I’ve said it’s preferable to start a startup before having children. But what if the timing is beyond your control? Are you destined to fail? No, but you are at a disadvantage.
A lot will depend on your circumstances. Especially how much support your spouse or partner—assuming you have one—is willing to provide. Imagine a spectrum with a 1950s housewife on one end and an absent workaholic on the other. As long as your spouse is at the 1950s housewife end of the spectrum, then you probably don’t have to worry. But to the degree he or she isn’t, domestic responsibilities will start to fall on your shoulders. And if you have kids that will be a lot of work.
Most of the female founders with kids that I know (myself included) haven’t chosen spouses who are like 1950s housewives, which means it’s important to acknowledge just how much extra work and distractions they have in their lives compared to startup founders without kids.
For those of you who are running a startup and have young children, here are a few ideas that may help:
- Full-time caregivers. Most successful female founders with young children employ nannies. Full-time caregivers are a more expensive but preferred option because a) they can handle much of the children’s “administrative” needs and b) it’s practically impossible to limit the needs of the startup to the hours of daycare or school. With daycare or school you also have the added risk of your kids getting sick and suddenly needing to stay home. If you don’t have a nanny, it’s like playing Russian roulette with your schedule.
- Family support system. If you are lucky, you have parents or other extended family who live nearby and are willing to step in to help when needed. In one case I’ve known, a grandparent has served as a nanny.
- Outsource household chores. A lot of successful founder moms outsource chores that need to be done at home. They have personal assistants, cleaners, gardeners, chefs, etc.
- Work when kids are asleep. Founders often work many hours on either end of their children’s sleep cycles. I knew one woman who would wake up at 4:00am each morning to work before her kids got up. (I was always too tired to do this.)
- Work in a separate office. It’s important to have somewhere to work that’s physically separated from the kids. The fact that kids really want your attention coupled with the fact that you really want to give them your attention makes it pretty easy to get sucked into things if you’re working from home. A closed door is not enough! I often remember running downstairs from my home office to get involved with something with my son, even when he was with our nanny.
- Say no, religiously. One of the best things I do to help myself cope is to decline anything that isn’t urgently related to our company/product. Speak at a conference? No. Travel somewhere? No. Contribute to a book? No. Meet someone for coffee? Double no. Sure, maybe I miss out on some cool opportunities. But it’s the only way I can stay focused in the limited hours in which I have to work.
I wish I could think of more advice. In occasional moments of self-doubt, I wonder if the reason I don’t have better ideas here is because I’ve somehow failed at combining work and motherhood. But the real explanation is that there just aren’t a lot of solutions.
In fact, it’s striking how far from ideal the ideas on my list are. They seem like desperate stop-gaps vs. elegant solutions. And a few of them, e.g. full-time childcare, are quite expensive. Early stage startups don’t pay big salaries (since equity is the main source of compensation) so anyone without some savings or another source of income is at a huge disadvantage.
So remember: don’t beat yourself up if you are doing a startup with kids and it seems unbearably hard. It is. That’s why I suggest you do it before you have kids.
The more we can do to support women with managing the responsibilities of being a mom and startup founder, the more successful they can be. I’d love to collect useful ideas from others’ experiences. If you have any great advice or hacks for raising kids while running a startup, please share them on Twitter along with a link to this post (so I can find it).