Jenny Xia Spradling is co-CEO of Free willa social enterprise that offers free estate planning tools that help facilitate charitable giving.
I vividly remember my disillusionment 10 years ago when I read Anne Marie Slaughters 2012 Atlantic Ocean cover story titled “Why Women Still Can’t Have Everything,” a groundbreaking piece in the ongoing conversation about balancing motherhood and career advancement.
I was fresh and hopeful – I had recently graduated from college. I had big professional dreams and eventual plans to become an all-star mom too. I had watched my mother try to balance a career and parenthood, but I wrote down her challenges of being an immigrant and facing cultural and financial constraints that I would never face.
However, Slaughter’s struggle to balance work and life was an eye opener. It was the first time I really thought that, even for a woman with a well-paying job and a strong support network, it could all still be elusive.
Fast forward to 2020, and I was still determined to find a way. So I started with what I assumed would be a simple question: “When is the” Turn right time to have a baby as founder?”
I was aware of the many challenges of harmonizing the timing between my personal life and my business, but I felt deflated by the general layoffs I would receive from others: “There is never a ‘right time’.” I realized what they really meant was, “We still don’t know.”
We’ve figured out how to get to Mars, but we don’t know when a working mother should have children. Fortunately, as a founder, I was used to making decisions with incomplete information. This is what I have personally found to be true.
Fast forward to today. I have a 1 year old son who is usually a joy and occasionally a horror. In hindsight, I think there’s a “right time” for founders to become mothers if (and that’s a big if) timing is an option.
1. When your life partner is committed to dedicating a significant amount of time and emotional energy to caring for your little one.
2. If you have some tailwind in terms of a positive track record with your board and investors.
Add a layer of strong executives you trust. Your life gets a little easier every time you are successfully added to that team.
If these conditions are met, align the entire team on who has the decision-making power during your maternity leave, and check in less than you think you should. Be clear about what matters at the company require your intervention while you are on leave (eg closing an executive position, fundraising, taking over a company), and make sure the list is short. Once you have these elements in place, you’re done.
Changing the story
Thankfully, it feels like times are changing in a way that makes it more possible to be a founder mom.
Start-up investors today are more inclusive and long-term oriented. I was able to take a full 12 week maternity leave, which would have been unimaginable for a co-CEO 10 years ago. This is because my investors are not only committed to my overall well-being, but also know that the business would run just as well without me, as diverse teams achieve better results†
Social norms have also changed. Women of older generations who paved the way for me often advised hiding as much of motherhood in the work environment as possible. I did not follow that advice. Recently my son was home sick from daycare and I took him to our weekly all-hands on Zoom. Several women — those with and without children — reached out to say they were grateful. Giving consent and fostering empathy at a time when too many women are leaving the workforce is a must.
This wider social acceptance also applies to fathers. My husband changes diapers, drops our baby off at nursery and takes as much time off as our baby is sick. He does this because he intends to be an equal parent, but just as important because his colleagues don’t bat an eyelid when he has to leave a company hangout for a baby bottle.
And finally, there’s the pandemic, which has reduced the need for facetime in the workplace. This provides crucial flexibility. For example, many parents need time in the afternoon for parenting, but can reapply later.
It’s been 10 years since Slaughter’s article, and “having it all” is still a challenge. For many it is impossible, because the needle of timing, resources and support is just too difficult. But we’re going in the right direction.
I do believe I “have it all”, even if it feels fuzzy for many days. With more moms at the helm of growing companies, maybe we can bend the curve for each other and our employees too.