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

by Meagan Francis on October 11, 2012

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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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Chaunie@TinyBlueLines October 11, 2012 at 8:49 am

While I do agree with you that women should have the choice, I feel that women are more often that not, pressured into going back sooner rather than later. I feel like there is almost a stigma against taking more than the standard 6 week period. I took a full 12-week from the hospital and people were amazed I even came back, as if I had disappeared. Like you, I was back to “work,” writing from home within a week and going full-speed, but that backfired on me, when I landed in the ER with mastitis FOUR TIMES over my maternity leave. Sometimes, you do just have to take a break! And that’s ok.


Meagan Francis October 11, 2012 at 8:58 am

What I’ve learned from watching these different stories unfold, is that women/moms are pressured…period. We tend to feel or notice the pressure most when it’s trying to get us to do something we don’t want to (like go back to work too soon, or at all, for example), and then our situational bias (or is that observational bias…help me out here psychology experts) makes it seem like more people think X than Y. But if we were on the other side, I’m guessing we’d still be feeling pressure, just from a different group of people.

I think maybe the only solution is to figure out what *we really want, and what *we are really comfortable doing, and then do our best to filter out the voices that try to tell us otherwise.


Rachel @ the minimalist mom October 11, 2012 at 9:10 am

My first maternity leave really was ideal for me at the time. One year. Met a fabulous group of women at a mom and baby bootcamp class and it was like college all over again. Minus the drinking and hours spent on hair. We walked together, had coffee at each others homes, went to classes, the library, commiserated over lack of sleep and rejoiced over first year milestones.
I didn’t miss my marketing job in the slightest.
This time around I am working for myself in my ‘dream’ career as a part-time work from home writer. I’ll actually be on maternity leave for a few months but I know I’ll be sneaking in some time to work on a novel or short story or at the very least write a few blog posts.
I’ll be putting things on pause but I won’t completely step away like I did last time. I actually want to work this time around while last time I was happy to leave event planning, project management and copy behind.
The irony is that I make a fraction of my former salary so while I will start working sooner I’ll be making a lot less $$. C’est la vie.


Ana October 11, 2012 at 9:20 am

Thanks for acknowledging that every woman (and family) is different…and for confirming my always-suspected belief that parenting does not suddenly get “easier” or less demanding when your child turns a certain age (1, 3, 5, etc…).
I took approx 3 months for each maternity leave but the first time I was dying to go back to work just for a moment of peace (my baby was extremely colicky and high-needs and I was stuck inside with 3 feet of snow the entire time). The second was truly a vacation, spent exploring the city in the Indian summer weather and watching TV & movies as he contentedly slept and nurse. I did a little bit of work from home both times…the first time I wanted to do more, as I was in the middle of some exciting projects when I left. The second time, I had wrapped things up so well there wasn’t much to think about for the 10 weeks I was out.
So, yes, I get both sides of this…I know that people feel pressured no matter what they opt to do but I wonder how much of that pressure is of our own making…projecting our own guilt and insecurity about the choices we have made. I know I’ve felt guilty about wanting to go back to work so soon, but I can’t think of a single thing anyone has ever said to make me feel that way.


Sarah October 11, 2012 at 9:34 am

First, let me say I love that you also get giddy about great musical theater. I don’t get to see it live very often anymore, but in May I saw Wicked live (for the second time) with my mom. When the lights came up in the house at the end of Act I, right at the end of Defying Gravity, I saw SOBBING HYSTERICALLY. (I am NOT a big crier – I mean I get misty-eyed sometimes but it takes a lot to move me to real tears.) It was so funny to me that I had that reaction but it was 100% pure and spontaneous. :)

Love this post, and your commenters’ thoughts as well. I wish there were more emphasis on what felt right to each individual mom. I realize the reality of many jobs means that they might need to return after a certain amount of time, but I still think that the PRESSURE that you and Chaunie discussed as well as the ASSUMPTIONS about certain women often make it hard for a brand new mom to say to herself: “hmmm…what would make this maternity/postpartum ideal for me?” I would like to believe that workplace practices and cultures will slowly evolve to meet some more flexible needs (for those who WANT them) if more women take advantage of them over time.

