So, recovery from childbirth. I was only 29 when I gave birth to Oliver, and I had a vaginal birth, but my recovery was not so great. I tore (ouch). I had stitches (ouch). Sitting was very painful for a couple of weeks. For at least the first week, I couldn’t stand up for more than a few seconds at a time. Thank the universe that my mom and Seth were there to handle diaper changes, because I just couldn’t do it at first.
I think I finally felt physically better at about four weeks -- meaning, I could stand, I could walk around the neighborhood, I could walk up the stairs to our apartment while carrying the baby in the car seat, and I could drive a car.
But recovery, for me, wasn’t only a physical process, but an emotional one as well. Here was this tiny human that my body made. When I gave birth to him, I felt a little sad about “losing” the pregnancy, even though in place of the pregnancy I got an adorable baby. So along with the happiness of having this person that I made, was a sort of grieving for the pregnancy, if that makes any sense.
The attachment I felt to my baby was stronger than anything I’ve ever known. I can only liken it to the feeling of being so in love with someone that you can’t think about anything else. Because here was this thing that was me. My body created him, and so I felt a little as if I’d given birth to myself, or at least a part of myself. My only concern was protecting and sustaining this life I had made.
Before I gave birth to Oliver, I thought that I would go back to work after 12 weeks of leave. In California, I got six weeks of state disability, plus six weeks under the Paid Family Leave Act (actual paid leave varies by state, but in most states it is at least six weeks). I thought that would be a sufficient amount of time to recover from childbirth and find a daycare provider.
But after the birth, I knew I could not go back to work after just 12 weeks. The thought of putting Oliver in the care of a stranger, when he was so little and needed me so much, was devastating to me. We were lucky, because we were able to find a way that I could stay home with Oliver for almost the first year of his life. I sold off my measly stock portfolio, and we got some help from family. Also, Seth really stepped up and took on freelance work in addition to his full-time job, and he enrolled part-time at a community college so that we could put his fancy-pants art school graduate program student loans temporarily on deferment.
It was tough, I won’t lie. We were struggling, but it was the right choice for us at the time, and I do not regret it. I understand that many new parents do not have a choice. Many of my friends with children returned to work a mere six weeks after giving birth, whether they wanted to or not.
So when I hear that Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO, has returned to work just two weeks after giving birth to her son, all I can think is, “ouch.” Obviously, Mayer is a superhuman who feels no pain and does not require sleep.
Maybe not superhuman, but close enough: a high-powered executive who happens to be the youngest CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and she makes $1 million per year. Marissa Mayer is a different kind of a person. I cannot even begin to compare my experiences as a mother with her experiences as a mother.
But like most people, my view of the world is colored by my own experiences. And my own experience after giving birth is that there was nothing I wanted more than to just be with my baby. Well, that, and like four consecutive hours of sleep.
Also in my experience, motherhood is considered by many employers to be a weakness in the workplace. After all, mothers might need extra time off work to take care of sick kids or attend school functions. I could argue that fathers also take time off work for these things (or at least, that’s how it’s done where my kid is concerned) but the time-off issue tends to fall squarely on the shoulders of working mothers. I certainly got my fair share of grief over it from my employer.
I also was turned down for a promotion (even though I was already doing the job that I sought to be promoted to, officially) due to my second pregnancy, before I miscarried. After the miscarriage, though -- ta-da! Promotion. Like magic.
So in this climate, where moms are seen as weaker or less desirable employees, many women feel pressured to return to work from maternity leave before they are ready. And this is the thing that bothers me.
What’s to stop other employers out there from thinking, If Marissa Mayer can go back to work at two weeks, why are we giving all these other women six or twelve weeks? While I think it would be silly for anyone to compare, say, my admin job with the CEO of freaking Yahoo!, I would not put it past some of my previous employers to buy into this line of thinking.
Don't get me wrong, I can appreciate that most employers do not want their employees absent. After all, productivity suffers when employees must leave a job for a length of time, and no employer wants an employee gone for six to 12 whole weeks.
But six weeks is the length of time it takes many women to recover (though honestly, I think we can do better than that). We cannot change the biological fact that women are the child-bearers. And that should not at all be seen as a weakness.
Giving a woman enough time off work to recover from childbirth and bond with her baby should be no more controversial than, say, giving someone time off work for cancer treatment. While obviously those are two different situations, and childbirth is not (usually, anymore) life threatening, they are still both situations in which our bodies are doing things that we cannot control.
Can you imagine anyone, in good conscience, giving an employee grief over missing work for chemotherapy treatments? We cannot help our imperfect human bodies. Sometimes we get sick, or need surgery. And sometimes we are just, you know, continuing the human race. What is “weak” about that?
I recognize that Marissa Mayer is not the average woman giving birth and then returning to her job six or 12 weeks later, and that returning to work immediately after giving birth is something most women are not expected to do. And I hope to god that we never are.
Somer is on Twitter @somersherwood