Closing The Gap

4 female entrepreneurs discuss the challenges of taking maternity leave when you're self-employed

Entrepreneurs Leila Lewis, Mattie James, Cara Clark and Makini Regal Martin.

Even if your company offers flexibility and support, balancing a career and kids is an enormous challenge. And what about having a baby and juggling it all when you're your own boss and employer?

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is the only industrialized country that does not require employers to provide paid maternity leave. Under the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993, anyone who works for a company with 50 or more employees is allowed up to 12 weeks of leave without pay. Those who work for small businesses have no legal protection at all.

Companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon have garnered attention in recent years for going beyond government requirements to offer an extended amount of paid leave for new mothers. Netflix offers up to a full year of paid time off for new parents after a child's birth or adoption.

But policies like these still aren't the norm, and even with generous measures in place at some companies, many mothers still feel unsupported. Studies show that 34% of women do not return to their job after having a baby. Of those who do return, 73% said they made their choice strictly for financial reasons and 23% said they felt like their employer could have provided better postpartum flexibility.

Bestselling management author and CNBC contributor Suzy Welch has said that the challenges women face at work could be a leading factor in more women pursuing entrepreneurship. "What is happening now is there is an off-ramp of women who want to be in business and have more control and run their own thing," Welch said on CNBC's "Power Lunch" in 2018.

CNBC Make It spoke to four women entrepreneurs about their own challenges with taking maternity leave (or, in some cases, not taking it) while running a company, how it affected their businesses and the advice they have for other entrepreneurs considering motherhood today.

Leila Lewis, CEO, Be Inspired PR and Inspired By This

Be Inspired PR CEO Leila Lewis
Photo credit: McKenzie Coyle Photography

Leila Lewis is the CEO and founder of public relations agency Be Inspired PR. She's also the founder of the lifestyle site Inspired By This which offers inspirational content on motherhood, marriage, career, weddings and home decor. Lewis also has four young children, ages 6, 4, 2 1/2 and 6 months.

As an entrepreneur, did you have any initial concerns about taking maternity leave?

Absolutely! With my first child six years ago, I was anxious about both being a new mom and the impact it would have on my company. I took two months off and then eased back in the third month. I wasn't prepared for what the transition would be like. It was really hard.

What steps did you take to prepare for your maternity leave?

I was not very prepared the first time, which is understandable since I had no idea what to expect. When I had baby number two I was more accessible and was back on email with staff and clients two weeks later and working from home a lot during the time that was supposed to be my "maternity leave." With baby number three, I was on email with my staff and advising on client accounts within a week.

What I discovered for my business when I had my first child was that my maternity leave auto-reply was deterring media, new clients and opportunities. So I didn't put one on for my second, third or fourth maternity leaves and I forwarded incoming emails to my team, which allowed me to still be accessible as needed. I will also share that I had a long-time client abruptly end their contract with me in the middle of my first maternity leave for no real reason other than they just didn't hear from me as much. It shook me and it left an extremely significant impact on how I managed my maternity leaves moving forward.

Looking back, what do you wish you had known ahead of time?

You can read up on what to do during this time and prepare as much as possible, but until you're in the throes of surviving the juggle of motherhood and entrepreneurship, I don't think there is any advice that will help. For me, I needed to go through it. I do wish with my first baby I wouldn't have felt the pressure to go back to work so quickly and leave her at home. I didn't feel that my clients would be okay with a baby at a meeting or be flexible on conference calls around the baby's eating and sleeping schedule.

However, with each baby I got more comfortable and I found ways to blend mommy life and work life in a way that worked for me. Now I travel with my kids, bring them to meetings, and I'm unapologetic about how I integrate my babies into my work life.

What challenges did you encounter when you returned to work?

The biggest challenge when I didn't bring my daughter back to work with me was I wasn't able to continue to breastfeed any longer. She quickly became exclusively bottle-fed by three months since I was pumping when I wasn't with her. It was okay with me at the time, but I would have done that differently looking back.

After each subsequent maternity leave, I proceeded to bring babies to work with me, and I event set up a full nursery in my office. It was a game-changer and so special to get to be with my baby full-time and be back at work doing what I love. The biggest challenge was working meetings and calls around the babies' schedule and stepping out to feed them. I cut back to one meeting and one call per day while my babies were with me at work because it was too stressful to do more than that.

I had a long-time client abruptly end their contract with me in the middle of my first maternity leave for no real reason other than they just didn't hear from me as much.
Leila Lewis

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs preparing for motherhood?

