It's not unusual for founders to refer to their start-up as their "baby" (I certainly do). But when an actual baby comes along, it's pretty common to feel torn: the figurative living, breathing thing you've shepherded into the world (your company) can get somewhat displaced by a literal living, breathing thing you've brought into the world (your kid).

For a lot of mothers who run their own companies, the idea of stepping away from their start-up is unfathomable--they avoid even using the words "maternity leave." For others, it's less fraught, but still a difficult balance to strike. We're in a day and age when most highly-ambitious people are expected to be available by email from early in the morning until late at night. How do you send the message, "I am dedicated to my company" in tandem with "I have established boundaries"?

And that's a message you actually have to craft: your out-of-office auto-reply. Women agonize over this. One entrepreneur told me she googled extensively, and combed message boards for advice. Another told me that she's still not comfortable with how she handled hers--and her baby is now six months old.

So here are five ways you can frame your maternity leave out-of-office, as suggested by women who navigated their time away successfully.

1. Say it straight.

This is the plain and direct "I will be out of the office on maternity leave until ____" with a redirect to contact whomever is handling matters in your absence. This type of message is the norm in big corporations where there is typically infrastructure in place to fill any gaps, whereas it is much less common in the startup world. The biggest benefit is that you've set clear expectations about how responsive you'll be (not at all!)--and it signals that this is a time period in which you're truly unplugging. (Even if you--like most entrepreneurs--are surreptitiously checking email for any fires that need to be put out.)

2. Don't mention it at all.

Omitting the word maternity, and saying "I will be on leave until ____," establishes a different kind of boundary: one around your privacy and your personal life. In phrasing your message like this, you are putting yourself on even footing with anyone else who is taking time away for any reason, removing motherhood from the equation entirely. A journalist once told me that she didn't specify maternity leave because it made her feel guilty, as though taking time to be with a new baby was indulgent, while she knew her peers were putting in long hours. (This guilt speaks to a whole other cultural problem, but that's for a different article.) As a founder, being this hands off can be tricky because people may read too deeply into your leave, or misunderstand your absence.

3. Make it personal.

On the other end of the spectrum, you can use your out-of-office to update your colleagues and external contacts about your family. It's a great choice if you have a close relationship with clients and customers, especially if your professional success depends on those people feeling a strong personal connection to you. Caroline Logue, an account executive at Google, told me she included a link to her G+ profile in her footer: "Click here for updates and photos of Baby Logue!"

4. Keep things flexible.

In my own messaging, it worked well to keep it intentionally vague about when I'd be available again. I was still checking my email a few times a day, and I'd respond to anything important (like an email from an investor or a major partner) within 24 hours, but it freed me to ignore anything that wasn't mission critical. (I often wish I could keep that message on forever so I could completely ignore emails without being rude.)

If you're operating under a formal policy, encompassing that kind of flexibility in your message can help extend leave. Britt Power, a partner at communications firm Global Strategy Group, wrote, "While I am checking emails, I may be delayed in responding during this time." When out on maternity, she worked during baby downtimes and tracked those hours. When she officially returned to work, she was able to use the time she had accrued to ease back in, leaving early as needed and taking several Fridays off to spend time with her daughter.

5. Delegate your inbox.

If you quarterback your duties and projects thoroughly during your pregnancy, you can pull off a "real" maternity leave without even needing an out-of-office auto-response. Early on in her pregnancy, Sara Holoubek, CEO of Luminary Labs, introduced her clients and contacts to the person who'd be taking the reins while she was out so they had plenty of time to build a relationship. Her team kept a running Google doc of what was going on in the company so she could stay apprised (on her own schedule). In their emails to her, they utilized subject line hashtags like #FWYAB (for when you are back) and #IMPT (important). She could review her email from home without delving into the rabbit hole of things that weren't urgent, simply forwarding on unanticipated external emails to a colleague who could reply on her behalf.

My own company, weeSpring, helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby, and openness is really important for us. I set up my out-of-office from my hospital bed, and it read, "I'll be offline for a couple weeks, as we welcome Caroline Rose (born June 4th) to our family. If there is anything you need, please reach out to [my co-founder]." I said it straight, made it a little personal and kept it very ambiguous on when exactly I would be 100% back. I delegated to my co-founder and still had the flexibility to respond when I felt it was necessary. Incorporating a few strategies worked for me, and lessened the anxiety that taking maternity leave can bring (at a time when anxiety is the last thing you need!)

 

Allyson Downey is CEO and co-founder of weeSpring, a startup that helps new andexpecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. Her entrepreneurial spirit dates back to elementary school, when she had a face-painting business for birthday parties, and it's carried her through roles withRandom House, Eliot Spitzer, and Credit Suisse. She has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts, and a BA fromColby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools. Follow her @allysondowney @wee_spring

Published on: Nov 21, 2014