Everyone knows raising kids takes up a lot of your time. And anyone who knows about starting startups will agree that startups also take up a lot of your time. This creates a conflict for anyone doing both. But how much of a conflict is there? How much do kids harm your chances of success as a female founder? It depends. Kids compete with your startup for attention. But how much they compete depends on how much time you spend with them. And here’s something that everyone who gives advice on this topic overlooks: women each have different degrees of interest in being with their children.
I remember chatting with a woman at a work event one night and asking if she needed to go home soon because of her kids. She replied, “No, I see my kids on weekends.” I couldn’t help but cringe thinking about what it would be like to only see my son on weekends. It seemed horrible! And yet I have a good friend who hasn’t spent more than one night away from her children in over a decade. Also horrible, I think to myself.
All three of us are different. But advice on the topic of “working moms” implicitly treats us as the same. Like there’s a single standard of interest that women have in being with their kids when, in fact, it varies a lot between women.
The fact that women have varying degrees of interest in their kids means that kids have varying effects on women’s startups. The more time you want to spend with your kids, the more conflict you’ll have, and the less likely that your startup will succeed.
Treating all women the same also makes those who opt to focus on their kids feel like losers. I’m often envious when I read articles about this woman founder publishing a book or that one starting a fascinating new project. When I compare myself to these women, I have to remind myself that it’s not that I’m an underachiever, but that I have different priorities. I would love to write a book or get involved in other projects, but these things all take time. And time and attention are exactly what I want to conserve for my son right now.
Everyone knows kids consume your time. But what people without kids may not realize is the extent to which people with kids want their time to be consumed by them. And, on the whole, I’d guess women more so than men.
It’s hard for people without kids to predict how much time they would want to spend with their kids if they had them. Not only are you trying to predict something that has a huge variation, but having kids also changes you by an unpredictable amount. It’s one of those things that you don’t know until you experience it. But, assume you’ll want to spend more time with your kids than you expect.
In addition to doing fundamental things for your kids like feeding, bathing and putting them to bed, there’s another whole level of engagement that you want to be a part of. You want to play with them and teach them things, hear about their day and share new experiences with them. As they get older, you want to be involved in school activities, like performances and sports events. You’ll want to enjoy weekends and vacations with them. Basically, your priorities shift and your startup is no longer the most important thing in your life. Before you have kids, the startup is your baby. Now, your baby is your baby.
I once had the chance to become CEO of the company I cofounded. But I said no. I knew it would cause me tons of extra stress and drastically cut into the time with my son. I sometimes feel like a huge failure for that choice. Like I wasn’t up for the challenge or wasn’t talented enough. But then I think about my relationship with my son and I know I made the right decision for me.
We can’t expect more women to succeed in the startup world until we’re able to talk honestly about how much harder startups are for those who want to spend a lot of time with their kids. Combining startups and kids is not only difficult, but the difficulty varies so much between women. That concept is missing from the overall conversation about female founders as well as from individual women’s calculations about their future. We’ll never reach our potential as female founders until we acknowledge that each woman’s attitude towards children is different.