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Why I'm Creating Space for Founders and Leaders with Kids
“You’re building a startup while you’re pregnant? Are you insane?”
“You’re building a startup while you’re pregnant? Are you insane?” That’s what everyone asked me when I decided to get pregnant while working full-time at a tech startup in New York City in 2015. There I was: working as one of the earliest members at a venture-backed startup, and I got pregnant.
I'd been told—by society, by culture, by workplaces—that once I had kids, I'd probably want to stay home and focus on being a mom. From small comments to outright assumptions, people told me that I wouldn't want to work, and that workplaces wouldn't want me. It was frustrating because I love work, and I like going fast. As a somewhat Type-A overachiever, I thought I could approach starting a family like most other projects. Surely with enough grit and skill, I could master this, too.
What wasn’t talked about was how to make it work, or what we could do differently to make pregnancy and work more manageable. There was so little education about pregnancy and fertility—did you know it’s way harder to get pregnant than you might think?—and there’s an abysmal lack of support for parents in America. “Any nation where it’s easier to get your hands on an assault rifle than baby formula, where health care, child care and paid leave are considered luxuries rather than guaranteed rights, where the government would rather force birth (and possible death) than allow women to make decisions about our own bodies, is a terrible place to be a mother,” writes Reshma Saujani for Time.
I didn’t know any of this when I thought about starting a family. Pregnancy and parenthood rocked me, and asked me to question so much of what I thought I knew.
HOW PREGNANCY CHANGED ME
Pregnancy asked me to slow down, and it showed me in painstaking detail how the systems I'd built so far didn't work. I had a difficult pregnancy the first time around, and I faced depression and anxiety alongside debilitating nausea. Pregnancy can be tough as nails, and I didn’t hear enough people talking about it. Telling the truth. Being honest about everything it took.
Pregnancy is really hard work. It makes sense when you think about it: you’re growing a human being from scratch, with every ounce of your body’s energy. It can vary wildly for people, with some pregnancies smoother than others. Mine was more challenging than I’d expected. I’ve come to appreciate the people who describe pregnancy as “violent,” inasmuch as nature can rip women’s bodies to shreds in pursuit of creating offspring. It reminds me of the animals that die shortly after giving birth—the creation of babies an enormous feat.
I still wanted to work—but on things that mattered. Getting pregnant shifted my focus, but not in the “I never want to work again” kind of way that employers often fear. Now that my ability to work was so limited, I knew each minute was precious. I also knew how much I would need help to be able to keep going. My bullsh*t meter grew, and my disdain for busy-work and needless panic-and-sprint modes became apparent.
My ability to say no grew stronger. I became more discerning about the decisions we made at work, and I gained clarity and focus. Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I missed deadlines and I struggled to keep up at times. But at the same time, I learned a new power over my command of the word “no,” and I adopted new strategies to negotiations. Over time, I was surprised to notice that while it made me slower at first, in the long-term, it made me a better leader and a more efficient employee. Learning to say no when you’re a “yes” person that prides oneself on doing everything that’s asked of you, and doing it fast, is a tough wake-up call. I also think it was a short course in executive leadership training.
WHY I CREATED STARTUP PARENT
When I became a parent for the first time, I needed a place where people understood me and what I was going through. That's why I created a space for working parents to imagine new futures of work—and to support each other along the way. Startup Parent is a place for parents to talk about leadership, life, and work while also being honest about what it takes to raise families at the same time.
Over the past five years, I've interviewed 200+ parents about building businesses & raising kids. The Startup Parent Podcast is an award-winning podcast ranked in the top 1% of podcasts globally, and it was named on of the Top 50 Podcasts for Moms by Podcast Magazine.
On the show, we interview folks about the future of work and the truth of family life. Episodes range from interviewing Xploding Unicorn about writing about your family when you have a million followers on Twitter, how to navigate a business when both co-founders are pregnant, thinking about how to work two days a week, studying the lopsided nature of parenting, exploring gender creative parenting, or understanding the complications of infertility.
