For 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.