Is there such a thing as an “ideal” maternity leave?

we're in the money

"We're In The Money," photo courtesy of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

In July I attended the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, a year-round celebration of theatre in Stratford, Ontario. My sister and I have been going for years, and last year we started taking the men along with us. It’s basically three days of eating amazing food and seeing even-more-amazing live theatre.

I love Shakespeare, but the musicals are always my favorite. This year the stand-out was 42nd Street, a fast-paced song-and-dance show set in “old Broadway.”

The production was incredible. The tap-dance numbers were simply insane; it was impossible to fathom how that many people could move their feet that fast, in perfect unison. The music was so catchy and well-sung that I couldn’t stop shuffling my feet.

As I sat in the audience watching a stage full of lavishly costumed men and women rapid-fire tap-dance while singing “We’re In The Money” – all without breaking a sweat! – I found myself leaning forward, my hands balled up into fists, my heart pounding with a combination of excitement and envy.

Later I mulled over my assumption I’ve harbored that people in high-level career positions (like the one Anne-Marie Slaughter left) are “other” because they are talented, highly motivated, passionate about what they do, and willing to put in the time and energy it takes to do it.

As I thought about those dancers, singers, and actors, I had an epiphany: perhaps highly-motivated, incredibly ambitious people like Slaughter only seem “other” to me because their talents and positions – policy, finance, what have you – don’t particularly interest me.

Would I give up my quiet, peaceful home life to go run a major corporation? Nope. No interest. (And I also wouldn’t do a very good job, so it works out.)

But if I had the talent, the skill, the opportunity to sing and dance on stage all day? Well, hm. In that case, the choice wouldn’t be quite so simple.

That experience was on my mind last week when Marissa Mayer, Yahoo’s new CEO, gave birth to a baby boy…followed immediately by a flurry of criticism over the ultra-short maternity leave she’d been planning since taking the job.

My initial knee-jerk reaction was “One or two weeks! No way. She needs more time than that!”

But then I realized that, in a different way (because the realities of freelance writing are different from the realities of being a CEO or DC policy wonk or professional stage actress) I’ve never taken a very long maternity leave, either. 

Writing is every bit as much a part of me as mothering and just, well, living. I have spent many thousands of hours honing my craft, and wake up in the morning excited to sit down at the computer and communicate ideas. And that hasn’t stopped just because I’ve had a baby – if anything, it’s increased.

Sure, I don’t have to leave my house to write (though it sometimes helps), and I feel very lucky for that…but I can still understand why Mayer wouldn’t want to completely disconnect from her career for whatever amount of time the rest of us deem acceptable, either.

Likewise, if I were one of those tap-dancing stage stars? I might have a hard time sitting out a season after having a baby.

Not only that, but it bugs me that the first ___ (six weeks, year, three years, depending on who’s talking) are held up as the most essential period of motherhood, when as a mom of kids ranging from preschooler to teen, I now understand that kids can be needier at 12 years old than they are at 12 days old.

You don’t get a six-week or three-year window to be an involved mother.

I’m not criticizing the choice to leave work, or put it on hold indefinitely after having a baby. Yes, adjusting to new motherhood can be challenging, exhausting, and overwhelming. Yes, some of us need a long break, or simply want to take one if it’s available to us, or just want time – and lots of it – to get to know our new babies.

But we don’t all experience motherhood – not even new motherhood – the same way. And the realities of blending work and a baby will be different for each mom.

I think it’s easier for those who don’t truly love their jobs to stand in judgment of moms who return to work soon after having a baby. (This was definitely true for me when I left my job as a temp to stay home with my firstborn.) But what if your work is more than just a job, but a passion? And do some of us have inner passions we just haven’t located yet?

I wrote about Mayer’s short maternity leave – and why I “get it” even though I have no desire to be a top-level executive – over at my Babble blog. From the post:

“Shouldn’t you be RESTING?” I’d hear as I typed away on my computer, my snoozing infant on my chest. I often got the feeling that by refusing to completely check out of the work world – even though I was doing it with a baby in one arm – some felt I wasn’t committing myself enough to getting to know my new baby; wasn’t properly bonding or “experiencing the moment.”

The truth was that while I spent plenty of time counting tiny toes and kissing chubby cheeks, I felt a lot happier, more energized and calmer when I kept a toe in my career.

Blending work and a newborn has always felt natural to me; as natural, in fact, as breastfeeding.

Please read the rest of the post, and let me know: did you put all your work (paid or unpaid) on hold in the weeks following giving birth? If you were able to do the one thing in the world you’re most passionate about (besides being a mom), would you be willing or able to put it on pause after having a baby?

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