My personal experience with my first maternity leave was that I was lucky enough to take three full months off, which was what I wanted and after which it was ASSUMED (by me and everyone else) that I would return full-time. I was in complete panic about going back full time (something I didn’t know would bother me until after I had the baby). I was able to work out a part-time solution and once I did, I actually looked forward to going back, and the schedule ended up so great for my first couple years as a mom. It was a lesson in listening to myself, even if what I find that I want isn’t what I thought I wanted (or what I thought others expected of me).


Alexandria October 11, 2012 at 10:32 am

I had a 6-week leave with my first child (plus 5 weeks before he was born – both leaves well needed). I know this might even be more than average, but got a lot of unecessary comments about how short the time was and how I would regret it. I work a job that is my passion, and more to the point I had arranged things at home and child was okay with it. It was basically no biggie to me – was the best we could do and worked out very well.

With second child I was able to take several months off and I *needed* it more. But it’s hard to say. After several months it was a really rough adjustment for my baby, and I had a lot of hormonal issues going on. Hormones aside, if I had just went back to work after 6 weeks I think it could have been an easier transition for the baby. Or maybe it would have been a nightmare and he really needed me more. IT’s hard to say.

With my first child I never understood the mommy wars in the least. He basically slept all day and would mostly nurse when I was home (including nursing him at noon hour every day). I thought, “All this fighting is because I miss a few waking hours every day? Give me a break!” But I appreciate how unique that was as my second child was not like that at all. I missed way more waking hours and he seemed to miss me more. Even as the kids age, my kids just don’t seem to sleep that much – so I don’t identify with missing a lot of time with time. My work schedule is flexible and I mostly work while they are in school anyway. If my kids had a 7:00 bedtime, my experience would be infinitely different. & I do notice that with a lot of working mom friends. I used to bemoan how late my kids went to bed and how early they wake up, but I realize I get a LOT of quality time with them that many of my working friends don’t seem to get with their kids.


A. October 11, 2012 at 12:41 pm

I think the only part that concerns me (and “concerns” isn’t even the right word) is thinking about recovery time. Especially for first-time moms who may not realize what it takes to recover from childbirth. I wasn’t feeling close to “myself” until at least 6 weeks postpartum, when the bleeding had finally stopped and the sore nipples were feeling better. I just can’t imagine going back to work after 2 weeks, when I’m still bleeding, it hurts to pee, etc. But, I also don’t work at home – and can see how that would be different/more private way to recover – and I also understand every woman recovers differently.


Meagan Francis October 11, 2012 at 1:15 pm

I do agree there, but even then, some jobs really aren’t any more strenuous than being home with kids. Particularly if you have a cranky baby who will never let you sit still, or older children at home too (BTDT on both counts!)

I’m thinking flexibility is the key, though. I absolutely believe that maternity leave needs to be available, and in longer periods than we tend to allow it here. But if more parents knew that part-time work, flexible hours, working from home or maybe even bringing a baby to work for a while were options, I’m guessing it wouldn’t have to be such a black-or-white, “work or don’t work” proposition.


Lindsey October 11, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Oh, I am so glad you wrote this. I am particularly fascinated by the revelation that women in “high powered” careers seemed other until you realized it was just that their passions were different from yours. That is so, so essential a realization, at least for me. And yes, I think if what you do is truly a passion, core to your being, then it doesn’t make sense – it may not even be possible! – to take concrete, extended time away from that. Who would want that? Shouldn’t we, instead, support those people who have really found their true passions? And believe in a world where more of us can blend what it is our heart calls for and the heart-centric work of motherhood, in whatever amalgam works for us, at each stage of the journey? That’s what I believe, at least.
And I agree with you entirely: my 10 year old is far needier than she was at 10 days old. I never believed that when I had infants, but I do now. xox


oilandgarlic October 11, 2012 at 2:23 pm

I really don’t think it’s rocket science — at least 6 months is ideal to coincide with the minimum recommended time for breastfeeding. I’m not saying all women must breastfeed or are bad moms, but it’s really tough and was nearly impossible for me, and many women, to coordinate pumping with full-time office work. In the U.S. most women give up on breastfeeding, compared to countries with longer leaves, and I think our short maternity leave plays a huge part. I would have preferred a year — not only to rest and recover AND get back to normal sleep patterns but to really experience & enjoy the first year. I think 6 months is a fair “compromise” between the needs of businesses and the needs of mothers.

