On September 30, a week after an all-hands meeting with Yahoo’s 14,000 employees to describe her vision for the company’s future, a heavily-pregnant Marissa Mayer checked into the private room of a hospital and delivered a baby boy, her first child with Internet investor husband Zachary Bogue. But the new CEO of Yahoo Inc couldn’t keep her thoughts away from office for long. Soon after, she set off a global storm by announcing her intention to return to work as soon as possible, “perhaps in a week or two”.
Worried mothers from across the world lambasted her decision. They said she was being crazy in putting the demands of her career before her child. They said her priorities were all wonky. “She’s not had a foot surgery, she’s birthed a tiny human being. A baby who needs stuff,” said one, adding that “there is a baby involved”. “You are not just a CEO anymore,” said an article by Allison Benedikt in online magazine Slate.
To be sure Mayer was being no trailblazer in cutting short her maternity leave. Many women have done that before, unleashing the very same sentiments of outrage. Not long ago, France’s former justice minister Rachida Dati had sparked a similar debate when she returned to frontline politics just five days after giving birth to a baby girl through Caesarean section in 2009. In 1990, Benazir Bhutto, certain that her opponents would use the interim period of her maternity leave to oust her from power, was back in office the very next day after giving birth to her second child. Bhutto later wrote about her decision with pride in her memoir, Daughter of Destiny: “It was a defining moment, especially for young women, proving that a woman could work and have a baby in the highest and most challenging leadership positions.”
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And working women cannot agree more. “The whole focus on the duration of leave is wrong; it is an individual and personal choice and not about how fast you can get back to work,” says HSBC Country Head Naina Lal Kidwai.
For Kidwai, maternity leave lasted all of six weeks, but she says the length of the leave is not as important as ensuring that the health of both mother and baby is not compromised, and this is hugely dependent on family support. She says she was lucky to have a supportive family but it is important for women not to lose sight of what they want or to give up their place at the high table just because they know that with a baby they have a life transition situation. “Your work life is not a seasonal thing. It is a long-term story,” she says.
Many women are going all out to find that balance between career ambition and family goals even if that means taking their baby along with them to office. “I went to the hospital with my laptop and within weeks I was back in office,” says Sairee Chahal, co-founder of Fleximoms.com, a connecting point for women professionals and corporations. But something must give and she says, “between the baby and her start-up, there was no time for anything else and it may be the same for Marissa”.
But while Mayer’s career may be an inspiration for women with or without the focus on her maternity, concerns about the baby’s health resulting from her lightening-fast return to work may be exaggerated. Babies have a limited requirement in the initial months — they need food, a constant caregiver, who could be the mother, the grandmother or a trained nanny, and they are set for their infant life, says Prabha Chandra, professor of psychiatry at National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences in Bangalore.
“In the CEO lady’s [Mayer] case, I don’t think the baby’s health will be affected in any way by her quick return to office. She will have all the means to get all the support she needs to ensure her child’s wellbeing,” she says.
The problems arise for women from lower-income groups, those who work in rich households and enable white collar moms to get right back into work. Children in such households are often tossed around a number of caregivers in the absence of the mother. But more may not be merrier in the case of infants. Vidya Gupta, senior consultant at Apollo Hospitals, says, “In an ideal situation babies should not have more than two to three people to look after them as chances of developing infections and catching cold and cough are much higher if there are too many caregivers.” This lack of a permanent fixture which babies can identify as the caregiver can also put them at risk of developing attachment disorders, Chandra adds.
Such babies withdraw into their own shell becoming less responsive to the environment. They often have difficulty sleeping or feeding. They also tend to become shy and cranky in the company of strangers, often have muted response to stimulation and may not break into a smile or giggle as those babies who are brought up by a secure caregiver.
Attachment disorders, however, need not always stem from the lack of a steady caregiver. Sometimes separation anxiety shows up in infants when the mother returns to work after a three-month maternity break. Chandra says it usually takes infants a week to 15 days to adapt to a new person around them; if the child continues to cry for weeks after the mother’s return to work then it is a sign of a problem. A mother can find out if her baby feels separation anxiety if he/she sleeps or cries too much or doesn’t adjust to a change in routine.
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Chandra, who runs Perinatal Psychiatry Clinic, a mother-infant counselling centre at Nimhans (the only one in Asia), says awareness of mother-infant problems is still very low in the country, even though the number of young mothers coming to the centre with bonding issues is gradually growing.
Thankfully, attachment issues that arise during infancy are rarely lifelong. “Babies are, surprisingly, very resilient and as they grow older they overcome the initial glitches of life,” says Chandra.
However, she cautions, sometimes the disorder may carry on for life. Babies who have suffered maltreatment and abuse at the hands of their caregivers or had to deal with insecure childhood in the absence of the mother, may become easy prey to anxiety and depression later in life when faced with something even as common as bullying. But babies growing up with working mothers aren’t any less attached to the mother than the caregiver. As they grow up, they expand their circle and include the mother as well in their group, adds Chandra.
Another aspect of childhood that gets affected in the mother’s absence is breastfeeding. Research has proven that mother’s milk stands far above any top feed or outside milk in terms of nutritional value. Among other advantages, it adds to the child’s immunity, helps in better mother-child bonding and comforts the child by letting them tune in to the mother’s heartbeat, a sound they are accustomed to from the womb. What’s more, babies fed on mother’s milk have slim chance of becoming obese and they grow the best, says Gupta of Apollo.
For the mother on the other hand, life after an early return to work isn’t smooth either. “They have the highest chance of developing depression in the first one year of giving birth and it only gets compounded if an early return to work is combined with poor support from the spouse and tremendous work pressure,” says Chandra. Guilt of having left the baby at home and not being able to give enough time may also push mothers over the edge.
However, there has been no conclusive study to gauge the psychological, health or any other impact of mother-infant separation in early childhood, says Chandra.
The piece was published in Business Standard