Published 04/11/2012 | 06:00
Returning to work within weeks after giving birth is now increasingly common among corporate high-fliers. So where does that leave all the other women for whom maternity leave is a necessity and not a luxury, asks Suzanne Harrington
On October 1, the boss of Yahoo became a parent. On October 25, the same boss posted a photograph of a business deal on Twitter.
The photo was subsequently picked up by a British newspaper, who ran a story around the boss's appearance.
Why? Because the boss of Yahoo is a woman, and the fact that she appeared physically slim in the picture was deemed newsworthy.
"Wearing a blue striped dress, she showed off an impressively slender waist that other new mothers are sure to envy," one newspaper reported.
Never mind the 37-year-old CEO's latest business acquisition -- look at her body. Judge and compare.
Marissa Mayer, the Yahoo boss, had a baby son at the start of the month. It is not her waist, however, which is of interest, but her statement to 'Fortune' magazine, before she gave birth: "My maternity leave will be a few weeks long and I'll work throughout it."
Here is a super-successful woman who appears to misunderstand the meaning of 'leave'; being on leave means not working. Why is she not taking any?
Journalist Kristie Lu Stout of CNN International, who also has one child, wrote an open letter to Mayer, in reaction to Mayer's decision to work through her maternity leave.
"Like other working moms, I kind of wish you didn't say that... but I can see why you did," she wrote.
"You want to prove yourself. You want to hit the ground running and keep up the sprint even through the so-called fourth trimester.
"But maternity leave is not a vacation or a cop-out from your new post. It's the first precious weeks to invest in a being who is completely dependent on you."
Commonsense appeal to Mayer not to sacrifice bonding with her baby, or passive-aggressive judgement call?
Both are successful 37-year-old San Franciscans at the top of their game, with one child each. Were they both men, would such a letter ever have been written? Of course not.
Author Christina Pesoli, blogging in the 'Huffington Post', sums up the evolution of the 'having it all' idea in relation to successful women, with 'all' being defined as (a) a career rather than just a job, and (b) kids.
This is not regarded as having it all if you are male, but as the normal run of things. You never hear the term 'working dad'.
"Society was willing to overlook the fact that women were NOT men and nonetheless permit them to reach higher rungs on the career ladder -- rungs that had always been reserved exclusively for men -- provided that these women at least acted like men in certain key ways," writes Pesoli.
"Men don't give birth. Men don't take maternity leave. Men don't pump breast milk. Men don't stay home when their kids are sick.
"In short, if women wanted to have careers similar to the ones men have always enjoyed, women were expected to act like men. A fair number of women accepted these terms and some moved into key positions as a result."
We have since moved on -- a little -- from the either/or scenario. Did we really have to sacrifice one for the other?
As former BBC foreign correspondent Frances Harrison recently wrote in the 'Guardian': "A rebellious streak in me felt missing out on having children was too high a price to pay for an exciting career."
This means that at the top end of the work place, not taking maternity leave is replacing not having children at all.
In 2009, the former French justice minister Rachida Dati returned to work five days after her son was born by caesarean section -- in high heels.
Even writing that makes me wince. Not in judgement, but in physical discomfort -- I've had two caesareans and spent weeks in pyjamas after each. But then I'm not a high-flier.
Corporate, political and media women at the high-achieving end of the job scale tend not do maternity leave, mumnesia, or CKIFS (Car Keys In Fridge Syndrome).
War reporter Frances Harrison hid her pregnancy from her bosses until a month before the birth, managing to avoid "inhaling too much teargas in the weekly opposition street protests" in Malaysia, where she was based.
Eight weeks after her son was born, she took him to Sri Lanka, where she was covering the civil war. She packed nappies and a flak jacket.
"At night I would rock my tiny baby to sleep in my arms, haunted by the stories I had reported by day," she writes in her book 'Still Counting The Dead'.
Had she not brought him with her, she says her career would have ended.
The boss of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, echoed this 'don't stop' ethos in a talk when she implored women not to "lean back" from their careers as they contemplated having children, but instead find partners who are supportive, and be more assertive when it comes to safeguarding their working lives.
The message from corporate America is clear -- it is the individual woman who must take responsibility for nurturing both her career and her baby, simultaneously.
Not pausing for breath after you give birth is the preserve of the very rich -- and the very poor.
If you work in a high-powered job, and are minted as a result, you will have a team of helpers: night nurses, nannies, drivers, housekeepers, assistants etc.
You might be working a 14-hour day, but you will not have to deal with sleepless nights, supermarkets, colic or freaking out if the childminder breaks a leg.
Hillary Clinton, speaking at the 2012 US National Work-Life and Family Month, tells how she established maternity leave at her workplace while still a lawyer in Arkansas.
"Many years ago when I was pregnant, I was in a law firm," she said. "I was the only female partner. And they'd never had a female partner, and certainly not a pregnant female partner. And they literally just were not sure what to do with me.
"I would walk down the corridor, getting more and more pregnant, and the men in the firm would, like, look away. Never say a word. And I just kind of thought, I'm just going to wait to see if anybody says anything to me about the fact that I'm going to have a baby. So nobody ever did.
"Eventually," she continued, "on February 27, 1980, I gave birth to my daughter. I was in the hospital when one of my partners called to say congratulations, and then in the course of it asked, 'Well, when are you coming back to work?' And I said, 'Oh, I don't know. Maybe in four months.'
