I try to avoid getting too involved with technology news. Frankly, it all seems like voodoo magic to me. Yet, I couldn't help but perk up when I heard that Yahoo! hired a pregnant woman, Marissa Mayer, as its new CEO. I know the pregnant thing is temporary, and I should be focusing on her qualifications, experience and voodoo credentials, but the fact that a pregnant woman was just hired to run a large publicly traded company seems damn revolutionary to me. This was a moment.
Then she burst my bubble.
"My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it."
I normally smile indulgently at statements like this, remembering my own ignorance. I try to repay the kindness my neighbor showed me when she didn't laugh at my giddy descriptions of the "to do" list I intended to conquer during my maternity leave. I was clueless and she knew it, but she didn't hold it against me. Instead, she brought us dinner and decorated our house when we came home from the hospital.
I'm less generous when the mother-to-be is setting the tone for the company she's about to lead, when she casually dismisses the value of maternity leave by suggesting that a few weeks working from home is all that's required, and fails to acknowledge the impact her choice might have on others.
Mayer is entitled to live her life in any way she sees fit (and given her wealth and position, she has the enviable opportunity to do just that). Maybe she doesn't want more than a few weeks away from the office. Maybe this is one of those "once in a lifetime" opportunities for which you sacrifice. Maybe she's telling Wall Street what it wants to hear as she prepares to take on what has proven to be a thankless (and high turnover) job. I'll never know. Whatever her reasons, part of me is cheering for her from the sidelines, hoping she can balance it all, that her status as a mother won't alter her opportunities, her ambitions, her passions or the drive that got her to where she is. Another part of me is shaking my head, wishing I could be a fly on the wall during the third week of her son's life when she's getting ready to go back to work.
Because, as anyone who has given birth knows, maternity leave exists because You. Just. Had. A. Baby. Despite nine months of preparation, new mothers are always shocked by this fact. No one is prepared for the speed with which your world shifts or the fact that nothing will ever be the same again. Maternity leave isn't a luxury (or it shouldn't be). It isn't a vacation during which women eat bonbons, watch TV and hit the spa. It isn't restful, peaceful or relaxing. It's a necessary time to reorient, heal, figure things out and learn how to keep this little person you just gave birth to alive.
I was lucky. I was entitled to three months of paid maternity leave and was able to take an extra month unpaid vacation. I needed every second of it. Maternity leave was four months of long days and nights when my body felt like it belonged to someone else (it did), when sleep seemed like an illusion or far off memory (it was), and when my autonomy was stripped away and replaced with responsibility (lots of responsibility).
No matter how easy your birth is, there's a reason doctors tell women not to exercise for six weeks after having a baby. It's because your body is a mess. Uncomplicated deliveries are bloody, exhausting affairs. You don't just pop out a baby and go home. C-sections or episiotomies add a whole new level of discomfort and recovery. My shifting hormones enlarged my breasts to porn star proportions and put me on an emotional roller coaster. I had to learn how to breastfeed, how to endure sleep deprivation, and how to reconnect with a body that no longer looked liked I'd swallowed two basketballs, but didn't look anything like the one I had before I got pregnant. Maternity leave is boot camp without the hope of dropping out. It is days of hell and nights of zombie-like going through the motions.
But maternity leave wasn't just important so I could learn to take care of myself (which I wasn't very good at, frankly). It was about having time to learn to take care of my son. We figured out feedings and naps together. I discovered what his cries meant, when he needed to sleep, when he wanted to be held. I made sure he was getting enough to eat (measured by an admittedly Type-A chart that now serves as a reminder that when he was ten days old, my son nursed every hour for TWO DAYS straight). I changed diapers until my hands chapped. I did countless loads of laundry. I answered doors with my breast exposed, and didn't realize it until after my visitor had left. More troubling, I did not care.
Maternity leave was an all too brief respite from my professional life that gave me time to focus on my child and my family. It was an opportunity to get to know my husband as a parent. It was also the hardest thing I've ever done, except for going back to work when my leave was over.
The night before I returned to the office, I put my son to bed and walked into the master bedroom. I curled up on the bed and sobbed for three hours. My eyes were swollen shut and I couldn't speak. I used an entire box of tissues. My husband patted my back comfortingly and held me until I drenched his shirt with snot (I ran out of tissues). Even with the exhaustion, the days of numbing feedings and the lack of adult conversation, leaving my son felt like a betrayal and an abandonment.
It was brutal, not because every moment of my leave was full of sunshine and roses, but because my maternity leave had given me exactly what I wanted. Time with my son. Time to get lost in the soft whorls of his hair as I watched him nurse. Peaceful moments listening to him sigh as he slept. The chance to see his first smile. Afternoons pushing a stroller in the park watching his eyes grow big when a bird flew by. Seeing him respond to my voice.
In between the challenges, there was bliss.
I did go back to work, and as the days and weeks passed, I learned to appreciate my job again. Most days I'm fine dropping Little Dude at preschool and starting my morning commute. We are both happy with our respective routines, but I am grateful that I had the time at home that I did. I know that not everyone has real choices or an employer who supports women (and their families) by providing paid maternity leave. Not every one gets that, but they should.
I don't know what Marissa Mayer will ultimately do, and probably she doesn't either. Infants have a funny way of changing even our most firmly held beliefs and plans. I don't judge her for embracing her job -- I hope she's a success. I just want to make sure that her blithe decision to take a truncated, working "maternity leave" won't be held up as the paradigm or used to pressure other women to follow suit. We all deserve better than that. Mayer is now a high-profile working mom and I, for one, expect a lot from her.