A Survival Guide to That Startup Mom Life
Throughout my career, I’ve worked at both large and small companies, and in a variety of roles in marketing, operations, customer experience, sales, success, and HR. And while I’ve had the great pleasure of working both with and for incredibly passionate people at every stop, I’ve always connected powerfully to the magic that happens at a startup or fast-paced environment when you get the right group of people together to bring an idea to life. So, I’ve spent the past several years creating, growing, and scaling startups. As it happened, that time overlapped with getting married and becoming a mother.
When my husband and I first started talking about adding to our family, there were plenty of friends and family who were supportive of our plans. However, there were also plenty of others who regularly volunteered commentary that I can only assume they felt to be helpful, but was actually completely inappropriate and negative. For instance, I was told how hard life would be. How it would be impossible to keep up with the hours. How people would feel like they had to work around my schedule and I wouldn’t be a team player. How I would feel so guilty working so many hours and being away from my baby. How I would lose my focus.
When I initially went back to work, I was excited to jump back in but really nervous about the challenge. It’s no joke that as a working mom, you essentially have two full-time jobs. Now that my son is four, and after surviving being the first mom executive at two startups with very different cultures, I can tell you with great certainty that startups and babies can absolutely live in harmony. I’m not going to lie, there were — and still are — moments of guilt and a good night’s sleep is tough to come by. So yes, being a startup mom is incredibly hard. But most importantly, it’s totally worth it. All of it.
So for all the soon-to-be startup moms out there, here are a few ground rules and tips to help you navigate that #startupmom life.
Understand Your Rights
If possible, sit down with your HR/People Operations team well before your baby’s due date, so you can give them time to create policy and process if they need to. Assuming it’s a typical startup, there won’t be many benefits and perks in place yet to support working parents. If you get pushback, propose what you’ve seen at similar companies. The most frequent concern I’ve encountered from leadership is the question of “How reasonable is this policy/benefit for our size and stage of startup?” This question is easy to navigate with comparable data. Use groups like Moms in Tech to gather data and be sure to look for companies of similar employee size and stage (Which funding round? How much runway?). If your workplace has a both new moms and new dads, you may want to propose benefits for “parents” of any kind and not simply “mothers” to be more inclusive. Things to consider:
- Just what is your leave policy? And, is it reasonably competitive? Startups often create policies and benefits as they need to. If your leave policy is not competitive for some reason or other, propose something better. Comprehensive maternity and/or parental leave policies are really fantastic ways to recruit more seasoned professionals. Also, startups often cannot leverage cash incentives to attract this level of talent. Instead, propose that the company design benefits that will make your company more attractive for mid-to-senior level professionals that will help accelerate growth and innovation, as well as develop the younger talent at your startup. At one company I worked for, we pulled together a committee of women across all functions to propose a new parental leave policy using this positioning and our recommendations were adopted.
- There are state and federal regulations around the requirement for aMother’s Room at a certain company size so new moms can have a safe and comfortable place to pump. Speak with your HR/People Operations team to understand what the company must provide based on their profile and status, and about getting a Mother’s Room set up before you go on maternity leave or as you are preparing to return to work. There is very little worse at work than having to pump in a closet or while sitting on a toilet in a bathroom stall. Several friends of mine ended up pumping in their cars in parking lots. Anyone who has been there will tell you that they don’t ever want to do it again (been there).
- What kind of accommodation is the company required to make during your pregnancy? This is an area you should discuss with your doctor, as they will be able to assist you in making a case for what’s medically necessary for your company to support. It’s sometimes a gray area between what’s medically necessary and what a voluntary accommodation may be, so make sure you are proactive and overly communicative with your HR/People Operations team about what’s happening during your pregnancy. It’s a balance — everyone wants to support you in having a healthy baby and the company still needs to you to do your job. If you are feeling overly nauseated and the commute is unbearable, you may be approved to work from home, which could prevent you needing to go on short-term disability during your pregnancy. More on voluntary accommodations next.