"And that's how I created the firm's first-ever maternity leave policy."
Go Hillary. The only flaw in her story is that it doesn't reflect wider reality. If you are poor -- and particularly if you live in a developing country -- the concept of maternity leave will not impact much on your working life.
You will be back at work within days, if not hours.
You have two choices. You can either leave your infant with others -- often for their entire childhoods, as detailed in Barbara Ehnenreich's book 'Global Woman', which looks at migratory patterns of nannies and maids from poorer countries such as the Philippines, who work thousands of miles from their children in the rich West.
Or you can bring the baby to work strapped to your back, and breastfeed as you go.
In India, female field workers, labourers and hod carriers work with their babies and small children on site.
But Hillary Clinton and Indian field workers are opposite extremes and unrepresentative of the average woman's experience. For the rest of us, there is nice, cosy, bonding maternity leave -- isn't there?
Well, mostly. There is just one glaring exception. Here is a fly-on-the-wall description of what happens in one of the world's most powerful economies.
"Mother works at her job until she goes into labour. By law, mother can take a 12-week unpaid maternity leave -- but only if mother worked for employer for 12 previous months before her baby's birth," explains the author.
"If mother returns to work after her 12-week maternity leave, typically her infant is kept in a daycare centre eight to 12 hours a day, five days per week.
"Feeling the financial pressure of having no income, many mothers go back to work after only six weeks. Most daycare centres will accept infants as young as six weeks old.
"One of my good friends had only worked for her employer five months before her son was born. She was only given an 11-day maternity leave," the author adds.
Where could this be -- repressive China? No. Chinese women get 14 weeks off on full pay when they have a baby.
No, this is America, as described by writer Kate Raidt, author of the 'Million Dollar Parent'.
According to the International Labour Organisation (ILO), America is behind Afghanistan -- not famous for its gender-equality policies -- and Somalia -- not famous for its wealth and infrastructure -- when it comes to provision of maternity leave.
In at least 178 countries around the world, paid leave is guaranteed for working mothers, and more than 50 countries provide paid leave for fathers.
The United States, Papua New Guinea, Swaziland, Liberia and Lesotho are some of the very few countries in the world that don't provide any statutory maternity support whatsoever.
This is the same US which gave us second-wave feminism. It's mind boggling.
Placing free-market economics -- or whatever reason the US has for not having proper maternity leave in place -- is not only damaging to new mothers, who have just experienced the biggest life transition of all, short of gender reassignment, but also to our future generations.
Australian childcare expert Steve Biddulph has long spoken out against depositing under-threes in daycare, because it detrimentally affects infant attachment development.
He says that we will look back on the era of sending small children to daycare with the same horror we reserve for Victorians sending children up chimneys.
The psychologist Oliver James is equally adamant about the importance of secure attachment. In his book 'How Not To F*** Them Up', he states that children under three need one consistent person to attach to, rather than half a dozen nursery workers whose faces regularly change.
But this is not meant to worry or nag at mothers. Babies do not need Mummy specifically, says James, as much as a consistent mummy figure; it can be daddy, granny, auntie, nanny, family friend, childminder. Just not a noisy place full of strangers.
On a global level, Save The Children reports that in countries with longer periods of parental leave, children are breastfed longer and had a higher life expectancy.
So what do you do? It all depends on your situation, how you work, and where you live. If you're self-employed and work from home, maternity leave doesn't really enter into the equation -- you carry on in your pyjamas, smelling faintly of baby sick, as the baby sleeps.
Later, at the toddler stage and older, my kids went to my friend's house a couple of days a week, whom I paid to look after them. For them, it was home from home.
If you work away from home, you organise childcare as soon as your maternity leave is up. My sister lived with us for the duration of her maternity leave, then found a childminder, rather than sending her baby to daycare.
It's another home-from-home set-up, far cheaper than daycare or nursery, considerably more nurturing, and about as far from the American set-up as you could imagine.
While spending time inside a baby bubble with your newborn is blissful (and exhausting), most people -- women and men -- want to return to the company of adults at some stage.
The constant company of babies and small children is not everyone's cup of tea, even their mothers, yet the whole working mother versus stay-at-home mother debate is a divisive Western media construct; all mothers are working mothers.
The ideal is parental leave rather than maternity leave; or, at the very least, a work structure that allows women flexibility to work and parent without having multiple nervous breakdowns in the process -- or becoming the focus of media attention for returning to work too early/ too late/whatever.
"If we could all take our babies with us to work, I'd be for immediate return," says PR consultant Terry Prone.
"When my son was born, I'd got my dates wrong and was due to do an interview for a newspaper the following day. The nurses in the hospital kind of went 'So?' and made it clear that if I buzzed off for an hour, the baby wouldn't notice. They would take care of him. I did and that was it -- back to work.
"But I was a freelance journalist and so could toss him in a sling and off with me," Prone continues.
"Plus, he had a father and a grandmother who adored him and were egging to mind him when it wouldn't have been appropriate to bring him.
"Ideal situation for everybody -- makes for an adaptable baby who can sleep everywhere and anywhere. But because it was so ideal, and because so many mothers don't have anything approaching that reality, I'm wary of having an opinion on their situation.
"I do know, however, that when we used to do training on behalf of FAS [training authority], the research they gave us showed that women who stayed away from work for six months or longer tended to lose confidence. Go figure..."