The XX Factor

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Is Making a Huge Mistake by Cutting Her Maternity Leave Short

Congrats, Marissa! Don’t go back to work yet.

Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for TechCrunch/AOL

We all knew it was coming, and yet it’s still so exciting: Marissa Mayer’s baby has arrived! Yes, the Yahoo CEO’s husband sent the traditional tweet out into the Twittersphere Monday morning: “Mom and baby are doing great.”

And to think: Just a few weeks ago Mayer was a childless executive offering her employees free smartphones as long as they aren’t BlackBerrys because BlackBerrys are sooo AOL, and now she’s a mother.

Welp, back to work.

Mayer has long said that pushing a baby out of her vagina or having it surgically removed from her body would not keep her away from the office for long, telling Fortune back in July that “my maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I’ll work throughout.” According to Monday’s news reports, labor does not seem to have changed her mind.

At the time of that Fortune story and the numerous blog posts that tumbled out of it, many expressed fear that Mayer’s short maternity leave would set the bar too high (or low, depending on your take) for other working mothers. Horrible bosses around the country will start expecting Mayer-level commitment, the thinking goes: “If Marissa Mayer could dial in to the 7 a.m. conference call from her private recovery room just a few hours after her first child was born, why can’t you, nameless middle manager who just had your second kid and is separated only by a curtain from another mother and her shrieking newborn at some shithole hospital, answer a few emails?”

Or there is the fear that even if one’s boss is not horrible, working women tend to hold themselves to a pretty high standard, and seeing Mayer’s chosen work-life imbalance might put pressure on all of us to get back to the spreadsheets and clogged inboxes before our bodies and minds are really ready. That seems like a warranted concern to me, both in the general working world and specifically at Yahoo, where Mayer’s job is to set the standards.

But honestly, I care much less about how this all plays out in the workplace than I do about how it plays out at home. In a rather heated email exchange on Monday, some of my Slate colleagues took a libertarian approach to the Great Maternity Leave Debate of 2012, which I’ll sum up here as: “Lay off. Mayer should do whatever she wants to do.” I agree! She should do whatever she wants to do, but she should want to do something different than what she wants to do. Because it’s nuts to ignore that there is a BABY involved here.  

Mayer didn’t just have foot surgery. She birthed a tiny human being. A baby who needs stuff. And, no, I don’t mean breast milk stuff. I don’t care whether Mayer breast-feeds or goes the formula route. I don’t care if she pumps at work or is currently experiencing the very painful process of having her breasts swell with milk and then slowly dry out. I don’t care if she co-sleeps (though I can’t imagine) or puts her baby all the way in the other wing of her house. I don’t care if she lets her baby stay in the car seat much longer than doctors recommend, because that’s the only place the baby will sleep. But I do think she has a responsibility to, you know, parent her infant full time for awhile.

One of my colleagues emails in to say that he can’t properly judge Mayer until he knows whether her husband is taking leave instead. I agree that this bit of information does make a difference. Still, I’d argue that Mayer herself needs time to emotionally and physically recover—though perhaps that is all based on my personal experiences after two deliveries, and perhaps I am weak. Also, while I am a dedicated co-parenter who knows that fathers are just as valuable and competent and necessary and everything else to childrearing as mothers, I’m also not afraid—not afraid!—to say that, in the early days, moms and the babies that just came out of them after cooking inside of them are both getting and giving something remarkable out of that bond. (This, even if the actual first few months, or more, are miserable. Maternity leave is not bliss. Neither, as far as I can tell so far, is what comes after it.)

Yes, yes, true: Many women don’t have the financial ability or professional flexibility to stay home, and their babies survive and thrive. But I don’t think any of us, or any of those mothers, would say that’s ideal. If you are fortunate enough to be in the position where you can stay home—if your professional and family situation allows you to stick close to this new person you just made, to try to decipher its strange rhythms and nap when it naps and let your crazy new mom hormones hang out, along with some other wacky body parts and fluids that won’t be going back to normal for awhile—you should. Because you are not just a CEO anymore. You are not only responsible for a huge corporation and thousands of employees. Life changes, priorities shift. You are a parent.