After both of my pregnancies and the arrivals of all of my babies (now six, two, and two years old respectively), I found myself at a bit of a loss when trying to discuss my “maternity leave” with the world at large.
I mean, I didn’t really have one.
Not in the traditional sense anyway.
“How long are you taking?” folks would ask.
Um, I probably won’t answer any work-related emails while I am still actually at the hospital.
Or they would be sure to share helpful advice like, “Sleep when the baby is sleeping!”
Do you mean race to squeeze in that important call while there’s no screaming in the background? Good plan!
When you own your own business, these are the realities of the 4th trimester, those first months after your new baby arrives, but while you still need to ensure that your business baby is being nurtured as well.
There is no official leave.
You may be away from your place of work (unless you work from home), and hopefully you’ve been able to help those around you—clients, colleagues, and employees—develop reasonable expectations of you in those initial weeks post-delivery, but you almost certainly aren’t able to step away from your job (the one that doesn’t involve keeping an infant alive) in the same way other new moms do.
Work will happen in chunks.
Be smart about this.
I’ve learned NOT to press send on that email I drafted on my phone while breastfeeding at 3am.
I’ve learned to be honest about my limitations, though, and not to lose sight of the general perimeters of reality (which can be tricky when you’re sleep deprived and reality is frankly pretty fuzzy-ish).
My friend, Suzanne Price, owner of the Sprout children’s boutiques in New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area, told me:
“Before I had my first child, pretty much every minute of my day was dedicated to Sprout. I mistakenly believed that my life could continue that way with a newborn, and that I’d just have to take short breaks to feed her once in a while.”
Most of the entrepreneurial moms I know initially imagined we might be able to multi-task in this way.
Suzanne, says she learned quickly you can’t do it all -at least not at all at the same time.
“When I had my second child,” she explained, “I still never took a maternity leave, but I had learned how to better segment my time. When I needed to work I got the help I needed to really step away and work. And even now, when I am with my girls, I do my best to leave my phone on the other side of the room and really focus on them.”
Also, recognize that just as no two babies are exactly alike, neither are any two businesses.
What works for someone else may not work for you. Just as innovation and the ability to pivot when necessary are vital to running a business, mothering as an entrepreneur requires one to set aside something that simply isn’t working for their family or their business, and to try something else instead.
As Tiffany Han—a business coach with twin girls and a podcast I adore, Raise Your Hand, Say Yes—told me, “We see a lot of social media photos of mamas working while wearing their babies in a carrier, and, um, that only sort of worked for me.
I got to the point where I really had to say—this is either baby care time or work time, but not both.”
I too remember precisely one (one!) conference call I was able to manage successfully while wearing one of my sons in a sling.
I loved the image I had in my head of idyllic baby-wearing productivity—and it seemed to work so well for others—but the reality for me was somewhat different, and I needed to adjust my expectations and my game plan.
As with most things in life, there are trade-offs.
The big one for entrepreneurial new parents is that although they never get an official leave, there’s also no boss expecting you back at work after a certain magical number of weeks.
You are that boss, and you can manage your time and the transition between work and baby as you see fit. Let’s face it, that’s pretty amazing.
Given that, maybe the most important thing you can do when planning for your non-traditional maternity leave is to let go of any guilt or judgment about what a maternity leave should be.
I can’t imagine that we all haven’t already figured this out by now, but there are as many ways for a family to thrive as there are mothers to obsess over whether or not they are mothering in the right way.
Let your worry about that go.
Embrace the positive ways that having so much control over your work flow and schedule can help you through your baby’s first few months (and all the years that lie ahead) and don’t waste valuable energy judging yourself for not being able to disconnect from work entirely.
Go snuggle your newest little associate instead.
Genevieve is founding director of Tutu School franchises.