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Nine words. That’s what the New York Times says it took for Marissa Mayer, the new chief of Yahoo, to cause a giant stir of the already roiling pot over maternity leave in the modern age. The pot was already going pretty well due to a recent article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All,” by Anne-Marie Slaughter. Slaughter is a Princeton professor who had been director of policy planning at the State Department; but found, as she wrote, “juggling high-level government work with the needs of two teenage boys was not possible.”
Then Mayer, 37 and pregnant with her first child, told Fortune that her maternity leave would be “a few weeks long, and I’ll work throughout it.” According to the Times article, “Maternity Leave? It’s More Like a Pause,” responses to Mayer’s decision, although heated, have varied in point-of-view. “Some criticized Ms. Mayer as a poor role model for working women. Others congratulated her for embracing two challenges at once. Another camp marveled at her naïveté about what was in store.”
The whole thing just makes me nervous.
When we talk about these things in big institutional forums like the New York Times, there’s so little room for nuance. For one thing, these are the thoughts of a woman who has never actually had children. As most will tell you, becoming a parent is top on the list of things you have to experience to understand—right up there with your first break-up and winning the lottery. There are many parents who believe their life after kids will be one way (read: not consumed with tasks they didn’t realize existed), then come to find out that it’s a totally different ball game once the baby actually arrives.
I don’t fault Mayer for not knowing what her life will be life post-baby, how could she? The best she can do is make educated guesses about what she and her family will need and plan accordingly. But these, then, are still no more than plans.
Also, apparently there are stay-at-home parents who also work at another job while home with their child. For most of us mere mortals, hearing about these people usually prompts feelings of inadequacy coupled with a tinge of either suicidal or homicidal thoughts, depending on which way you swing. But when I had my second daughter, I realized that her temperament was far more suited to getting things accomplished than my first, more “high-needs” child. It occurred to me that if she’d been my only kid I could possibly even be one of those horrid “I Work From Home With My Baby” moms myself, especially if I were less uptight about resorting to playpens and movies than I seem to be.
So every baby is different, ever parent is different. There are just too many variables to generalize. But generalize we do when we decide to hold up one or two high-powered women and make assumptions about what an entire generation needs.
The Times asks, “Is it progress for high-profile women to willingly forgo their right to a maternity leave? Or, by making maternity leave yet another victim of our always-on culture, does it send the message that taking true time off is only for the uncommitted?” I say, who cares.
Looking at the numbers in America, how many of us actually have these kinds of high-profile jobs? Who can say they have very much control over their schedule at work, money for help, or an ability to work from a handheld device with a baby asleep on the breast? To the article’s credit, a short paragraph is devoted to the fact that, “waitresses, nannies and teachers, for instance, can’t send e-mails from their iPhones and call it “working.””
The piece then goes right back to describing different heavy hitter women with lives totally unlike most of ours. Like that of Jane M. Swift, acting governor of Massachusetts in 2001. When Swift gave birth to twin daughters via Caesarean section, she had a short “working maternity leave” at her home. Like Mayer, the governor’s decision was highly scrutinized on both sides. Can you ever imagine us having such a debate over fathers?
Swift tells the Times, “I was surprised we were having these heated debates a decade ago, and I’m surprised we’re still having them today.”
Certainly the discussions get more nuanced as time goes on, but lately it seems to me that the media is almost as obsessed with talk of maternity leave as it is with Paula Dean’s blood-sugar and who won American Idol.
I’m not saying that maternity leave isn’t an important issue for the health and happiness of both women, and their families (which makes, well, everyone). But I just wish the discussion were more useful to the majority of us who don’t have full-time nannies, those who can’t simply announce to their staff that the meeting needs to be over by 2 p.m. or their breasts will get too full.
I’ve written about the dismal amount of maternity leave written into the US law compared to other industrialized countries. It seems most nations have already figured out that if you can support families in the process of creating new humans, those humans may turn out to cause fewer problems for that nation in the future. According to MSNBC, Janet Walsh, deputy director of the women's rights division of Human Rights Watch has said, "Despite its enthusiasm about 'family values,' the U.S. is decades behind other countries in ensuring the well-being of working families.”
So “Maternity Pauses” don’t really interest me. I’m holding out for headlines that read: “Factory Workers Demand Three Months Maternity Leave, and Get It!” or “Cashier with Colicky Baby Told to Take a Little Extra Time…Her Job Will be Waiting When She Returns!”
Until then, I’m hoping the debate about women and work in this country can shift a bit from the personal to the political, from the sensational to the real. With most celebs off on a yacht somewhere and American Idol on break, isn’t this just the perfect time? If not now, then when?