When you own a small business it can feel like your business is your baby. You’re there in its infancy, you nurture it day by day even when you’re tired, and you put its needs first for years and years. You feel tremendous pride watching your business grow and thrive with you as its caretaker.
But, of course, your business isn’t your whole life. If, at some point, you decide to have a real baby, what happens to your business while you are birthing and caring for a newborn?
When you work for a large company there are policies in place that dictate how maternity leave works. What happens, though, when your business is just you? How do you take maternity leave if you are the whole company?
It’s possible to take maternity leave from your small business and have things function in your absence, but it takes planning. It also requires accepting that not everything will be done the way it used to be, at least for a little while.
Although I had a blog and was selling my work online in the years that I was pregnant and caring for young babies, I didn’t really get serious about my business until my youngest child was a year old. To find out how to manage maternity leave when you own a real business I reached out several women who have done it recently and got some helpful tips.
Everyone I spoke with agreed that the first step is to announce to your customers and fans that you’re going to have a baby soon and will taking maternity leave. Elise Cripe is a designer and maker who had a thriving business when she had her baby, Ellerie, a year and a half ago. “I notified my readers and made a note on my sidebar that I would be taking a two month maternity leave from the blog,” Elise recalled. “I still ended up posting occasionally (about twice a week) but there was no schedule and I felt no pressure to do it.”
Creating an email autoresponder is another way to let customers know that you’re taking some time off. After posting on her blog that she was having a baby soon, crochet designer Stacey Trock used an autoresponder to help manager her customers expectations around how often she’d be responding to email. “I put up an autoresponder saying I was checking email once a week,” Stacey explained. “And I always recommend that customers join the community in my Ravelry group where they can chat with others about questions they may have, and get help with common crochet problems more quickly.”
Running a successful online business depends on a continuous flow of new content, whether that’s blog posts, social media updates, or product releases. Creating content while you’re pregnant and scheduling it to be released over time is one way to keep things fresh while you’re on maternity leave. “I scheduled 1-2 per week for five months,” Stacey says. “Some people might think that this is sorta faking it, but I actually think the quality was better because I was creating timeless crochet tutorials that could be written and posted anytime. I also designed three patterns in advance to keep up with my schedule of releasing a new pattern every other month,” she added.
For others front loading content wasn’t the right choice. When designer Rae Hoekstra had her third child a little over a year ago she decided not to schedule content. “If I could have, I probably would have scheduled all sorts of posts ahead of time and just pushed go,” she recalled. “but I’ve never been able to work ahead very well. I didn’t post much after the baby was born…I figured, no one wants to see a new mom slaving away over a blog, right? It actually makes me feel a little inadequate when I see a blogger has just had a baby and then they’re back to posting twice a week the moment they get discharged from the hospital. I figured, people want to know that I’m taking care of myself and the baby; they don’t care if I don’t post. I honestly believe that’s true. Did my traffic go down? Probably…but who cares?”
Acknowledging that business might slow down for a while, accepting that you simply can’t do everything, but planning for a future when it can ramp up again can be helpful. “This isn’t just a side income. This is my job and it had to work. I had no choice,” explained Stacey. “I asked myself, ‘What’s the minimum I could get away with to not let my reputation get tarnished?’ You never know how childbirth will be or the adjustment process afterward. I’ve accepted that I’m earning less money this year,” she said, adding, “I’m not writing a book, I’m not teaching a new Craftsy course, I’m not teaching as much. As a household you adjust for that.”
Rae Hokstra felt that same sense of compromise. “We held steady, but this was the first year I didn’t see the same growth rate I’ve seen in the past,” Rae says.
And Elise agreed that a temporary slow down was necessary. She decided that closing her shop for a while would be the best choice. “I did close my shop. I just put up a notice that I was on maternity leave. But I think I re-opened that before the two months were up,” she recalled.
Delegating work to other capable people so that you can rest is a strategy that can work as well also. When Rae was pregnant she worked with her one part-time employee and her contractors to figure out what they could do while she was out. “We put projects in the ‘To Do when Rae’s Away’ queue. In the months leading up to Hugo’s birth, we started keeping a list of projects and things to do independently so that everyone would still have work to do when I was gone; this worked pretty well…For better or worse, I love to micromanage, so it was hard for me not to involve myself in everyone else’s projects. I wish I were better at that, and having a baby taught me that ‘good enough’ is better than not getting things done at all because I needed to micromanage everything. So that was good…and yeah, stuff wasn’t always exactly the way I wanted it, but oh well.”
Streamlining your work in the months preceding your maternity leave means that you can maximize the small chunks of time you do spend on your business once the baby is born. “In the year before Maddie’s birth I figured out a way to get all of the essential business tasks done in just four hours a day,” Stacey said. “I knew my time was going to be limited once the baby was born so paring down my work hours was helpful.”
Although taking time away from your business in order to care for a baby is a wonderful thing, it’s important to recognize that you may crave getting back to normal. “A couple of months after Hugo was born I was back to working a few hours every couple of days at the studio,” Rae remembered. “I would take him along and he would sleep under the cutting table. In retrospect I wish I could have ‘enjoyed the time with baby’ a little more, but what can I say? I like to work. And that’s okay too and not something I feel l need to apologize for.”
Successfully managing maternity leave when you are the driving force (or only employee) of your company involves setting realistic expectations for yourself about what you’ll be able to do and setting expectations for you customers about what services you’ll be able to provide. Of course, the reality of having a new baby is impossible to plan for entirely.
Elise put it well, “I think the biggest thing is to stay flexible. You have no idea how you’ll handle motherhood or how anxious you’ll be to get back (or not get back) to work. Give yourself more time than you think you need but then be comfortable returning early or extending.”