Take that time off — at least eight weeks — and also don't stress about leaving the business completely. It's okay to check in with your team or clients while the baby is napping and you've already fed yourself and possibly even showered.

However, be sure that there are boundaries in place so you are making your new life as a mom your number one priority during this precious time. It will go super fast and you'll never regret spending that time with your baby. When you look back at this time you will not remember what you were working on or what meeting you didn't take, but you will remember that time with your child. Also, don't be afraid to bring your baby to work. We need more acceptance of little babies in the workplace, and as mompreneurs, we need to give ourselves the permission to do so.

Mattie James, lifestyle blogger and influencer

Lifestyle blogger, podcaster and Youtuber Mattie James
Photo Credit: Erica Simmons

Mattie James is an Atlanta-based lifestyle blogger, podcaster and YouTuber who creates style, beauty and branding content. She's also the mother two young girls, ages 4 and 16 months.

As an entrepreneur, did you have any initial concerns about taking maternity leave?

During my first maternity leave, I was still at my 9-5 so of course my leave was very fixed. For my second maternity leave, it was the first time I had taken maternity leave as an entrepreneur and I really didn't know how to approach it because I was like, "OK, I'll take three months off. That's what I got in the corporate world. Or, I'll take eight weeks, you know?" So I ended up saying I'll take 12 weeks off.

In that time-frame, I knew that my team would still be working and that we'd still have payroll and stuff like that. But I really do love what I do and I think that sometimes I can teeter on the line of being a workaholic, especially since not having a safety net can make you nervous about not doing anything for three full months.

Also, since I work from home and create a lot of content on my phone or on my laptop, it wasn't that much of a stretch for me to say yes to a couple of things during the time that was supposed to be my maternity leave. So I guess, in the end, I never really took the full [12 weeks] of absence.

What steps did you take to prepare for your maternity leave?

I definitely had a few meetings with my team to just say, "This is what I would like done," and "This is what I would like for you to handle." We had about three separate meeting on how to handle things, whether it was about potential business opportunities or how to run the business on a day-to-day basis.

Looking back, what do you wish you had known ahead of time?

I wish I knew to really plan ahead and to think about every little thing. I think sometimes we are like, "Oh, while I have the time off I will be able to do that." But you're so exhausted and you're so tired and the eight to 12 weeks that you said you would take off really goes by in a blink.

What challenges did you encounter when you returned to work?

With my first daughter, I just went back to my 9-5 and my grandmother was watching her at the time. But, my grandmother no longer lives in Atlanta and so I didn't have the luxury of her helping to take care of my second baby. So for a second I was like, "Maybe I can just balance doing my work and watching the baby." But, that's just not my personality type. I need to be completely focused on one or the other, and if my baby is in the room, then my baby will be my focus. And so that was hard and by the time she was six months I made the decision to send her to daycare.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs preparing for motherhood?

I say just plan ahead and then whatever you think you need financially, try to double it or triple it, because things happen all the time. Like, you may have said that you wanted three months off, but now you realize you need four months off.

So again, I say plan ahead and if you're in a position where you work with a team then really be transparent and vocal about what needs to be done and how you would like things handled. I think it's definitely not the time to sit on your hands because when you have a newborn who is hungry and who needs to be fed, or changed, or bathed or held, you're not going to necessarily have the mental capacity to want to answer questions from your team that could have been answered ahead of time.

Cara Clark, CEO and founder, Cara Clark Nutrition

Certified nutritionist Cara Clark
Photo credit: Cara Clark

Cara Clark is a California-based certified nutritionist who works with individuals and groups to promote healthy eating through her company Cara Clark Nutrition. Clark has four daughters, ages 9, 7, 6 and 3.

As an entrepreneur, did you have any initial concerns about taking maternity leave?

What's maternity leave?

Just kidding! But seriously, I didn't actually take any time off so to speak. I somewhat loosened my workload by taking on fewer clients and opportunities, but I never even put up an auto-response on email.

During the birth of my last two children, my business was growing like wildfire and I was just doing my best to keep my head above water. So my concerns were less about taking leave and more about managing my home, my work and somewhat keeping my sanity.

Although you didn't take any maternity leave, about how many weeks would you say you scaled back on your workload?

I wasn't able to take any time off. But, I did feel like I had a smaller workload for at least four weeks.

Looking back, what do you wish you had known ahead of time?

