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Why Marissa Mayer's (nonexistent) maternity leave might actually be good for women

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  October 4, 2012 07:34 AM

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Like most of the social media universe, I was feeling pretty angry with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer for going back to work a week after giving birth. What was she thinking? She was setting a crummy example, I thought, and making it harder for working women who want protected time at home after giving birth. I imagined employers saying: hey, Marissa Mayer can do it. What's your problem?

But then I read my friend Wendy Sue Swanson's take on it. "I suspect Ms. Mayer is making decisions in the context of what is right for her family," Dr. Swanson wrote. My tail went right between my legs. She's right. We shouldn't be judging--or forcing our ideas or stereotypes on others.
And more--most--importantly: Marissa Mayer got to make her own choice.
I still don't agree with that choice. There's all sorts of medical and emotional and parenting reasons for staying home after having a baby--for longer than a week. I don't think this is great for her or her baby--but as Dr. Swanson pointed out, Ms. Mayer is a smart person. She knows the health and other risks of what she's doing. I am sure she weighed them against the benefits of doing it. And she did what she thought was best.
I'm hoping it's really that way. I'm hoping it's not that she felt that she really didn't have a choice, that she had to go right back if she was going to be successful in this still largely man-powered world. We'll likely never know.
But rather than second-guessing her, rather than bashing her and questioning her parenting (while I'm still a bit stunned by the crowdsourcing of her baby's name, there have certainly been worse approaches), we should see this for what it could be: an example of a woman making the parenting choice that works best for her and her family. That's worthy of celebration, not derision.
It shouldn't just be people with ample financial resources that get to do this, though. That's our challenge as a society. Just recently a mother in my practice had to go back to her minimum-wage job when her baby was three weeks old in order to pay for food and rent. That's not fair--and what made me most sad was the mother's resignation. It didn't even occur to her that she and her baby might deserve more. They do. Every mother and child deserve to have what's best for them.
Marissa Mayer's choice challenges us, too, to think outside the box when it comes to parenting. I have no idea what her husband's role is going to be, but wouldn't it be cool if he were going to be a stay-at-home dad? Why is it that we get so easily angry with her--but don't get angry with fathers who go to work the day after their babies are born? Why is it that we think more of women who cut back on work to care for their children--but less of men who do the same?
So, Ms. Mayer, please accept my apology. I was wrong to think what I did (and send the Tweet I did). Instead, I should be congratulating you on the birth of your healthy son--and thanking you for pointing out very publicly and bravely that our life choices should be just that: ours.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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