The similarities between birthing a business and having a baby

By birthing a baby, I had to give up another – my business – and the similarities between running a company and having a child started to hit home, writes Ashleigh Spencer-Shirley.

Maternity Leave. Those two little words seemed impossible to even say, let alone become my reality when I first started my company some 12 years ago.

For years I pushed myself to the brink of burnout, riding the wave of business expansion while working endless weekends, nights and holidays, leaving precious little time for anything
outside of work.

Having a baby not only seemed out of reach, but completely naïve and foolish when I was working 50 – 60 hours a week.

Little did I know that my baby of a business would someday grow into a multi-million-dollar venture, or that 11 years pretty much to the day after I birthed my business, I’d give birth to a
baby of a different kind; a son of my own flesh and blood.

At the beginning, I guess you could say I was “that person”; never one to leave a minute of time unscheduled, I was taking meetings up until the week of my due date, and I even – I’m
embarrassed to say – punched out a few emails in the delivery suite.

Then in an instant, everything changed.

For the first time in 12 years, not only did I not have the physical capacity to think about work, mentally something shifted. My world no longer orbited around my job. How could it! My
centre of gravity had completely imploded, replaced with a black hole of broken sleep, the monotony of feeding routines, and my biggest and most demanding client yet – a newborn.

And when the fog finally lifted, I felt different. Less obsessed, more willing to let go and give others the opportunity to step up and share the load. Being away from the minutiae of the
detail allowed me to see the bigger picture for the first time. Where I fit in, what my role should be, where the gaps are and my how I needed to articulate my own future value at
the company.

I realised that by birthing a baby, I had to give up another – my business – and the similarities between running a company and having a child started to hit home:

People will give you all sorts of advice but none of it will make any sense until you’re in it. By which time you’ve forgotten all said advice. It won’t matter, you’ll figure it out. Making
mistakes and learning along the way always taught me more valuable lessons than listening to others’ advice before I was ready to hear it.

No-one can do it as good as you and they never will. But when I started pointing out all the things my husband was doing ‘wrong’ during a feed or bedtime, he kindly suggested that perhaps I didn’t need his help after all (very well played, sir). The same applies in business – no-one will do things exactly the same way as you, but the alternative is not sustainable so
just embrace it and let everyone find their own place.

Stress (and sleep deprivation) is dangerous. We’ve all heard the warnings – stress wreaks havoc on your health. I didn’t take it seriously until a particularly horrific late night of crisis talks with a New York-based client head office while pregnant sent me to the emergency room with a bleed. Once on Maternity Leave, I realised I hadn’t felt the warm cocoon of a stress-free environment without that dark feeling of foreboding overhead, in years. The feeling was soon replaced with acute sleep deprivation which manifested itself in almost identical ways
to my chronic stressed-out condition – fogginess, lack of clarity, and for me, an inability to access large parts of my vocabulary.

Efficiencies are key. I realised very quickly in those first few weeks of night-feeding that I felt more relaxed and in control if I had all my bottles pre-filled, with perfectly measured
containers of milk allocated next to each bottle. It meant the difference between a merely grizzling baby, and an all-out screaming, insatiable monster in the dead of the night. My work
days are now structured with similar efficiency – Mondays are for team collaboration, internal catch ups and training. My other day is for client work, calls and zooms.

You can’t do it alone. And those who do have super-powers. I remember setting up my business in my spare bedroom at home at the age of 24 with nothing but bravado and naïve
enthusiasm. I soon realised I am an excellent communicator and project manager but a terrible bookkeeper and HR manager, so to create a successful business I had to learn when to respect my own flaws and hire a talented team of passionate people around me to work together. Parenting is no different – I have now realised I am the best at my job as a parent if I have time to breathe and recharge on my own, so I make sure I communicate when I need help and am ever-grateful for my partner, family and friends who can rally around me and allow me to have that space.

You will ride the highs and lows. Some days you want to cry. Some days you actually will. So many nights I have counted down the minutes until bedtime, only to look at photos of said
devil child once he has gone to sleep (a tad nuts perhaps, but apparently not that uncommon). Often I have found those highs and lows to be even more acute in business – some days you are celebrating a huge new account or a project executed flawlessly, only to face a crushing staff exit or work crisis the very next day.

So what have I learnt?

Stepping away from the day-to-day of the company afforded me incredible insight and clarity about the future, but I can already feel it slipping away as I become my own worst enemy again – asking to sit in on meetings during my baby’s naps, wanting final approval on things, checking emails with one hand while feeding with another, trying to regain control.

But things are different now. I have to accept that my capacity is not, and will never be, like it was before. I can no longer be all things to all people; step in when we are a team member short, take meetings by myself because or put my hand up to take on a job because I don’t want to burden others.

My new reality hit home the other day while playing with our baby on the couch when I heard my phone ping and so I turned my head to check who was texting me. It had only felt like a second before *child services alert* I heard a thud as he toppled off the couch.

So I’ve realised I don’t have a choice – I have to learn to embrace the unfinished. The unticked-off. I have to somehow get comfortable with being uncomfortable about my inbox.

Leave my to-do list burning in my notebook, getting bigger with each passing day, not shorter.

I have to be clear about my capacity, and set clear boundaries for what I can achieve. Both to myself, my clients and my team. I can no longer be all things to all people, but a parent first, a business owner second, and someone who only works part-time.

So this International Women’s Day, I’m raising a glass to the mums, women, carers and anyone who navigates The Juggle – sick kids and work crises, home schooling and stay-at-home orders, exploding nappies and imploding inboxes, bed time stories and after work deadlines, all at the same time.

And if you don’t already employ one of these un-caped heroes, I’ll give you the hot tip – you should. No-one works more efficiently than a mum running a household, a kinder calendar,
an after-school sports schedule, an office team and a suite of clients, all with a smile on their face and a half-eaten rusk stick in their handbag.

Ashleigh Spencer-Shirley and baby Isaac

Ashleigh Spencer-Shirley, founder of Papermill.


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