Levin’s experience isn’t unusual. For many women today, maternity leave is not the out-of-sight, out-of-mind experience it once was. More and more women are reaching positions of power that make signing off for three months more challenging. Marissa Mayer, who was named to Yahoo’s top job when she was six months pregnant, ignited a firestorm for saying her leave would be “a few weeks long” and that she would ”work throughout it.” But she’s only the most visible example of what other women in various entrepreneurial or professional roles have been increasingly trying to navigate for years.
In addition, a brutal job market means heightened concerns about going cold turkey on work email for three months. Even if legal protections are in place for jobs while on maternity leave, a teetering economy can leave many women feeling nervous. They’re not only willing to stay connected to work, they’re afraid not to be. “Job insecurity is pretty rampant,” says Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute, a research organization that studies workplace trends.
Finally, and perhaps most important, it’s hard to overstate the role technology has played in blurring the lines of our professional and personal lives. Between the prevalence of working remotely, telecommuting, and emailing from smartphones at night and on weekends, being “out of the office” no longer means what it once did. If employers expect people to respond from vacation — and surveys show many do — can expecting the same from someone on maternity leave be that far behind?
Legal experts and work-life gurus say it is, in fact, farther behind than we might think. More often than not, they say, it isn’t the employer who breaks maternity leave’s traditionally sacrosanct wall between home and office. It’s the woman on leave. “My number one observation is that the professional employee is ten times more likely than the employer to be pushing for communication,” says Garry Mathiason, chairman of the global employment law firm Littler Mendelson. “The assumption might be that the employer is trying to squeeze work out, but I’ve found that the employee — especially a professional looking at advancement — is incredibly reluctant to give up control.”
Cali Williams Yost, who consults for major companies on work-life balance issues, agrees: “I really do find in most organizations there is a respect for the maternity leave,” she says. “The confusion happens because people ask if you want to stay cc’ed on email while you’re away, and then you respond, and then it’s ‘oh I just have a quick question.’ ” Once women open the floodgates, often unintentionally, what might start as a trickle of email from the office can become a deluge.