How to Be An Ally to a Startup Mama
For those of us who are startup mamas, the experience has become so part of the norm that we hardly think about it. Yet every once in a while I’m given a subtle reminder that being a parent (especially a work-from-home parent) while running a startup is not something that other people are generally attuned to — until they’re experiencing it for themselves.
Over 70% of Americans become parents at some point in their lives.
That means that if you’re pursuing a life of entrepreneurship, a side gig, a new solopreneur project, or anything else that requires an unusual amount of hustle, you are more than likely to do it at some point with a baby or child beside you.
But let’s face it: America is not baby friendly. A recent trip to Spain with a six-month-old had my husband, Marvin, and me mesmerized. People waiting in lines swept to the side as we approached, ushering us forward. Taxi drivers insisted on taking us to our destination — even when they were on strike. Our experience as parents in the United States was nothing like this.
We think back to the thousands of dollars we paid out of pocket (after insurance coverage) to have our little girl. The postpartum experiences that genuinely surprised me because no one talks about them. The times I stood in a subway car, 36 weeks pregnant, and glared at people until they noticed enough to offer me their seat. The moments I looked up childcare services when I reached my emotional limit, only to close my browser window when I saw the prices — some that cost more than many people earn in salary.
The knot I feel in the pit of my stomach when I hear about other countries that have childcare that’s subsidized by the government, or childcare that’s free entirely.
A recent article published in the New York Times details why Americans are having fewer babies.
At the top of the list?
The prohibitive cost of childcare (cited by a whopping 64% of respondents).
The only difference between me and these survey respondents is that I went ahead and had the baby anyway.
The good news is, there’s plenty we can do. We can change US law to make it more child- and family-friendly in order to help close the motherhood gender gap. We can look at the absolutely exorbitant cost of childcare and see how we can subsidize it. That will allow more women to pursue not only the careers of their choice, but more particularly the riskier careers like entrepreneurship.
But we don’t need to wait for a law to change to help sow the seeds of startup mamahood. There are things that we can do as individuals, too. Right now, right this minute.
We can become allies to startup mamas.
You probably don’t realize how much you individually are capable of making the world easier for the startup mamas around you with just a few small changes to the way you do things.
Most of the startup mamas you know are likely hustling in silence — insistent that they’re good and don’t need any help. We’ll do that, because we don’t want you to worry about our performance or our commitment. We already get that enough before people even meet us.
That’s why it’s up to you to reach out and to lend a hand, when you can. And there are easy ways to do it that you’re probably not even thinking about.
A few weeks ago I had planned to come into the office of a potential partner to chat with them about partnership opportunities. It was an important lead, and something that I was really excited about. Since my husband was working out of town, I arranged with my stepmother to drive in from out of town and babysit while I took the meeting.
Everything ready to go, hair perfectly brushed, power suit on, I began to leave for my meeting.
Then, just as I was about to hop on the subway, I received an email — a request to reschedule.
Normally, receiving this would be fine. Perhaps a little annoying that it was sent so last-minute, but nothing I couldn’t handle.
But the fact that I had spent so much time and energy arranging childcare and re-building my day around this one meeting just killed me. I had used my one childcare shot for the week — and it was a misfire. The worst part was that the woman who rescheduled *knew* that I was a mother to a baby and had to arrange for childcare in order to be there. I had explicitly stated so. And she was a mother as well. Perhaps she had completely overlooked that part of my email.
If someone indicates that they’re a parent or have a young child at home, be as considerate as you can. Make plans and follow through with them. Don’t cancel unless you absolutely have to.
Take a walking meeting
Setting up that meeting with a startup mama? Unless there is a specific reason why she should come to your office, consider offering a “walking meeting” instead. Meet at a coffee shop, grab coffee to go and walk around a park. You may be surprised how much walking will stimulate the creative juices in your brain (and perhaps even lull a baby to sleep, or at least keep him/her occupied).
If you need to sit, consider meeting at a playground or children’s museum so the little one can run around in a safe [preferably enclosed] space while you chat.
This is a new era of business. We don’t need to have every meeting in a conference room.
Arrange for event childcare (or offer yourself)
Are you hosting an event? If it’s big enough, consider offering free or discounted on-site childcare through a provider like Nanno, Care.com or Sittercity. You may be surprised how many more parents you get attending in the audience.
If you’re a much smaller organization and you’re inviting a startup mama to come speak at an event, offer to keep her babe occupied in another room while she talks.
Come to her neck of the woods
There’s nothing like taking a baby stroller across town. Pack her diaper bag, bring snacks, fill her water bottle (or, if you’re still nursing, bring extra breastmilk in a cooler, put on your nursing pads, get sanitized bottles, etc etc), bring a change of clothes, a blanket if she gets cold, settle her in her stroller or carrier, stand at the top of the staircase with a full stroller when you find the elevator is broken (this happens to me very often on the Boston subway system) until a kind stranger helps you (or worse, disassemble the stroller and take each individual part, one at a time, up and down the stairs in front of you)…you get the picture.
Anyway, there’s an easy way to save your startup mama friend some few precious moments of prep time. Offer to meet her somewhere that’s convenient for her (even if it’s inconvenient for you). If you’re using public transit, you’ll get in a few more quiet minutes of reading or checking email. And if it’s a drive, put on an audiobook.
Your friend will thank you for it.
There are times when you may host an activity, event, or meeting that is perfectly baby- or child- friendly, and other times when it isn’t. Don’t be afraid to be explicit, especially when babies are welcome in unusual scenarios.
I’ve had people worry about being too welcoming to babies. “But Beth,” they say, “If I say babies are allowed at this event, I’m afraid that the whole dynamic is going to change and there are going to be babies everywhere.”
Take a step back and think about if your event, activity, or meeting truly can have a few quiet children there. Many times, it can’t. But sometimes it can.
Even so, you can probably expect that most startup mamas (and dads) will not be rushing to the door with droves of children behind them. Most of us have no interest in bringing our children along when there’s an opportunity to do business or network. It affects us, too.
But sometimes there are some people who simply don’t have many other options. It’s either bring the child or stay home.
It’s in these scenarios that your explicit language about baby friendliness will matter.
Advocate for startup parents
Whether you’re working for a company or leading your own startup, take time to notice when things aren’t parent-friendly.
Do all of the employee events seem to focus around alcohol, or take place late at night?
Is there a wellness room on site?
Is it frowned upon to take a few 15-minute breaks at work? How flexible are schedules and when do important meetings happen during the day?
How about parental leave, or vacation time?
You don’t have to be a parent to notice these things, nor do you need to be a parent to benefit from them. Many of the best benefits simply provide a level of flexibility so that people can make the important aspects of their personal lives fit their working life.
If you notice that your company isn’t prepared for a startup parent, speak up about it. A company that is considerate of its employees’ needs will make it a much stronger organization in the long-run, and they’ll have you to thank.
Being an ally isn’t just about making another person feel comfortable with you while you go about your day. Sometimes it’s about changing the way your day works in an act of empathy for another person because you recognize and understand the privilege that you have been given.
The U.S. is the only country in the developed world that doesn’t have a national paid maternity leave policy. It ranked last of all developed countries in rankings in maternal health. Our country is far behind its peers in many areas related to maternity and paternity rights and benefits, both in its legal structure and in its societal values.
While laws can be hard to change quickly, what we can change is how we as individuals and companies (and eventually as a society) act toward our fellow startup mamas and dads. That, eventually, will be what changes the landscape of our nation.
It is convenient? Not always. Is important? Absolutely. And it starts with each one of us.
Originally published at Beth Santos.