What Time Off?
When it comes to maternity leave, American women are afforded far less than our counterparts in Sweden, the U.K., and many other countries (the United States is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave). But if you aren't a salaried employee of a company that offers benefits, you’re in an even less supportive situation. For self-employed women, from contractors and solopreneurs to small-business owners, maternity leave is especially tricky. Actually taking time off post-birth might not even seem feasible, financially or logistically.
But you do have options. Here are tips from women who have been there — and balanced maternity leave with running a business.
Build a Support Cushion
If you are lucky enough to live in California, Rhode Island, or New Jersey, the state governments offer elective disability insurance benefits to self-employed people, which can cover time off during and after pregnancy. In this system, you pay into your disability benefit before taking leave.
If your state doesn’t offer an insurance benefit, you can prepare for time off by saving aggressively in the time leading up to your leave. Public relations consultant Susan von Seggern, who had her son at the end of October 2012, says that building a nest egg is critical when you're self-employed: "From the moment I found out I was pregnant I tried to save as much as I could — I set a goal of $20,000 so I could take off at least four months," she says. "We didn't spend on some of the pregnancy things I would have liked, such as a ‘babymoon’ or a fancier shower. We had previously cut back on eating out, traveling, and out-of-home entertainment, as well."
Cutting back means different things to different people, but you may consider setting up a savings goal or curbing expenses you don’t need — like opting for Hulu Plus over cable TV, canceling subscriptions (fancy gym, magazines), or even quitting your latte-a-day habit.
Say No to New Business
Focus on maintaining your current client roster throughout your leave instead of taking on too much and risking losing regular business (or your sanity). For example, solopreneur Katie McDonald runs two small businesses from her home. She also has a 10-month-old son, and taking maternity leave just wasn't an option.
To find a workable solution without sacrificing her businesses, she turned off her online paid advertising campaign, didn’t accept new projects for a few weeks around her son’s birth, and then gave herself extra time when setting deadlines to manage her clients’ expectations and her own stress levels.
Enlist Outside Backup
To ensure that you won't lose clients to competitors while you're away, temporarily replace yourself, suggests entrepreneur Suz Graf O'Donnell, who runs Thrivatize, a company focused on ensuring women’s careers before and after maternity leave. "Reach out to colleagues in the same industry and ask if they'd be willing to take on some extra work for the time you are out," she says. "Since you've already sold the work — and they don't have to — you should be able to keep a percent of the client fees."
You need to choose someone who will provide the quality of service your clients expect, and be very clear as to what happens when you return. Will your colleague keep doing the work as you build more business, or will you take over when you return? Drawing up a contract is a great way to protect yourself.
Rely on Your Team
If you own a small company with even a few employees, find ways to delegate your responsibilities while you take leave, O'Donnell advises. "Most people enjoy doing nice things for others, feel honored when they are asked to step up to a leadership role, and enjoy taking on new challenges," she says. "Position the extra work as an exciting opportunity for them to learn something new and take a leadership role — and if they end up being good at it, this could be the perfect opportunity for you to focus on higher-priority things when you return from leave.”
Make sure all goes smoothly by creating a chain of command for when you’re on leave and designating under what circumstances you’d like to be contacted (and how). This way you can rest assured that everything will be handled and you’ll be kept in the loop as needed.
Do Some Client Handholding Before and During Leave
In addition to telling clients a couple of months in advance that you'll be taking leave, make sure they understand exactly when you'll be unavailable and when you plan to return. Consider having your exit announcement ready to go at one click. That’s what Arron Neal, a solopreneuer and mom who is expecting her second child in January 2016, did. "Before I left for the hospital to deliver my son, my husband was able to hit 'send' on emails I had previously drafted to let clients know I'd be stepping away," she says. "Depending on the relationship you have with your clients, consider sending an update once you return from the hospital to let them know all is well and remind them of who they can contact while you're away — if you've hired a subcontractor — and when you anticipate you'll be back to work."