Early last week, I received an influx of messages from friends and clients asking if I’d seen TV and radio broadcaster Katy Hill’s blog article entitled, “New Baby = New Business? WHAT?!”
Curious, I hopped over to the site to read what Katy had to say. The first words that leapt out at me were “Start a Business During Your Maternity Leave? Are you fu*@ing KIDDING me?” Oh dear. It was clear that Katy and I may have a difference in opinion.
In the article, Katy says she ‘nearly stacked into a nearby tree with rage’ when she heard someone mention on a podcast that they help mums start a business while on maternity leave. She pinpointed a ‘worrying and growing trend’ where new mums are under pressure to launch a business at the same time as recovering from birthing a tiny human, and described the possibility of achieving this as ‘a myth – often fuelled by social media’.
As Katy puts it:
Life isn’t going anywhere. If you’ve got big dreams inside you – AMAZING! By all means – dream, dream, dream the biggest bloody dream you’ve ever dared to so that, one day, you can make that dream happen.
But please, for now, scratch “Start Business” off your Maternity To-Do List and cut yourself some slack.
As you can imagine, as someone who has launched two successful businesses while on maternity leave and now supports other parents to do the same, this blog pressed some buttons for me.
You see, I don’t advocate for a second that every new mum should feel she has to launch a business on maternity leave. Self-employment doesn’t suit everyone and, having had two babies myself, I know how exhausting and overwhelming those early weeks and months can be.
My message isn’t that you should start a business on maternity leave (new mums already have enough ‘shoulds’ to worry about!) but that you can if you want to, and that it’s possible without pushing yourself to the brink of collapse or to the detriment of your family.
I unashamedly champion the fact that, for many families, maternity leave marks an opportunity, a transition point in life where the potential to launch a business can give parents options for a work/life balance that may otherwise not be possible.
Returning to work after maternity leave
To understand my position, we need to look at some statistics around maternity leave and the challenges of returning to work after having a baby here in the UK.
A report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission in 2015 found that approximately 54,000 new mothers lose their jobs in Britain every year. That’s nearly twice as many women losing their jobs due to motherhood than just a decade ago. To me, this represents a ‘worrying and growing trend’.
The survey of 3,200 women found that one in nine had been dismissed, made redundant or treated so badly on their return to work that they had no choice but to quit.
The report also found that one in five new mothers experience harassment or negative comments from their colleagues or employers either during their pregnancy or when they return to work after maternity leave.
Seven percent of new mums are put under pressure to hand in their notice, and one in 20 received a pay cut or lost their performance bonus because they had become mothers.
In one article I read on the topic, Justine Roberts, the CEO of Mumsnet, said that two thirds of women report feeling less employable after having a child, while three quarters of women find it harder to progress their careers after giving birth.
The barriers to returning to employment after having a baby
In her book/manifesto Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg – Facebook COO and one of Fortune magazine’s Most Powerful Women in Business – highlights that 43% of highly qualified women with children end up leaving their careers or ‘off-ramping’ for a period of time to be able to meet the needs of their families.
But it isn’t just highly qualified women who can find their working lives in direct conflict with becoming a mother. It’s a challenge for parents from all walks of life.
The reality is that many parents with young children are unable to cover the childcare costs needed to return to work or aren’t given the flexibility by their employers to change their hours around their childcare providers. According to Sandberg, only 40% of highly qualified women go back to full-time careers. Many women have to return to the workforce in a significantly more junior role than the one they occupied when they became pregnant, especially if they want or have to work part-time to juggle their responsibilities.
I’ve heard stories from my clients about employers deliberately setting meetings for the end of the day and then complaining when the employee has to leave to collect their child from nursery. Or colleagues getting angry and resentful when a parent has to take the day off to nurse their poorly little one right in the middle of a big project. People assume your focus changes and you lose your commitment to your job when you become a parent and – dare I say it, especially when you’re the mother.
Although some women have wonderful employers who don’t discriminate, for other women returning to work after having a baby becomes a source of stress, anxiety and downright bullying in some cases.
There has to be a better way and, for me, self-employment is it.
According to a report by the IPPR thinktank, Who’s breadwinning in Europe?, a third of Britain’s working mothers are the main breadwinner in their families. Approximately two million of these women are in the lowest earning group and have arguably been hit the hardest by tax credit cuts and other austerity measures.
Pregnancy, maternity leave and then returning to a job that is no longer secure can throw families already near the breadline into the arms of stone-cold poverty.
In her blog, Katy Hill talks about being able to watch her kids ‘knocking life out of the park on a daily basis’ but for many parents this just isn’t an option. There is a financial necessity to return to work much sooner than most of us would choose to go back.
I believe that starting a business while you’re on maternity leave can be a viable way to maintain your essential income – and even exceed it – while still being able to spend time with your children. It’s an opportunity to carve out a career that accommodates family life instead of compromising it.
Can we really do both?
In Katy Hill’s article, she seems to insinuate that it isn’t possible to launch/run a business during maternity leave and enjoy/learn how to be a new parent.
The thing is that there are people throughout the world who have no choice when it comes to juggling work and parenthood. Most dads go back to work after two weeks’ paternity leave without anyone asking whether they’ve lost their focus or let their brain turn to mush with the advent of their new arrival. People also don’t tend to challenge whether they’re present and committed to soaking up every possible moment of time with their little one.
And what about the mothers in America and some other parts of the world who are entitled to a few scant weeks or months of maternity leave? Talk about not having an opportunity to enjoy what Katy Hill describes as the “Fourth Trimester (where) new mums stay in bed, being waited on hand and foot while they bond with the baby, crack the breastfeeding and let their body recover – for THREE WHOLE (delicious) MONTHS!”
Here in the UK, many of us are able to experience up to 12 months’ maternity leave or Shared Parental Leave (SPL). I advocate that women (and men) should feel supported to use this time to steer their careers into better alignment with their families if it will improve their quality of life in the long-term.
I’m not proposing for a second that you should be writing a business plan before your baby’s cord has even been cut, but I do think that – if you have ambitions to run your own business – maternity leave can be the time to set the wheels in motion.
My own experience was that it was the first time in my life when, baby cuddled sleepily in my arms, I was able to think at length about the future and how I might shape my career in a way that would let me be a hands-on parent, a role model, present in family life but also engaged with my professional growth.
When maternity leave is over and you’re back to the daily commute, answering emails, attending meetings but now with the nursery run, bath-time, dinner time, play time and bedtime to boot, you may find you don’t get round to acting on those dreams of self-employment.
Is it possible to launch a business during maternity leave?
I am living proof that it is possible to launch a business during maternity leave – I’ve done it twice! – and still experience the joy of bonding with your new baby. I won’t lie – it takes hard work, determination and there may be days when you have to slow things down to look after yourself and your little one. But with the right approach, it’s not only achievable but also empowering, liberating and as close to ‘having it all’ as I’ve been able to get.
Katy Hill is absolutely right about becoming a parent; we should all “relish being in the moment with that incredible creature”. It might be clichéd but time does fly by and, before long, that baby you hold in your arms will be starting school and growing towards independence.
But my perspective is this – because time slips by in the blink of an eye, why not create a working life that lets you be there to savour the little moments? The baby groups, sports days, assemblies, parents’ evenings, seeing your child’s first step, waving them off on school trips – these are the moments that self-employment can let you have and I intend to grab those moments with both hands.