IT WAS ALSO A WAKE-UP CALL
For me, getting pregnant and becoming a parent were huge wake-up calls that showed me how much work has crept into all areas of our life. We are living in a world of massive overwork, where people wake up thinking about their jobs, leave early to go to work, sign on to “prove” they’re working, stay late, and then socialize and attend events at all hours, all in the name of “doing the job.” Parenthood revealed to me how much workplaces have crept in and taken over everyday life. Work wants to blame parents for being a problem for having basic boundaries around life, when in reality work has exploded across every facet of life like glitter after a kid’s birthday party. It’s crept in, it’s everywhere, and it refuses to leave.
For too long Silicon Valley and work culture have mythologized the idea of hustle and overwork, and frankly, hustle culture is tired. We can do better than overwork as a strategy. We want to imagine a new future of what it looks like to be a working parent, a business leader, and a woman in today’s world.
The old ways aren’t working. We can’t force ourselves into the old models of parenting or the past models of a work world that was designed for “Ideal Workers” and expect it to work. Ideal Workers are people with the flexibility to work at all times, who aren’t beholden to anyone else in their lives. This is a historic assumption that men can work in offices and women will stay at home—a relic of the 1940s-1960s era that’s been mistaken as a presumed normal in our society.
At Startup Parent, we believe it’s time to radically rethink what parenting and working can and should look like. We believe that parenting shouldn’t be at odds with work—and the insights from your parenting journey propels you as a leader that this world needs. We know that the majority of people are burned out from traditional work systems, and that an enormous number of people have caretaking responsibilities in their lives. It’s time for us to figure out new models for work and life going forward. The future of work must include women, children, families, caretaking, and everything currently left out of our made-up economic models.
We can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always been done and expect new results.
WE NEED THE MOMS, THE DADS, THE AUNTIES, THE UNCLES, AND ALL THE FRIENDS AT THE TABLE
When I started this company, we were initially a space for mothers only. Our first identity was as Startup Pregnant, which you’ll likely see around the web and in podcast archives. We started by interviewing women about pregnancy and leadership on the podcast. We created a community for business moms that supports parents in connecting with other parents learning their way through parenting and business.
The Wise Women's Council is a leadership incubator and community for ambitious women navigating the transition into parenting. Instead of leaving women alone to undertake this massive transition in both work and life, we bring women together so they can feel better supported, understood, and valued.
After hundreds of interviews, however, I started to notice an important theme: if we only created a space for women, we would miss out on how much the problems of parenting affect dads and the wide range of what it looks like to be a caretaker. Caring for other people isn’t something done exclusively by mothers, and it’s almost a pathology in our society that moms should be there to bolster and fix everything for everyone.
We need to support and hear from the dads. We need dads at the table if we’re going to make real changes for all of us. In 2021, we pivoted and re-branded as Startup Parent. In the fall of 2022, we’re doing an interview series with dads and piloting a dad’s group over the winter to support men in connecting and building community. Life as a parent is hard and can be lonely, and dads are often left out of a lot of the support services created for moms.
PARENTING CAN MAKE YOU A BETTER LEADER
Motherhood and fatherhood should be seen as an incubator for new leadership skills, not in opposition to it. If you can keep kids alive, you have all the skills of a project manager. If you can communicate with toddlers, you're capable of negotiation and more. If you meet daycare pickup deadlines daily, you can rally people around hard deadlines. If you can persuade tiny children without pre-frontal cortex abilities to listen to you, you've got chops.
There's such cool research today that shows how parenting is a prime period for brain growth. "Our brains can change more during the year surrounding the birth of our child than at any other time in our adult lives," explains Amy Henderson, founder of TendLab. "This is true for both moms and dads, regardless of whether the baby they are raising is their biological child." When parents are well-supported by society, and are supported in their role in caring for our youngest children, they develop better emotional intelligence, courage, efficiency, productivity, and the capacity to collaborate, she shares. There's a caveat, however, to this research: when parents are not well supported, these benefits don't hold true.
