When you're pregnant and the boss the good news and the bad news are actually the same thing--there's no fixed, established corporate protocol to define what happens next.

The obvious upside of this reality is flexibility--you run the show, so you theoretically have the ability to design a "maternity leave" of whatever description works for you. But while that freedom has huge advantages, the lack of clarity and huge sense of responsibility can also be stressful. How much time can you really step away when colleagues and clients are depending on you? How available should you be? What counts as an "emergency" that merits pulling you away from your newborn?

Facing these tough questions herself, pregnant business owner Morra Aarons-Mele wanted to know how real-life "mompreneurs" actually managed. To find out she scoured the web and reached out to a number of founders and CEOs who are also mothers to gather the best advice on balancing high-stakes jobs and newborns, writing up the results in a fascinating Medium post. The whole piece is well worth a read in full if you're facing this situation, but here are a few key ideas Aarons-Mele unearthed.

Make it a project

If you're a CEO, you're probably the planning type. Don't just apply that to checklisted and extensively researched baby preparation. Apply it to readying your business for your upcoming absence as well, suggests Sara Holoubek of Luminary Labs. If you do so, your leave can actually be good for your business, encouraging delegation and independence.

"We took a very considered approach to how the company would operate while I was at home. I didn't step into the office for nearly three months, and not only did the company survive, it matured in my absence," she reports. How did she accomplish this? She laid out her five-step process in a Fast Company article, including a spurt of hiring and the clever idea of "piloting" her leave.

"Three months before I was to take maternity leave, I went on a two-week vacation and dropped out of sight. While senior management knew how to reach me in an emergency, everyone else, including our clients, was to operate as if I were on maternity leave and completely unreachable. This pilot exercise surfaced gaps in the initial knowledge transfer plan, which we addressed later," she writes.

Go vague

Step-by-step project management may have been the right approach for Holoubek, but for Allyson Downey, founder of WeeSpring, keeping things deliberately vague worked better. "After Caroline was born, I put on an out of office saying I was going to be offline as we welcomed a new baby into our family (intentionally vague on length of time), and directed them to email my co-founder," she reports.

While away she "checked email about once a day so I could keep an eye out for things that actually needed my attention. If an email came in from someone important, I responded within 24 hours or so," she explains.

Involve your clients

While Holoubek focused on building her colleagues' capacity to function without her, and Downey thrived playing it by ear, Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research took a slightly different tack, actively looping collaborators into the planning process.

"I reached out to all relevant parties as soon as I was willing to be public with the news and basically said: 'At some point around X date, I will disappear for an unknown amount of time. I want to make sure that our collaborations stay intact. How can I prepare in advance for the combination of inevitable and uncertain?' And then we strategized," she explains.

These conversations resulted in a formal execution plan, including work Boyd would complete in advance, agreements on coping while she was unavailable, and contingency plans in case of an emergency.

Female founders with kids: how did you manage maternity leave?

Published on: Oct 31, 2014