When Google's doyenne Marissa Mayer was named the new chief executive officer at Yahoo, she made headlines. And when she subsequently announced that she's expecting a baby in October and intends to work through a very brief maternity leave, she reignited media commentary on this summer's button-pushing topic: a working mother's effort to embrace both professionalism and parenthood without chaffing. Some have described Mayer's decision as a watershed for women who want to feel they can—here it comes, again—"have it all." Others have criticized her choice as naive and not very motherly. But since when did the notion of loving your career equate to not loving your children?
Experts uphold a mother's right to work. "I absolutely think women should work while on maternity leave, primarily because a lot of women I've known over the years are really dedicated to their jobs. They're also deeply devoted to having their family and their spouse." says Susan Heathfield, a management consultant who writes about human resources at humanresources.about.com.
Jessica Herrin is the CEO and founder of the jewelry and accessories company Stella & Dot. She's also the mother of two girls, and has become dexterous with juggling parenting and professionalism. Like Mayer, Herrin chose to work through her maternity leave. "I think it's important for working women to be authentic about what makes them happy and not to conform to society about being a pregnant person working," she says. "I'm wired to want to work all the time. I would go nuts if I tried to stay home."
If you are a pregnant professional, you should know that there are many good reasons for abstaining from work post-delivery. But there are also a few good reasons to continue working, if possible. Here's a handful:
1. The working world has changed. Professionals no longer need to chain themselves to their office desk to get work done. Generous Wi-Fi access, smartphones, and tablet computers have birthed flexible schedules and mobile offices, and it's possible to stay home with a newborn and still stay tuned in to your job's tasks. Many of the companies that make WorkingMother.com's list of 100 Best Companies allow employees telecommuting privileges and the chance to compress their work weeks—two options that could work well for a brand-new mom. Some companies also permit automatic phase-back hours for new parents. "This allows you to work part time when you get back," explains Jennifer Owens, the editorial director of Working Mother Media. "It's like a soft-landing back into work."
2. Your new baby will sleep a lot at first. "I always thought maternity leave was quite ironic," Herrin says. "Provided that you don't have a difficult birth and an extended labor, that is. Because you deliver your baby, and three days later, you're fine. And your baby is primarily sleeping. You actually have the time to go back to work if you choose." Herrin brought her youngest with her to the office very soon after giving birth and was able to grow her business while also bonding with her baby. "I truly had a newborn at work," she says. "I definitely worked shorter days for the first two months. And I only lived a mile away from my office."
3. You can use it as catch-up time. Do you have a few company reports straggling? This could be your chance to revel in not having office distractions and catch up on those loose ends. Or perhaps it's a good time to take an online seminar that pertains to your profession. Maybe you could even do as Herrin did (while at home on maternity leave with her first daughter) and explore your entrepreneurial side. "I had another full-time job while I was starting Stella & Dot," Herrin says. "And I used my maternity leave to start my new business. I was really focused on the underpinnings of my business models."
How to Take a "Working" Maternity Leave
Pregnancy is your prep time for your new home life as well as your modified professional life. Whether you decide to stay at home on a traditional leave, or if you opt to work for some or all of your allotted time off, there are steps you should take to ensure a smooth transition:
First, familiarize yourself with your company's family leave policy. Owens says seven weeks is the average amount of paid maternity leave offered by Working Mother's 100 Best Companies. Even if you work for a place that doesn't offer paid time off, keep in mind that the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) mandates that employers with 50 or more employees permit those employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off per year to care for their child if they choose. To be eligible to use FMLA leave, you must have worked with a company for at least 12 months. "Many companies might also have an anniversary trigger on their benefits, where you have to work a certain amount of time before the benefits would kick in," Owens says.
Next, find a good caregiver for your child. "The No. 1 thing I would recommend for a woman who wants to go back to work quickly is to have a full-time caregiver," Heathfield says. "Then mom can have flexibility about what days and hours she works." Finding full-time help isn't feasible for all working moms, but whether you arrange for your family to give you assistance or if you decide to leave your child at daycare, your system and schedule should be firmly set to return to work.
Then, alert your boss to your pregnancy and propose your modified schedule. You don't have to tell your boss about your working plans at the same time as you tell him or her about your pregnancy. But if you're thinking of proposing a less-traditional working schedule after becoming a parent, then you should introduce that idea as soon as possible. "Look at your request from your manager's point of view and try to assuage any possible fear," Owens suggests. "This is a business pitch that you should set up as you would any proposal. Ask them to let you try your new schedule and suggest revisiting whether it's working in 30 days, or 90 days."
Finally, allow yourself time to adjust. New parents must accept the fact that their time is now no longer their own. "Everything from doctor's appointments, to daycare, to school closings, to sick nannies—those are the kind of situations that are inherent to parenthood," Heathfield says. "The more flexibility and understanding a company can offer its employees, the better it will be for everyone."
Herrin suggests new moms banish the notion of a mythical work-life balance. "I think of it as a work-life integration," she says. "I would say 'balance' suggests that everything is in check. If you peer inside my life, you'll see it's beautifully messy. ... It's about making sure to prioritize what's important to you. I don't forgo quality interactions with my children, but I do forgo some things that other moms do, like volunteering at my childrens' library, for instance. That's not my calling."