No One Right Way: Maternity Leave and Leadership Implications for Women in the Workplace

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On Tuesday, Yahoo's CEO Marissa Mayer announced she's pregnant with twins and that she once again expects to take limited leave from work.

My first response: No judgement. There's no one right way to work and raise your children.

But how I feel about Mayer's personal choice is a wholly separate issue from how I feel about the message it sends. My concern is that skipping her maternity leave sets expectations in employers' minds that what she's doing is easy. I can just hear executives asking: "Why do employees need so much leave when Marissa Mayer can do it with twins and a three-year-old?"

I recently talked with a leader who expressed much the same sentiment. He saw high-powered women at client firms have a baby and get back work right away. So why, he asked, did the women at his company need to disappear for 12 weeks? Maternity leave, in his mind, equaled "career interruption."

But the reality is that having just one newborn is hard, much less two. And Marissa Mayer probably has a lot of help that other women don't. I gave birth to twins not long after joining Life Meets Work. And truthfully, I thought a lot like Mayer. I thought I could work through my leave too.

But it turned out that having newborn twins (and two other kids under age 6) was a completely different ballgame. I had all I could do to manage through each day. If you're getting up through the night with two infants, it's impossible to be at your peak the next day. So I can't help but wonder if Mayer will have a similar experience and a similar change of heart experience.

Looking back, I appreciate that I had mentors and leaders in my professional life who encouraged me to take my full leave. Many of us will work for 40 or even 50 years, making 12 weeks away with a child such a minor blip in comparison.

And therein lies the challenge of even discussing this issue. By sharing my experience I also seem to be comparing my choice to Mayer's and making judgement, and I don't want to do that. I think one of the hardest parts about being a parent is feeling judged.

So again, I want to affirm this message: There is no one right way. We can only make the choices that are right for ourselves and our families. The key, however, is that women (and men) feel free to make those choices, without being sidelined or made to feel less than--either personally or professionally.

That said, it would have been cool to see a female CEO of a high-powered company take a traditional maternity leave. I'm rooting for someone to model the way.

As a principal of Life Meets Work, Teresa Hopke plays a lead role in the company's strategic direction and consulting projects. She specializes in helping organizations close the leadership skills gap, manage through change, and develop custom coaching solutions that help people thrive in both the workplace and their personal lives. Learn more about Teresa and the team, and connect with her on LinkedIn.