Marissa Mayer's brief maternity leave: Progress or workaholism?

Could the Yahoo CEO be setting unrealistic expectations for young women hoping to follow in her footsteps?

This article was originally published by on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2012.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis, contributor

FORTUNE -- Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer will likely have the most scrutinized maternity leave and new motherhood in modern corporate history, which began on Sunday night with the birth of a healthy baby boy.

Mayer courted controversy by deciding to take just a week or two of leave and work from home throughout that time.

On one hand, it's a remarkable sign of gender progress that a new mother is now at the helm of a major corporation -- not to mention reassuring to Yahoo (YHOO) shareholders that the CEO's top priority is turning around the struggling Internet giant.

On the other hand, her decision seems emblematic of a workaholic culture that leaves too little time for family or even personal health, preventing either men or women from "having it all."

Could Mayer be setting unrealistic expectations for young women hoping to follow in her footsteps?

Maybe she's an outlier -- or making a mistake -- and shouldn't be held up as an example that mere mortals should emulate.

"She conveys the image of someone who's perfectly capable of combining her personal life and her public responsibilities without one derailing the other. That's a message we should applaud," says Kathleen Gerson, professor at New York University and author of The Unfinished Revolution: Coming of Age in a New Era of Gender, Work and Family. "It also suggests that somehow it's illegitimate for women -- and by implication for men as well -- to take some time off at critical moments in their own lives and the lives of their children. To that extent, it's a backward-looking message."

It's difficult to judge whether Mayer's abbreviated maternity leave plan will make it harder or easier for the millions of executive women who will follow her, certainly at this early stage. But there are three indisputable lessons that can be drawn from her situation.

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