So often, women become entrepreneurs for the freedom it gives to control your own schedule and the time you spend with your children. But ironically, many women entrepreneurs find maternity leave the toughest piece of the puzzle to solve.
Do you tell your clients or customers you're pregnant? How long can you take off without risking the business you've built? What if clients start using another company and never come back to you? If you refer the work or hire a sub-contractor, are you giving away the core of your business? How can you afford to lose months of pay during maternity leave?
These are all questions that bedevil women entrepreneurs considering maternity leave. My answer to each is the same: don't worry.
You may, in fact, lose a client or two -- women entrepreneurs I know have experienced just that disappointment. But ultimately, you should start (or expand) your family when you are ready, and not postpone it out of fear. Children will affect your life more profoundly than any business venture. Moreover, you started your business once, so if you have to build it back up again, you know how to do it. In fact, you can avoid some mistakes, making it easier the second time!
As far as money goes, the few employed women in the U.S. who are fortunate enough to receive paid leave generally receive only a few weeks. Many moms save up in advance and then pinch pennies as we're enjoying our new babies. For each of my pregnancies, I received six weeks paid and took four and a half months unpaid -- it hurt financially but we made it work.
That's not to say you shouldn't plan carefully. Women entrepreneurs should approach maternity leave as strategically as you attack each aspect of your business. Here are my best suggestions for women entrepreneurs planning maternity leave:
- Manage your work flow. Set a tentative amount of time for maternity leave, and get some work in the pipeline that will be ready when you return from leave. Start ramping down your workload several weeks before your due date, since babies have been known to arrive early.
- Arrange multiple, flexible child care options. Aim for an overlapping combination of an available babysitter, relative, husband and daycare center. You may find that a project pops three weeks post-partum and you happen to feel physically recovered and able to tackle it. Or, you may need five months after giving birth to bond with your baby and build up enough night-time sleep to function at work. Leave your options open to suit either scenario.
- Keep your pregnancy need to know. I'm not advising that you ever lie about being pregnant or needing maternity leave. But neither should you send out a mass e-mail announcing your pregnancy. Tell those clients who rely on you regularly, and use your judgment about disclosing it to people with whom you're in infrequent contact.
- Delegate your work. This is often the hardest advice for women entrepreneurs on maternity leave to take. Whether you're a one-woman consulting shop or the chief executive of a multi-person business, it can be difficult to relinquish control. Do it. You'll be developing resources that may come in handy later, in surprising ways.
- Learn to say no. Your maternity leave is just the first step into the world of balancing work and family needs. There will be many more times when you have to choose between your career and your children, even in small ways. Once you learn to make a considered decision and embrace that choice without guilt, you'll have to secret to being a happy mom entrepreneur.
Recently, I participated in a networking call of women entrepreneurs, and maternity leave quickly arose as a topic of concern. One expectant mom described her plan to take four months off and the work that she was lining up for the fall. It was such a sane approach -- quite a step up from my friend who took three weeks off and resumed work in a sleep-deprived haze. It almost made me believe that I could manage another baby and my business as well. (Quick, someone talk some sense into me!)