Maternity Leave for Small Business Owners
On May 9th, I gave birth to our third daughter, Adelaide, while running on just an hour of sleep, following a 10 hour work day into the wee hours of the morning. Adelaide was born at noon; I rested, ate food, worked to get our breastfeeding relationship started, and spent an hour responding to client emails.
The next day, in between nursing sessions, diaper changes, and trying to feel like a functional human again, I had a project status call with a client and spent another 2 hours putting out email fires. All in all, I clocked just over 20 hours in the next five days, including working over the weekend to catch up on all the work I “missed” that Tuesday-Friday.
In the 30 days following Addie’s birth — when most mothers are reveling in tiny fingers and toes — I clocked 150 hours of work time. It was a break of sorts, because my days were shorter than those in the months leading up to her birth, but it certainly wasn’t anything like a maternity leave.
I’m not the only one…
In 2012 and again in 2015, Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, was criticized for not taking enough time off for her maternity leaves: just two weeks following the birth of her eldest daughter in 2012 and one month after the birth of her twins in 2015.
Many columnists and bloggers criticized Mayer for setting a non-mother/baby friendly example for Yahoo employees and working women everywhere. Mayer, as a prominent working woman, sets the tone for the rest of us, critics claimed, and her actions made it look like women shouldn’t need any time off after giving birth.
I think she was just trying to keep her head above water in an incredibly demanding job.
My Non-Maternity Leave
Adelaide was born during one of our busiest months of the year and, as an entrepreneur, I just didn’t see any way to give myself a maternity leave. I’m not the CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but I do have a key role in our business and I don’t have the benefit of a parade of employees who can temporarily take over my role and responsibilities. Because my business 100% supports our family and revenue is directly related to the work I do, taking time off is a luxury I can’t currently afford.
Thus, while I did my best to take it easy during the postpartum period, “take it easy” didn’t equate to time off of work – it merely meant working from bed instead of going downstairs to our home office.
The First Two Weeks
For the first two weeks after Addie was born, I did my best to follow midwife instructions.
I stayed in bed, spending lots of time cuddling my new bundle of joy. But I also worked too. Chris bought me a laptop tray so I could work from bed, with lots of water and snacks within easy reach on the nightstand. My extension in our office was forwarded to my cell phone, so I could make and receive calls with the appearance of being at my desk.
I took naps most afternoons during this time, and I had a ton of support on the home and work front: both from my wonderful mom and (amazing) Chris who not only kept me fed and hydrated, but who also did his very best to tackle as many website support tickets as he possibly could.
Not taking a maternity leave meant there was just 1 day when I only minimally checked email in the first 12 weeks postpartum. Aside from that one day, I was in front of my computer with a tiny person snuggled on my lap, every business day and frequently on the weekends, trying to keep up with work as usual.
It was really hard.
Not taking a maternity leave, while it didn’t impact me physically or from a breastfeeding perspective, was (and is) incredibly mentally taxing.
Stress started before I even gave birth. I never truly got to enjoy being pregnant with Adelaide in the the same way that I enjoyed being pregnant with her older sisters.
I spent the majority of my pregnancy focusing on our business, not daydreaming about a sweet newborn. There was hardly any excitement and anticipation, despite this little one being incredibly wanted, because there just wasn’t time for it. Some other thing always clamoured to be front of mind, and unfortunately, not much has changed since she was born.
Downsides of Not Taking a Maternity Leave
If you read Addie’s birth story, you know that I was too tired to experience the normal rush of joy that comes with labor and birth. In contrast to my prior labors and births, which felt like amazing experiences, this birth just felt like something to check off like a to-do item on a list. I loved my prior birth experiences; I think I missed out this time.
Then, when my mind should have been focusing on newborn care, I was already back to thinking about how to keep Road Warrior Creative running and our clients happy. I went through the motions of caring for my new baby, but work and projects took up most of the mental energy that I had as a new mom. As a result, it took me much longer to feel bonded with Addie than I had with her older sisters.
People kept telling me I was “Super Mom” for doing all that I did, newborn in-tow, but there was nothing super about it. It was purely survival, and honestly I struggled a lot emotionally with the jump from two to three, balanced with the demands of entrepreneurship.
3 Months Postpartum
Addie’s 3 months old now, and she still spends most of her days nursing or sleeping on a Boppy on my lap in my office. She also is tagging along with me to meetings and networking events, as I still don’t feel ready to leave her for any length of time.
We’ve wrapped up several big projects and I finally feel like there’s some time to breathe. We even took a trip down to visit family in Texas and managed two weeks with shorter than usual work days. Life feels a little bit less stressful, and newborn days already seem far in the past.
