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updated 12/9/2012 11:56:04 AM ET 2012-12-09T16:56:04

On the surface, maternity leave is simple: You have a baby, you take time off work to take care of yourself and your baby, and then you go back to work.

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But now a new breed of working mom is quickly redefining the concept.

From Marissa Mayer, who assumed the helm as CEO of Yahoo while six months pregnant and announced she’d only be taking “a few weeks of leave” that she’d “work through,” to moms who use the “downtime” to launch new businesses, they’ve certainly changed the new mommy landscape.

The question is: By working through mat leave—or using that time to alternate between 4 a.m. breast-feeding sessions and hatching a business plan—are they helping or hurting women? And have we officially entered the age of the maternity leave overachiever?

Related: Does Work-Life Balance Exist? 

Dr. Jennifer Gardner, a pediatrician, used her maternity leave after the birth of her first child, William, to jumpstart an idea she had been sitting on for years: Healthy Kids Company, which educates families on the importance of nutrition.

“Maternity leave was actually a great time to start working on it. I knew I was eventually going to return to full-time work as a pediatrician, but while my son was sleeping, I had the free hours necessary to build my website,” she says. ”Starting a company to educate families had always been a passion of mine, but prior to maternity leave, I didn’t really have the time to devote to my idea.”

“My maternity leave was my security blanket,” agrees Bridget O’Brien, a former New York City school teacher who used her time away two years ago to found her own PR and event planning firm. “For years, I had been doing event planning free of charge for friends, nonprofits and charities. Working as a public school teacher in New York City is a noble job, but I hated the political aspect behind the scenes.”

O’Brien talked the idea through with her husband — she knew she would be happier and that it would create a better environment for their daughter. "I would be able to work from home and set my own schedule,” she explains, so she used her mat leave to start amassing clients. After giving birth in January 2010, she officially launched her company in May of that year.

Related: How to Be a Successful Female Entrepreneur

In fact, O’Brien says that while running her own business can be stressful, she doesn’t resent her even busier schedule. “The day I gave birth to my second child two weeks ago, I was also doing PR for an event in New Jersey with Bravo and the 'Real Housewives,' ” she says. “Though I was in labor and handling work on my cell phone, it’s easier because it’s my own company. If I were doing this for someone else, I wouldn’t have been as passionate.”

'Craving certainty'
Sure, some women are born overachievers, you might argue—and good for them. But in the wake of Mayer’s announcement, many wondered whether her decision to forgo a traditional maternity leave would put other working women at risk.

In the online magazine Slate, one writer opined: “Mayer needs time to emotionally and physically recover … [it's] nuts to forget that there is a BABY involved here.”

Others queried whether her decision would set a bad example for other women looking to juggle motherhood and a career: Namely, would HR departments and bosses then expect more new moms to follow suit—by literally suiting up again mere weeks after giving birth?

And why did Mayer—and other ladies who choose to launch when they have an ambitious new project to tackle at home—feel the need?

“For some women, working through pregnancy or using the same set of skills used on the job while on leave may be an effort to maintain normalcy,” says Jonathan Alpert, psychotherapist and author of “Be Fearless: Change Your Life in 28 Days.”

The brain is craving certainty, says Alpert, so if overachieving is your norm, it may actually be hard to slow down—even with a newborn to contend with. “While working hard may not be advisable from a physical perspective,” he explains, “it may be a positive coping mechanism that helps the mother deal with the uncertainty associated with a baby.”

In other words, staying in work mode may allow frazzled new moms—used to a demanding work routine—to maintain some sense of their former selves.

Another weighty question: Is our inability to be home with our babies—without refashioning ourselves as CEOs while they nap—something innate in modern-day women, or a response to outside pressure?

The need to overachive
“Women get stuck in a cycle of fear where they can’t see all the other things that are important in life,” says Shari Goldsmith, a life coach and mental health therapist. “It’s often difficult to be a woman in a workplace, and some fears related to falling behind may be valid.”

But there’s also a difference between a natural-born entrepreneur who just happens to have a newborn and someone who’s having a hard time transitioning from her 24/7 attachment to her Blackberry. Or worrying that being away for that amount of time could cause her to fall behind on the job.

“The reality is that women notice and respond to those subtle societal pressures to be better, stronger and smarter, and they make choices accordingly,” says mom of two Samantha Krigsvold. “As a professional woman, breadwinner and mother of two young children, my choice to take an abbreviated maternity leave was absolutely tied to an underlying pressure to prove I could handle it all.”

