How will Marissa Mayer’s pregnancy play out? Will the new Yahoo chief executive find that it’s not so easy to power through a maternity leave? Or will she spend just a few short weeks at home — working all the while, as she promised in an interview — and thus set the bar high for future pregnant executives of Fortune 500 companies? What should the new “it” mom-to-be do?
The truth is, I’m just not that worried about Mayer, though everyone else seems to be. Ever since it came out that the Silicon Valley star was taking the helm of Yahoo, expecting her first child in October and planning to work through her maternity leave, speculation about what her choices mean for everyone else has run wild. But I’d say that the former Glamour woman of the year — who was Google’s 20th employee, will earn a pay package worth a reported $59 million over several years at Yahoo and is married to a successful entrepreneur — is in a good spot, whatever she chooses. I’m pretty sure her son will be fine, too.
But the rest of us and our kids? That’s not necessarily the case.
More than half a million new mothers each year, one in 10 working women, go back to work outside the home within four weeks of having a child, according to the latest census numbers. There’s not much fretting going on about these folks, despite the fact that they are the women least likely to be able to afford decent child care — and, in fact, to have all the things that ease working parenthood: flextime, paid vacations, employer-sponsored child care and paid sick days.
When these mothers go back to their jobs, often well before they’d like to, it is not heralded as the next big step for womankind. I’ve reported on women and work for years, and while researching my recent book on “the family-unfriendliness” of our country, I spoke with at least a dozen women who returned to their jobs within a few weeks of giving birth — some within a few days. Those moms would describe themselves as staggering under the combined strains of caring for a newborn and earning a paycheck. Most either didn’t qualify for the 12 unpaid weeks off provided under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or if they did, they couldn’t afford to take them. So if they wanted to keep their jobs, or just pay their bills, most of them had no choice. Back to work they went.
Research shows that returning to work within six weeks of having a child can cause women to be depressed and in worse physical health. Not surprisingly, it also cuts down on breast-feeding.
For children, paid parental leave can mean the difference between life and death. Economist Christopher Ruhm looked at combined data from 16 European countries and found that a 10-week extension in paid leave starting in 1969 brought about a 20 percent drop in infant mortality. Data from Norway tied an increase in paid parental leave to lower high school dropout rates, stronger IQ scores and even increased height.
In the United States, kids are also more likely to land in low-quality child care, which comes with its own negative consequences.
Yet, the public conversation around American motherhood is largely free of such unpleasant realities, focusing instead on the stellar trajectories of elite professional women. Mayer’s story of summiting the corporate peaks while expecting is just the latest chapter in our obsession with the work-life dilemmas of the rich and famous.
About a month before Mayer’s news, another episode featured Anne-Marie Slaughter, who left her dream job as the director of policy planning at the State Department in the Obama administration to return to her gig as a tenured Princeton professor who appears often on TV, gives 40 to 50 speeches a year and writes regular columns. This was supposed to be an indication that women can’t “have it all.”
It’s not that the super-women aren’t important. Clearly, the rest of us have much to learn from the highest fliers, whose story has been one of the central dramas of feminism. It’s significant that Mayer is the first pregnant Fortune 500 chief executive in history. Though she seems a bit squeamish about feminism, it’s clear that her hiring will pave the way for other women — just as it was undoubtedly made possible by earlier women’s fight for equality.
But, compelling as they may be, these stories have pretty much no bearing on whether everyone else can have it all. And without structural supports such as paid leave and decent child care, we can’t. Instead of star-watching, you might expect us to be talking about the fact that the United States is one of just three countries — and the only developed country — not to guarantee any paid maternity leave. Or that it’s been years since there was any serious political effort to make American child care better and more affordable. Yet, even in an election year, there is silence from both parties on these subjects.
Such policy matters tend to be swept under the rug like so much wonkery. Even in the recent comparisons of French and American mothers, discussions that sprung from books by Elizabeth Badinter and Pamela Druckerman, references to the laws that shape our respective experiences were bizarrely absent. How can you talk about why French mothers are more relaxed tha
n American ones without noting that France offers new moms 16 to 26 weeks of leave with full pay (depending on how many children they have) and an additional 296 weeks of unpaid job-protected leave? Oh, and that the French have a government-subsidized national child-care system, which is of such high quality that 99 percent of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds use it. Of course we’re more uptight.
I get that it’s way more fun to think about Oscar de la Renta-wearing executives with dizzying salaries than boring old legislation. And I’ll admit to my own fascination in seeing a pregnant woman unapologetically on top of the corporate ladder. It’s thrilling! But let’s be real. Marissa Mayer’s problems are the problems the rest of us wish we had. And if we’d like to have it all, too, we should focus on our own.
Sharon Lerner is the author of “The War on Moms: On Life in a Family-Unfriendly Nation” and a senior fellow at Demos, a think tank focused on U.S. economic policy.
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