What it’s like to go on maternity leave when you’re a founder

When I started my first business, Willow & Blake, I was 21 years old. Maternity leave was not a concept that had entered my consciousness.

I was young and hungry. We literally lived off Redbull and Tuna in the early days. We started Willow with a purpose; to make words matter. And we grew rapidly. 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 became 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 skin care brand called frank body. It was meant to be a side hustle. A way to show what we could do when we had full creative control. It turned out to be a great case study.

For 12 and 9 years, respectively, both businesses continued to grow. Not in a straight line or overnight. But bigger than I ever dared to dream. We had a team of over 40 people and satellite offices in New York and London. Global retailers, global customers.

Work was my life. My family. My identity.

Then a little human walked into my life and shattered everything I knew about myself.

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For years I had defined myself by what I did. As a founder, my world revolved around my career. And before I became a mother, that suited me.

I could stay late at the office, take calls at all hours of the day, have a late dinner. Hop on a plane and work across two time zones, strut across the business floor any day or any hour, 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 lack of sleep, I realized that I would rather set my career on fire than leave his side, and even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.

In newborn days, my life focused solely on this little human. A demanding little human who depended on me for love, food, and shelter.

It was both beautiful and terrifying. Mind-bogglingly boring and indescribably satisfying.

I kept up with the business as best I could. I sat at home, buried under a baby, scrolling through Slack. I nursed through board meetings and tried to follow the updates my husband and CEO gave me when I came home buzzing from a day at the office.

But eventually, I get carried away. I gave up trying to be on the other side of everything and gave myself over to motherhood. And I like. 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 grew up and began to sleep. I began to yearn for something more. My brain craved stimulation. A little voice inside me said it was time to get back to work.

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But it wasn’t that easy. Impostor Syndrome has always been a challenge, and after 9 months in my baby bubble, I felt completely incompetent to return to a leadership role in any of the businesses I founded.

Guilt and anxiety followed me into the office. They sat on my shoulder. It stayed in my coffee. I saw them as a question mark in the eyes of too many people. Or maybe it was my own eyes reflecting in the mirror.

I went to meetings and interviews playing the role of founder but feeling so distant. I was hit hard by the roller coaster ride of child care illness and lack of sleep. I thought I was failing at everything. As a business owner, as a mother, as a wife and as a friend. I still do sometimes. When there are many balls in the air, it is inevitable that you will drop one from time to time.

I wish I could tell you that there is a magic trick to solve all problems, but there isn’t. The tension between home and work continues.

I love my career. I want days filled with 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, no matter how small. I want to build something bigger than me.

And I desperately love my home life. My children smile when he sees me, his face buried in my neck, his hand grasping mine. I want to be the one you turn to when you’re scared. Who caresses his hair when he’s sick? I want to be the voice in his head.

As a girl of the 80’s, I am one of the first generations of women who are told that they can have it all. And I really think you can. Just not at the same time.

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Balance is a myth, and limits are shit. But slowly, I’m finding a rhythm. My co-founder told me the motto: be like water. And I try to live off of that.

I lowered my expectations and outsourced. Much. I depend a lot on a town; both paid and not. Yes, I miss bedtime more often than I would like. But I have the flexibility to see my boy when I want.

Who I am is constantly changing. But I’d be scared if it wasn’t.

I’m not ashamed of wanting more. Wait 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 leave: Plan (if you can). I started planning two years before I started trying. That involved our Commercial Director buying our creative agency; Willow & Blake, and setting aside a fund to pay for my maternity leave.

During maternity leave: Find a level of participation that suits you. For me, that was monthly board meetings and catching up with my fellow founders.

Coming back: Be kind to yourself. It takes time. And finally, remember: you are the mom and you are the boss. Do what you want. You have this.

Read more: How Jessica Sepel created the JSHealth women-led brand

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