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Self-Employed Moms Share What Maternity Leave Is Really Like

Self-Employed Moms Share What Maternity Leave Is Really Like


It’s no secret that being a working mother in the United States is difficult. And while most maternity leave policies tend to be pretty straightforward, albeit inadequate, when you’re self-employed, it becomes a choose-your-own-adventure situation, and freedom can be a double-edged sword: the flexibility of designing your own leave helps tremendously, but figuring out how to get paid and actually take time off requires planning, support, and research.

The length of one’s parental leave typically depends on the coverage provided by an employer, in line with state requirements. Self-employed expecting parents get to determine their own leaves, but this can mean they also forgo some additional protections, like a guaranteed paycheck.

According to parental leave consultant Linzay Davis, a maternity leave should ideally allow the parent to focus on their health and recovery, while also bonding with their child. “What your line of work is, what your pay looks like, and what your recovery is like makes a big difference in what leave looks like,” she says. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists advocates for at least eight weeks of fully paid parental leave.

Experts Featured in This Article

Linzay Davis is the founder of the parental leave consulting firm The Park.

Jocelyn Frye is the president of the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Davis says a helpful leave needs to comprise two components: wage replacement and health insurance. There are typically three routes to get these: through your employer, under national law, or under state policies. When you run your own business, it’s difficult to fully take time off if you rely on yourself for income.

Unlike other countries with similarly developed economies, the US doesn’t have any form of nationally-mandated paid leave. Many private companies offer paid parental leave, although Davis says the terms vary and are totally up to the employer. The only law on the books is the Family and Medical Leave Act, a 1993 law that guarantees workers job protections and up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year after a birth or adoption.

This legislation is a starting point, but its specific eligibility requirements mean it doesn’t protect everyone. Some people rely on short-term disability or paid leave offered by their state. And 13 states, such as California and New Jersey, plus the District of Columbia, offer some sort of paid parental leave programs, but these also aren’t universal. Recent legislative attempts to close these gaps and enact universal paid leave haven’t successfully advanced within Congress.

“There isn’t a national mandate that requires an employer to provide paid family or medical leave,” says Jocelyn Frye, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, a nonprofit, nonpartisan advocacy group that focuses on these issues. “The FMLA gives you something and it’s important, but it’s only one step in terms of where we need to be.”

Running your own business means you often can’t entirely take time off during leave, or end up taking shorter leave. New Jersey-based therapist Christine M. Valentín, LCSW, runs her own therapy practice and took leave for a planned pregnancy in 2016. “I’m a planner by nature, so everything I started doing once I did get pregnant revolved around setting my life up so it was easier to manage,” she tells PS. This involved working closely with each client to figure out how much support they needed from her, and making plans for them to seek other care if necessary while she was out.

Valentín works out of both New Jersey and New York, but her health insurance only covered her in one state, so she stopped in-person appointments and switched to telehealth one month before her due date at the end of October. She also cut down on her commute by giving up her physical office in Manhattan.

Valentín saw clients up until two weeks before her delivery, and took leave from her New York clients from the end of September to January, plus took one month off from her clients in New Jersey. She’d typically work four or five full days a week before her leave, but she cut back to one day a week upon her return.

Saving and planning meant she wasn’t particularly anxious to rush back for income, but she was eager to get back to the business she built. “I love being a mom but I also love being a therapist and a boss, so I almost needed to get out of the house,” she recalls. “The desire to [return] came more from me having this other identity I enjoy versus being in my PJs and breastfeeding all day.” The ability to adjust to a new routine on her own terms was helpful.

For some people, it makes the most sense to pull back on working hours but still stay involved. That was the case for Shaelynn Haining, the owner of Tallgrass Tailor in Tulsa, OK. Haining also films sewing tutorials for her YouTube channel, the Sew Show with Shae. After finding out she was pregnant last August, Haining made adjustments as she progressed in her pregnancy, but didn’t fully take time off until she delivered in late May.

Haining aimed to find a balance between preparing to welcome her baby but also keeping her business up and running. So, from March onward, this meant making adjustments to her actual duties in the shop, where she typically works alongside 11 employees. She stopped personally taking clients when she couldn’t handle the physical labor of tailoring, and shortened her days to accommodate doctor’s visits. Then, Haining started coming into the shop three days a week.

Checking out entirely was never an option, but Haining says she did feel some social pressure to pull back more than she wanted to, and she’s glad she didn’t listen. “I live in the Midwest, so not quitting my job to become a mom is not common, and I find many people are surprised that I returned to work to continue to run my business,” she tells PS. “There’s pressure to say motherhood is the most important thing, but this is my life’s work and I don’t want it to go away.”

When you’re self-employed, flexibility is certainly one of the perks. Anne Welsh, PhD, a clinical psychologist and executive coach in Cambridge, MA, has taken maternity leave four times — twice as an employee, and twice as her own boss. The ability to design her own leave, and also set her own schedule to accommodate child care, was a large reason why Dr. Welsh left her job in university mental health to start her own practice.

Dr. Welsh’s first maternity leave, which was six weeks in 2009, didn’t feel adequate because she was busy completing the end of her graduate training. “I felt like I had to be doing something work-related to keep up with my peers, and because it was so short, I was already anxious from day-one about the transition back,” she says. Dr. Welsh got 12 weeks off for her second pregnancy in 2011, which was better, but the lack of flexibility in her schedule upon her return drove her into private practice.

By contrast, Dr. Welsh’s two self-employed leaves, which were three months in 2013 and nine months in 2016, felt more restful. Her work as a therapist meant she couldn’t totally disengage from her clients, and she had to ensure they continued to receive care, but the longer timeframes allowed some breathing room.

Looking back, she says she wishes she’d sought more support during her leave, but didn’t because she was concerned about money. “Money is a real issue, but in hindsight I probably could have made it work to get a little more help than I did at the time,” she says, “and I think self-employment was a big driver of that because of the non-generated income.”

This flexibility is even more important for those who experience more complicated pregnancies. Gabi Day, the Virginia-based CEO and founder of BrightBody, knew she wanted the freedom to design her own maternity leave, and was thankful for the option when she went through a difficult road to parenthood. “I have a complicated medical history so I was already anxious my entire pregnancy, but I was glad to know my leave would be flexible,” she says.

Day underwent six rounds of IUI, two pregnancy losses, and two rounds of IVF before becoming pregnant with her twin sons, who are now 2 years old. She stopped working at 34 weeks, and had a challenging delivery that involved a longer recovery and NICU stay. Following a traumatic birth experience, and suddenly having to take care of two newborns, Day needed some time away from the demands of running a business.

Day took it “one minute at a time, one hour at a time, one day at a time,” and was able to slowly transition back into work by completing some small tasks when she could, which she says helped her feel more like herself again, “instead of just a milk-making machine.”

Having a support system was essential for the wellbeing of both Day and her business. She largely passed tasks to her team while she recovered physically and emotionally. Plus, her husband is a teacher, and so his summer break meant he could help look after the kids as she gradually ramped back up her involvement in the business. “It was a really hard birth, and a really hard recovery,” Day says, “and I could not have done it without having a bunch of systems in place.”

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