In the United States, unlike any other country in the world except Papua New Guinea, a centralized paid maternity leave policy does not exist.
Two weeks ago, when Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced she was pregnant with twins but would be taking very limited maternity leave and “working throughout” her time off, the 40-year-old was widely criticized for propagating a culture which expects superwomanhood or nothing.
But is Mayer, herself the epitome of a woman at the top, to blame for unrealistic expectations? How are other women leaders coping?
Seema Patel, 36, mother of two
Seema Patel, a lawyer and deputy director of San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement, was taking her first steps at a government job in Washington DC a few years ago when her then boss sat her down with an unexpected piece of advice.
“I don’t know anything about you,” her boss said. “But if you have any plans to have a family in the future, start saving your leave right now.”
Patel’s employer was the federal government, and she didn’t get a day of paid maternity leave as part of her work arrangement.
Back then, Patel was unmarried and very career-focused, and a family was the last thing on her mind. But diligently, she took her boss’s word for it. She avoided using her sick days over the course of four years so that when she eventually did have her first child two years ago, she had accumulated enough to get three months paid time off.
When she had her second baby six months ago, Patel could not pull the same trick. The four months she took off were entirely unpaid.
Patel says she experienced no pushback from colleagues, but it is the work structure she has an issue with. “I find it extremely unsupportive for anyone trying to have family,” she says. “It sends a message: your country does not value you becoming a parent.”
Karen Choi, 41, mother of four
Karen Choi, a vice-president at asset management firm Capital Group, says that any working woman who is a mother should be applauded. Choi, who has four children including a six-month-old baby, describes juggling being a mother and a job “a constant struggle”.
Secrets for keeping your head above water include having an “unbelievably supportive family” as well as a nanny and babysitter, accepting that there are some areas you are not going to be the best at (“Not everyone can be the Martha of home décor”), and simply getting through it.
Choi says she took more maternity leave with every child she had, starting with two and a half months with her first child, and taking six months off with her latest. This makes her an exception, especially within her industry.
“When your child is sick, has fever, is throwing up and you are up all night taking care of your child and knowing that the next morning you have to get your other kids to school and then you have to go to work … That’s when it gets to be very challenging”, she says.
Her firm was supportive, though, and she stresses her investment portfolio’s performance did not suffer at all.
When she entered the finance industry after university, about 20 or so of her female college mates chose the same path, she says. Today about 90% of them have left. Women who exit jobs and then re-enter are likely to no longer be on track for peak earning positions, she says. Staying is tough: “A sacrifice in the short term, but it pays in the long term.”
If nothing else, her children have helped provide meaning for this sacrifice, she says, because all four of her children are daughters.
“One of the things that keeps me going is the fact that I would like to be a role model to them.”
Kelly Posner, 48, mother of four
The notion of being a role model to her four children is also what drives 48-year-old research scientist and professor Kelly Posner. “They know that their mom is out there literally helping to save lives.”
Posner, who is the founder and director of the Center for Suicide Risk Assessment at Columbia University, says it is important for women to know that they can have a “big goal” career-wise and achieve it.
“It is very important for women to believe that they can have a vision. Most women do not allow themselves to think that,” she says. She once gave a presentation to 200 people, including government officials in Italy over a webinar while eight months pregnant.
Technology has also helped, she says, with the ability to stop the car and take a call after picking her kids up, or to answer an email on the go.
Juggling motherhood with a demanding career has been helped by an optimistic, problem-solving disposition, she says – an ability to get through things even when they feel impossible.
Jennifer Epps-Addison, 33, mother of two
Jennifer Epps-Addison, 33, the executive director of Wisconsin Jobs Now and a mother of two, says that only being able to make career and motherhood work together thanks to private networks of help – like nannies – is wrong.
“You shouldn’t have to get lucky or win the lottery to be able to succeed,” she says, describing the systemic failure to support women and families – citing oppressively low wages, a flawed health care system and a lack of mandated paid maternity leave.
“As a society, we are not taking care of each other,” she says. “We cannot even guarantee mothers who have just birthed a child to recuperate.”
Epps-Addison, who was pregnant while attending law school, gave birth to one of her children while she was on a fellowship.
With a husband and offspring relying on the healthcare provided by the fellowship, the labor leader was only able to take two weeks maternity leave, she says, before returning to work.
Lisa Mosko, 41, mother of two
Lisa Mosko, a fashion stylist and mother of two, says fewer women would be leaving their professions if more societal support were available in the form of company daycares, keeping to agreed-on schedules, and accepting that good work does not mean overtime.
On top of logistical constraints, Mosko says she has the added pressure of being in an industry where being a mother is sometimes synonymous with the epitome of unsophisticated (“mom clothes” being among the worst insults). “Image is part of your job – it can make or break you,” she explains.
Mosko’s “constant negotiation” of making her multiple roles work in harmony involves keeping to her chic appearance, beautiful handbag on hand – but sometimes having a toy or two fall out of them.
Remembering men are fathers too might help society cut women some slack, she says. “People don’t judge men for being bad dads as much as moms.”
Shola Olatoye, mother of three
Shola Olatoye, the chair and CEO of New York’s housing authority, which housesaround 400,000 New Yorkers and employs over 11,000 people, says that talking about “balance” is not really what motherhood and career is about.
“The notion of balance is a bit of a misnomer. It’s more like a seesaw,” she says.
The mother of three, including one three-month-old, took just seven weeks maternity leave when she gave birth this year. “It was a very important time for the agency,” she explains.
She says she knew seven weeks wasn’t enough, but her husband was able to take paternity leave and she has been able to have access to a flexible schedule that includes leaving early or coming in later so as to pump milk for her baby. Indeed Olatoye, who goes on runs with her girlfriends every morning that end at 6am (“cheaper than therapy”), is still nursing.
On the job, she has tried to create an environment that is “parent-friendly”, where coming in late because of a kid is fine, and answering emails does not have to be done from within the office walls.
“The concept and notion of family has changed and is changing so much,” Olatoye says. “The family is very different from what it was like 25, hell, 10 years ago,” she says. “It’s the workplace that has to adapt”.