When You Work For Yourself, is "Maternity Leave" Possible?

It's a question a growing number of women will face. The number of women-owned businesses is growing at twice the rate of all businesses and entrepreneurs in general are better at blending work and family than corporate women.
05/29/2007 07:57 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

I'm rushing to write this post because at some point in the next few days (God willing) I will give birth to my first child. This is both exciting and terrifying for me. I'm sure birth is exciting and terrifying for all new parents. But my particular situation also presents an interesting challenge from a work/life perspective.

I'm a freelance journalist and editor. I work for myself. I have for the past five years. I usually work from home. As people are fond of pointing out as they notice my protruding belly, "it's so great that your work is so flexible!"

It is. I don't have to ask anyone's permission to take time off. But like many micro-business owners, I work more than fifty hours a week. Those are real hours, not "have a meeting and then hang around in the office kitchen and then schedule a pointless conference call and whoops is it noon already?" hours. If I don't drum up work, it will not appear. If my business isn't pulling in money, I will not get paid. Given these realities, the question arises: Is it even possible for the self-employed to go on maternity leave?

It's a question a growing number of women will face. The number of women-owned businesses, as the Center for Women's Business Research is fond of pointing out, is growing at twice the rate of all businesses. Entrepreneurs in general are better at blending work and family than corporate women; Creating a Life author Sylvia Ann Hewlett's groundbreaking research found that only 22% of high-achieving entrepreneurs were childless in middle age, compared with 42% of corporate women. But many of these entrepreneurs launched their businesses after they had their children.

Pregnant entrepreneurs, on the other hand, face a unique set of challenges when blending work and family life. They have to be organized and disciplined. Fortunately, these aren't exactly rare personality characteristics in the entrepreneurial world. I spoke with a few "mompreneurs" for this post, and found that the same tips for taking a maternity leave while running a business kept coming up:

1. Fill the Pipeline. Managing any small business means balancing current and upcoming projects. Even if you're swamped with work currently, you have to think about how you'll drum up projects a few months down the line. Pregnant entrepreneurs try to finish current projects (or delegate them to assistants) and send out proposals or make plans for future projects before the baby's arrival. This leads to a flurry of pre-delivery work that can be astonishing. It's even more astonishing when you consider that many pregnant women want to spend their last trimesters napping. Plan on working hard.

2. Accept that "leave" is relative. "As a new business owner, that word wasn't in my vocabulary," one woman told me. "In fact, I remember sending a couple emails one evening while visiting the hospital with contractions." If you want to keep working for yourself, you will not be able to stop working entirely just because you have a new baby. A proposal for a dream project might be accepted, and the client might want the finished product 2-3 months after the birth. You could blow off the client, or blow off the baby, but most entrepreneur moms try to do both. They hire help to handle the big assignment, help to handle the kid, and master one-handed typing (or buy slings that promise to prop up the baby for hands-free nursing).

3. Accept that you're OK with that. This is the real dirty secret for pregnant micro-businesses owners. Most love their jobs. They don't see work as a chore. Women entrepreneurs tend to start businesses to fulfill a passion. So even if their work is "flexible" they can't imagine abandoning one baby for another.

I can't. My husband and I recently visited a friend in Sweden who was also expecting. She planned on taking a "short" five month maternity leave. She said people were shocked that she wasn't taking a full year (as is customary in Sweden). Frankly, I can't imagine not writing for a year. I can't imagine not writing for five months, or even one month. That's my identity. "Mother" will soon become part of that identity. But I made sure that my spurt of pre-delivery activity included hiring part-time childcare for the summer, and getting my fetus on the list for full-time, quality day care this fall. We will see how this all works. But hopefully it will. And all the while, I'm reminding myself that things could be worse than having work -- and a baby -- you're crazy about.

Laura Vanderkam is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues (McGraw-Hill, 2007).