Why I Chose Not To Take Maternity Leave

Formulating a blueprint for life around my work and my family

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Having my first baby was one of the best thing that ever happened to me. But I would be lying if I said it wasn’t also a time of huge adjustment.

I found pregnancy really tough the first time around. So much of it was characterised by stress, exhaustion and a feeling of ‘I know I can’t keep doing all of this for much longer’. My job at the time was more demanding than I could cope with once I fell pregnant. I was desperate for maternity leave to start so I could get some much-needed rest.

So when I fell pregnant for the second time, I knew there were things I wanted to do differently.

I would have loved to have avoided morning sickness… but like clockwork at 6 weeks, it became clear that sadly that wasn’t going to happen!

But while I wanted a better pregnancy experience the second time around, I began to realise that many of my hardest moments had actually happened AFTER my first son was born. 

I was thankful for a change of pace once my maternity leave started, but I soon realised life at home with just a newborn for company wasn’t exactly how I thought it would be.

I no longer had my busy job setting my agenda for the week.

I had to build new friendships with people who felt like strangers, because most of my DINKY friends were working during the day. But in the evenings I was too exhausted from night feeds and 24/7 baby management to do anything except collapse into bed.

My body was a completely different size and shape, and none of my old clothes fitted. I had a rail of unfamiliar, tent-like clothes in my wardrobe, and I didn’t feel like myself.

More than that, my body used to belong to me, but suddenly I was aware that its purpose was feeding a hungry baby. ALL THE TIME. There was no more ‘personal space’ or time alone.

At times, I found the demands of motherhood absolutely terrifying.

It felt like I was adept at discovering the wrong way to do nearly everything concerned with looking after a baby.

I ached with tiredness in a way I hadn’t experienced before.

It felt like my baby cried a lot of the time. If it wasn’t full on screaming, it was restless fussing. He couldn’t speak but boy, could he communicate what he did and did not want to do! 

I longed for space and time away from the responsibilities I now had. A moment to be selfish. Doing something on my own and stopping when I chose to, not when nap time was over.

Most of all, I felt a huge burden for the way I wanted to parent. But I was so afraid of messing it up. I let myself be pushed around by health visitors, parenting books, well-meaning relatives and women on internet forums. I was always looking for approval, for permission to make the decisions I wanted to make, but I never found it. Instead, I tried to squash down my instincts and follow other people’s rules.

I lost myself.

I loved my son fiercely, but at times I felt huge resentment for the people in my life who got to go to work, or go home when they’d had enough time with the baby, because it felt like I couldn’t take a break from the person I now had to be in the life I now had.

By the time the end of my maternity leave rolled around, I was at a crossroads. 

It didn’t make sense to return to my previous job. I had spent several years running a start-up consultancy firm, which had just hit a 7-figure turnover and was entering a new cycle of growth and change.

It was a busy role which was exciting, but incredibly fast-paced, and it wasn’t likely to slow down any time soon. There was talk of a directorship, more responsibility, more money, more hours. I didn’t see how I could commit to this now that my time at the office would be quantified in terms of ‘hours away from my baby’.

But I didn’t feel like I had much of a life without work. My time on maternity leave had felt like an extended coffee break, and I was struggling to cope with so much unstructured time every week with just the baby for company. 

It was a real shock to me. I had thought I would be the world’s most enthusiastic Stay At Home Mum, but I was lonely. And even a little bit bored. I felt terrible guilt at not doing a better job of embracing my new life, and not being ‘grateful enough’ for the amazing gift I had received.

Little by little, however, a third path began to open up.

I was passionate about business. Growing businesses. Improving businesses. Taking businesses that were a complete mess and building them into profitable enterprises. I’ve often said that I am a Project Manager in my DNA, and over time it became more clear that becoming a self-employed business coach could tick all of my boxes.

I took the plunge once my maternity leave ended, and set up my business. No safety net, no real idea if it was a great idea or just plain crazy.

But my coaching business allowed me to work from home, on a schedule based around my family commitments, and I loved that I was in full control of my hours.

As the business got off the ground and I spent more time at networking meetings or working with clients, I also realised how much I had missed the feeling of being ‘my old self’ while I was on maternity leave.

Wearing smart clothes. Talking to adults about things I knew about. Even just the odd hour here or there where I got to go out alone.

Carrying a handbag that wasn’t also a changing bag.

Getting to walk at normal pace instead of the slow toddler meander to the shops or the library.

The shock of becoming a parent had started to subside, and I was finally reconnecting with my ‘old self’.

But at the back of my mind, I knew that the clock was ticking.

By this time, I had an energetic 18 month old, and I knew I wanted to have another baby before too long. And this meant, I would have to find a way of stepping away from the business.

At times, the pressure felt huge.

I planned to earn double the year before I had another baby, but at times, just earning ‘single’ felt like an uphill struggle!