- Think about reasonable voluntary accommodations during your pregnancy so you can be both productive and comfortable while at work. A friend of mine was able to stay home as needed — up to three days a week — due to nausea or energy levels and agreed to no changes in her performance targets. During my pregnancy, I was sometimes so tired mid-day (especially after having to give up coffee!) that I needed to take 20-minute power naps to keep my focus going. So, I got the okay to move one of the available couches to my office and recharge when I needed to. Because I worked in an office and didn’t want to be totally sedentary, I also rescheduled almost all of my coffee 1:1s to be “walking” meetings so I could exercise throughout the day and keep my blood flowing.
Plan Your Transition Back to Work
The reality is that returning to work after several months away can feel a lot like learning a new job. And you’re not just returning to your former job, you’re now taking on two full-time jobs — one as a mother, and the other at work. Planning the details of your transition back to working full-time will both mentally prepare you for the challenge ahead and help you think through the logistics. Upon going back to work with a three-month-old baby, I found the devil was always in the logistical details.
- Many moms have recommended working an 80% schedule when they return to work (working 4 out of 5 days) for an extended period after returning from maternity leave. This gives you the ability to ease your way into integrating your two worlds. While I did not have an 80% transition plan, I did opt to leave the office at 4:15 pm instead (and finish up my work after 7 pm when we put the baby down). This enabled me to spend some time after work with my new baby before his 7 pm bedtime every day, so that’s what I negotiated for.
- For that first week back, consider scheduling your first day on a Wednesday or Thursday. Be kind to your sanity and give yourself a built-in short week when you first return from leave. You’re probably going to be spending the time catching up on projects and relationships anyway, so take the opportunity to get used to the commute and reconcile any internal struggles you may have with dropping the little one off at daycare.
- Chances are, you will be one of the first moms in the company and will be surrounded by people who don’t yet have the shared life experience of becoming a parent for the first time. Take this as an opportunity to educate. Consider sharing your pumping schedule with your manager so s/he knows that you will be unavailable for meetings during these times. When I returned to work, I blocked off my schedule and made the details available to view so everyone knew what I was doing. You certainly don’t have to be that transparent if you’re uncomfortable with going that far, but I found that people really respected that time. Also, after a few months, I began getting comments about how my level of productivity has retained or increased in some regards even with the increased time pumping. Take that for what you will, but sometimes it’s nice for people to notice that moms can be just as productive or more as everyone else!
- Plan for backup childcare. The first year a child is spending time around other kids, they are exposed to a host of new germs and are often getting sick. It’s not uncommon that little ones will need to stay home more than you think. That first year my son was in preschool, he was out sick almost the entire month of January with back-to-back flu (it was an epic flu season). My husband and I really struggled with finding help and being out of the office as much as we had to and often working late into the evening to play catch-up meant we were getting sick, with little-to-no sleep and compromised immunities. Make sure you think through alternatives for child care beyond the immediate day-to-day to reduce the chaos when plans unexpectedly change.
Understand the Culture on Face Time
Every workplace has a particular culture. And part of that culture includes how important it is to be physically in the office working at the same time as everyone else. While some startups have mastered remote collaboration (Atlassian’s story comes to mind), many others still rely on a shoulder tap, kitchen conversation, or pickup whiteboard session to quickly and efficiently overcome obstacles.
The more flexible your company is on in-office face time, the happier you will be as a working mom. Most moms I know working in tech with young children still do drop-off and pick-up. They are still responsible for half or more of the meals at home. They still do a lot of work around the house. They plan the extracurriculars, birthday parties, and holidays. In order to be able to be the supermom that does it all, the ideal situation is to work somewhere that welcomes a ROWE (Results Only Work Environment) type of attitude — or even more specifically, is not married to the idea that you must be in the office in order to be productive.
If this is not natural to your workplace culture, it may be worthwhile to have an honest conversation with your manager about the value of a more flexible work schedule and what it enables you to do on behalf of and for the company. For example:
- If you have a geographically dispersed team, being able to work after you put your little one down for the night is a great way to position your availability for those outside of your home office.
- If you work in an open office environment and find it difficult to be productive, you may be able to ask for time outside of the office where you can have quiet and focus.
