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Many Moms Leave Maternity Leave Behind Early

August 28, 2012
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Sarah Brysk Cohen and her daughter Isadora. She is the owner of Brooklyn floral design studio Blossom and Branch.

When Divya Gugnani, founder of accessories e-commerce site Send the Trend, gave birth to her son in May, she took two weeks of maternity leave—far less than the 12 weeks of leave that many corporate women get.

Gugnani had just sold Send the Trend, whose revenues are "in the millions," to home-shopping channel QVC in February. "I wanted to send the message that I believe in what I was doing and have not checked out," said the entrepreneur, who now runs the 25-employee venture as an independent arm of QVC.

For local entrepreneurs in fast-paced industries, extended breaks after childbirth aren't always a realistic option. "They don't know what maternity leave is," said Amy Millman, president of Springboard Enterprises, a nonprofit that coaches women-owned firms and helps them raise venture capital.

They're not alone in going back to work early. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 55.8 percent of mothers with infants under a year old work or are looking for work, a percentage that has skyrocketed since the 1970s.

But like Yahoo's new CEO, Marissa Mayer, who—hired while pregnant—recently announced she'd take a shortened maternity leave as she transitioned into her new job, they often live with harsh scrutiny. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, found that only 21 percent of Americans think the trend toward more mothers of young kids working outside the home is a good thing.

"Not only is there an increasing demand to spend more time at work, we also have rising standards for child-rearing," said Kathleen Gerson, a sociology professor at New York University.

Ask Gugnani, who employs a live-in nanny but leaves work early twice a week and brings her son to work on Fridays. "A lot of people judge me: 'Oh, you're not taking care of your child. Are you really a good mom?'" she said.

While Gugnani says she's driven by passion for her work, many of her entrepreneurial counterparts also face a challenging reality: There's no one to fill in for them.

As the owner and sole employee of Brooklyn floral design studio Blossom and Branch, Sarah Brysk Cohen responded to emails the first week after having a baby in December. Returning to work has required resilience. Working at a client's wedding recently, her breast pump broke, and she spilled two bags of milk all over herself.

"I had to emerge from the bathroom in this condition and finish two more hours of work," said Cohen, who hired a part-time nanny four weeks after her daughter was born.

Anna Harrington, a product design consultant and co-founder of Brooklyn textile-design firm Deadly Squire, had her first son during the home-based company's busiest season, in 2006. She packed orders and phoned clients while he napped. Unable to afford to bring in a manager, she hired an intern and a part-time nanny when her son was a month old.

"When you have your own business without any employees, you can't leave it," Harrington said.

Many entrepreneurial women live with blurry boundaries between work and family as a result. "I was answering emails in the hospital," said Jessie Randall, president of 11-employee shoe and handbag firm Loeffler Randall, who hired a baby sitter and went back to work a few weeks after having twin boys in 2007. She brought her newborn third son, now two-years-old, into her Manhattan office one or two days a week and otherwise designed products at night and during his naps.

"There was a lot of demand for me to keep producing," Randall said. "The fashion calendar never stops."

36%
WORKING WOMEN take unpaid maternity leave after their first birth

41%
WORKING WOMEN receive paid maternity leave

44%
MOTHERS return to work after three months

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Maggie Overfelt writes for Crain's New York Business, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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