Three days ago, a delightful thing happened: a woman gave birth to identical twin girls. The delivery was said to be uncomplicated; mother and babies are doing well and the father is cock-a-hoop. How lovely for them all.
Except that the sanctimonious paragons of parenthood have already been tut-tutting, since the mother in question is Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of the tech company Yahoo! who, prior to the birth, said she would be taking minimal maternity leave.
Commentators and campaigners, among them senior figures from New York’s Family and Work Institute, and Family Values @ Work, were quick to voice their disappointment, casually lobbing around phrases such as “role model” and “wrong message”.
It’s worth noting that this is a woman who understands the desire to take time off after giving birth. Shortly after her son, now three, was born, she doubled paid leave for new mothers at Yahoo! to four months, and two months for fathers. One might also imagine that, given her wealth, she is in a better position than most to juggle three children and a demanding job.
Not that any of that matters. Because, unless Mayer’s contract says that, upon reproducing, she must immediately assume the role of poster girl for child-rearing, how much time Mayer takes off to look after her babies is a matter only for Mayer and her partner.
But, of course, any working mother will know that she is damned either way. Mothers are always required to justify their decisions to co-workers, friends, family or simply passers-by who invariably think they know best. Whether mothers are taking a year off and risking letting their careers slide, or racing back to work and allowing others to take charge of their children, guilt is the order of the day.
The birth of Mayer’s twins comes at a time when the issue of parental leave is a matter of increasing debate, and in which the US technology sector is leading the way. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg took two months’ paternity leave when his daughter was born last month; Adobe, Netflix and Microsoft have also upgraded the benefits for new parents. But still, the discussion around parental leave is seen as one that primarily concerns women.
It’s still mothers who face discrimination (a UK survey from the Equality and Human Rights Commission last summer revealed 11 per cent of new mothers are forced out of work each year), and are expected to make working sacrifices long after the physical fall-out of childbirth has subsided.
Clear strides have been made in Silicon Valley and beyond to improve the lot of both parents, though such practices are a long way from becoming law. Until that happens, we need to accept that parenthood is not just a “women’s issue”, and hauling one woman over the coals for her choices doesn’t help anyone.
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