There are a range of feelings and emotions that I’ve had to navigate since finding out that I’m pregnant. As a tech founder with a company that’s venture-backed, it’s been a confusing, challenging and ultimately exciting time.
There are things I’ve heard throughout my career that planted a seed of belief that if I wanted to be truly successful and reach the very top of my industry, it was a question of career or baby – that it simply could not be both. Not starting a family felt like a badge of honour or a symbol of just how much I was willing to sacrifice.
When I was 21 and new to the workforce, I heard, “we lose most of the women before they hit VP as they go off and have children.”
At 23, it was, “women should take maternity leave sooner because they become too emotional in the lead up to giving birth.”
When I fell pregnant for the first time at 27, a mentor told me they could only do what they did – work and have children – because they were not the primary caregiver. Ultimately, I terminated the pregnancy because I didn’t feel like I could do both things at that time.
When I founded my company at 29, a fellow founder and friend told me she’d felt the need to hide her pregnancy when pitching to investors because of the stigma around pregnancy and what it could mean for a business.
I’ve heard my friends say they don’t feel supported by their employers when returning to work and that they feel they have to work twice as hard to prove they’re still capable. When I held a poll on social media about this issue, 3000 followers responded, with 68 per cent saying they were scared to tell their employers that they were pregnant, while 86 per cent said they felt starting a family would jeopardise their career.
Currently, only 2 per cent of venture funding goes to women’s businesses. That, combined with the many horror stories like those listed above, made it easy for me to think that it’s hard enough already. Why give them a reason to doubt me by falling pregnant?
The very thing that makes the tech and start-up industry so appealing to so many – its innovation, its rejection of stale, binary workplace rules and outdated ways of doing things – are also the same things that can make it an incredibly difficult industry to start a family in.
When your self-worth is tied so heavily to your profession, parenthood is an added challenge to your life. Even with gender norms being rewritten and household roles slowly becoming more equal, it’s still nowhere near 50/50 and the stigma of how starting a family will impact a person’s work performance is still stacked against women far more than men.
We’ve made progress in how women are treated through paid parental leave and flexible work arrangements. Companies like Spotify and top-tier law firms are even going so far as to fund egg freezing for their employees. But these things don’t actually remove gender bias and unless a company proactively shows women from within examples of how they can feel supported when they are tired, sick, emotional, gearing up to give birth, connected while on leave, valued and rewarded when returning to work, the problem will continue.
As a founder, there’s an expectation that you are going to make sacrifices and that you will suffer. To an extent, I’m onboard with that. I chose this career and have suffered financially, socially, emotionally and physically to keep the dream alive. But what I ignored was that by not allowing myself to start a family, I was also limiting my future happiness. I couldn’t look at pregnancy content online. I had to block announcements where someone shared their happy news because it reminded me of something I felt I wasn’t allowed to have. I had to ignore IVF journeys and egg freezing updates because they reminded me that if I kept delaying things, I may face the same struggles.
Then, when I found out I was pregnant a couple of months ago I was faced with the reality of trying to unpack all the fear, anxiety and guilt that came with feeling confused and scared instead of instantly excited. At 32, having been with my partner for seven years and knowing children was something I wanted, it felt like it was time to challenge these beliefs.
Instead of punishing myself, I’ve spent these months digging deep and asking myself why these two things have to be mutually exclusive.
In those first few moments of finding out you’re pregnant, there is already so much fear and anxiety, even when it is not clouded by uncertainty. But when concern for your career is added into that, it deeply intensifies.
It’s an interesting fear because we all know we’re not special. There are roughly two billion mothers in the world; many who balance careers and babies. There are women in far less privileged positions juggling far more and yet, the sense of uncertainty around if you can do it is intensely real. It’s a kind of universal experience that exists among almost all expecting mothers, irrespective of career, location, age or support system.
The question is: How do we ensure women don’t feel like it has to be one or the other? How are we ensuring no one feels scared to tell you they’re pregnant? What can we do within organisations to show women that having a baby isn’t a career-ending injury? That you’re not about to be dropped or moved to the bench? Do we pay for egg freezing? Do we subsidise day care? Do we offer flexible working arrangements during those awful morning sickness weeks? Are there mothers in leadership positions? Do we ask the women in our companies about their desires outside of work? Their fears and their needs?
Having a career and starting a family will always be a balancing act. But the fear of repercussions shouldn’t be part of that equation.
Michelle Battersby is the co-found of Sunroom.
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