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How Do You Manage Maternity Leave When You Own Your Own Business?

On average, women take 39 weeks of maternity leave in the UK. But what happens to your business when you can’t be there? Kadimah Aaliyah, Claire Burman and SAGE Flowers weigh in

By Martha Alexander

30 March 2022
W

hen it comes to anticipatory experiences, pregnancy has got to be up there as one of the most exciting.

All expectant mothers have a lot of prep to do before their nine months are up. Add to that being a business owner and passing the reins to someone else in your absence - the task can feel overwhelming.

When a business is yours, something you built from scratch, it’s your professional baby, making it painfully difficult to let someone else manage while you birth and nurse your biological infant.

Emotionally, that’s tough.

Kadimah Aaliyah Tackie, 26, owns NUKA nail studio in London’s Ladbroke Grove alongside her best friend and business partner Anouska Ryan.

She spoke to The Stack just days before giving birth to her first child. Mat leave was something she’s been thinking about for her whole pregnancy. Her biggest concern was finding someone to cover her. In truly modern fashion she put out a story on NUKA’s Instagram stating they were looking for someone to join the team. No fewer than 29 people applied.

“That alone is amazing, isn’t it?” she recalls. “It was scary but a beautiful thing. Like, oh my God this is actually happening!”

She shortlisted the applicants based on their art and manicure skills – and on how much of a NUKA super fan they were. After various rounds of interviews and practical tests, she found her cover, someone so perfect she’s going to be a permanent part of the team.

Tackie invited regular clients to come in and have their nails done by the new employee as part of the on-boarding process – because “I don’t want them to go elsewhere”.

Her canny strategy has paid off.

“My regulars all love her. They have met her and they say they will come back.”

She is however, already planning her comeback which will involve doing nail art on herself – not on clients one day a week.

“No one can forget about me, ok?” she laughs. “You need to stay relevant.”

Tackie isn’t sure how long she will take off: “I don’t know. And I think it’s ok not to know.”

While she stopped doing nails a couple of weeks before her due date, she was still dealing with emails and on Instagram, something she anticipates doing at home with the baby.

A study by Timsewise Foundation found that while women cite a lack of affordable childcare as a barrier to enterprise – and this is certainly true and in urgent need of review – they also want to be able to confidently take time away to put mothering first.

Tackie says she is lucky to have a lot of support around her and citing a “massive family and a supportive boyfriend”. But while that’s reassuring, for Tackie it’s missing the point.

“Everyone tells me to go back to work and they can look after the baby but I want to look after my baby,” she says.

How does stepping away albeit for a short time make her feel?

“It’s really hard,” she admits.

“The business will be there when you get back, it can seem really scary taking time out but you don’t get that time back with your kid.”

Navigating mat leave as a business owner is potentially really hard financially. This is because the fiscal and legal protections and benefits available for those on PAYE simply don’t apply. Unlike employed mothers it’s harder to just down tools and wave goodbye for months on end, safe in the knowledge that you have a steady income and a role to return to. Small business owners in want of a decent mat leave are in a precarious position because in almost every case, they are the business.

Of course, there is financial assistance available – subject to employment status – in the form of either Statutory Maternity Pay or Maternity Allowance both of which are available for up to 39 weeks. The money is a fraction of ‘normal’ earnings but that’s not the worst of it. Claimants can only work for 10 days during this period in order to receive the payments.

Only 1 in 3 UK entrepreneurs is female (according to the Rose Review of Female Entrepreneurship, HM Treasury 2019) and while you can’t help but wonder if this is in part down to how hard it can potentially be emotionally, financially and physically to run business with a new-born, the same study also found that flexibility around family care is the #1 reason to start a business for women with children.

For Romy St Clair and Iona Mathieson - the duo behind Sage Flowers, a Peckham-based florist, both of whom are currently pregnant and anticipating mat leave, motherhood has actually been a professional blessing as it allowed them to shape their business on their own terms.

“We wanted to get to a place where we had a business that would give us the family life that we wanted,” explains St Clair. “It didn’t happen overnight; it took three or four years to build up to.”

The pair believe that Mathieson’s first pregnancy was actually extremely beneficial for Sage.

“When Iona was on leave it showed us where the gaps were,” says St Clair. “It gave us an insight into where we needed to grow. Now, with a team of seven, we can both be off and it will be totally fine.”

The pair seem relaxed and confident about the coming months. This is partly because this is Mathieson’s second pregnancy so she doesn’t have any fear of the unknown but also because as both friends and business partners they have a strong bond bolstered by trust and commitment.

“My dad had terminal cancer and Iona covered for me then,” explains St Clair. “We’re quite used to stepping in for each other and there’s always one of us around.”

St Clair is taking ten weeks’ total leave and Mathieson has scheduled a month.

On average, new mothers in the UK take 39 weeks of maternity leave, and 45 percent take more. None of the women we spoke to for this story were planning on taking more than a few months away from their businesses.

Claire Burman, founder of creative production company CEBE Studio isn’t sure how long she’ll be on maternity leave for but admits that she’d feel a lot less anxious about it if she wasn’t self-employed.

“The idea that as a business owner everything you’ve spent so hard building has to momentarily pause in some way can be challenging at times. The fear is that people will stop working with you and then you'll just be forgotten altogether.”

Burman does have an “incredible team” who will hold the fort while she navigates early motherhood. This, as well as having excellent multitasking skills, will stand her in brilliant stead in the coming months.

“I’m very much figuring this out in real time,” she says. “I do hope that existing clients and collaborators can be aware of the mixed feelings other pregnant business owners may feel and be supportive in their approach.”

It is impossible to say how long is enough – both motherhood and work are deeply personal – but there does seem to be a consensus that balance and perspective must be employed at all costs.

“Take the time you need,” advises Mathieson. “The business will be there when you get back, whether that’s a month or much longer. It can seem really scary taking time out but you don’t get that time back with your kid.”

The Short Stack

Your business will still be there, but you’ll never get that time back with your newborn.

By Martha Alexander

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