I read up about the provision for self-employed women in the UK and started to think about how long I would plan to take off for a second child if we were able to have one.

Despite a rocky start with sleep, from the age of 1 upwards my first son turned out to be brilliant at sleeping for 12-14 hours at night, and also napped for 3-4 hours every day. I used to joke that I barely saw him at this stage, because we had a 2 hour window in the morning for any activities we wanted to do together, and then I would work while he slept for most of the afternoon.

I realised I liked my new life and I was scared of what having a second baby might do to it.

And gradually, I started to admit to myself that my fear wasn’t around having another baby – after all, I loved being a mum and my son was growing into a delightful little cannonball of a boy.

My fear stemmed from the thought of taking maternity leave again.

It hadn’t felt like freedom the first time around. 

I had let being a parent crowd out everything that made me ‘me’, and of all the things I had learned, I really didn’t want to lose myself again.

More than that, I didn’t see the need to push pause on ‘normal’ life just because I was having another baby.

I had to really wrestle with myself over this one though.

In the UK, women are fortunate enough to be able to take up to a year of (at least partially) paid maternity leave. It has become ingrained into our culture that if a woman is having a baby, she will take maternity leave.

But I was used to networking with women from all over the world, but especially the USA, where lots of entrepreneurs don’t have anything resembling maternity leave, and where even employed women often only have 6-8 weeks away from work before returning to their jobs.

It felt more ‘normal’ to explore the option of keeping my life and business going instead of taking maternity leave.

I started to formulate a blueprint for what life might look like if I carried on working while I had my second baby.

What if I switched around my business model and treated my work as something which could be slowed down rather than stopped altogether?

That way I didn’t have to ‘just accept maternity pay’ and grumble that it didn’t feel like enough. I could design my income in advance and tailor my business to generate what my family needed financially that year.

I couldn’t explain it to my friends in corporate jobs. They thought I was insane. (I too wondered if I might be insane!)

After all, I had felt so unwell and so exhausted throughout the whole of my first pregnancy. How would I keep the business running during another pregnancy, and then afterwards with a newborn AND a toddler to care for?

But deep down, I knew that this was the right decision for me, and for my family.

My first maternity leave had slowly and painfully taught me that I had to stop looking for approval from the people around me, and make decisions for myself.

And it was a muscle that I had gradually been building throughout the early years of my business.

Now that my year as a ‘preggopreneur’ is over and my second baby is fast becoming a toddler, I can really see how much it helped me to be in control of my working hours during my second pregnancy and the post-partum period.

I was working a fraction of the hours I had done before my second pregnancy, but I wasn’t afraid to do things differently. To speak in my own voice. I was too tired for all the worrying and ‘what ifs’ in my business that had held me back before. I stopped second guessing myself and just took action. 

I still felt tired, and sick. My father passed away suddenly, very early in my pregnancy, and we relocated to a new city 200 miles away in my second trimester. On top of all of this, I had a whole host of medical complications in my third trimester that I never experienced the first time around. We had a lot going on as a family.

But my mindset was different and that transformed the way I felt day to day.

I was in control. I was content. I was empowered. I was making choices instead of just letting things happen to me.

More than that, I was just plain curious to see how the year would go!

I launched my first group programme when morning sickness subsided. It was small, but it was a great platform to test out the whole arrangement.

I then relaunched the programme when I was 34 weeks pregnant. That was a definite ‘I think I might be mad’ moment, but I threw myself into my pre-launch promotion with the small amount of energy I had and was able to kick off with a wonderful group of inspiring entrepreneurs. They were really supportive of my pregnancy and had no issue with me taking a few weeks off either side of my son being born.

There were definite bumps in the road. I had a lot of extra medical appointments towards the end of my pregnancy, and at 37 weeks was nearly admitted to hospital for the rest of the pregnancy as the baby was lying sideways instead of head down. I was allowed home after he turned just in time, as long as I came in for regular scans and CTG monitoring. Baby and I spent a lot of time in our local maternity day unit that month!

It didn’t get much simpler after he was born, as I then sustained a third degree tear during the last second of labour, and recovery was slower than after my first son was born.

We went through the dreaded 4 month sleep regression, and the usual routine illnesses including two pretty stressful late night trips to A&E with a poorly baby.

And then we started a major house renovation project, including living in a building site for a month and then moving out to a temporary home for 2 months.

But by listening to my body, resting when I was tired and getting SUPER focused about what my true priorities were for the year, I was able to keep running my business profitably AND spend the time with my family that I wanted to.

So if you’re a female entrepreneur reading this and wondering how to go about planning your maternity leave, I would love to encourage you to consider all the options and make a decision that is right for you, whatever that looks like.

And I’ve put together a free PDF guide called ‘How To Babyproof Your Business’ to help you do just that as you navigate the road ahead. You can sign up for your free copy at http://jessicafearnleybusinessconsulting.com/freedownload (copy and paste the link into your browser if the link doesn’t work!)

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