As things leveled out, I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship and maternity leave. I started wondering if it’s actually possible for female business owners to take maternity leave. Is there some magic maternity leave button that I missed? Can business owners truly take time off after giving birth to focus 100% on their baby?
Is maternity leave possible for female entrepreneurs?
Funding a Maternity Leave
I started looking into articles, blog posts, and podcasts about women business owners and maternity leave. At first glance, it’s pretty depressing.
For larger companies with teams, female business owners may be able to step away for a time and still be able to draw a salary or collect an owner’s distribution as team members and staff ensure that operations and income continues. However, if you work for yourself as a solopreneur or as part of a micro business without a large team to pick up the slack, you either need to self-fund your time off or, if you have a spouse/partner who will continue to work during your time off, the household needs to find a way to reduce overall costs to live off the one income.
In the U.K., self-employed people are not currently entitled to maternity or adoption pay, and of course here in the U.S., with our abysmal lack of maternity leave support for employed women, entrepreneurs are even worse off.
Though self employed women have been eligible to get paid maternity leave benefits in Canada since 2011, hardly any take advantage of it.
Jill Earthy, former CEO of the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs in Vancouver, offers an explanation for [this]: taking extended time off work is often not an option for self-employed business owners who are concerned about the long-term survival of their business. “As an entrepreneur, you can’t just stop your business for a year,” says Earthy.
Maternity Leave Logistics for Entrepreneurs
But what if you do want to take time off and are able to fund it? How do you ensure that the business stays viable and alleviate any worries of business failure?
If you’re going to take maternity leave as an entrepreneur, it’s vital to have a strategy in place. In all my (after the fact) digging, I found several articles and blog posts aimed at helping women navigate the logistics of planning for a maternity leave.
Maggie Lord, founder of Rustic Wedding Chic, a wedding blog, shared her 5 tips for taking maternity leave on Entrepreneur as she geared up for her second leave. Her suggestions included:
- Plan ahead by mapping out tasks and things that need to be done while you’re on leave;
- Delegating tasks to someone else on your staff;
- Not making big changes to your business ahead of your leave;
- Designating official check-in times when you will be available via phone or email; and
- Making sure you get enough sleep.
Cori McFadden, owner of eDrop-Off, an eBay fashion business with 35 employees, echoed the importance of delegating tasks to employees, and wrote that it positively shaped her role in her business even after she returned from leave.
Allyson Downey, CEO and co-founder of weeSpring, a startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby, wrote on Inc. that trust is vital to being able to take a maternity leave.
You have to trust that your stand-in (or stand-ins) will be able to execute in your absence, and you have to trust your job (and your company) will be there for you when you get back. And planning is key: you need a long runway to really ensure a seamless transition (both at your departure and your return).
Allyson’s article is especially useful because it provide specific examples of the people who might take over your responsibilities while you’re on leave.
- If you’re the CEO of a large company, the board chair might take over your role.
- A direct report might be excited to step up.
- A lateral coverage plan puts a colleague or peer in place; for entrepreneurs, it is a co-founder.
- An outside temporary employee – consultant or freelancer – could be brought in to do your job.
- Or, you might spread your responsibilities between multiple people.
Natalie Lussier, a digital strategist who podcasts, consults, and sells software to businesses along with her hsuband , has a podcast that she put together while 8 months pregnant with her first child, which discusses her plan for making a maternity leave possible. Here’s what Natalie did:
- Cut back on the amount of work that required her presence, including not holding annual event and reducing the amount of consulting clients she took on;
- Put greater focus on the software portion of her business because it was a revenue source that didn’t require as much effort on her part;
- Hired a project manager and a writer to keep things running without her;
- Created better documentation for their internal processes to help team members succeed in her absence;
- Automated, delegated, or removed anything that could only be done by her;
- Set firm boundaries and said no more often (I.e., turning down more speaking gigs); and
- Put a support system in place.
She also did a trial run by taking an unplugged vacation in advance of giving birth, which allowed her to assess how things ran in her absence but over a shorter duration of time.
Jules Taggart, owner of Amp&Pivot, a marketing business with 7 team members, has similiar advice for entrepreneurs taking maternity leave. Her recommendations include:
- Take all the time you need;
- Plan ahead;
- Hire great people;
- Keep in touch with clients;
- Be flexible;
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew;
- Be clear about boundaries; and
- Never stop marketing your business.
Megan Gilger, blogger and eCommerce entrepreneur at Fresh Exchange, planned to take 8 weeks off, but ended up only taking 4 weeks, not because she had to go back to work after 4 weeks, but because she loves what she does.
