Recently my doctor and I had a serious conversation about my stress levels. I told him I’m very stressed because I run a company. “Uh-huh,” he said, and then added with sincere concern, “And also you’re a mom.” He went on to suggest that my stress levels were high because I run a household. Because I’m responsible for my whole family. Because I probably put everyone else first.
It made me cry. Not because he was right — because he was so completely wrong.
About five years ago, when my first daughter was seven months old, a former colleague of mine pinged me on Twitter. She knew I was home alone with a newborn. She knew I had just left the workforce to attempt to be an SAHM. She also knew I’d be bored out of my skull. She told me about the new company she and her business partner were forming and asked if I wanted to be a part of it.
My unshowered, leaky-boobed self couldn’t say yes emphatically enough.
The next weeks, months, and years turned out to be a terrible-wonderful, exciting-awful roller coaster that has everything to do with launching a business. And by all accounts this business is growing successfully: Today, Clever Girls is a multimillion-dollar agency with more than 20 employees; a network of 7,000 women; and a bunch of fancy awards that mostly make the blood, sweat, and tears worth it.
I also have two children, now ages five and three.
Which means I am not generally labeled an entrepreneur. I’m generally labeled a “working mom.”
People hear that I work from home and that I have kids and and something odd happens. I’m immediately perceived differently. It’s as though they start picturing me spending all day balancing my laptop on my toddler's head, banging out a few emails between Yo Gabba Gabba episodes until we all give up and go out for ice cream.
The reality is actually this.
I am a female entrepreneur who happens to be a mom. I face tremendous, nearly overwhelming stress because of work. I have a tough time managing this stress because I have no "down time." When I'm not working, yes of course I'm busy being present for my kids. The remaining few hours go toward sleeping, and what's left is a scattered, largely unpredictable free-for-all that doubles as my "me time": a workout, a happy hour with friends, a DVR catch-up, a date with my husband, or a networking event — whatever I can fit in so I don't go crazy.
I work very hard at a demanding and intense job because I choose to. Because mostly it's rewarding (monetarily and non-monetarily). But sometimes, when I'm at my wit's end and a complete stress case because we're trying to find a solution to bring our company to the next level, it's really f@#king hard — regardless of my parental status.
If I were a man, I could attribute my stress to my job and everyone would understand. But because I'm a woman and a mom, "work" is not enough. “Entrepreneur” is too uncomfortable a label. “Mom” must be factored in to make my stress about something else. Something simpler or softer or more accessible.
When I’m stressed out, my cute little company-thingy can’t be the cause. No, I have to be stressed because I'm trying to "do it all.” It’s probably that I'm wrestling with mom guilt and would rather be home with my kids. Or because after work I have to get dinner on the table. Or because I'm not looking so hot and my libido is shot. And surely all this — the hours, the stress, the un-hotness — must be a disappointment to my husband.
Except that NONE of these things are true.
I appreciate that our broader work/gender awareness has given way to these discussions. And that men like my doctor at least recognize the unfairness and imbalance that working moms face nowadays. And hoo boy, there are plenty of women who DO do a million things and DO always put themselves last.
But I don’t.
My home life is a disjointed, disheveled carnival of nannies and near-missed drop-offs and forgotten lunches and never-quite-clean anythings. My husband does almost all the homemaking. Grocery shopping is never a planned affair but always a last-minute mad dash through the store so someone has something to feed the children.
And I’m totally okay with all this! I’m okay with this because my top priorities in life are making sure that my family is happy and that I am happy. I’m old enough and confident enough to know that these two things are intrinsically related. Having a fulfilling career makes me happy, even when it’s hard.
But what happens when a guy shows up at his doctor's office with ulcers and other obviously stress-related symptoms? Do you think his doctor tells him it's from the stress of trying to be a good dad?
Of course not.
What about my being a woman means that my work simply can't be that serious?
I know my doctor’s empathy was coming from a progressive place. I'm never angry when people try to be helpful or understanding of my role as mom and entrepreneur. But I'm frustrated when simply because I'm a mom, I'm taken less seriously as a person of business.
I can be almost anywhere and, no matter how deep into a conversation about "business" we get, once it's established that I have two kids, I'm no longer an entrepreneur — I'm a mom (who has a business or something).
Likewise, I don't mind it when someone starts off by assuming I'm a stay-at-home-mom. I just don't understand why, when I clarify with, "No, I'm actually the founder of a startup…" that seems hard to parse.
"Must be tough getting work done while you're chasing kids around!" Well, yes, it would be. But I'm not.
My doctor was just trying to be kind, but I wish I could have said what I was feeling: You're totally wrong! I'm not a selfless mother putting everyone else first, I'm actually just an asshole entrepreneur! And dammit, I deserve to be treated like one!
A version of this article originally appeared on Napa Candy.
Kristy Sammis co-founded Clever Girls, which helps brands connect with women in the digital space. Before that, she helped launch the BlogHer Conference. A media addict, she lives in the Napa Valley with her husband and two children, whose births she live-tweeted.