to make it possible for other women to take longer maternity leaves. If that’s something you want to see changed about this country, then by all means petition lawmakers to require longer maternity leaves, but the fact that this woman chose to only use 2 of the 12 weeks she was given by this very generous maternity leave is exactly that, her choice. It’s really not a wonder that she doesn’t identify herself with feminism. It’s things like this that would turn anyone off.

  • Single Corporate Climber

    “Without judgment, every woman should be trusted to make her own choices about what is best for her family – that is, if she has any choices at all.”

    Is that everyone woman besides Marissa Mayer? I disagree with her policy changes at Yahoo! post-pregnancy (i.e. the ban on telecommuting), but I respect her choice to take two weeks of maternity leave. It was a personal decision (that I don’t think many people would make), but it was not a statement of Yahoo! policy.

  • Beverly

    Do women in Mali and China get paid at the same rate as mothers in the US? There is just no way around the issue that if women demand equal pay for equal work, they have to actually do as much work as a man in the same position. Having borne 3 children, I know that it just isn’t possible. Feminism has brought women many important rights, but it will always be women who give birth (at least, I presume that is the case) and who will have the medical issues that are the result of child bearing. We don’t HAVE to be exactly the equals of men. I like being a woman and being the primary caregiver to my children.

    • @Beverly, But many countries offered Paid Paternal leave as well. In fact, over 50 countries offer paid paternal leave for new fathers, some stretching up to an entire year at home. 187 (and counting) countries offer paid maternity leave. All of the studies continue to show the US Decades behind on this, as well as other important maternal issues. Including maternal and infant mortality.

  • Jessica

    Wow, as a new working mom myself (a US citizen too) I am SO glad that I live in Europe rather than in the States. Lucky for me it was a choice I was able to make and I wouldn´t change it for anything, especially now that I have a child. I hadn´t heard about this case, but it seems very sad to me, for mother, child and the rest who can´t build a full size nursery and pay a full time nanny to be able to do what they might like or feel necessary for their personal, professional and family situation. Men and women are NOT equal, especially when it comes to childbearing and rearing. They can be equals professionally and have equal rights but they simply are not when it comes to children. But, the thing is they shouldn´t have to be equals. We women deserve to be valued for who and what we are and not asked (either implicitly or explicitly) to ignore any of our amazing facets. Both sexes should have paid maternity/paternity leave, and be encouraged to take it. And all should have the same rights regardless of what state they live in, their position or their income. But again, in the States you may get lucky or not, but if you have money then you´re ok, if not, too bad for you, right? Some people´s opinions are very scary. The US needs to get with the program on Public Healthcare and workers rights, but first that requires that people understand that they are rights, and that in most other first world countries, this is the case.

  • What about the most important reason? Two weeks is not long enough to fall in love with your baby and enjoy a honeymoon. Yahoo CEOs come and go, but she is irreplaceable to her baby.

    Corporations now seem to require vows of obedience usually associated with religious orders. Perhaps most women are too emotionally healthy to want sacrifice their lives to their employer.

    Learning along with my young children was the most exciting time of my life. It is tragic that Americans seem determined to forget the wonder years.

    • I love it that Mayer brought the baby to work. The Atlantic just published an article of people bringing babies to work until they can crawl. That would have worked with all 4 of my daughters, happy babies who loved to be in the thick of things, loved to be in a carrier or on the floor. Babies bring out the best in everyone. It is easier to work nursing a baby than it is to work and pump.

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