Megan and her husband, who also works in her business with her, built up a cash cushion and cut expenses to be able to live with smaller income. Her husband lined up some side gigs for extra cash, and Megan spent nearly 4 months prior to giving birth writing almost 8 weeks of content to schedule for the time she expected to be on maternity leave.
Advice Megan gives on taking maternity leave as an entrepreneur is more geared to smaller businesses like mine:
- Decide how much time you want to take off and take into account any highs or lows in your business;
- Figure out the amount of income you need to build a safety net;
- Schedule or do any work you can in advance;
- Communicate expectations with your partner;
- Write an out-of-office email responder;
- Don’t jump back in too early;
- Figure out a way to work small amounts as you’re ready to ease back in;
- Work on balance; and
- take one day at a time.
Genavieve Jaffe, a lawyer who works with female entrepreneurs and supplies them with legal contracts, was on the Boss Mom podcast last December talking about how she was preparing for her maternity leave. At the time, she was nearing the end of her pregnancy and knew that she could take leave because:
- She already had a lot of her marketing and email campaigns automated, so that she could make sales even while she wasn’t working;
- She has a team that she can fall back on as needed for things like customer support;
- She has a joint-venture legal partner that she can direct people to if they have urgent legal issues while she’s on leave; and
- She sells a lot of products and courses that result in passive revenue.
In her podcast interview, Genevieve highlights how important that passive income is. She talks about how earlier in 2016 she was sick and had surgery, and was still able to bring in “5 figures a month” in passive revenue – revenue that she does not have to do anything in order to earn.
Reflections on Advice on Planning for a Maternity Leave
These posts and podcasts were interesting, but there was not a lot that was especially relevant to our business. Either the woman sharing tips came from a larger business and had a larger team to which to delegate responsibilities than I do, or her business was the same size but in a different industry with dramatically different sources of revenue (I.e. Genevieve’s passive, product-based revenue) that we just don’t have.
Megan Gilger’s business with her husband sounds most similar than ours, but it seems that they may have had more flexibility to cut expenses and temporarily live on a smaller income than we do. Additionally, with two other kids at home, I didn’t have the same flexibility to spend 4 months scheduling content or doing work in advance. I did appreciate her post the most, though, because it was written post maternity-leave, not before, and she was very honest about about just how hard it is to balance work and a new baby.
What I found most interesting is that all of these women were sharing tips and advice after having just one baby. Some were pregnant with their second child, whereas others had not even given birth to their first yet and thus were speculating on how things would go.
Life gets more complicated the more little people are added to it, and it certainly increases the minimum necessary revenue to survive. It is a lot easier to save up in advance and just shut things down when you have a spouse’s salary to rely on and no older kids demanding your attention/keeping you from pre-writing a lot of marketing content, etc. while pregnant. In fact, that’s pretty much what I did when I was pregnant with Zara. I planned ahead, ran a sale, and saved up enough money to take several months off:
Life just isn’t that easy anymore.
The reality is, our business is in an awkward growth stage where we don’t have a big enough team to take a large load off of either Chris or me, but we still have a fairly significant amount of work.
When Addie was born in May, Road Warrior Creative consisted of myself, Chris, one other brand new W2 employee, and several independent contractors. We didn’t have a large enough team to which to distribute all of my work, and Chris doesn’t have the knowledge or skills to completely fill my role in the business – let alone the time. (Let’s not forget that he also had a newborn and was picking up a ton of the slack around the house on top of his normal job duties, since it was all I could do to care for myself and keep a tiny human fed.)
We’re doing great, but we’re still very much in startup mode, and startup mode is all-hands-on-deck, all the time. It’s exciting, but it’s also intense. (So intense that the professional I found who does maternity leave consulting for entrepreneurs says her services are not for people who are in the startup phase of business – she must not think it’s possible?)
What I Would do Differently
I’m not sure if there’s much I would do differently. Perhaps we could have been smarter about how we timed our pregnancy, considering March-May is historically one of our busiest times of year. Perhaps we should have been less focused on revenue, and been okay with a lighter schedule, even knowing that the summer is typically pretty slow for us (that would have taken some bravery and tighter budgeting). Perhaps I should go back in time a few years and figure out a form of passive revenue that would allow me to make money without working (the holy grail – if only I could!).
Reflecting back, I don’t think there is much that could have been changed. For female entrepreneurs, the ability to take a good maternity leave, or even a maternity leave at all, is hit or miss on a moving target depending upon the individual business. You try your best to plan ahead, you rely on your partner and your team when you can, you try to cut out the extra, but at some point you just have to accept that you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Money, business growth, client retention, etc. may not be possible if you step away, even for a short time. This is simply the honest truth about owning a young business with a small (or no) staff.
So what does that mean for female micro business owners? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t have a magical piece of advice for balancing maternity leave and maintaining current levels of business.
