As a female founder, I have adopted the public persona that “ambition is gender neutral.” It was a luxury and a mind-set I had earned over the years as a tomboy in school, as a professional co-ed adventure racer, through building a career in the male-dominated field of law, and by bringing my startup, Wevorce, to Y Combinator. I consistently tried to steer the media and others away from the topic of my gender and back to the business of Wevorce — until the day I was forced to stare at the reality of my gender in the form of a positive pregnancy test.
I can humbly admit that moment was not one of tender feminine surrender to the awe of the miracle unfolding inside me (that came later). It was a moment of sheer panic and fear.
It’s no secret that startup founders have a certain tenacity and ability to move through fear “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” But I was going where literally no man had gone before.
There are not many road maps out there for pregnant founders so I’ve highlighted five things I learned along the way to help fill in the void of information. And the advice, by the way, is not just relevant for pregnant founders, but also for those who work with and for them:
People say dumb things
People love to project their experiences, fears, and stereotypes onto you. The topic of pregnant founders is fairly new and brings up all kinds of issues for people. Do not swallow or engage with their projection hooks. Develop your ability to gracefully bob and weave through the random statements of others.
Need an example? I had an investor say, “I never would have invested if I knew you’d get pregnant.” I did not swallow the bait; instead I asked him, “Why?” He of course got red-faced, attempted to recover, and took a bath in his own shame and bias. I didn’t have to say a thing other than “Why?”
There’s a difference between ‘ta-da!’ and ‘uh oh’ fears
As founders, we wrestle fear every day. Over the years I have learned to categorize my fears into “ta-da” fears and “uh oh” fears. Founders eat “ta-da” fears for breakfast and avoid “uh oh” fears like the plague.
“Ta-da” fears are identified fears that can be cured by action. There are elements of logic to these fears and when pushed through you get public accolades and “atta girls.” Ta-da fears for pregnant founders are things like worrying about scheduling a speaking engagement around your due date, delegating your to-do list to your team for a few weeks after the baby arrives, and finding suitable childcare so that you can get back to work.
“Uh-oh” fears are unknown fears that sneak up on you and tend to expose your weaknesses. You cannot cure “uh-oh” fears with action, because they have not yet been named. Uh-oh fears for pregnant founders are items like wrestling with the guilt of having to hand your new baby over to the nanny so you can get back to work — and of wrestling with the guilt of having to leave work to pick up the baby.
Unfortunately, the only cure for “uh-oh” fears is vulnerability, soul searching, and asking for help. I survived these fears by gathering a good tribe of support around me and found strength and answers in the messiness of my vulnerability meltdowns. The good news is that once my “uh-oh” fears were named, I could take action again and turn the “uh-ohs” into “ta-das.”
You can write your own script
Since I could not find a book titled “What to Expect When You’re an Expecting Startup Founder” on Amazon, I had to develop my own strategies, thoughts, and reactions. This is easier said than done because, as it turns out, before I could find my way to how I really felt about becoming a mom and a CEO all in the same year, I had to organize my fears, reactions, and habits into three buckets.
The first bucket was for all my reactions, thoughts, and fears that were based in what I thought I should do. These shoulds were fed by cultural cues and stereotypes. The second bucket was for my habits and defensive postures. The last bucket was for unveiling how I really felt and allowed me to write my own script for this chapter of my life. When it’s your turn, take the time to untangle all the shoulds and habits so you can write your own script.
It took me a few months of balancing the reality of motherhood and founderhood to realize that if I removed the outdated script of motherhood, I was actually a great parent. I was just playing the role more commonly scripted for the father.
Don’t supersize it
Most female founders (really, founders in general) are no strangers to struggle, facing the fear of the unknown, and juggling too many things at once. Your baby will become part of your life, not all of your life.
The reality is, I made it through most meetings without my pregnancy ever coming up, even in my third trimester when I was quite visibly pregnant. The success of your company is measured on growth metrics, not your pregnancy. Just like everything in life, balance is the key and that takes daily practice, reflection, and learning.
Good support at home & work is essential
The greatest companies are not built by one person; they are built by teams. It’s the same for families. I am lucky to have two great cofounders in my life: one in my business and the other at home. As companies mature, it is important that the founders learn to lead and delegate. Now is as good a time as any to start honing your delegations skills; you’ve got several months of motivation (with a hard deadline) to practice.
Michelle Crosby is founder and CEO of Wevorce, leading a diverse team of attorneys, financial professionals and counselors towards the audacious goal of changing divorce for the better. A former attorney herself, Michelle worked in corporate and securities law before following her passion for innovative dispute resolution and, ultimately, making the jump to the startup world.