Of course flexibility and the opportunity to work from home, or work part-time, would be really great, too, and if those were options, I think that would make a huge difference.

Another pet peeve I have with our short leaves is that i know many first-time moms who decided not to return to work because they had to base that major decision in the first 2 months of their baby’s life, and were so sleep-deprived, that they could not even imagine working and parenting. Give these same women a few more months and I think some would make another decision. Again, not saying working motherhood is better than staying at home, but some of these friends put their financial lives in jeopardy and might have made a different choice once if given more time.


Meagan Francis October 11, 2012 at 2:34 pm

That’s a very good point – that women feel pressured to give up their jobs, based on the way they feel in the first two months because the decision looms so large.

I think it would be wonderful if we lived in a culture where women could take 6 months off and then return to the same job, without anyone giving them a hard time or without their losing hard-earned standing in their organizations. But I’m just not sure we live in that culture? I’m not even just talking mom – vs – mom stuff; I’ve also read enough vitriol directed at mothers from non-mothers, who are angry that moms/parents get ANY time off or job flexibility, to believe that even if something were legally granted, it wouldn’t necessarily mean all women would feel at liberty to accept it.

Or maybe that’s just pessimistic of me. I guess I tend to gravitate toward solutions that happen on a case-by-case basis, because just as a large group of moms have a really good reason for wanting 6 months or more off, there might be another group who wouldn’t want it for equally compelling reasons. And it bugs me that either group would have to face tsk-tsking (or worse, damage to their careers) over doing what seems right in their situation.


oilandgarlic October 12, 2012 at 1:45 pm

Yes, it was very hard/emotional for me (and many of my friends/family) to leave behind a baby at 3 months of age. It would still have been very different to leave them at 1 year (my ideal) or at 6 months. However, babies are truly so helpless and needy in those early months, it really is a bad time to make that big decision. Also, women take some time off before giving birth so it’s more like 2 months of leave with the baby, if that.

I think women suffer a career penalty even if they go back to work as soon as possible, so if we got a longer leave and suffer career set-backs at least we got more time with our babies! I also think if 6 month became standard, it would be a temporary set-back anyway.


SusanP October 11, 2012 at 6:11 pm

Another great article! And thought provoking …

I’m the primary breadwinner for our family and work full time outside the home — typical M-F type job. I guess you could say it’s my passion … I like my job… but’s not all sparkle and butterflies either.

I’ve had four maternity leaves – all while working at this same place. Thankfully my company offers 6 weeks of short term disability which gives you a portion of your pay (it’s really technically 5 weeks of pay, but 6 weeks of time… some odd HR thing). Then they give you an optional 12 (was 13 for my first two) weeks of unpaid “parental” leave. When you return you are guaranteed a job at the same pay, same level, but not necessarily the exact same position.

I took that full amount all four times. My husband is a SAHD who works for himself out of the home so we were able to bank the money we needed to cover the loss of my pay. It was great that we were both at home together each time.

Did I *need* that long of a leave… probably not. But did I *want* it, yes!! I loved my maternity leaves and did not think about work AT ALL during them. I needed that break from my job and it was a wonderful way to do it. I loved the last 3 leaves even more because it allowed me extra time with my older kids in addition to bonding with each new baby. We traveled each time – after #4 we spent a whole month across the country visiting my parents and siblings. (my youngest was born in April so it coincided with summer break – super extra bonus!!)

I went from high school to college to grad school right into this career. At age 23 I was a newlywed, working full time, buying a house across the country from my family…. not many breaks. Each of these four – four months off were golden to me. I joke now how I wish I could have another “maternity leave minus the baby”. We’re about at the point where we’d have another baby (my kids are 8, 6, nearly 4, and 2.5)… even though we are sure we are done having more babies I feel the craving for that break from work :-)

As much as I like my job and have passion for it… I needed the breaks from it too. That being said – I totally get why other people can be back at it in the weeks after – it all depends on your situation, your job, your amount of work flexibility, your ambition, your support network, your physical recovery, etc. I wish that more women had the options to take as much as they feel they want and need – I know I’m blessed to have had the experience I did.