My only advice to other women about to walk the same path as I did is to think very carefully about your priorities. When the going gets tough, you have to remember why it is that you’re doing what you’re doing, and to keep things in perspective and give yourself a little grace when thing don’t come easily. Newborn days are just that – days. If you keep your mind on the long game, you’ll get through it, hopefully relatively unscathed with a business that stayed steady and a sweet baby you can’t take your eyes off of.
Wow I didn’t know how hard all of this was for you. 🙁
I’ve been thinking about kids with my partner. And how I can keep my business running at the same time. Since I have a mix of online courses & consulting work it’s easier for me to plan things out with a reduced income. I wonder if jobs that interact with clients as much as yours does, and that are the size yours is, is just really really tough to take time off. 🙁
I’m happy you declined to volunteer for WordCamp Denver. We were able to manage and it gave you a few hours back. 🙂
Thanks for the comment, Patrick.
You might find Genavieve Jaffe’s podcast interview really interesting since you do courses and sell products – I think your two businesses are really similiar. Honestly, I was pretty jealous when I listened to both her and Natalie Lussier talk about their passive revenue streams – we need to figure out how to get more of our income coming in even if we aren’t doing anything for a week or two (or more). I do think that doing client work – and especially the kind of client work we do, which has a large support component – makes it really challenging to have a good work-life balance generally – even outside of newborns. It’s something we’re working on. 🙂
I think kids are phenomenal and couldn’t imagine my life without them. It takes some work, but parenting and business ownership is possible. Not that I completely have it figured out…!
Also, as an aside, you would likely have an easier time with a newborn (so don’t let my experience scare you!). Maternity/paternity leave would benefit everyone for bonding and dealing with sleep deprivation, but it’s really only birth moms who have the extra component of having to deal with all the physiological and rollercoaster hormone changes. Dads definitely luck out on that front. 🙂
The struggle is real! When baby #3 (2013) was born my nutrition practice had only been open for 8 months. My husband was a stay at home dad and I had 2 office staff who relied on me seeing clients for their paychecks as well as my own. I was back in the office with a full time schedule by 10 days postpartum with baby in arms. She came to work with me until she was 6 months old and too mobile to be happy hanging out on my back all day. With baby #4 (2015) we moved to a new state just before she was born. Hubby was now the official “bread winner” but we couldn’t survive on his salary alone, so again 10 days postpartum I was in our in-home office, with baby, seeing clients while our older girls were looked after by our part-time nanny. When baby #4 was 7 months old I finally felt ready to leave her home and work out of a more formal office. Now expecting baby #5 (1/2018) and not completely sure what my maternity leave is going to look like yet. My husband is now the administrator of our practice and I’m the medical director. I have 4 staff member and 2 other practitioners I’m responsible for. It will likely be a similar situation where I’m back in the office 10 days – 2 weeks postpartum, with baby in tow and a reduced schedule since I finally have other practitioners who can see my patients. It’s hard. It’s not for everyone. Ultimately, in the end, the rewards are great. My children have watched me build something amazing from nothing. They see that they too can be a “good” mom and also pursue what they love and make an impact on their community. I would never dream of trading my situation for 3 months of paid maternity leave because the end result would be me having to go back to work and do something I’m not completely committed to. Hang in there! It’s all worth it!
Wow, Kim! 10 days and seeing patients. I’m lucky that I work from home and am limited to phone calls, so if I wasn’t dressed or anything it didn’t matter.
I agree that there is benefit to the kids seeing their mom (and dad) build a business out of nothing. It’s definitely a good example that they really can do whatever they want when they grow up, and I do, too, enjoy being able to have more flexibility in the long run.
Wow, thank you so much for this incredibly honest and transparent article. It’s like it was written for me, right down to the name of our soon coming baby girl #3 who is also Adelaide. As a female micro business owner I am so nervous about the postpartum period and how it will impact my business, my family and my mental health. This was a blessing to read not because I found any particular answers but just to know that everything I’m feeling is “normal” in the very atypical life of an entrepreneur. I’m excited, stressed and overwhelmed. Thank you for saying for me what was so difficult to come to terms with.
Thank you for writing this article and speaking so honestly about your experience. I am 10 weeks pregnant with my first child and as the breadwinner in my marriage and a solopreneur, I’ve got to work! I don’t know what to expect after birth and all of the research I’ve done leads to articles about women who take off at least one month, but have employees who can step in or work for companies that provide paid leave. Most of them have no stake in the company. There’s nothing out there about solopreneurs who need to work in order to provide for their family and retain clients. Just knowing that someone out there managed to balance a baby and work right after birth it is incredibly helpful. Thanks again!