I wish I had been better about delegating then. I remember having fires to put out from the hospital bed, and wished I had someone to take care of them. I do now though, because I learned from how hard that season was.

What challenges did you encounter when you returned to work?

It felt like a never-ending game of catch- up. I guess you can say that challenge never really goes away, because if it's not new babies, then it's sports, and school schedules, or sick kids or traveling. It is always something when you run your own business and household.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs preparing for motherhood?

Hire help for the work you don't love. Whether it's in the home: laundry, cleaning, meal prep. Or if it's for work: admin, emails, etc.

During life after baby, all I really wanted to do was be with all my babies, sitting on the floor, making memories or just being. I suggest utilizing help for all the other things that need to be done.

Makini Regal Martin, lifestyle blogger, owner, Makini Regal Designs

Event designer and lifestyle blogger Makini Regal Martin
Photo credit: Makini Regal Martin

Makini Regal Martin is a lifestyle blogger and event planner who owns the Brooklyn-based events company Makini Regal Designs. She's also the mother of a 16-month-old daughter.

As an entrepreneur, did you have any initial concerns about taking maternity leave?

Oh yes, absolutely. I think once I got married and knew that I would be embarking on trying to become a parent, the first thing I thought to myself was, "Okay, how does this work with being self employed? Am I going to give myself a certain time off? What's going to happen with my clients?"

It was a huge concern, but I just decided that I would focus on getting through a healthy pregnancy and just sort of go with the flow. That was obviously not the smartest plan, because I did not really have a good plan for entering motherhood and then balancing my business.

What steps did you take to prepare for your maternity leave?

I think the only real preparation that I did was try to transition someone else who works on my team into my role so that person could handle all of the events that we had on our calendar. I thought that would be a good way to sort of give me a little bit of time to focus on being a new mom while still running my business. But I ended up not making the best choice.

I think everyone thinks that they can run a business until they're in that position where they have to be everything from the marketing person to the PR person.

We see a lot of people, especially on social media, doing everything and they're juggling all these roles and looking fabulous while doing it. But for me, the reality was that it was very difficult to manage.
Makini Regal Martin

Ultimately, the person that was in that role ended up being very overwhelmed while I was busy being a new mom. So as you can imagine, that did present some challenges. But I'm fortunate in the sense that I'm married to someone who is also self-employed and his business was able to sustain our family while I transitioned back to work. So I took, formally, about four months off. And then, once I transitioned and realized that juggling the demands of motherhood and my business was challenging, I did scale back on some work. So right now, one half of my work week is spent running my business and the other half is spent making sure that my child's needs are met and really being an active mother.

Looking back, what do you wish you had known ahead of time?

I think I probably would have wanted to put together a stronger team to support me in running my business. And I would have started that process earlier on in my pregnancy when I wasn't as overwhelmed and anxious about giving birth.

For example, if I had started doing more of the preparation perhaps in my first and second trimester, then during the last trimester I could have really just focused on preparing for the baby to come. I wouldn't have been stressed out about what's going to happen with the remainder of my events.

What challenges did you encounter when you returned to work?

I absolutely love my business and I've poured a lot of myself into it, but what it really comes down to is I want to be a present and active mom and it's difficult to do that as a working mom who is an entrepreneur. We see a lot of people, especially on social media, doing everything and they're juggling all these roles and looking fabulous while doing it. But for me, the reality was that it was very difficult to manage [it all]. So, I made a decision that at this stage of her life, which is a really short stage of her being an infant, I don't want to miss anything. I don't want to miss any milestones. So I've prioritized my motherhood role. And while my business owner role is still important to me, it did fall one slot down to number two.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs preparing for motherhood?

I think being flexible when you return back to work is important. So for me, once I became a mom, I realized that my current business structure wasn't really going to work as much. It required me to work really long hours and to be away from home for a while, which didn't work with breastfeeding.

So what I ended up doing was I changed the structure of my business a bit and I launched a lifestyle blog. It's something that allows me to still work, but also be more active at home and be present for my daughter. So I think if you return back to your working environment and you realize that it's hard to manage both, then maybe be open to making some amendments to the way your business is structured so that it gives you more flexibility.

Also, since I'm no longer working on my [events] business full-time, my team has decreased to one junior designer and then I rely on about 10 to 15 freelance designers for each event.

These interviews have been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Entrepreneurs Leila Lewis, Mattie James, Cara Clark and Makini Regal Martin.
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