A recent article in The Sunday Times Style magazine (31 October 2010) highlighted women who took little or no maternity leave following the births of their babies and some were even working while in hospital.
What do all these women have in common? They’re business owners. The simple fact is, who is going to run their business while they take maternity leave?
Of course you could argue that they should have put in place sufficient cover to enable them to take some time off to bond with their beloved newborns but where is the support to help female business owners plan for their own maternity leave and who is going to run their business while they do the equally important job of raising children?
Where I began the journey
I have two wonderful children under five. It’s been no picnic trying to fit parenthood around running a business.
Because when you’re the boss, there’s no help or proper ‘maternity leave’ possible if you want to carry on developing your small business.
I often wonder how I would have fitted in children back when I started this business. But of course there are no regrets. They’re wonderful children and this is a wonderful business.
However, I have to say that trying to have children as a female business owner has been almost impossible at times.
There is so much help out there for employees with regards to maternity rights but nothing for employers.
I imagine many women thinking about having children in the not too distant future would be put off starting a business.
I think we’d see more entrepreneurial women if there was some kind of help.
But what kind of help could there possibly be?
The trouble is nobody can run a small business except the small business owner. And unless you’re a one woman band who can put things on hold without losing customers for a time, what can you do?
It’s hard to think of a solution.
Joint business partnerships
Sometimes I wonder if there could be business support partnerships or teams.
These would be people who could get together and help to look after each other’s business in cases of maternity leave or sickness.
But this isn’t very realistic. It’s hard to imagine how this could work in practice. I think I had some false optimism that because I’m super organised and can manage many things at once, fitting kids in with business would simple. I used to wonder why people made such a big deal out of raising children and working at the same time.
When l was starting my business, insomnia kicked in a lot and I was working every night until 11pm. So what would the big problem be with an infant to care for too?
But of course, you don’t have a clue what you’re letting yourself in for until the positive sign appears on the pregnancy test and reality hits you like a wallop round the head.
Alongside the joyous moments you also have to get your head around how you’ll keep the business running, how you’ll afford and choose childcare, how you’ll emotionally handle saying goodbye in the mornings and how you’ll find time to spend with your baby on top of everything else.
The list goes on.
The process of letting go
A wise friend once told me that motherhood is a long process of learning to ‘let go’ – right from the moment they’re born. It turns out the same can be said of your business to some extent too.
In the two years running up to when my son, Thomas, was born I worked tirelessly trying to ensure my business would function more independently from me.
I tried to train the team to do many of the things I felt I could only do.
This required a lot of ‘letting go’ and the hard work involved in training people.
Looking back, this was positive for the business as it meant my company became more self-sufficient.
One of the major benefits at the end of the process was that l no longer needed to be involved in every single commissioned piece of jewellery we created.
Two weeks after I gave birth to my son I returned to work for a few hours a day. This was only possible thanks to my brilliant husband who fortunately could be flexible in terms of his own working hours as he ran his own film business.
Also of course, I had a brilliant team working for me.
After two months I decided to work three days a week and hired a nanny to care for Thomas.
This was a terrible wrench for me as for three whole days l was away from my tiny baby, who I was still expressing milk for!
Retrospectively, this situation involved a ridiculous amount of logistics. After almost six months I was working full time again with a nanny working four days a week and my husband looking after the baby on Saturdays, the busiest day for both of our bespoke jewellery design studios.
This was by no means a comfortable scenario for me and it was extremely difficult for me to be away from my son so much.
But, l looked on the positives. I was still the person who woke him up every morning and fed him his breakfast. And I was the person he saw every night for at least an hour and gave him his milk at bedtime. And I still had two full days per week with him.
Plus, not forgetting l was still heading up a very successful business and a business of my own to boot.
The reluctant solution
I would very much have liked to return to work for only two or three days per week for a lot longer than l did. But I didn’t feel I had any choice.
I couldn’t afford to not work and we couldn’t afford to let the business that was and continues to be, our future go under.
And at the time I had approximately 20 employees relying on my business to pay their wages to support their own families.
The pressure was really on me to keep things going and l felt a huge amount of responsibility to my team as well as to myself.
Having gone through all of this, l finally realised what having a baby and running a small business actually involved.
I knew if I was going to have baby number two I had to get the business in a position where it could survive without me for a minimum of three months to enable me to enjoy this precious time that passes so quickly.
So, l began ‘Operation General Management’ to try to move the right people into the right positions for me to empower a key employee to become our general manager. Effectively they would begin to handle everything when I was away.
When my daughter, Eleanor, was born I managed a few weeks without being very involved in work except for a few phone calls and e-mails.
By this time, my son had started school and so l worked from home when the baby was asleep. I managed to fit lots of things into strange working hours.
Then I went back to work more formally for three days per week about five months later. I had been successful in ensuring my business could function independently.
The retrospective outcome
However, this process wasn’t easy. I would have been very grateful for some support to help me figure out how to do this.
But I managed and experienced the somewhat difficult territory of mixing young babies with a business venture.
I imagine my business is profoundly more successful and more valuable for this reason.
It would be interesting to work with other business owners and explore how they cope with being the woman in charge whilst keeping a business afloat.
Certainly not an easy problem to solve but if more help and maternity support was out there for female business owners, I’m sure there would be more female entrepreneurs and perhaps the business world would be a more prosperous and happy place.