I will never forget that phone-call. It was just 10 days after I had given birth, and my (male) business partner breezily informed me that he was about to send me pages and pages of artwork proofs, together with a mountain of copy to check.
"It's something you can do during your 'downtime'", he said, "When the baby is asleep."
Downtime?! Did he mean one of the few spare milliseconds when I tried to squeeze in having a wee - or, on the really good days, indulge in some glamorous pampering like actually managing to brush my teeth?
This subject was the cause of (several) big arguments between us. His first baby is now on the way so I'm hoping an apology might come my way in about six months (probably through tears - his, not the baby's) when he realises first hand there is no such thing as 'down time' when you're a new mum.
And therein lines the nub of this debate really. Let's define "starting a business on maternity leave", because there are many ends of the spectrum here. To be clear: dreamily mulling over an idea for your cashmere babygro label whilst sterilising your bottles, or even making a couple of phone calls over a period of six months is not starting a business. I'm talking about getting a product made, marketed and sold while running a team of staff who need to kick out enough profit to make a salary off. The concept of starting something like this, and achieving what I would hope to achieve during a six month period for example, is quite frankly barbaric. The reality of it is even more brutal.
Any new mother knows that post-birth you're shattered, drained, sore, and possibly depressed to boot. You're exhausted, learning new routines, it's completely relentless, things go wrong, a baby may not feed too well, or she might have reflux or colic or something else incredibly common, but still torturous. Physically and mentally navigating your way through life during this period is FAR MORE WORK THAN STARTING A BUSINESS. But hey! Let's do that as well! And right now. What a great time to start something that also needs your undivided attention. Ladies, are you nuts?
I hate how much pressure we put on ourselves as women. I get that we want the kids, the career, the perfect home, but I just don't think we need to do it all at the same time, to put a time limit on ourselves. It's a bit like the girls who say they want to be married by the time they are 30. Why? What difference in the fullness of time would it make if you were 33? You need to ask yourself these bigger questions. What are you going to fill your 40's with? Or your 50s? You don't need to rush through it all so quickly that you end up not enjoying any of it.
I started Neom, alongside Oliver in 2005, three years before my son was born, and the advice I would give any women considering starting a business now is to wait until your children have started school. In my experience, this is the time you can turn your attention to something else. Those first few years as a mum are hard and precious in equal measures, and in this rushed world where we want everything NOW the reality is that it doesn't actually matter if you wait just that little bit longer to get it. Make the most out of each phase of your life. Enjoy the baby - and then enjoy the business.
Anyone who knows me will probably be completely bewildered reading this, as it's exactly the opposite of what I've done. But that's the point really, only now, after three years of crippling anxiety due to multi-tasking way too much, am I starting to see a chink of light. With hindsight, it wouldn't have made much difference to my greater life plan had I just calmed down a tiny bit, taken things ever so slightly slower. I never did the coffee mornings with NCT friends, I never went to the Jo Jingles music classes or swimming lessons.
Sure, I wouldn't have wanted to do that for ever, but I would have liked to have enjoyed it for a few months. I would have liked to have given myself whole heartedly to Mummyville just for one tiny year of my life. As it was, I felt pushed and pulled in every direction, trying to do everything at once. At some awful points, I felt I was failing at everything - not being a great mum OR a great business-owner because I was spreading myself too thin. Unfortunately there is no way of being in two places at the same time, and I should know, because some days I actively tried.
Running a business is fantastic. Being a mum is, too. I believe we CAN have it all - but if you want to stay something close to sane, just not all at once.