When I was eight months pregnant with my third child, I informed my boss, my staff and my colleagues, that I wasn’t going to take any maternity leave. I loved my job as general manager of The Washington Post Magazine. Our bottom line was at a critical growth stage. Stay home with a baby? Been there, done that.
I realized, in the first nano-second that I held my baby in the delivery room, what a fool I’d been to try to predict the future. She was a big, healthy, heavenly girl with a Cindy Lou Who tuft of blonde hair. She did little but sleep. She clearly did not need me, specifically – any loving caregiver would do just fine. But just as clearly, I needed her. I couldn’t imagine leaving for a moment. I wanted to spend the next 14 weeks doing nothing but rocking her, my last baby, in my arms for hours on end.
So I took back my promises and went on maternity leave, despite my blithe predictions. I did it for me. And I’m here to attest, 10 years later, that working during my maternity leave didn’t hurt my career, or the Washington Post’s, one iota.
When the new Yahoo CEO announced that she would not take maternity leave following the birth of her first baby, I chuckled and thought of my ambitious, single-focused self. I hope that once the baby arrives, 37-year-old Marissa Mayer treats herself as an individual, a new mom finding her own personal balance – not a role model or a poster woman at Yahoo and elsewhere. The greatest gift a new mom gives herself is twofold: self-acceptance of her own mixed maternal feelings, and self-protection from the judgmental hordes howling outside the baby gates.
There have been myriad news headlines lately about working moms, driven by the importance of women’s votes in the fall presidential selections. Former State Department director Anne-Marie Slaughter argued in The Atlantic that our culture still doesn’t let working moms “have it all.” Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg, who in July became the company’s first female board member, posited in Barnard’s 2011 commencement speech that the problem is that women lack ambition. Ann Romney and Michelle Obama offer two poles along the mommy wars spectrum, showing clearly that whether you are rich or poor, black or white, paid or unpaid, all moms are working moms.
The media frenzy over these “mommy wars” stories demonstrate that our collective fascination with all things motherhood continues. This is good. The last thing we need is to have the mommy wars become a closed subject again. The issues are too complicated to capture in a headline or a sound bite. We need to offer up more understanding of the complex, personal tradeoffs women negotiate, and respect for different women’s choices.
Women don’t lack ambition. We all crave “it all” – economic stability, rewarding work and life goals, emotionally healthy families – and with the right support at work and at home and in our own minds, women have proven again and again that we can find wonderfully imaginative ways to be involved mothers and pursue work that is exactly what we want and need.
This is ambition so grand that most men (and women without children) accustomed to solving problems with a single-minded focus can’t recognize it for the heroic feat it is. But other moms, working moms slugging it out and stay-at-home moms who’ve given up the work they cherished, understand. Their voices need to be heard and listened to.
A group only needs “role models” when not enough members are succeeding. Perhaps the day is coming soon when moms, ambitious to run a company or just improve the traffic flow in carline, won’t need any role models atop Yahoo or smiling at a presidential candidate’s side. There will be so many moms, modeling so many different individual juggling acts, that role models will be obsolete.
Until then, the key for all moms is to focus on yourself, your personal and professional goals, and try to sift through the voices in the mommy wars our culture, our media, and other moms generate. Carry on, Mary, Sheryl, Hillary, Anne-Marie, Michelle, Ann…show us the many, many ways to be happy moms. And then, let us choose our own paths without judgment.