As I write this piece, I am sitting in my office typing with one hand, while holding a baby on my hip with the other. This might seem odd to some, but this is a pretty typical moment for me.
On a daily basis, I have reminders of the multiple facets of my life draped across my body — notes on my hand about a white paper I need to draft, baby food drying (discretely, I hope) on the corner of my sleeve, and fancy shoes on my feet for a client meeting I have at lunch.
This is the reality of women in the startup world, or possibly of mums, in general, in business. Mothers of this particular era are held to certain standards and presumptions; you must do one or the other, not both. But in all actuality, you can “have it all” as long as you’re willing to get creative about what “all” means. And as long as you don’t mind getting messy along the way.
As a psychologist, I am both aware, and perhaps encumbered with, the knowledge of how important it is for the human psyche to be intellectually challenged on a daily basis. I am equally educated around the critical need for parental attachment and involvement during a child’s early developing years. To be more direct, I need to and want to work as much as I need to and want to parent.
How is it possible to weave these together? By redefining success. Your success.
Throw out any traditional expectations. There is far too much debate today about whether women should be leaning in or leaning out. We need to get more creative than trying to decide between two black and white options. I realised several years ago that I would go mad (and probably in front of a client with egg on my face — literally) if I tried to meet everyone else’s expectations of me.
Start thinking outside of the box. Get creative.
More than one person, in fact I can name at least eight off the top of my head, told me I was crazy to try to be a part-time cofounder of a software company with a newborn at home. They were probably right. But I ignored them. And I think I’m doing OK.
I might not achieve or produce as much as a full-time founder or a full-time mum, but because I’ve redefined success as positively contributing to the growth and development of my two babies — company and human — I’ve been able to hit the mark.
The company I cofounded is now 5 ½ years old and my human children are 5 ½, 3 ½, and 5 months old.
When my last daughter was born I knew that, once again, I couldn’t in good faith take off four months from our startup. But I also knew I that I wasn’t going to be able to stomach leaving my infant at home. Those were both bright lines for me.
So, I decided to get creative. I put into effect what I called an “in-office” maternity leave. I didn’t take real time off — I was conducting interviews from bed with a 3-day-old baby — but I also didn’t leave my baby for a moment in the first few months of life. She and I worked shorter hours but were there when critically needed, together.
Did I fall short of the expectations others had of me? In some cases, yes. In other cases, I was told that my choices motivated others to effectively reinvent their own definition of success.
I fully recognise that not everyone can take their baby to the office. But my story is only one example of redefining success. There are countless stories of other mums that have been motivated to get creative about how to do their work and parent — women who reinvented the wheel.
I know a mum who rescues wildlife and takes her baby into the field on her back. I know another mum in middle management in a large corporation who negotiated hard for Fridays off to fully be a mum. She won, achieving the right balance for her. They both agree that they had to get creative and get messy to find their own path of success.
Life is not black and white. We all know that’s true in business, and it’s certainly true in parenting. Women in their childbearing years have a tremendous amount to contribute to the startup world and the business community more broadly. It’s time to stop choosing between leaning in or leaning out, or acquiescing to traditional roadblocks that limit women’s options. Create a new definition of success, a colourful tapestry that works for you. And get messy along the way.
Natalie Baumgartner is the cofounder and chief psychologist for RoundPegg, a culture management and employee engagement platform, and is regularly referred to as the human version of RoundPegg. Natalie has spent her career advising companies of all sizes, from entrepreneurial startups to Fortune 500 firms, on issues related to company culture. She holds a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with a specific focus on assessment and additional truing in strength-based psychology.
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