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Did Mark Zuckerberg Really Take 'Paternity Leave?'

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Mark Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, is back at work after two months of staying home with his new daughter, Max.

In fact, he even posted that he doesn't know what to wear in the office.



First day back after paternity leave. What should I wear?

Posted by Mark Zuckerberg on Monday, January 25, 2016


Zuckerberg's leave was touted as a great leap forward for family leave across the country. "Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families," Zuckerberg wrote. "At Facebook we offer our US employees up to 4 months of paid maternity or paternity leave which they can take throughout the year."

Noble. Also, it's good business practice since, in an economy where demand for talent is increasing, attraction and retention of the best employees often rests on benefits like family leave, generous vacation, and the like. 

Mark Zuckerberg, billionaire trailblazer in so many ways, could have been the perfect example of the benefits of family leave. Instead, what he became an exemplar of how very difficult, if not impossible, it is to balance the demands of leading an organization with caring for a child.

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For a guy who was supposedly not working, he got a lot of work in. To wit:

  • On December 1, he launched the Chan Zuckerberg initiative, his $45 billion charity designed around "curing disease, personalizing learning, harnessing clean energy, connecting people, building strong communities, reducing poverty, providing equal rights and spreading understanding across nations."
  • On December 17, he emerged to fight a court decision in Brazil to ban WhatsApp
  • On January 6, he marketed the pre-order of Oculus Rift headsets
  • On January 7, he touted Messenger usage growth to the Facebook community
  • On January 15, he was in the office, celebrating Facebook employee Andrew Bosworht's tenth anniversary with the company
  • On January 18, he launched a way for Facebook users to give to the European refugee crisis
  • On January 20, he did a little Facebook PR, touting how the company is pushing for more Internet connection around the world.

Even last Sunday he was working, announcing a new data center in Clonee, Ireland.

These are just the work functions we know about because he posted them on Facebook. We don't know the number of phone calls to the office, the can't-miss meetings, the day-to-day decision-making. I would bet Zuckerberg's last cent that he stayed connected and stayed involved. It's his company. It was, until the stork showed up with Max, his baby. He created it, shaped it, developed it. He is a leader with a sense of responsibility to his brand, his team members, his customers and his world. There is no "taking off" from that.

That is in no way a criticism. Most committed people struggle daily with trying to "have it all," managing the needs of their business and career with the needs of their families. Work-life balance is something elusive, mostly because it just doesn't exist. At best, we try to find a harmony, rather than balance. It is a way of life for people at all economic levels and -- speaking as someone who has been a single dad, schlepping a stroller into my office for a meeting -- both genders.

Zuckerberg, as one of the world's richest people, shows the push and pull that comes from having a family and running a business. Zuckerberg is so wealthy, he could walk out of Facebook's headquarters today and never have to spend a moment away from his blessed Max. His wife, Priscilla Chan, is an accomplished physician who never has to work, either. It can be all Max, to the max, if they wanted, an option nearly every other human on the planet simply can't afford to have.

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But we want to be more than just parents and family members. We want to have successful careers. We want to show our children that we built something, that there's a legacy on the planet to the work we have done. We believe that there is a fruit to our labor, both in the companies we have built and the babies we have delivered. Instilling a strong work ethic, a sense of innovation and fostering creativity are all parts of good parenting. We rear our children mostly by example, after all.

I imagine Zuckerberg wasn't able to spend all of his energy on his newborn child. That doesn't make him a bad parent. It makes him a normal parent. It makes him a human parent. There were days when I had a child screaming for a diaper change, or teething, or simply going through the pains of growing up and I couldn't wait to grab my phone, check my email and hope -- pray, even -- that my talents and knowledge were needed in the office. At the same time, when the babysitter or nanny was at home, I would constantly check in there, too, conjuring all measure of household catastrophe in my mind during meetings.

Zuckerberg's parental leave was not the all-in leave that some people crave or that some companies continue to deny to their employees. If anything, if I worked at Facebook, I'd wonder whether family leave was truly time off, or just Zuckerberg's version of an occassional temporary pass from some meetings. Who am I kidding? I probably wouldn't take that much leave either. After all, Zuckerberg, while being an example of leaders using paternity leave, actually only took two of the four months he was eligible to take.

Make no mistake: Mark Zuckerberg did a lot of good with his two-month repose. He ensured Max woke up (every two hours, probably) to the soothing arms of his parents. He read to her. He bonded. He apparently taught her to swim. That is good parenting.

He also continued to run his company, even going into the office to take part in events. That's good management and even better leadership.

There are lessons here that go beyond simple family leave and the benefits of utilizing the privilege you have in spending time with your newborn. Like everyone who posts updates on social media, Zuckerberg only showed us the moments or feelings he wanted to share. The next step should be a real discussion about how complex, how conflicted parenting can be when balanced with career and entrepreneurship. Having an honest conversation about that, without falling prey to touting your company's family-leave policy, could create better solutions for working families and build a true legacy for the working world Max Zuckerberg will enter.

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