“I’m Not Indispensable the Way I Thought I Was” And Other Humbling Things I Learned Taking Maternity Leave as a Business Owner
When my husband and I were planning on having a baby last year, I was admittedly nervous, but not for reasons you may think. Sure, I was thinking about the realities of what it would mean for my personal life, what it would do to my body, and all of the other things women have to take into account bringing another life into the world. But what about my business? I’d spent 18 years building it into what it is today and how was I going to be able to step away from that?
While parental leave is an issue I strongly believe the US falls entirely short on in comparison to most developed countries (I could write an entire blog post on that topic alone), many employers still offer some semblance of paid/partially paid leave for some amount of time. But what do you do when you’re a small business owner and you employ, well, yourself? How do you make sure the ship stays afloat while also making sure you have the time you need for yourself and your new tiny human?
In preparation for my first pregnancy, I diligently started looking for resources online that may help me navigate the complexities of doing so as a business owner – blogs, websites, books, ANYTHING – and quickly found that few existed. As a result, I ended up turning to my network (and my network’s network) of women who were both business owners and moms, and asked questions. A lot of them.
Flash ahead 9 months, I’ve added “mom” to my resume (basically the best job in the world), I’ve recently returned from my version of maternity leave, and wanted to share what I learned through the process for anyone out there who may find themselves in the situation I did just a few short months ago (what feels like a lifetime ago).
- Figure out your comfort level. Ooof. This one you need to be real honest with yourself about. Realistically, how long was I willing to be away? One woman I spoke to came back three days after giving birth. Another stayed on leave for 5 months months. After a lot of internal reflection, I decided 12 weeks was what was right for me. Even though I wouldn’t be working during this time, I would still be in regular contact with my team, answering questions as needed. I would also still approve payroll and do high level finance tasks that I didn’t have a CFO to outsource to yet. Once I mentally committed myself to this, I could start making tangible plans.
- Make a plan. The more you plan and the further out, the easier it will be when your life inevitably changes forever with your new arrival. Based on the timeline you’ve given yourself, map out the tasks that will need to be done in advance of your leave and during, the projects that will need to be wrapped up, the ones that can continue, the clients to be notified, any outstanding payments that need to be made, and all of the other fun stuff that may disappear from your mind when mom brain sets in (it turns out it’s a real thing). What will you need to have in place to step away in confidence? And of course: money. Look at your current and impending expenses and save accordingly. Depending on your insurance situation, you may be eligible to collect short term disability. For some, you may choose to draw money from business profit. For me, we went the first route, and we saved in advance in order to prepare.
- Assemble a team. Speaking of stepping away in confidence, a key component to being able to do this (at least for me) was making sure I had people in place I could trust and rely on to cover me while I was away. Fortunately, this is something I had done long before baby talks came into play. But we had always worked collaboratively since I had never been away for long periods of time. Something I’ve learned over the years is that part of being a good leader is knowing when to let go (which ironically, I’ve heard is part of being a good parent, too). I highly, highly recommend practicing letting go of things slowly months in advance so you, and your team, can get in the habit of taking on more responsibility before things get…real.
- Put processes in place. Let me say it again – process, process, process. Even before maternity leave, this is something I valued highly. When at all possible, build things that are repeatable and lead to high quality outcomes. As the saying goes, work smarter not harder. For my maternity leave, I had set up an escalation process that detailed what to do when things go wrong. Things will never be perfect and something will, eventually, go wrong, or just need my attention, whether it’s an unhappy client, the delivery of a big project, or a timeline that veered off course. But by giving the team the autonomy to resolve situations as they arise and guidance on when to escalate the situation to me, the processes we put in place beforehand prepared us for most scenarios.
- Let go. As if having a baby isn’t emotional enough (hello, hormones), if you’re a business owner reading this, then you know that in many ways your business is your baby. Or at least one of them. I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard letting go. But with the help of a therapist and a business coach, both of whom I talked through what this transition would be like, I could get clarity on what I wanted my life to look like post baby (and feel confident in the preparations I made). And let me tell you, it’s better than I ever envisioned. While I’ve always loved the freedom afforded to me as a business owner who can work from home, set my own schedule, and make my own rules, it takes on a whole new advantage with a baby. Yes, I’m juggling work and life and new-motherhood and am still working to find a balance, but I’m the one controlling my time. I get to see my new baby whenever I want. So while you may be nervous getting ready for leave, or are wondering if it’s something you can pull off as a business owner, I encourage you to ask yourself why you wanted to work for yourself to begin with, and lean into that.
Through it all, I had to dig, ask a lot of questions, and be ok with asking for help. That in itself was a good exercise for someone typically running things. This isn’t something people talk about a lot and I hope that will change in the future, as we need to make it easier for small business owners to have kids without it having to all be work.
Someone asked me recently what my biggest lesson was from my time on maternity leave, and without hesitation, I told them, “I thought everything would fall apart without me. And it didn’t. I’m not indispensable the way I thought I was.” It was humbling. But it was also incredible to see things run (mostly) smoothly in my absence and it was a good test for the future. It showed me I have options. And how great is that?
With that said, if you’re taking leave soon, or planning on it in the future, and want to talk more about my own experience, I would be happy to share more of my learnings. You can email me at [email protected]. And above all else, remember to have grace with yourself. Whether you’re becoming a mother for the first time or the third (or more), we’re all human and we’re all doing our best at home, and the (home) office.