- If you are a night owl and more productive after hours, you can suggest having a block of your day hours for collaborative work and a block during the evening for the heads-down work.
What was helpful for me was taking an “always on” approach outside of fixed timeframes (I was completely focused on my family and unavailable from 5–8pm at one company, but was available via Slack, Google, and SMS almost always outside of those hours). Because we were a global team, I regularly had meetings late night or early mornings with colleagues in Europe and Asia. While I was seldom pinged unexpectedly during an odd hour, it did create a sense of trust that I was available if there was an emergency.
Define Your Priorities and Actually Prioritize Them
Having a young child is the best gift to your work life because you will be forced to become very clear with your work and life priorities. At work, what are the 3–5 things you’re going to put your energy into? What are the outcomes you’re using to measuring success? Making sure these priorities are both in line with the company’s larger strategic vision as well as cross-functional groups and well communicated will do magical things for creating clarity across the organization. Additionally:
- Know what’s on your “No” list. Defining your priorities also makes it easy to understand what is well outside of those priorities. Of course, you want to be helpful and a great team member, but you’ll be doing it with significantly less free time on your hands. One thing I stopped doing was doing things for people when they were perfectly capable of doing it themselves (finishing up a powerpoint, taking on a presentation or proposal, project managing something well outside of my scope, for example). These were things that I was doing just to be nice but had little benefit to my strategic goals. I also stopped “sitting in” on meetings where there was no clear reason why I should be there. And if during the meeting something came up where my input was beneficial, they grabbed me and I joined.
- Turn breakfast and lunch into productive work. Every lunch and several breakfasts a week were either spent on a lunch 1:1 mentoring a team member, in group meeting, facilitating a learning/feedback session, with a client, or working on a project. The lunch hour is a really easy way to build rapport with people, get to know what’s really important to your team and customers, or just hunker down.
Continue to Nurture Relationships
Startup life is so rewarding in part because you build strong emotional connections with the company, product, cause, and each other. One of the biggest challenges to being a working mom, in general, is not having much wiggle room in your day so you often miss the spontaneous gatherings. But even with a schedule where every minute is planned, it is possible to inject a little team building and social fun into our work life. Some things to consider:
- Because you will probably be leaving on time or earlier most days, it is really important that you take the time to schedule in social activities. Whether you agree with this or not, a lot of relationship building in the startup world continues to take place over happy hour or dinner. Even if you’re not a drinker (which a lot of new moms aren’t because they’re nursing and don’t want to take any chances), being there for the shared stories and laughter matters. After our son was born, my husband and I agreed that at least once a month we would attend a work-related happy hour or event. Surprisingly, it was often a welcome break from our hectic schedules.
- If your team does regular strategic planning, consider hosting offsites at your home instead of at the office or a hotel. Quarterly planning offsites at my home were a great way to blend work and life. This became a tradition — we would cook lunch together in my kitchen, and spend the mornings and afternoons once a quarter working together on strategic planning in a very personal space.
- Multi-task the hell out of the day, but focus when it comes to people.In the end, the person in front of you right now deserves your 100% attention. In all the craziness of working at a startup and being a new mom, don’t forget to slow down and focus on the person in front of you when you are “in the moment”. Early on in my hyper multi-tasking momness, I started getting feedback that it felt like I was focusing on other things or distracted during my 1:1s with my team. So I started turning the phone over on the table or leaving it in my bag and closing my laptop during meetings. I also played with changing my meetings to be 20 or 50 minutes instead of 30 and 60 minutes, to give me a break where I could check for priority items in-between sessions
Last but certainly not least, you must be your own advocate. When something goes well for you and your team, share it. Celebrate it. You are not showing off — you are storytelling. You’re talking about the positive impact your work has had on moving the business forward, saying thank you to a team member for their contribution, and keeping the rest of the team informed on progress towards larger goals.
That’s it, right? Like anything new, it may take a while for you to get comfortable with your new life and find the balance that’s right for you. If you are a mom working in tech and have questions about any part of the motherhood or startup life journey or are simply looking to connect with other people who are living the dream, join the conversation!