When I started my first business, Willow & Blake, I was 21. Maternity leave wasn’t a concept that had ever entered my consciousness.
I was young and hungry. Literally, we lived off Redbull and tuna in the early days. We started Willow with a purpose; to make words matter. And we grew quickly. Through word of mouth and great referrals, we went from writing for our friends to writing for banks, airlines, fashion companies, and some amazing startups. We developed into a full-service creative agency and grew from a team of three to 13.
The brands we were building were taking off. So, we decided to build our own; a skincare brand called frank body. It was meant to be a side hustle. A way to showcase what we could do when we had full creative control. It turned out to be a great case study.
Over 12 and 9 years, respectively, both businesses continued to grow. Not in a straight line or overnight. But bigger than I ever dared dream. We had a team of over 40 people, and satellite offices in New York and London. Global retailers, global clients.
Work was my life. My family. My identity.
Then a small human came into my life and shattered everything I knew about myself.
Going on Maternity Leave
For years I’d defined myself by what I did. As a founder, my world revolved around my career. And before I became a mother, that suited me fine.
I could stay late at the office, take calls at all hours of the day, have dinner late. Jump on a plane and work in two time zones, strut through the business lounge at any day or time and not feel a whisper of guilt. It wasn’t healthy, but the hustle was a big part of our success and a way I justified my worth.
Then my son came into my life, and with the rush of hormones and sleep deprivation, I realized I would sooner set fire to my career than leave his side, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.
In the newborn days, my life centered solely around this small human. A small, demanding human that relied on me for love, food, and shelter.
It was both beautiful and terrifying. Mind-numbingly boring and indescribably fulfilling.
I kept up to date with the business as best I could. I sat at home, buried under a baby, scrolling Slack. I breastfed through board meetings and tried to follow the updates my husband and CEO would give me when he came home buzzing from a day in the office.
But eventually, I let myself let go. I stopped trying to be across everything and lent into motherhood. And I liked it. I had time to stop and talk to the neighbors. Watch my baby discover the world. Explore this new sense of perspective. This is the new me.
But as my son got older and started sleeping. I started to yearn for something more. My brain was itching for stimulation. A little voice inside me said it was time to get back to work.
Returning to Your Business
But it wasn’t that easy. Imposter syndrome has always been a challenge, and after 9 months in my baby bubble, I felt completely underqualified to step back into a leadership position at either of the businesses I founded.
Guilt and anxiety followed me to the office. They sat on my shoulder. Lingered in my coffee. I saw them as a question mark in too many people’s eyes. Or maybe it was my own eyes reflecting back at me in the mirror.
I went to meetings and interviews playing the role of founder but feeling so removed. I was hit hard by the roller-coaster of childcare sickness and sleep deprivation. I believed l was failing at everything. As a business owner, as a mother, a wife, and as a friend. I still sometimes do. When there are a lot of balls in the air, it’s inevitable you drop one every now and then.
I wish I could tell you there’s a magic trick to solve all the problems, but there isn’t. The tension between home and work doesn’t stop.
I love my career. I want the days full of creativity, conversations, and coffee breaks. The rush that comes with building something. The buzz of leading a team that works together. I want to see others succeed, and I know I played a role, however small. I want to build something bigger than me.
And I desperately love my home life. My sons smile when he sees me, his face buried in my neck, his hand grabbing mine. I want to be the one he turns to when he’s scared. Who strokes his hair when he’s sick? I want to be the voice in his head.
As a child of the 80s, I’m one of the first generations of women to be told you can have it all. And I really believe you can. Just not at the same time.
Balance is a myth, and boundaries are bullshit. But slowly, I’m finding a rhythm. My co-founder told me the motto: be like water. And I try to live by that.
I’ve lowered my expectations and outsourced. A lot. I rely heavily on a village; both paid and not. Yes, I miss bedtime more often than I would like. But I have the flexibility to see my boy whenever I want.
Who I am is constantly changing. But I’d be scared if it wasn’t.
I’m not ashamed to want more. Expect more.
You create the life you lead. And I really like the one I’m building for myself and my family.
Tips for Founders Going on Maternity Leave
Before you go: Plan (if you can). I started planning two years before I started trying. That involved our Business Director buying into our creative agency; Willow & Blake, and setting aside a fund to pay myself maternity leave.
While on maternity leave: Find a level of involvement that suits you. For me, that was monthly board meetings and catch-ups with my fellow founders.
Coming back: Be kind to yourself. It takes time. And finally, remember: you’re the mom, and you’re the boss. Do whatever you want. You’ve got this.
Read more: How Jessica Sepel Built JSHealth’s Women-Run Brand
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