How Founder-Moms Can Strike A Balance


Jenny Xia Spradling is Co-CEO of FreeWill, a social enterprise offering free estate planning tools that help facilitate charitable giving.

I vividly remember my disillusionment 10 years ago when I read Anne-Marie Slaughter’s 2012 Atlantic cover story entitled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All,” a seminal piece in the ongoing conversation about balancing motherhood with career advancement.

I was fresh and hopeful—I had recently graduated from college. I had big professional dreams and eventual plans to be an all-star mom, too. I had watched my mom attempt to balance a career and parenting, but I chalked up her challenges to being an immigrant and undergoing cultural and financial constraints that I would never face.

However, Slaughter’s struggles to balance work and life were eye-opening. It was the first time I really considered that, even for a woman with a high-paying job and a strong support network, having it all could still prove elusive.

Fast forward to 2020, and I was still determined to find a way. So I started with what I assumed would be a simple question: “When is the right time to have a baby as a founder?”

I was aware of the many challenges of harmonizing the timing between my personal life and my business, but I felt deflated by the blanket dismissals I would receive from others: “There’s never a ‘right time.’” I realized what they really meant was, “We still don’t know.”

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We’ve figured out how to get to Mars, but we lack a ballpark answer on when a working mom should have kids. Luckily, as a founder, I was accustomed to making decisions with incomplete information. Here’s what I’ve personally found to be true.

Timing

Fast forward to today. I have a 1-year-old son who is mostly a joy and occasionally a terror. With the benefit of hindsight, I think there is a “right time” for founders to become moms if (and that’s a big if) timing is an option.

1. When your life partner can commit to dedicating a significant amount of time and emotional energy to caring for your little one.

2. When you have some wind at your back in terms of a positive track record with your board and investors.

Support

Add a layer of strong executives who you trust. Your life will get a little easier every time you successfully add to that team.

If these conditions are met, align the full team around who has decision-making rights during your maternity leave, and check in less than you think you should. Be clear on what things at the company will require your intervention while you are on leave (e.g., closing an executive hire, fundraising, acquiring a company), and make sure the list is short. If you’ve got these elements in place, you’re ready.

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Changing The Narrative

Luckily, it feels like times are changing in a way that makes being a founder-mom more possible.

Startup investors are more inclusive and long-term oriented today. I was able to take a full 12-week maternity leave, which would have been unthinkable for a co-CEO 10 years ago. This is because my investors are not only committed to my overall well-being but also know that the company would run just as well without me, given that diverse teams achieve greater outcomes.

Societal norms have changed too. Women of older generations who paved the way for me often recommended hiding as much of motherhood as possible in the work setting. I’ve not followed that advice. Recently, my son was home sick from daycare, and I brought him to our weekly all-hands on Zoom. Several women—those with and without children—reached out to say they were grateful. Giving permission and fostering empathy at a time when too many women are leaving the workforce is a must.

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This broader societal acceptance applies to fathers, too. My husband changes diapers, drops off our baby at daycare and takes time off equally when our baby is sick. He does this because he intends to be an equal parent, but just as importantly, because his co-workers don’t bat an eye when he has to leave a company hangout for a baby bottle.

And lastly, there’s the pandemic, which has lessened the need for workplace facetime. This creates crucial flexibility. For example, many parents need time in the afternoons for parenting but can sign back on later.

It’s been 10 years since Slaughter’s article, and “having it all” is still challenging. For many, it’s impossible, as threading the needle of timing, resources and support is just too hard. But we are trending in the right direction.

I do believe I “have it all,” even if many days it feels tenuous. With more moms at the helm of growing companies, perhaps we can bend the curve for each other and our employees as well.


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