The experts agree: “Women hear over and over again the message that they’re supposed to be able to manage it all—a career and a family. When it comes to taking maternity leave, there are very real fears of being seen as uncompetitive or dispensable,” says Ford Myers, a career coach and author of “Get the Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring.”

Isn’t having a baby enough?
Then again, for many women, wanting to go back to work at all, let alone double down on it during their downtime, just doesn’t compute.

“Any woman who says she wants to go back to work full time as soon as possible after giving birth is not being honest with herself,” argues Krigsvold.

And what of the need to physically recover? While celebrity magazines trumpeting A-listers’ ability to “lose the baby weight” in record time may be contributing to the rise of the bionic new mom, the fact is birth—whether by a natural delivery or a surgical procedure like a C-section—takes a toll.

“I believe every mother deserves proper recovery time, and only the mother can determine what the ‘right’ amount of time is for her,” says Charissa Duncan Mathews, a LearnVest reader  in Tulsa, Okla.

Related: Meet An Entrepreneur Mom Whose Inventions Paid Off

The bottom line is that there’s no one-size-fits-all policy that suits all new moms. But, says one expert, using your maternity leave as a litmus test can be a good exercise to figure out what you want your new life to look like.

Make maternity leave work for you
If you’re the type who’s been sitting on a big business idea, but caught up (for years) in your day-to-day, a whole new routine could be just what it takes to wake up your get-up-and-go.

Maternity leave can also provide valuable insight into how your company will respond to your new role as a working mom: “What I tell my clients is that if their employer isn’t going to be understanding early that you need to take maternity leave for your own sake and for the well being of your child, they’re not going to be understanding later on, when it comes to doctors’ appointments, school meetings and more,” says Myers. “So if you do end up losing this job as a result of having taken maternity leave … it probably wouldn’t have ended up working later on, either.”

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Video: Yahoo CEO, new mom prioritizes God, family, work

  1. Closed captioning of: Yahoo CEO, new mom prioritizes God, family, work

    >>> yahoo!'s new ceo, 37-year-old marissa mayer , is one of the country's most high-profile working moms. so how is she adjusting to her pressure-packed job and being a new mother? we got exclusive access to mayer 's first interview about how she's juggling it all. nbc's diana alvear has more on that. diana , good morning.

    >> reporter: good morning. two months after the birth of her son marissa mayer gave her first and last interview about life as ceo of yahoo ! and new mother. interviewed by "fortune" magazine in front of a crowd of invited guests, mostly women, marissa mayer focused on her two new roles

    >> i knew that the job would be hard, and i knew that the baby would be fun, and i -- and i -- and the thing that surprised me, and really puzzled me so, is that the job is really fun. like yahoo ! is -- yahoo ! is a really fun place to work, and the baby's been easy. the baby's been way easier than everyone made it out to be.

    >> reporter: mayer was just 37 years old in july when she was named ceo of yahoo ! becoming the youngest ceo of a fortune 500 company. she was also six months pregnant and announced that she only planned to take a week or two away from the office. in contrast, in a 2008 interview on "today," mayer , then a google executive, seemed to back longer maternity leave.

    >> i mean, basically said, you know, a baby and a googler should have their parent at home for six weeks or three months, and it should be standard from that child's point of view, and i think that means that ultimately it's a really supportive environment for women, but it doesn't necessarily mean special treatment for women.

    >> reporter: on september 30th came the birth announcement via twitter from mayer 's husband and true to her word, two weeks later, the new mom tweeted she was back at work.

    >> what's the most important thing that you do to get it all done?

    >> you have to prioritize, and i do -- that's one of the reasons i haven't been talking and i'm going to go back to not talking.

    >> reporter: all mayer has only run yahoo ! since july, her management style is clearly clicking with investors. theistic's up 18%. as a wisconsin native, she cited legendary green bay packers coach vince lombardi for his drive for success and winning.

    >> vince lombardi says, you know, in my life there are three things, god, family and the green bay packers , in that order, right? and, you know, i think for me it's god, family and yahoo ! in that order.

    >> and in a few hours, mayer joins a group of ceos for a meeting with president obama about the ongoing negotiations over the so-called fiscal cliff, and then she eel have just enough time to get home for her son's two-month birthday on friday. matt?

    >> diana , thank you very much.

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