Tammy October 12, 2012 at 8:49 am

LOVE this! Ideally, I would have 2 weeks at home, and 6 months at part time. I wish there were more support for this. It doesn’t feel natural to stay home all the time or work full time. I hope to eventually work at a place that accommodates this. When I work full time with an infant at home I end up not being as productive, and just missing my baby. It lasts the whole first year, maybe more. I do work in a competitive place, but at some point I feel like I earned the right to more flexibility.


Olivia October 14, 2012 at 11:04 am

Wonderful. The fact that my day job was boring and unfulfilling made my decision to quit and stay home after I had my second baby much easier.


Jen October 26, 2012 at 7:16 am

What is tough for me about this article is that it seems to lack an understanding of the underlying political dimensions of maternity leave. For me, this issue isn’t that we should condemn anyone for how they adjust to motherhood. I can see how a work-at-home-part-time mother might find the newborn months to be rather relaxed and blissful. However, that is a totally different situation than the head of Yahoo. Her situation – working outside the home for 80+ hours a week – is dependent on full-time nannies, night nurses, sick child care, maids, OR a stay at home Dad. If we suggest that maternity leave is optional because some people have the supports of an incredibly flexible job (work at home part-time) or an incredibly supportive and expensive back up team – we make it incredibly difficult for ordinary women with ordinary working hours to take modest maternity leaves. I think it is important to note that the default needs to be an entitlement (no, I’m not afraid to use that word) to a lengthy maternity leave so that a woman who is in a demanding job that is not supported by a wage sufficient to hire a “staff” or who choose to get to know her own baby in her own way does not feel pressured into NOT taking a leave. You were incredibly lucky to have the CHOICE to work ON YOUR OWN TERMS after you had your babies – I’m really concerned about women feeling pressured to go back to work even when they and their babies are not ready. In my experience, it is a much more dangerous phenomenon for women in stressful work situations to feel pressured to return to work without a maternity leave than it is for a woman who loves her job to return to it on her own terms even if other folks think she “should” take more time.
Now, my perspective may be somewhat skewed because I have twins. Note that having twins didn’t entitle me to a longer maternity leave. Like many moms of twins, I’m an older mom (my boys were born near my 38th birthday) and I treasured their infancy even as my mantra was “This is ALL I have to do right now. ALL I have to do right now is take care of these babies.” I had an 8 week paid leave followed by an unpaid leave – with a total leave of 9 months. I felt like the first three months it would have been impossible for me to work and nurse my boys – I just didn’t get enough sleep. After four months, I felt like if I HAD to return to work, I could but I was thankful I didn’t have to. I have not had the “one baby” experience where you have lots of time while they’re sleeping to do other things. I couldn’t even work from home until they were a few months old – I was literally living hour by hour even with a lot of help from my parents. I am very thankful no one fed me the line that I could go back to work if I was sufficiently engaged. I felt guilty enough as it was that I couldn’t work on my articles or engage in other work. It was tough enough to adjust to motherhood.
So I take your point that we shouldn’t judge other mothers for not taking maternity leave. However, I think, in the same breath we should say how fortunate she is to fund a backup system (or have a stay at home Dad) and how we hope that she’s open to the idea that her priorities might change once the baby is born. She certainly has the “right” to take it, but I think that you are dramatically underestimating the precariousness of there being ANY maternity leave available for ANY woman – we do not currently have that right in this country (FMLA does not apply in all cases) and until we do, I have to believe that my energy is better spent advocating for that rather than suggesting that if you REALLY love your work, you won’t need it (which seems to me really absurd as well – I know many people who love their work but “needed” maternity leave). Until maternity leave is a funded right, I’m much more worried about women who don’t have access to it than women who – for a variety of fortunate reasons – won’t need it after all.


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