July 18, 2012
Dear Ms. Mayer:
Congratulations on your new gig as CEO of Yahoo. Congratulations, too, on your other big news – your pregnancy. Congratulations as well on provoking many of us mothers out there who otherwise would have preferred to stay out of the “Mommy Wars.”
I have been loath to join the debate about whether women can have it all. But Ms. Mayer, you gave me no choice. How could I possibly stay mum after you told Fortune you were expecting your first child in October and you prefer to “stay in the rhythm of things.” Hence, you said, “My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout it.”
Those words at first made me seethe. Then, they made me sad for what you will miss if you focus more on work than on the first weeks, let alone months of motherhood. Not to mention, what about the physical recovery time many mothers need after childbirth? Two weeks is nothing. Your body, believe me, will feel a lot different after delivery.
What message are you sending to mothers in America being so nonchalant about maternity leave? The nation’s Family and Medical Leave Act, which allows new parents to take up to 12 unpaid weeks of leave, was only passed in 1993. Our country is behind many other nations, and if anything, the United States needs to do more not less to give new mothers a break before they return to work. Australia, for example, gives new mothers up to one year of job-protected leave, according to an Associated Press article. You have a terrific bully pulpit as a new female CEO. The message you’re sending now is terrifying. Have a new baby, work at home as much as you can during those exhausting first weeks of motherhood, then head back to the office.
I too had a great job when I became pregnant with my first and only child. I was an assistant city editor overseeing education at The Boston Globe, where I had always wanted to work. I got the job in 2004, was married in 2006, and became pregnant in 2007. Most women where I worked took three months or six months off, but I knew of a few who took an entire year. I took a year off with the understanding that I likely would not return to the same position I had upon departure. My career would go backward, but I decided I was okay with that. That, of course, was my choice. So was ultimately deciding to quit the Globe in favor of freelancing and teaching and spending several days a week with my son, who’s now 4.
I respect your decision to return to work, but chafe at the notion that all will be fine if you try to work during those first weeks of maternity leave and then go back full-time long before most women would even consider it. Part of the reason of maternity leave is to give the new mother time to recover physically. Part of it, too, is to give the new mother the all-important period she and the baby need to bond. Yes, it’s important for the father to have bonding time, too, but mothers often play the key role in the first months, particularly if they breast-feed.
You will never be able to get that time back with your new baby. After I read the news about you, I pulled out the three scrapbooks I made of my son’s first year. Yes, I overdid it. But in those scrapbooks, I see reminders of the beautiful moments I had with my son during his first year. My husband and I both wrote notes to our son during his first year of life, notes like this one I wrote when he was five months old:
You are absorbing the world more and more every day. It is so special to see your eyes sparkle as you discover something new. You are now so aware of your feet and hands, your parents’ faces, …
There is nothing unique about such moments, but they are everything when the child is your own. You may miss countless moments with your baby if you’re working more than you are at home during those first months. You may miss your baby’s first smile, first coo, and first laugh. You may miss the chance, for the first time in many years, to focus on the beginning of life, your child’s life.
New motherhood, of course, is not all bliss. Some of it is boring. Some of it is drudgery. Sometimes, severe complications follow. Six weeks into my maternity leave, I was diagnosed with post-partum depression. I never expected my past would make me a candidate for post-partum depression when I became a new mother at age 43. I did not know that getting depressed after my brother died in a car accident, plus being an older mother and a career woman could put me at higher risk for post-partum depression and the extreme anxiety and sleeplessness I experienced.
My post-partum depression was caught early. Within weeks, I was enjoying new motherhood to its fullest again.
Once your baby is born, I wonder whether you will back off your plan for such a short maternity leave. Will you decide that it’s better for you and your child to take even a few months off? If you do, there is no shame in that. When I asked for my year off from my employer, a wise supervisor said that I could come back early if I wanted. Maternity leave, she said, works differently for each woman. Some want more time off. Some prefer less. She is right. But she was referring to women who at least were taking three months off. I hope you will be more generous with maternity leave time for your employees than you are with yourself.
Linda K. Wertheimer
Ps. As long as you’re working at Yahoo, could you resolve a glitch I’ve noticed? I cannot get Yahoo email to work on my Android phone anymore.