The conflict between becoming a female entrepreneur and securing long-term financial stability is one that is familiar to too many women. Creating and nurturing a successful business is challenging enough; the added pressure of managing clients’ expectations alongside a growing list of personal commitments can easily become overwhelming for a sole-business owner or entrepreneur, whatever stage of life they find themselves in.
I am the owner of a small marketing agency, Moth Marketing, which has been growing since 2019. Until this year, my number one commitment was ensuring my clients were serviced and happy, and my suppliers were paid on time. But now, I am juggling my business commitments with expecting a baby in Winter 2021. In the stack of baby books on my nightstand, I am advised to form a protective bubble around myself and my unborn child, but this seems like an impossible task with the ongoing responsibility of business commitments and life admin and financial pressures all knocking at my cerebral front door.
Many women feel pressure to perform and maintain the same workload throughout pregnancy and again shortly after giving birth - this pressure can form a toxic work environment, albeit often with only one person in the team. The pressure from clients, suppliers, as well as unsolicited voices on the internet, can mean that women entrepreneurs don't feel able to take and enjoy the maternity leave that they deserve and need.
Is maternity leave really a viable option as a female business owner or entrepreneur?
While a 9-5 job offers stability and a clear path through maternity in terms of income, riding solo as an entrepreneur is somewhat more complicated. While the fact that many entrepreneurs would work from home is glorified, with some holding the view that this gives time for both work and parenting, the pandemic has made it blatantly clear to all that this is not the case.
As a female business owner, pregnancy is one of the most critiqued and dividing times when it comes to others’ opinions. There is pressure from both ends of the spectrum, with many believing that one can work up until giving birth because “you’re just working at home” - through to those who advocate ‘taking it easy’ for the entire pregnancy, from those most likely who haven’t considered the immense financial pressure of starting a family. Many women experience discrimination at this point in their career, whether they work a corporate job, or work for themselves. However, working as an entrepreneur there are fewer processes in place to prevent discrimination from clients - there is no HR department to protect women or directing the rules of maternity leave and supporting employees around family planning.
The decision of whether to and how much maternity leave to take is a deeply personal one, and unfortunately, there is no blueprint answer that can be found online. With so many questions to answer - how long do I take? When do I start? Can I commit to working afterwards? Will my clients still be there? How will I plan child care? Can I continue to grow my business while being a parent? - it can make maternity leave a daunting limbo for some.
The motherhood tax, which explains the phenomenon whereby mothers’ promotional prospects significantly decline after children, is not only present in large corporations. This same behaviour is reflected among women entrepreneurs who often face this bias from their clients. It’s an unfortunate yet familiar story. Balancing personal life with your business operations can be even more complicated when your life and business are so deeply intertwined. This can make decisions surrounding maternity leave and family planning even more difficult. It becomes hard to face up to the possibility of leaving behind years of planning and dedication, without knowing what lies beyond the maternity leave.
As a female business owner and expectant mother; my advice to others venturing down this path is:
Planning: As independent business owners, we cannot rely on an employer for career or financial security, it is down to ourselves alone to ensure that we are financially secure throughout pregnancy and for the duration of maternity leave - depending on how long you wish to take. I recommend speaking to an experienced accountant as soon as you feel comfortable discussing your pregnancy - perhaps at the 12-week point, so that you can organise your finances and forecast for the final few months of work what’s possible in terms of earning and saving.
Be realistic: Pregnancy is no walk in the park. Avoid being too ambitious with what you can achieve in your final few months of working. Morning sickness and fatigue can strike at any time and can render you unable to work and fulfil client commitments. Try to add a buffer around your deadlines and commitments, be that a few extra hours a day or a day a week when you can just catch up on work or use it to rest and recover from the real task at hand - growing a baby inside you.
Communicate: Talk to your clients about your pregnancy and plans for maternity leave as soon as you feel comfortable doing so. If they understand your situation, they will be more empathetic, whereas if you hold back, they may see you struggle to perform and not understand what's going on - leading to frustration and dissatisfaction.
Succession: Working for an organisation, HR will usually organise for a replacement to take on your role, tasks and clients - however, as an independent business owner, this responsibility is yours. Finding a suitable replacement and arranging a transition period for clients is crucial for client satisfaction and also results in a much less stressful end to your final few weeks of working. Plan to introduce options for succession as early as 6 weeks before you plan to finish to ensure a smooth transition and positive experience for all involved.
While the joy of starting a family or growing your family is so immense and rewarding, the emotions experienced by women are complex, ranging from guilt to stress to fear, not to mention the physical drain of pregnancy on a female’s body (hello rib pain… anyone else!?) which combined, makes it difficult for women entrepreneurs to truly enjoy the process - often sacrificing either career, family or financial rewards in the process. For those working with or alongside female entrepreneurs going through this process, there is no more important gift than support and patience during this short but crucial journey.
Author: Vanessa Whiteside