My startup recently recognized two truths that seem to be at odds: We want to be a company where parents can thrive and we have limited resources. The first one was easy in the abstract, but I'm still nervous to publicly acknowledge the second. As CEO of a company deeply steeped in the research on gender inequality, I'd love nothing more than to discuss parental leave policies with a sort of Scandinavian response that every parent should have all the resources they need to thrive at my, and every, company.
But as my company has rolled out its first parental leave policy, two things have complicated this desire: 1) The fact that my company's first pregnancy is happening to me, the CEO. 2) My startup is a seed stage startup, and while it's thriving, we don't have the resources of a more established company.
From the beginning, my co-founder Anne and I decided to have hard conversations early and directly. We both dislike sugarcoating professional situations. The "Take all the time you need," "We're family here" platitudes don't translate to the real world and kick the hard, honest conversations down the road. I'm all for unconditional love and support, but at work, pretending like we don't have constraints puts colleagues in a worse situation than just accepting upfront that we have to consider business needs too.
Since becoming partners, these difficult conversations have been part of our regular communications. When my pregnancy forced our stance on parental leave from the abstract to the concrete, we needed to ask: What do we offer? How do we set up short-term disability? What do we do if Anne needs to make a decision and I'm three hours into being a mom? Quickly, it became clear that we were facing real constraints.
As part of our preparation, Anne asked the difficult question, "What's our plan if, heaven forbid, your baby is sick and needs long-term care?" My baby picked a particularly bad time to kick with the intensity of a soccer star and my eyes welled up. Sitting with the idea of a sick baby is immensely painful for anyone, and having gone through a miscarriage and losing a baby brother, it touches on one of my biggest fears. I needed a beat to collect myself as I thought through not just the personal tragedy, but also the professional implications.
Despite the emotional discomfort, we talked through these worst-case scenarios. While we both hope we never need to revisit them, it was helpful to have these candid conversations before there's a screaming newborn. We now have shared expectations and a vocabulary we can pull out if needed.
I wish I could say that the policy we came up with is incredible. But to be candid, my personal maternity leave plan sucks. I'll be taking a month away from the company, then plan to ramp back up slowly over the course of the next month starting with daily check-ins. I'm fortunate to be able to build in flexibility, so the "ramp up" plan is contingent on how me, my child, and the company are doing. After these two months, I'll be fully back at Ethena and we've discussed ways to ease this transition, such as more asynchronous communication and my dialing into certain meetings to give me flexibility.
This plan isn't something I'd ever expect a team member to follow--and for what it's worth, I'm not. Our plan for our employees is 12 weeks paid, regardless of gender, with a plan to revisit as we scale. But after putting significant brainpower into this problem, my co-founder and I couldn't come up with a better solution. We're a small team, already overstretched, and the idea of my being away from the company for months is not feasible for us.
After drafting this plan, I worried that my company is falling into the trap of, "We'll fix this when we're bigger." One of our advisors is Frances Frei, an academic expert who tends to be brought into companies who've fallen very publicly into this sort of trap, where culture is something left far behind more "business-oriented" issues like fundraising, revenue, and growth. Did I accidentally just create a company that will be toxic for parents? I want to set an example for future team members who will undoubtedly also feel guilty "taking time off" (an utterly inadequate phrase). And yet, I want there to be a successful company years down the road.
This pickle, and all the other side effects of being in my third trimester, keeps me up at night. Is this one step down the slippery slope of sacrificing my family's needs for my company? Or is this part of the messy trade-off that never feels totally right on the margins? I'm hopeful it's the latter but there's really no way to know.
As an army veteran, I know the over-used Eisenhower quote about how no plan survives first contact. My baby, our customers, and the macroeconomic environment are unlikely to follow the neat table I put together in Google Docs laying out my "D-day" plan in weekly increments.
Even so, what we've gotten right is that we had the difficult conversations up front. We recognized that as a scaling company, we didn't have a wealth of resources to pull from, but we also didn't make me feel like that was entirely a "me" problem. It was something we needed to solve as a team. We didn't respond to my maternity leave with an abstract but unactionable "All the resources you need" platitude, nor did we react with a "Well, you decided to get pregnant so you deal with it" shrug. We treated it the way co-founders treat their startup: We problem-solved to find a scalable solution.
As companies big and small navigate parental leave and other policies to support parents during what feels like 2020's interminable list of challenges, honest conversations help us recognize that the two truths really aren't at odds. My team has rallied around the idea that setting up a company where parents can thrive expands our resources in the long run. We can recruit and retain the best talent because we aren't limiting ourselves to a company where only single rock climbers can succeed. Will my maternity leave cause my team members to pick up additional work? Absolutely, and that'll be hard in the short term. But what we're actually doing is creating trust, between co-founders and among our team; showing that we're a company where life, with all it's exciting highs and challenging lows, can happen.