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Marissa Mayer’s super-short maternity leave plan sends a dangerous message

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is pregnant again, and you may be surprised by her plans for maternity leave.

The working mom announced Monday that she’s expecting twins in December, and she’ll be taking a scant two weeks of parental leave. Not only that, but Mayer also intends to work throughout her pregnancy and time off. In a statement on Yahoo’s Tumblr, she wrote, “Since my pregnancy has been healthy and uncomplicated and since this is a unique time in Yahoo’s transformation, I plan to approach the pregnancy and delivery as I did with my son three years ago, taking limited time away and working throughout.”

More: How U.S. Maternity leave policies compare to other countries (INFOGRAPH)

Parental leave is a hot-button issue in the U.S. right now. Few employers offer leave to new parents, and the ones that do often enforce steep pay cuts. Yahoo offers new moms 16 weeks of paid leave, which is generous compared to many other companies, and it has led many to ponder why Mayer isn’t taking advantage of her own policies.

Mayer is obviously a driven and successful woman, and her ability to manage both career and family is nothing short of admirable. She has advantages that many working moms simply don’t have, and her decision to take only two weeks off is likely doable for her because of it.

It’s her choice and her right.

Still, you have to wonder about the expectation her very public decision sets for other working moms.

Just last week, a widely released survey of working parents found that nearly a quarter of new moms are forced to return to work two weeks or less after giving birth. Unlike Mayer, these women aren’t choosing to come back that soon. Rather, they’re worried that if they take too much time off, there won’t be a job to come back to.

More: When it comes to maternity leave, always have a plan

Only 13 percent of working women qualify for maternity leave under the Family Medical Leave Act. The Act offers working moms up to 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave, provided they meet some very specific requirements, including having worked for their company for over a year and are working somewhere that employs at least 50 people. For everyone else, taking time off comes with a high cost.

Women sacrifice paychecks and risk losing their jobs entirely, or they return to work sooner than is healthy and are forced to put their infants in day care before they’re ready. The hoops we expect women to jump through to support their families are nothing short of absurd, and unfortunately when powerful CEOs choose to forgo their maternity leave and put their postpartum noses to the grindstone, it only makes matters worse.

Whether or not we like it, powerful women like Marissa Mayer are the ones whose choices get attention and set the trends. Employers look at someone like Mayer and think that if she can come back after two weeks, so can everyone. Even among employers who offer significant paid leave, there’s an unspoken culture of competition for who can take the least amount of time away and still maintain the highest level of productivity. There is no real rest for new parents.

More: What it’s really like working after 3 months or less of maternity leave

Marissa Mayer has privileges and responsibilities that far exceed that of the average person, and I’d love to live in a world where her personal choices don’t reflect on the rights and choices of millions of American women. Unfortunately that’s not the world we live in.

Mayer casually promising to check her emails the second the babies crown does make a statement about our expectations of working moms. It says we should be able to get back to the office sooner, work harder and sacrifice more. It sends the message that paid maternity leave need not be an expectation and that women should be able to handle the rigors of new motherhood without the slightest hiccup in the trajectory of their careers.

Women who don’t have the luxury of choice need powerful people like Mayer to make bold statements about the dismal state of parental leave in this country. We need female CEOs to point out how ridiculous a two-week leave is and to speak openly on the struggle of expanding your family while remaining chained to your desk. We need women like Mayer to stop treating maternity leave as optional or to at least point out that their circumstances are not the norm.

Mayer should never be judged for her choices, but it’s not unreasonable to point out that her choices do have a troubling impact on other working moms.

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