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Working through Maternity Leave

Recently, Marissa Mayer gave birth to her first child and took a very short maternity leave from her job as CEO of Yahoo.  Specifically, she worked right up until the birth of the child and planned a one to two week post-birth maternity leave.  Debate flared about the wisdom and benevolence of such a choice.  The polarized opinions often voiced in this debate are based on theory, with the unique circumstances of real-world application completely absent.  Let’s consider unique circumstances now.

It is true that the first months of a new baby’s life are a wonderful bonding opportunity for mom and baby.  Mom may relish the opportunity to be off work to bond and nurture her new baby . . . further, mom may experience mixed emotions at best when maternity leave ends and she must return to work.  However, it is also true that these first months, with baby crying in the wee hours and 24/7 needs, can be physically and emotionally exhausting for mom.  Additionally, financial necessity, post-partum depression, pressure from work or a strong motivation to “get the job done” at work, a desire or need to return to one’s normal schedule, and other factors can cause mom to want to return to work as early as possible.  Therefore, let’s acknowledge that the decision a woman makes about the length of her maternity leave can be based on a wide variety of considerations, above and beyond medical considerations.

When seeking to balance a variety of considerations, a new mom must consider all options available, weigh their pros and cons, and make the choice that’s right for her family.  Usually, there’s no choice available that is pro-only:  typically, all choices involve at least a few cons.  The decision is difficult; the stakes are high.

In order to support the new family through the period of major transition that is bringing home the first baby, the family’s support system and community should seek to understand and nurture the new family.  Understanding the unique circumstances of this family diminishes the likelihood that individuals will criticize the new family based on theoretical, polarized positions of right and wrong.  If the new mom chooses to return to work after only a brief maternity leave, issuing polarized opinions about mom being selfish or disinterested in her baby’s welfare are unacceptable, as are statements that moms don’t belong in the workforce.  Also inappropriate are the polarized opinions on the other side of the debate, such as that maternity leaves are unnecessary because women can return to work promptly after the birth of a baby.  Further, the argument that feminism is helped or harmed in some way by taking or not taking maternity leave puts too much pressure on mom: she needs to be focused on what is best for her family during this major life transition.  To best understand and nurture this new family, people should keep the lines of communication open, listen without judgment, and acknowledge that the choice at hand is difficult and lacks any one-size-fits-all right answer.

But support isn’t conveyed solely by what people say.  It’s also conveyed by what people do.  The new family’s support system should offer to assist the new family to eliminate or minimize the cons of whatever choice is made by the new family.  For example, if mom will return to work after only a brief maternity leave, perhaps a breast pump may be an excellent gift idea: this will allow the new mom to express breast milk for baby’s subsequent consumption.  Referral to a trusted source to find a qualified nanny or other childcare provider may also be helpful.  Perhaps mom’s employer will offer her the opportunity to telecommute, thus allowing her to be at home with baby WHILE working.  Or perhaps a phased return to work (starting part-time and gradually increasing hours to full-time) may be an option that is available to her.

At a time when a family is most needing understanding and support, people should not criticize based on theoretical, polarized opinions.  With understanding of the family’s unique circumstances comes acceptance and (usually) support.

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