Power Maternity Leave

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Time out after a baby can feel like a step off the career ladder, but a growing number of women are using it to reinvent their work lives

Words: Catherine Gray Photography: Miles Aldridge

This summer, when Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo!, declared she would take just a few weeks’ maternity leave after the birth of her first child and “work through it”, the world’s media had a field day: “She’s a terrible mother!”, “She’s undermining women’s right to time off after childbirth!”. “She’s living in a dream world!”

But let’s be realistic. If, like her, you’ve spent around a decade climbing up the ladder, forging a career, juggling important projects, managing staff and loving it, then the prospect of months in work wilderness can be a bleak thought. It’s not difficult to empathise with her decision.

But, viewed from another angle, a period away from work can be hugely positive – time to learn a language, take up a hobby or, as more and more women are doing, start a new business. Even if children are not on your agenda, time away from the daily slog – a sabbatical or long holiday for instance – can inspire new ventures.

Power maternity leave is a trend that’s taking root. In fact, for those women taking time off to have a child, often being a new mother can highlight gaps in the childcare market on which women’s business skills, honed from years in industry, can capitalise.

“Studies show that during pregnancy our brains are more resourceful and creative,” reveals psychologist Marisa Peer, author of Trying To Get Pregnant (And Succeeding). Removing ourselves from the stresses of work helps recharge our minds, she explains. “The popularly peddled notion of ‘baby brain’, whereby our minds are like sieves, is a farce. It’s mere tiredness. In general, when rested, our brains are sparkier.”

Now, 34% of new businesses are headed by women. There are 300,000 ‘mumpreneurs’ working in the UK right now, and business is booming for 90% of them. Barclays says that women with small businesses are now more likely to have children than not.

It makes sense. We’re so used to managing multiple projects – buying a new house while planning a wedding and restructuring our work team – that sitting around watching daytime TV while your baby sleeps is anathema to our hard-wired work ethic. Those precious months, as well as allowing you time to nurture your baby, give you the chance to take a step back and really think about your career prospects and whether your current job is fulfilling you in the way you’d like. Given the low outlay it takes to start kitchen-table industries (as little as £500 in some cases) and the fact that, according to the National Enterprise Network, financiers are now “bending over backwards” to support mumpreneurs, it’s little wonder we have a revolution on our hands.

We spoke to four women who changed their jobs – and their lives – while on maternity leave.

Turn your career break into a life-changing opportunity with our Power Maternity Leave evening on 27 November. Click here to book tickets for this latest Stylist Network event.

“I felt creative while pregnant”

Amanda Sharkey, 35, founded an outdoor maternity sports range in January this year and expects to turn over £250K

“In my previous career in finance, I worked 14-hour days and couldn’t have carried on with babies. But during maternity leave I knew I needed a challenge beyond baby care. The itch for a project started. I’m hooked on exercise and couldn’t live without it, even when pregnant with Ned [now four]. But, I couldn’t find any maternity sportswear that catered for my love of hiking. Inspiration for Nordic Mama struck while I was pregnant with my second child, Summer [now seven months]. It sounds strange, but I felt more creative while pregnant. I started doing some sketches and then got someone to do some technical drawings that I could take to a factory. I had so many meetings, I took Summer along in a backpack! My pay is down 50%, but the business is in its infancy. I’m thrilled that it’s enabled me to watch my babies grow up. I’m now pregnant with my third and I can’t wait to see what the future holds.”

Two tips

  • “Use social media, such as Twitter and Facebook to build a profile with your customer.”
  • “Have a ferocious belief in your product – you need it to carry on.”

“It has been the best life decision”

Nikki Graeme, 32, opened a vintage-inspired bridal boutique in 2009. This year it turned over £250K

“They say pregnancy changes you beyond all recognition. I was prepared for the primal urge to put my baby above everything but I didn’t expect it to force me to look at my career from a different angle. I loved being a copywriter. But, I couldn’t imagine being able to fulfil my role and be a mother. I wanted to inspire my unborn child, rather than be away from her all day. Before I got married I had been disappointed with the wedding dresses on offer. So I found a business plan template on the internet and wrote a 10,000 word plan for a wedding boutique when Jessica [now four] was sleeping. We opened The White Closet in November 2009. At first, juggling a newborn and a business was hell. But, it’s been the best life decision. My second child, Charlie, is now nearly one and I have three employees and exclusivity deals with Claire Pettibone, Jenny Packham and The Vintage Wedding Dress Company. We’re also looking to open in Paris and Amsterdam.”

Two tips

  • “Paint a vivid picture of your shop in your business plan. Financiers are more likely to invest.”
  • “Keep some of your cards close to your chest.”

“Maternity leave was the key to my future”

Justine Roberts, 45, co-founded Mumsnet in January 2000. Turnover this year will be around £4m and the website has 2.9m unique users each month

“I left my job at an investment bank in London when I first got pregnant because I knew I didn’t want to raise children and go back to a corporate environment. But I didn’t know then that my maternity leave would be the key to my future.

I had my ‘eureka’ moment when my twins [now 14] were nearly a year old. We took our first family holiday and the resort just wasn’t right for children. I realised I could have used this amazing new thing called the internet to find out what other parents had said about it. I also realised that I could tap into their knowledge about other things as well – it was a revelation. I knew there was a niche I could fill.

It wasn’t just the idea though. After a year I emerged from the fug of looking after newborns and I wanted to do something. The internet was changing everything. Everyone was having a web idea and I wanted to be a part of it.

I wrote a business plan with a twin on each knee and roped in another new mum, my co-founder Carrie Longton. Making this work was very important. I wanted a decent work-life balance and starting my own business was the only way I could see that happening. The great thing for women is that they have these interludes in their life where they can revaluate what it is they want to do. Pregnancy can show you that you don’t just have to plug away at the same job forever.”

Two tips

  • “Do your research, know your competition and look for a USP.”
  • “Do something you’re passionate about.”

“I didn’t want to just watch Dexter and scoff Doritos”

Bethany Eaton, 34, launched Co Yo coconut, dairy-free yoghurt in 2011. Co Yo achieved a turnover of £150K that year

“Myths swirl that pregnancy makes women want to spend their maternity leave watching Dexter and scoffing Doritos. But for me, it was the absolute opposite of all that.

While pregnant with Megan [now six], the base instinct for survival skyrocketed. I realised I couldn’t go back to being a police officer in Hackney, where I would risk my life every day. So I quit a few months into maternity leave.

While pregnant I began to understand that what I ate completely affected my well-being. I started working part-time as a nutritionist and many of my clients suffered from intolerance to dairy and lactose. At the same time, coconut milk was the product, with Madonna and Rihanna both devotees.

So when I came across coconut milk yoghurts on a trip to Australia in September 2010, while pregnant with James [now one], it was a lightbulb moment. Friends thought my husband Paul and I were mad. It was a complicated process to make the yoghurts and we had to invest our life savings, plus take out a loan, to plough in £60K. Luckily I had learnt to be unflappable as a police officer.

Now, sometimes I work until midnight, but generally I cram running the business between 9am and 3pm. Ocado are stocking our products and the business is growing 30% each month. I just can’t believe my luck.”

Two tips

  • “View childcare as a business investment. You need time to work on your product.”
  • “Find a mentor outside your business to chat through your ideas with.”

What do you think? Is power maternity leave a good idea? Let us know in the comments section below