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By Lelia Gowland

When you work for yourself, it may look to others like your business comes with unlimited maternity leave. The reality, though, can be quite different.

While being in charge of your own schedule allows you to spend time with and care for your new baby, the ensuing professional and financial uncertainty can be a significant challenge. Many women fear that if they take too much time off, it will have a negative impact on their business – losing clients and income.

After all, if you are a so-called solopreneur, chances are you aren’t getting paid during your time off. Due to its eligibility restrictions, about 40 percent of workers aren’t eligible for the Family Leave Medical Act (FMLA), the national law that covers maternity leave for employees.

When Nicole Eiden, 42, had her daughter, she was just starting out in her business. “Financial loss was the biggest concern,” she says. Five years later, that concern has evolved. If she had another child, she would be most worried about losing momentum and business growth.

But taking time off to be with your little one, while also ensuring your business thrives, doesn’t have to feel or be impossible. Know Your Value spoke with over a dozen moms who identify as entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, or freelancers. Here are five lessons they learned when crafting their maternity leave.

1. Perhaps more than ever, you need to pay the bills.

Several moms said the fear of losing clients was a factor in their decision-making.

Monica Candal Rahim, a Detroit-based education consultant, took maternity leave in 2015 and 2018. Rahim, 34, said she determined the duration of her maternity leave using, “a combination of the expected default (three months), what we could afford and how long I felt my clients could be without me.”

Kyla Roma, a business coach from Winnipeg, Manitoba, went as far as to avoid the topic of maternity leave completely on social media and in communicating with her clients. “I have a wide network, and my business is largely referral-based.” said Roma, 32. She worried that people would subconsciously put her in the “Mom” box, which would decrease referrals. “I was very concerned about my revenue,” she explained.

Financial considerations are different for each person. Consider your expenses, savings and what approach you want to take to maintain client relationships.

2. You get to decide how much and when to work.

Kristen Lozada Morgan, an education consultant in Milwaukee, had her first child in 2014. She took a call with leaders from the U.S. Department of Education from her hospital bed after giving birth. “While in so many ways I want to be ashamed of that, in retrospect it wasn't a huge deal,” said Morgan, 34. She worked while her baby slept and received childcare support from her parents.

“My clients were amazing by minimizing what they asked for to be respectful,” she said. They regularly expressed appreciation, and Lozada Morgan felt confident that her client relationships grew stronger during that time as a result.

Like Lozada Morgan, Nicole Eiden is happy to have kept working consistently after giving birth. Her daughter was born shortly after Eiden co-founded her New Orleans-based company, Windowsill Pies, in 2013. “I brought my baby with me – to the kitchen, to the market, etc.” she said. “It was challenging for sure, but I like the way my life felt integrated.”

Nicole Eiden baking with her baby, Elwyn Harvey.Michael Harvey

Alternatively, Rebecca Aced-Molina, a 45-year-old life coach based in Oakland, Calif. created firmer boundaries with her maternity leave in 2004. She decided not to work at all for the first month. “I wanted to have one month completely enamored with that baby,” she said.

Responsibility to clients mixed with the pressure and desire to be with your baby can make it difficult to determine your ideal balance of work.

3. Use technology to your advantage.

Before she went on leave, Roma, the Winnipeg-based business coach, developed a social media plan and set up an email auto-responder to let past clients know when they could expect to hear from her. She said those steps made taking time away from the business as stress-free as possible.

In contrast, Rahim didn’t use an email auto reply. In advance of leaving, she told clients to expect radio silence for two weeks, after which she would come back online gradually. She still checked her email but said, “I tried really hard not to reply because I knew that would undermine my radio silence. They wouldn’t take it seriously if I didn’t take it seriously.”

If you’d prefer to disconnect from email for a longer stretch, another option is to use auto reply but have a colleague or friend check your email and text you if something appears to be time-sensitive.

Nicole Eiden, founder of New Orleans-based Windowsill Pies.Michel Varisco.

4. You get to be flexible.

Cara Silletto, president of Crescendo Strategies in Louisville, Ky., had her child in 2014. “One of the great things about what we do is we don’t all of a sudden have to go back to work,” said Silletto, 37. She referenced a neighbor with a traditional job whose transition back to work after 10 weeks of maternity leave was painfully abrupt.

Alternatively, Silletto shared, “I was able to ease out going into maternity leave and to ease back into the business. I could slow things down and just do what worked for me.”

From left to right: Kristen Lozada Morgan, Colby Ann, Charlie Dawn and Colleston Morgan.University School of Milwaukee

As Lozada Morgan expressed, “This four to eight-week period is different for everyone. You don’t have a sense of what you'll be able to do or want to do.” Rather than deciding not to work at all for a certain amount of time, she suggested women preserve their ability to adapt and stay flexible.

5. Your priorities may change.

For Aced-Molina, maternity leave helped her focus on the parts of her business that were most important. By the time her second child came around in 2007, she concentrated on the kinds of clients and projects she loved. “I was even more ready to limit what I said yes to,” she said.

Similarly, becoming a parent motivated Eiden to reduce her hours working at a restaurant and prioritize growing her pie company.

“Having a baby forces you to focus on your core values and the essentials,” she said.