As “working mother” role models go, the example from the boss of Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer, is about as welcome as those tiresome celebrities who publicly prance about in skinny jeans two days after giving birth. Mayer – who, let’s not forget, is expecting twins – has announced she is going to take only two weeks’ maternity leave.
The message from the trim and coiffed is that spending time with your newborn baby is for wimps – even if there are two to cope with. Real moms get their feet back under the desk almost before they stop all that unpleasant postpartum bleeding.
Her announcement caused both wailing from the Families and Work Institute in New York, but it’s too simple to say two weeks is too short. Because maternity leave is a conundrum. Do you take your laptop into the labour ward? Or do you stay at home playing Frustration on the carpet and, when you eventually return to the office, discover that the job has changed, your skills have rotted, all your peers have been promoted and nobody recognises you?
I had my first three children within the embrace of the BBC and each time returned to my position as a news correspondent when they were about eight weeks old. It was tough. Quite apart from the necessity of sitting in the loos pumping breast milk on a regular basis, every time I walked past a television screen showing a Teletubby or the inexplicable Fimbles, I felt like crying.
Sometimes, I did actually cry. There was the sadness about missing those first tentative smiles, the huge cost of child care, and the eternal anxieties about whether said child care was good enough, safe enough, loving enough. But while I loved being a mother, I also loved my job. I was already slightly freaked out by the legion of (male) colleagues who would email me immediately I had let it be known that I was knocked up, and ask me a) when I was going to be off, and b) could it be for as long as possible, please?
The ideal arrangement arrived when I had my fourth child, by which time I had become a freelance journalist. Here was the best of both worlds: I maintained childcare arrangements for the older lot (then aged two, five and seven), and simply carted the baby around with me. His first outing was at the grand age of four days. I breastfed him for a year, and arranged my work around him. Wi-fi and smartphones helped. He slept a lot. It was extremely efficient.
It won’t work for everyone, of course, but I think this does suggest a glimmer of hope on the vexed work-life see-saw. Many large workplaces already provide in-house restaurants, gyms, beauty salons and healthcare outlets. Some already provide in-house nurseries; many more should.
It would be a huge plus for those mothers opting to breastfeed, because the recipient is merely a corridor away. If you get your timing right, you would not have to perch on a loo for 20 minutes attached to a buzzing plastic milking machine. Or – the worst – sit in a meeting fearing to look down because you suspect that there are two dark circles gradually expanding on your chest.
If mothers could take their baby to work, the dreaded portcullis that comes crashing down between work and home life would be dispelled. Parents would not have to arrange dawn-till-dusk childcare, and paternal guilt about going back to work might be lessened, even more so maternal bitterness about feeling forced to stay home. A modern solution, indeed.