You’ve probably read one of the many articles recently that call for policies around maternity and paternity leaves. To that, I say it’s about time. Having given birth for the second time four months ago, I can say with complete confidence that “the fourth trimester” is no joke. The conversation has stuck on evaluating parental “leave” in terms of weeks, paid or unpaid, that one is able to take and then return to their job. For some of us, maternity leave is an ongoing, evolving thing, and it’s time we define it on our own terms.
The facts on maternity leave in the U.S. are dismal: not enough women have paid time off to have a kid (only 17 percent do), and those that do often return to work before they’re ready, generally due to financial pressures (75 percent!). Too many jobs lack flexible or part-time work (though those numbers are increasing), or an organized transition program to help women ramp back up – and some women want to stay home. Women’s feelings about their specific work and their financial situations matter a great deal in their decision on how and when to return.
Marissa Mayer raised our collective feminist eyebrows in 2012, when two weeks after giving birth the Yahoo CEO came back to the office, with the baby tucked in a nursery next door. It wasn’t traditional maternity leave; this mom wasn’t forced to leave her newborn before she was ready. But this arrangement worked for her, and it was a gut-punch to the status quo about what a working’s mom’s childcare could look like. She had her naysayers: people expressed disappointment that she wasn’t using her position to take more time off and set an example of what a paid leave policy should look like. But Mayer did what worked for her family, and she also shattered our preconceived notions of what maternity leave could and should look like.
We’re still too quick to label mothers who rush back to work as uncaring or insensitive, or bad role models, whose actions discourage other employees to take leave. And I should know this, because I’m one of them.
Only a few days after my son Oden was born, I was back in the office. Not because I had to be, but because I chose to be. And lest you paint me as a bad role model, one of our four employees is about to go on maternity leave. A “real” one. For three months. Paid. It is a stretch for us at an absolutely crucial time. Our small-but-mighty team of full-time employees and freelancers is coming together to pick up the slack, because our company is unapologetically for moms. All moms. Especially the ones who work for us. That’s our DNA. That’s why we launched Babyation.
I have two priorities right now: my babies and my business. I realize how lucky I am that I have found a way to (mostly) combine them. When Oden was three weeks old, I embarked on a 20-hour cross-country trip to pitch investors. But the next morning, straight off my redeye, I happily took my first call of the day with a few extra shots of espresso in one hand and Oden nursing in the other (please, no judgments about caffeine intake while breastfeeding!). Oden has a space in the office next door to mine, and our nanny watches him here. Even as I type this, I can peer around the corner and see his little body asleep not far from me. I may never find a perfect work-life balance, but at this moment it feels pretty good.
I realize how privileged I am to have this setup. In order to have this luxury, we have lived at my parents’ house for the last 3.5 years. We weren’t paying ourselves a salary for the vast majority of that time, and our budget allows for pretty much only food and childcare-related expenses. Even so, I’m well aware of my good fortune.
Having the flexibility to work at a growing company while keeping my kid nearby is what makes me thrive. It allows my business to bloom and makes me feel more content as a mother. And, equally important, it’s what right for me. My sense of self is inextricably linked to my work. I need job satisfaction and to contribute on an intellectual level. Everyone derives satisfaction differently; I know what’s right for me, and I vehemently believe everyone should get to do what’s best for them.
We’re seeing a shift in the way other women business leaders and entrepreneurs take their maternity leave, and a willingness to be honest about how this works for their family. I have been encouraged by the likes of Katia Beauchamp of Birchbox, Amy Nelson of The Riveter, and Jennifer Hyman of Rent the Runway. These women are blazing the trail for moms like me, and for parents of a generation to come.
My decisions on maternity leave — just as my decisions on parenting, breastfeeding, sleep training, weaning and any complicated personal choice that comes with raising a human — are what works for my family. There are women who prefer uninterrupted weeks off from work to bond with their babies, and others for whom the job protections are a necessary lifeline. But in our rush-to judge attitudes, we’re often overlooking the idea that maternity leave, whenever possible, is not a one-size-fits-all plan. As more women leave the traditional workforce and start their own ventures, we could see these types of arrangements increase. My hope is that as companies, large and small, expand their maternity leaves, they make them flexible enough to encompass the diversity and differences among the women they are meant to help.
We’re in the midst of a paradigm shift on paid family leave: more businesses are offering it, more states are passing laws, and more men are taking advantage of the benefit, which was once reserved for women only. (This is good! Men deserve to take time for children too. And for the record, it doesn’t have to be a biological child for whom one takes leave.)
As more women ascend to leadership roles, and as more workplaces become open to flexible arrangements, perhaps it won’t be just Marissa Mayer and women entrepreneurs who can do work with the baby nearby. This could be our new way to define maternity leave: one defined by the individual woman who takes it.