My son 'helping' us set up for a client's conference at Vancouver Convention Centre.

Taking a maternity leave when you’re self-employed

The past couple of months I’ve had the opportunity to transition back into work after the birth of our son, a year ago (pictured above ‘helping’ set up for a client’s conference in April). In this time, I’ve had a few people ask how I was able to take a maternity leave when I’m self-employed? We’re lucky to live in Canada, which seems to value the time it takes to raise children, but sometimes when you’re self-employed, it can feel like there’s no support at all. So, I’ll aim to sum up what I’ve learned in an effort to help others in a similar situation. 

Much like the planning that comes alongside taking an extended vacation, planning a maternity (or paternity) leave as a self-employed person means you need to plan ahead. Luckily, most pregnancies give us at least nine months’ notice! Getting clear, making a game-plan and then getting out of the way are what worked for me. 

Getting clear

I started to plan my leave when I was 14 weeks pregnant. First, I started a conversation with my husband to brainstorm and decide what we wanted for our family. It’s easy to get caught up on what’s best for the business, but it was so useful to sit down and really talk about our vision for this crucial (and challenging) period in our lives.

On my first parental leave, after my daughter was born, I found I really missed my work. I found the early baby phase was quite intense and challenging for my mental sanity! I know I’m happiest when I get to show up to work, as I crave the feedback and social interaction. 

Knowing we’d hoped to start a family, I had signed up for the Self-employment EI program many years ago. We decided I would transition back to work when my son turned six or seven months, and my husband arranged with his work to be able to take parental leave for the second half of the year.

We also discussed the desire to take a big trip together (benefitting from having been through this before, we remembered that once the solid food phase starts, then crawling, then walking, life truly gets ‘busy’!). So we planned a big trip (Australia on travel points!) when we could both be ‘off’, and before our son was six months old, which was the trip of a lifetime. We also decided to create space to prioritize my recovery and sleep. I truly underestimated the cruelty of sleep deprivation with kid #1, so this time, we were at least conceptually ready.

Make a game-plan

Next, I talked to my business coach and my Operations Director, Madelen, who helped me organize my thoughts and create a game plan before sharing my pregnancy with our team and clients. The last thing I wanted was for my baby to derail the business we’d all worked so hard to create! And I didn’t want anyone on my team to be worried about losing their work with us, so it was important to figure out a few details before sharing the news broad and wide. By about four or five months into the pregnancy, we were sharing the news with clients who needed to know, and strategizing work plans with our subcontractors for work that would need to get done while I was away. 

As we’d spent a considerable amount of time documenting and ironing out processes for the collaborative workflow at Backyard Creative, we continued to figure out what I was doing that someone else would need to do in my absence. Of course, I created a project in Asana to record all sorts of details to share with Madelen, and made sure she’d have enough hours to cover this additional work. I also discussed with each of our subcontractors how I could support them, and what their expectations / needs for this period would be. 

Get out of the way

When I was about six to eight months pregnant, I tried to get out of everyone’s way and let them work without me as I tied up loose ends, finished off a bunch of projects, and created tutorials in anticipation of the team’s needs for my leave. Honestly, I was getting physically exhausted at that point and needed to start prioritizing afternoon naps and chiropractic appointments, to get my body (and mind) ready for childbirth. 

Clients were told I would be done work at the end of July (four weeks before my due date) so I had a couple weeks to focus on family priorities, nurture my health and clean up my task lists to leave myself notes for when I came back. 

Though it was so hard to truly step away (especially given that I have a home-based office!) When the time came, I was so glad that I’d created the mental space and had a little buffer of time before my son arrived. I turned on my out-of-office notification and fully trusted that the team would be in touch via text if anything super-duper-important needed my eyes, so I wouldn’t need to be committed to checking Slack or email.

Of course, I shared the news with my team when my son was born (we’re all friends!) but it was essential that they protected the space I needed to truly focus on family — as it was hard! When I felt energetic and was missing work a bit, I’d pop into the Slack channels here and there to say hello, and I checked in with Madelen once a month, as planned, but to be honest, that was about all I could manage. Sure, some days I could have done more, but I also could have turned into a sleepless evil monster! 

Take note of this especially if you’re type-A like me and think you have superhuman powers — let your spontaneous energetic bursts be spent on other things, like cooking or hanging out with your kids or reading! Once you create the space for a break, it’s up to you to actually take it.

Go back at your own pace (unlike what I did!)

I had to remind myself a few times in this process that resting is important, and that no one is going to die without me at the helm (I feel ultra-responsible for my business and my team, but sometimes things can feel more important than they actually are). I know the team missed me while I was away, and that was nice to hear, but I also know having them step up to lead the business without me was a good challenge! The team truly did a great job holding Backyard Creative up while I focused 100 per cent on our new baby.

I had planned to ease back into work slowly, but I made the mistake of jumping  back in too quickly when it was time to return. While I was away, the team had taken on a huge (and exciting!) contract that required extra helpl, so it was an all hands on deck-type moment. I dove right in and immersed myself in a daily routine of  heavy work, with nursing breaks every three hours, for probably two months solid. It was pretty horrible. My body wasn’t used to sitting for long periods anymore, my eyes were strained, and I still wasn’t getting sleep at night due to nursing. I felt the impact of the taxing routine right away, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone! It was too much. After a string of unexpected deaths in the family, I began to reel it in again, and reminding myself that we’re useless to our businesses (and our families!) without our health.

Always changing

After re-committing to a more manageable workflow, a couple of summer vacations and relying on support from the team, I’m looking forward to being back to work 100 per cent this fall (now that I’m finally getting a lot more sleep!).

I’m grateful I have a flexible business, but it’s also a great reminder that balance is an ever-changing mindset that needs nurturing and maintenance constantly. This is true whether you’re on parental leave or not. So, back to focusing on all the things I know work for me. Onward!