Imagine you're a hard-driving corporate executive, rising through the ranks of one of the hottest technology firms in Silicon Valley -- an area notorious for its workaholic culture. Finally, you and your husband decide to begin a family. But before you can even plan maternity leave, you get a call to take over as chief executive of a different tech firm -- a dream job, but one that might be hard to juggle with a new baby. What do you do?
For Marissa Mayer, now CEO of Yahoo, the answer was: both new motherhood and a C-level executive career. On Sunday night, she officially became a working mother, with the birth of her baby boy. She plans to take just a week or two of maternity leave, and work throughout it, according to company statements.
Whether you applaud or deplore Mayer's decision to take on two huge roles simultaneously -- new motherhood and Fortune 500 CEO -- you have to acknowledge that this is a landmark moment for working moms. It should be harder for managers to justify pregnancy discrimination for the rank and file, in the face of a very public example of a CEO taking pregnancy in stride. As I wrote in a Fortune article on Marissa Mayer today, there are important lessons to be drawn from this episode for all working parents, as well as non-parents with family and personal commitments.
Four years ago, when people questioned whether Sarah Palin was a negligent mother for running for vice president with 5 children under 18 at home, I defended Palin's right to pursue her own ambitions despite being a mom. Like Mayer, Palin worked up until delivery and returned to work just days after giving birth (although it was her last baby, not her first). Since then, I've come to appreciate how much focused time with parents children truly need, and it's harder for me to justify the kind of tradeoffs Mayer and Palin are making. But I am not yet comfortable saying categorically that what they are doing is bad for their children, and that somehow a world of strangers knows the best choice for their families.
However, I do feel sad, for the baby, mother and father, that they don't have relaxed weeks to become acquainted and to relish the new life on this planet. I also wish them the good fortune they will need to manage this ambitious plan. It will be easier for everyone if the baby turns out to be an easy sleeper and good eater with not a trace of reflux or colic.
What do you take away from Marissa Mayer's abbreviated maternity leave? Do you think it will make things better -- or harder -- for executive women who want to combine motherhood with a high-powered career?
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