Henderson is vocal that it's time to debunk the myth that when a woman becomes a mother she will be less effective at work. Yet mothers—when supported by basic social and civic infrastructure, like high-quality childcare options, paid leave, and school—consistently show increased performance in their careers. "Motherhood teaches us where we need to grow," writes Henderson, "and gives us the opportunity to stretch past what we think are our limits to meet the challenge of raising our kids." Fathers also undergo brain changes and growth when they are active, involved fathers. In fact, the leadership skills that are often missing in male-dominated industries (empathy, collaboration, soft skills) are precisely the ones that parenting can unearth. By taking time to be a parent, it turns out, you grow your leadership capacity.
Despite recent research that shows how parenting can positively affect our careers and leadership abilities, discrimination against mothers is sadly real, and anti-mom bias is considered an "open secret" in the workplace. We know that sexism and racism are intolerable, but mothers are not a protected class in the workplace—so many women that want to work are forced out of work, with no workplace protections.
Fathers are also given short thrift: while we support fathers on paper (they're seen as better leaders)—they aren't actually given time and space to do the job of parenting. Dads receive a superficial benefit to gaining the label of parent, but aren't given space to actually be parents. More millennial men—82% according to some surveys—want to be involved fathers, but workplaces and stigma continue to prevent fathers from doing so. Despite evidence to show that parenting can augment our leadership journeys, workplaces continue to discriminate against parents, and the United States is abysmal when it comes to basic support for new parents in their transitions.
OLD IDEAS OF PARENTING NEED AN UPDATE
These ideas about parenting, and the separation of parenting and work, are long overdue for renovation. It’s time to radically rethink what parenting and working can and should look like. We can’t keep doing things the way they’ve always been done and expect new results.
We want a place for parents to be their full selves, and to tell honest stories about what parenting really looks like. We know that parenting is as incredible as an MBA in teaching you new leadership and executive skills, and we believe that you should be seen as someone valuable and important to the workplace, because the skills you’re growing are exactly what the workplace needs.
We believe that by telling true, honest stories of parenting, and by creating community for parents to come together, we can create an amazing new future of work. In our accelerator, we the breadth of ways that people are doing work differently. One member, Alicia Jabbar, said "I had so many models of women doing entrepreneurship and parenting that it freed me to find my own way. I was also pushed to think bolder around boundaries and skillful ways of saving time and energy.”
These are the reasons I created Startup Parent.
— Sarah Peck
CEO & Founder
PS — Will you share your story? I am always looking for more stories and ideas about the future of parenting and work, and I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Are you in a workplace that supports parents and caretaking? Leave a note in the comments with how your company or workplace is changing the game.
Are you an advocate for working parents and caretakers? I'd love to know about the work you do and the work your support.
What wonderful models of work and parenting have you seen? What work styles, programs, policies, or templates have made parenting better for you?
Have you experienced toxic workplaces or discrimination against you because of your parenting and caretaking roles? Let me know if that's happened to you or someone you know.
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A FUTURE OF WORK TO BELIEVE IN:
At Startup Parent, we believe that parenting shouldn’t be at odds with work—and the insights from your parenting journey propels you as a leader that this world needs. We disrupt the myths of parenting to tell true stories of motherhood, fatherhood, and parenting today.
The Startup Parent Podcast is an award-winning podcast ranked in the top 1% of podcasts globally. Join us as we interview parents about what the future of work, life, and leadership look like. Click here to add the show to your player.
If you're a working mom looking for a community that understands you, apply to join The Wise Women's Council, our leadership incubator for entrepreneurs, executives, and managers who are also moms. The program runs annually and we open for applications twice per year. Click here to apply.