QA on Flexible Work Between the MU Community

While I have a handle on my upcoming maternity leave plan, it also feels impossible to plan for such a shift in life: starting motherhood among running my own small business. I’m bound to be under-prepared for certain aspects, over-prepared for others, and with this being my first child, completely unaware of exactly how I’ll feel after having him - and what that means for creating space for my business.

To help guide me on this transition (and to be real with me, unlike so many of the shiny resources out there), I turned to Marianna Sachse, mama and creator behind Jackalo. She’s gone through maternity leave the corporate way and also while freelancing/starting Jackalo, making her established on balancing leave with different kinds of careers.

As we got to discussing a long list of my questions, we thought it’d make sense to share with the MU community as well. Whether you’re planning for leave like me, are bookmarking this for later, or are reading from the other side, I hope you enjoy!

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Chelsea: How long did you plan for your maternity leave? As a small biz owner surrounding clients, I’m finding that it's scary/seemingly impossible to step away for too long.

Marianna: When I had my first child, I worked for a company that allowed for a maximum of 3.5 months (a mix of paid and unpaid) maternity leave, which is pretty generous for the US. I found it really hard to go back to work after my leave and wished that I had at least six months home with my baby. By the time my second child was born, I was freelancing for a company I’d worked for before moving abroad and was preparing to start my own business. Thanks to my experience with my first, I already had a sense of how long a leave I wanted and needed. I also knew that I wanted him at home with me even after I started to work, which is something I wasn’t able to do with my first child. I aimed for a solid three months of no work and then easing back in after that. I was in the early phases of my business, so I was able to take my time to focus on my business and phase out my freelance work.

When you work for yourself — especially if your business is established, you have clients who are waiting (sometimes) patiently, or are dealing with your own expectations to go-go-go — it is much harder to have a long leave. Even three months can seem really long. The advantage of working for yourself, however, is that you make your own “policy” about leave. You can ease back in at a pace that makes sense for you and your family, or slow back down if things feel like they are becoming too much.

C: Was there a moment post-partum where you felt you were ready to go back to work? Was that before or after you went back?

M: Honestly, I’ve always found that it depends on the developmental phase of the baby and how sleep is going. With both of my boys, just before three months they were sleeping really well and I started feeling ready to get back to work. As they got rest, so did I, and I wanted more adult interaction. But come that four-month sleep regression, I was a total mess and could hardly string together a sentence. In that moment, work was the last thing on my mind and curling up in my bed and getting some much-needed sleep was all I wanted to do.

Once sleep became more settled, I found that I felt good about having several solid chunks of time where I could work. With my younger child, I started just working during his nap time. Eventually, I wanted to keep working outside of naps, and then I knew it was time to get some help with childcare.

C: My loose plan is to cut down from working 5 to 3 days. This involves finding childcare part-time for those 3 days. How did you go about childcare for a more flexible schedule?

M: Finding childcare for a flexible work schedule can be challenging as nannies and nurseries/day care facilities tend to want regular schedules, and if you have clients, they want to know when they can reach you. Also, babies adapt best to new caregivers and friends if they know when to expect that interaction. This means that “flexibility” may be something you see more outside of the paid childcare scenario — that is, working when the baby is napping or asleep for the evening, or when a partner, friends, or family members can be on duty.

I always tried to keep childcare super regular so that everyone — the caregiver, my baby, and me — benefited from the consistency. How much time you need depends on how and when the baby naps, and how and when you work best. Will a crying or cooing baby be a distraction? Probably yes. Are you a morning person? Or an afternoon person? I find that I get the best work done in the morning so I always try to find childcare that covers that time period. Then I rush off to my office on the top floor of my house so distractions are at a minimum.

A nanny is a great way to start out, especially if you are nursing. That way you can avoid pumping (a wonderful convenience if you need it, but anyone who has spent a year pumping three times a day in an office will tell you — it’s not fun) and you can nurse your baby when needed. Once our son ate more than he nursed, I found that he transitioned beautifully to a nursery where he could make friends (and learn Dutch, since we live in the Netherlands.)

C: Looking back on that transition stage of new mom + small biz mama, what do you wish you had done differently? What would you have kept exactly the same?

