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Shirley Leung

Back to work only days after giving birth? Don’t judge

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced she is expecting twins in December.Associated Press/file 2013

Danielle Sheer gave birth on a Sunday, and by Thursday of that week the first-time mother was back in the office as general counsel of the Boston tech firm Carbonite.

Onerous boss? Oppressive work environment? Hardly. Despite her company having a generous maternity leave policy, that was Sheer’s plan all along.

“I knew I wasn’t going to shut off my e-mail and go away for three months,” said Sheer, 34, whose daughter just turned 1. “Three days after I had her, I wanted to go back to the office. That’s partly where my life is. I’m really proud of it.”


Turns out Marissa Mayer, CEO of the Internet giant Yahoo, isn’t the only woman who loves work so much she doesn’t want to miss a beat. Three years ago, Mayer set off a firestorm when she told the world she would take only a few weeks off after her first child was born. That debate roared back this week when Mayer blogged that she is expecting twins in December and again will be “taking limited time away and working throughout.

Let’s all be honest about what this is: a double standard by any measure.

New fathers routinely return to work immediately after the birth of their children, but women who choose to do the same catch flak.

They’re not only seen as bad mothers, but as setting a bad precedent for working mothers everywhere who are fighting for paid time off.

So here’s the long and short of maternity leaves: A woman should be able to choose what’s right for her without fear of being judged. Every pregnancy is different, every family is different, there’s no one size fits all.

“The pressure nobody should put on Marissa Mayer is to ask her to justify her role as a mother,” said Jane Swift, who delivered twin girls a month after being sworn in as Massachusetts’ acting governor in 2001.


Like Mayer, Swift chose to work through her maternity leave. Yes, she heard it all back then. She worked too much. She worked too little. She should resign to take care of her children. But worst of all, people told her the headlines about her struggle to balance work and family would discourage young women from trying to have it all.

“For my daughters, now at impressionable ages, I hope Marissa Mayer makes it look incredibly easy and fun, whether it is the reality or not,” said Swift, 50, who has a 16-year-old daughter, plus her 14-year-old twins. “She is painting a great model for my daughters and other daughters. You can have a great job, and you can have a fulfilling family life.”

Implicit in all the judgment heaped on Mayer and working mothers like her is that there’s something wrong when women value their careers as much as their children. Or that all mothers should want to stay home with their newborns.

“To this day, I call it baby prison,” said Bettina Hein, founder and chief executive of Boston tech startup Pixability , of her six-week maternity leave with her first baby.

What Hein couldn’t stand was the social isolation. With baby number two, she returned to the office after three weeks, coming in one day a week and taking her newborn along.


Before anyone starts calling her an unloving mother, Hein, 41, will let you know that she has plenty of face time with her kids. She nursed her son until he was 14 months, and her oldest until she was 20 months. The nanny often takes the kids into the office. They attend meetings. They sometimes nap there. And when mommy’s company moves into new digs in November, they’ll get to hang out in a play space for all visiting kids. (Mayer had a nursery added to her office at Yahoo.)

The best career advice Hein got was from a fellow female entrepreneur — the incomparable Diane Hessan, CEO of Startup Institute and the founder of C Space (formerly known as Communispace).

“She said, ‘You owe your children a happy mom. If you are unhappy, no amount of mothering will make that up,’ ” Hein recalled. “Be the mom you need to be.”

That’s what Mayer is clearly doing — and she’s not dictating that other Yahoo parents take her lead. The tech company offers generous benefits — up to 16 weeks of paid maternity leave for birth mothers.

In my own case, I took three months off for my first baby and then five months for the second. I wanted to savor time with my kids since my husband and I aren’t planning to have more. For me, work could wait.

Not everyone has that luxury. Many working mothers have to return to work right away out of necessity. They’re the breadwinners, or they fear they may lose their job if they’re off too long. Only 12 percent of private sector workers have access to paid family leave, according to the US Department of Labor.


Even for mothers who can control their fate, it can be a tough decision to come back sooner rather than later.

“Like any motherhood decision, it’s all about the conflict,” said Leiha Macauley, a partner at the Boston law firm Day Pitney LLP. “You sold your soul to get to where you are. You feel like you’re missing out that you’re not doing the mom role.”

But the thought of leaving her clients alone for three months never felt right for the mother of three. The longest leave she took was 10 days. After the birth of her second child, she delivered on a Monday, checked out of the hospital on Wednesday, and was in court by Friday.

“My husband wanted to kill me,” recalled Macauley, 39, who specializes in trusts and estates.

The firm’s senior women also frowned on Macauley’s choice, worried she was signaling to younger female lawyers that they should work through their own maternity leaves. To dispel that notion, Macauley makes a point to tell her associates that she respects whatever decision they make.

But the harshest criticism came from her own family — her sister.

“She was very critical of me because she worried that I would regret it some day,” said Macauley.

Her sister needn’t worry.

But a little less judgment and a little more support would go a long way.


Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @leung.