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Can Moms Have It All? Or Is A Maternity Leave Too Much To Ask For?

Two recent storylines have created a lot of chatter in the mommy world.  No, I am not talking about that Time Magazine cover, though apparently we can all watch that story play out on reality television.

The first storyline graced the cover of The Atlantic titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter.  In this article, Slaughter opines that professional women today face a relentless and unending struggle between their careers and their families.  After determining that she simply could not find balance in her high-profile role as the first female director of policy planning at the state department, Slaughter realized she needed a change.  And also that she needed to share her conclusion that women cannot have it all.  At least not at the same time.

So what exactly does “having it all” really mean?  Because last time I checked, just about every person I know has different short-term and life-long goals for themselves, and my version of having it all is very different than my neighbors.  Or a version held dear by a trust fund baby’s, but we don’t need to go there.

One of the many great things about the United States is that we all have the ability to envision and put into action our own version of the American dream.  And for women who are fortunate enough to have choices in life (I am mostly speaking about the same well-educated and professional women that Slaughter discussed in her article), this version of our dream may often include time off from work to care for our children.

As a child, I would never have dreamed about being a stay-at-home or even work-at-home mom.  I envisioned myself as a career women, working hard to climb the ranks and shining in my Jackie O-ish suit and high heels.  In college, of all places, this future vision of myself started to change.  During a visit to my college boyfriend’s brother’s family, I had the pleasure of seeing his sister-in-law raising his nephew and niece as a stay-at-home mom.  The picture was lovely, and my mom was opened to this new possibility.  While I found the idea of being a stay-at-home mom captivating for the first time, I still never really envisioned this in my future.  After all, wasn’t leaving the career path somewhat on the same level as giving up?  And would I be wasting my college (and later law) degree to change diapers all day?

Later in college I worked part-time during the school year as a nanny for a very wealthy family.  This job came naturally to me, as I was the oldest of three kids, and being older by five and seven years, I often babysat and looked after my brother and sister.

The family I nannied for was incredibly sweet, caring, involved and loving.  However, there were days where I would be with the kids first thing when they woke up and be there when they went to sleep.  I, as a twenty-one year old, was often raising these kids for days at a time.  As great of a nanny as I thought I was (move over Nannies of Beverly Hills, I was amazing!), I was still just a college girl raising and looking out for these kids while their parents were working, on trips, and enjoying adult time.  I did not want the same for my future kids.

In her article, Slaughter references two younger female attorneys who were deprived of older female role models in the firm to model their career and home life balance around.  They spoke about “the top professional women she knew, all of whom essentially relied on round-the-clock nannies. Both were very clear that they did not want that life, but could not figure out how to combine professional success and satisfaction with a real commitment to family.”

Slaughter says in her article that women who “have managed to be both mothers and top professionals are superhuman, rich or self-employed.”

This brings me to the second storyline that is attracting a lot of articles, posts, and debates in facebook mom’s groups, the new head of Yahoo, Marrisa Mayer (yes, that sinking ship wrapped up as a search engine and email) was announced to be a 36 year-old women who is pregnant.  And, so as not to worry Yahoo’s investors any more, she has already declared that she will only take a three-week long maternity leave.  While she is fully devoted to Yahoo, many moms are mighty upset that a young, high-profile CEO would declare so publicly that she is turning her back on the institution that is maternity leave. 

On the other hand, many career women are applauding her decision and taking cover underneath such a public floating of this post-partum leave.  “See,” the think, “I am in front of the trend to not need maternity leave.”  Some women think that by returning to work as quickly as possible, they are proving that they are committed and invested in their careers.  Or they just have work to do that cannot be done by anyone else.

Which begs the question, can women have it all?  Can they be a modern, career-driven woman, and have a baby while balancing their partner, home-life, extended families and friendships?  How interesting is it that these two storylines emerged at the same time, as Mayer pretty much demonstrates Slaughter’s points in vivid detail.

The idea that a new mom would willingly sacrifice the precious first few weeks with her child for the boardroom is enough to drive some women mad.  Upon hearing Mayer’s decision, is it difficult for a mom not to want to express her feelings about how crucial the first few weeks and months of a baby’s life are for their development, sense of self, self-esteem, socialization and more.

Three weeks is barely enough time to establish a breast-feeding routine.  Is it any wonder that women who return to work six weeks after delivery or sooner are more than 4.49 times more likely to fail at breast-feeding?  In another study, children of moms who returned to work soon after birth had higher of high school dropout rates, more behavioral problems, lower cognitive tests, and are even more likely to miss doctor’s appointments and immunizations.  In mother's, the lack of a maternity leave impacts maternal health and leads to higher rates of postpartum depression.

Many women do not have the luxury of being able to decide whether to take maternity leave or not.  They simply do not have this choice available to them.  Working is a necessity either because they are single moms, or their socio-economic status requires or expects it.  Or they may own their own business or be self-employed, and not have anyone else that can address the pressing concerns that arise on an almost daily basis.

On the other hand, I vividly remember being chided by one of the door-staff at my building in Chicago.  As I entered the lobby several times a day for a walk or doctor’s appointment, she reminded me that in her country (Ethiopia) do not leave their house for 40 days after having a child.  During this time the woman stays in bed and is attended to by her mother and the village of women.

Staying in my house for 40 days would never work for me; it might literally drive me mad.  Plus I wanted to start working off the baby weight and proudly push my baby around the city.  But this ancient custom that is still practiced in Ethiopia has its roots firmly grounded in science, psychology and sociology.

During the first few weeks of a baby’s life, the child depends almost entirely on its mother to nurse every two to three hours, change its diapers, dress and bath it, rock, coddle and bond with the baby.  These are literally the first moments of the child’s life.  The baby at this point has not yet cracked its first smile, and he can barely see more than a few hazy inches away.  Sure, another person could step into the role of mother and take care of these needs.  But would you really want another person doing these precious firsts with your baby? 

We often hear about a debate between nature and nurture in terms of shaping personality and potential.  In my opinion, nature can only come into play if the environment is right.  New research has shown that a short maternity leave is not simply challenging for a new mother, but it can also be harmful for a baby.  A short leave can cause developmental delays, increased chance of becoming sick, and most importantly, can cause insecure attachment.

What is attachment?  In order to have a secure basis to establish relationships, understand the world around them and thrive, children need a strong primary relationship with a caregiver who is loving, sensitive to their needs and understands and responds to their needs. 

After carrying a child for forty weeks, who is better in tune with a newborn than their mother?  Even someone who can afford the best possible care in the world cannot manufacture a close bond between a newborn and the person tasked with their care.  A mom naturally has bonded with their own child during pregnancy, labor and delivery due to natural hormones that are released to ensure that a mother will care for their new arrival.  Can anyone really care for a newborn as well as their own mother? 

Each attachment occurs in its own unique ways.  When my son was born, I could tell he had a very strong desire to suck.  I instinctively figured out that placing my finger in his mouth soothed this reflex and instantly calmed him.  As a mother takes care of her new child, she also instinctively responds to the needs and demands of the child.  A baby in a playful mood elicits smiles and laughs from a mom, while a crying or upset infant might be responded to with nursing, shushing or rocking. 

This process of understanding and responding to the needs of an infant is called attunement, and it is developed over the course of the first weeks and months of a child’s life.  A child grows, develops and changes more in their first year of life than at any other time.  The process of a mother creating a strong bond with this baby, of becoming finely attuned to its own individual and unique needs, creates a self of safety, self-esteem, and confidence in this child. 

Many women simply cannot enjoy a long maternity leave due to financial or other pressing obligations.  But for women who are fortunate enough to enjoy these precious first few weeks and months of a child’s life, but choose to cut this time short in a very public fashion, that is a little difficult for many moms to understand.  It just does not seem very maternal. 

When we look back on our lives, are we going to remember those huge deals that we closed, or are we going to remember precious moments with family and friends?  Are we going to regret not going on a business trip, or not responding to an email right away, or are we going to regret not playing with our child?  What ultimately is all of that money or all of that success worth if you are missing out on your child’s first smile, laugh or steps?

I understand that Mayer has a very unique opportunity to put her mark on a company that is sinking rapidly, and thereby firmly establish herself in the world of business.  I get that to appease investors already worried about share prices and faltering advertising sales, Mayer needed to very publicly declare that she was only taking three weeks of maternity leave after she was hired to rescue the company.  I just hope that she does not regret this decision in a year or five when she realizes just how precious time is, and how quickly her child is growing up.  And I wish she would have thought a little more about how this public declaration would pressure other expectant moms now and in the future who are looked down upon for not returning back to work less than a month after giving birth. 

One of the reasons I wanted to start Club MomMe was so I could work from home, and spend every day with my son during his formative years.  I am one of the lucky ones, but to say I have balance would be a lie.  Balance is almost impossible for any women to achieve in modern society, and we often have to make many sacrifices to achieve even some semblance of it.  But I feel fortunate that even though I might not have balance in my life right now, I do have all of the precious moments with my son everyday.  And that to me is priceless.

Reader Comments (2)

I read the Slaughter article and was deeply distressed at the evidence that our country values business over family. I have lived in Europe, where both mothers and fathers are encouraged to spend time with their families. Mothers who work have extended maternity leave, and employees in general enjoy longer vacations. Businesses do not operate into all hours of the night, and many are not even open on the weekend. All of this leaves families more time to be with each other, which makes them healthier and happier. Americans cannot strike a balance between work and family because our society does not allow us to do so, and we all suffer for it.

July 30, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

i think my supply would have dwindled drastically if i had returned to work. 3 months just isn't long enough! i feel for mothers out there who have to deal with a workplace that's hostile toward pumping. great post! want to write more but sugarpie needs a diaper change!

August 1, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertracie parzen

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