M: With my first child, I wasn’t yet working for myself and I didn’t have the flexibility to have the maternity leave situation I wanted — and frankly what you think you want before you have the baby may not be what you want after you have the baby, or when it is six weeks or three months old! I learned a lot in those early months about how I’d want things to be different if we got to do it again. I’m so lucky that I was able to make that transition much easier on my family and I the second time around. And the second time, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Taking your time to ease back into work is a luxury for sure, but one that really benefited me and my son. Keeping him home with me in those early months after I started working again allowed me to continue breastfeeding without feeling burnt out by the pump, and it allowed me to come running downstairs if I needed to see his sweet face and hold him. When we were ready to transition him to nursery, we did so with confidence.

C: Would you say your work or company has suffered based on you being more flexible and likely working less, at least at the start?

M: When I went on leave, I was in a transition phase professionally (as well as the obvious personal one). I was phasing out my freelance work and phasing in the development of my business. I don’t think my business suffered, but my freelance work definitely did. Working for an American company, they needed me available later in the day and I honestly just wasn’t at my best in the evening hours.

It was essentially unfair to everyone — they weren’t getting my best work and I really should’ve just been going to bed and getting some rest! This is why knowing when you work best is so important to knowing whether your independent situation will work well. If you have clients or customers who are expecting you to be “on” and available at an hour where you know you are at your worst, then your work will suffer. Finding a schedule that works best for everyone is critical.

C: Were there any resources, mom groups, services, books, etc. that helped with either the transition or with work once you were back?

M: There are three things that really helped me with the transition back:

  1. Really relying on my friends and my partner and being very honest about what I was struggling with. No one can help if they don’t know what’s up.

  2. My unicorn parents group on Facebook. In general, I’m not one for online parents groups, because I find them judgey and shaming, but there was one started by some alumnae of my alma mater Smith College that has been a beacon in the darkest days of parenthood. (It is only open to Smithies, but perhaps other colleges have similar networks.) Finding a group like that is ever so helpful.

  3. Getting help with sleep. With our second child, we hired a sleep consultant and it was worth every penny. Getting a good night’s sleep is really important for your child’s brain development, and parents are not their best when sleep deprived. When we hit that 4 month sleep regression and the shit hit the fan (that is, baby was up nursing every hour all night for days on end), I knew we needed help. Having someone work with us to help get the baby in a better sleep situation really helped us all.

C: What does your schedule look like now, 8 years later?

M: With a school-aged kid and a toddler, my week is a bit of a jumble of school, childcare, and work in between. I’ve got my little one in all-day nursery three days a week. At this point, I really need those days to sit down, focus, and get a lot done for my company. My older son ends his school day in the mid-afternoon, and I pick him up and frankly hang out in the play yard for a bit as he plays football (soccer) with his friends — getting him to come home is always a challenge as he’d prefer to stay and play! Most days, I anticipate that I’m mostly done with work when I pick him up. Then two days a week I have a few hours of help from our wonderful babysitter. It’s a little harder for me to get a lot done on these days, so I tend to focus on shorter tasks. I try not to work too much in the evenings, as it is important for me and my husband to have time to connect after the kids are in bed. But from time to time, we both work after they are asleep. I never stay up late working though, I’m someone who values a good night’s sleep, so I hit the sack by 10/10:30 latest.

C: Best piece of advice for this new-to-be mama and small biz owner?

M: Be gentle with yourself. The first months of parenthood are beautiful, challenging, precious, and fleeting. When you own your own business, it can call you back quickly. Listen to your body, mind, and heart as you prepare to transition back to work. Focus on finding support — in your family, your friends, and community — to help you weather the inevitable ups and downs of the transition back to work.

Get on the same page now with your partner about what this will look like and check in regularly. Parenting changes how we work, and that change shouldn’t fall solely on the primary caregiver. Make sure that your partner is able to support your transition back to work not just emotionally, but by being an attentive and present parent and taking an active role in managing the household.

If you have any advice to give me or your own answers to any of the questions, I’d love to hear in the comment section.

Chelsea Becker is a San Francisco based writer, creator of becker editorial, and on the editorial team at MU. She’s expecting her first child this spring.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash