Baby and startup? Big deal! Or, perhaps, a big deal?

Years back I read Paul Graham’s How to Start a Startup essay, which includes this footnote:

One advantage startups have over established companies is that there are no discrimination laws about starting businesses. For example, I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children, or was likely to have them soon. But you’re not allowed to ask prospective employees if they plan to have kids soon.

Which, well, OK, I’m not in the business of forcing Paul Graham to start businesses with people he doesn’t want to start businesses with. But it bugged me for the obvious reasons, not least because, well, you know, men have small children too sometimes. Thank goodness they don’t have to put any work into them. Phew. Lucky escape there, men. Better make sure we keep that labour division in place.

Anyway, in the last few days, Tara Brown wrote this, in response to a few posts by men about having kids and doing a startup.

I am 35 years old, I have an 8 month old child that I breastfeed full-time and I am doing a startup. Big deal. Who isn’t?

Many women start businesses after having a kid, usually because they want to stay home and have an income. This was what I wanted to do after I had Ripley. I decided I wanted to look after him exclusively for his first year and then get a job as a consultant or something where I could continue staying at home with him. My husband and I took off with Ripley to Singapore and France and during that time somehow I ended up a co-founder of Noot.

I have a 9 month old baby (breastfed a fair bit as it happens, although you should have seen him get stuck into ciabatta bread today), and… I’m not doing a startup. I wouldn’t have been a great business partner or core employee for a while after birth, because it made me sick. I wouldn’t be a great partner or employee right now either, in fact, because he brings home illnesses from daycare and so we’re sick and exhausted constantly. (Not that I’m keen to encourage Paul Graham to add to the people he won’t start businesses with, but my husband gets these too, funnily enough.) I did recover our main fileserver when he was 12 days old. Pro tip: if you have any suspicion your hard drive is failing, replace it prior to the birth of your baby. (But then, I had to do the same thing the other week. Pro tip: mobile 9 month olds get in the way of hard drive replacements more than 2 week olds. Wait, that wasn’t a tip. Sorry. Pro tip: don’t have hard drives that fail.) I work various part-time and casual things now to afford the daycare to finish my PhD.

But Tara Brown isn’t telling everyone’s story: she’s telling hers, and she acknowledges that she has some advantages:

Honestly, I never expected to write this blog post because I just figured this is what every other woman that is working and has a baby must do, not something to make a big deal out of. But when I saw that email from Jason Calacanis and Jason Roberts, I just had to speak up so that more women can tell these guys that what they are doing is not extraordinary by any means. I mean come on, Jason Calacanis is rich, his wife stays at home and they have a night nanny. Not exactly a tough situation. What’s tough is single mothers and fathers trying to raise their kids by themselves. Me and the “Jasons” have supportive spouses who are at home for big chunks of time.

So moms dads out there that are doing a startup, tell the world YOUR story. Please! I need to meet more of you for the support and inspiration.

Starting, running and managing businesses, especially small ones, has been women’s work for a long long time, and that means mothers have done it. Mothers have done it a lot. But at the same time, I’m not keen to uncritically contribute to a superwoman culture: get back behind the desk woman! Sickness, disability, parenting and family and education and money demands and life preferences, these all vary a lot more than I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children allows for. Sometimes women need to work with small children. Sometimes they need to not. Often it’s in between.

What’s your experience, if you’ve worked as a mother young children? If you’ve been an entrepreneur or business owner, do you think that that was uniformly harder than being an employee, or in some ways easier, or generally easier?

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About Mary

Mary is a women in tech activist, a programmer, a writer, and a sometime computational linguist. She writes at with occasional appearances at Hoyden About Town and her previous projects include co-founding the Ada Initiative and major contributions to the Geek Feminism blog. She's @me_gardiner on Twitter.

10 thoughts on “Baby and startup? Big deal! Or, perhaps, a big deal?

  1. the15th

    I pretty much always suspected Paul Graham was a misogynist after reading one of his essays waxing rhapsodic about how “great hackers” like to share viewpoints with each other that you wouldn’t normally share in polite company. Now, I suppose that could mean viewpoints about how, I don’t know, 9/11 was an inside job, or some far-out theory about HIV and AIDS, but “politically incorrectness” or its equivalents, when applied to a culture like hacking that isn’t known for being woman-friendly, are probably euphemisms for misogyny. So I’m glad to see a more explicit confirmation.

    1. Mary Post author

      What You Can’t Say was, in part, explicitly about sexism:

      So another way to figure out which of our taboos future generations will laugh at is to start with the labels. Take a label– “sexist”, for example– and try to think of some ideas that would be called that. Then for each ask, might this be true?

      Just start listing ideas at random? Yes, because they won’t really be random. The ideas that come to mind first will be the most plausible ones. They’ll be things you’ve already noticed but didn’t let yourself think.

      1. the15th

        I’m sure that his choice of “sexist” was completely random and that he routinely challenges his preconceptions of, say, what a “great hacker” looks like.

  2. Elizabeth G.

    After reading this I decided that I should be in the business of forcing Paul Graham to start businesses with people he doesn’t want to start businesses with. I am going to start a startup with the business plan to first do some research on determining who Paul Graham doesn’t want to start a business with and then to create partnerships with those individuals and finally we will force Mr. Graham to start businesses with each person. I am really excited about this. Would anyone like to invest?

    1. Jeff Kaufman

      You could start a business doing exactly what paul graham does (helping other people start startups) but with different criteria for selecting founders. You could prefer founders who are women with small children, single parents, etc. If he is wrong about these people being, on average, less suited for founding a startup then your company ought to do better than his.

  3. Kim Curry

    Well, if I had it to do over again I would have come back to work slower than I did. My lad reverse-cycled, and for the 3rd and 4th month it tended to be ALL. NIGHT. LONG. Which meant it was hard to function for a full-time job.

    So, with a <6 mo newborn, I would probably want to take it slow. Right person, wrong time.

    After that? Totally depends on the person, the situation, etc. I think this is spot on: "Sickness, disability, parenting and family and education and money demands and life preferences, these all vary a lot more than "I would be reluctant to start a startup with a woman who had small children" allows for."

  4. Laura

    It’s definitely wrong to fixate on women and children. Sure, startups are intense and you generally don’t have spare capacity, so people being unable to work for whatever reason is a real challenge. That means that men who catch all the illnesses from their babies (even if Mom is at home with the kids most of the time) and are half-asleep during the day can’t be as effective at work as their colleagues might like. The same goes for lots of other family and personal circumstances – the colleague whose mother is dangerously ill, meaning he’s stressed out and liable to need to take time out at any moment; the colleague whose 17 year old son is struggling, and who needs to rush out to deal with crises; the colleague who has been diagnosed with an untreatable and terminal condition, who is young but will most likely only live a couple more years.

    Starting a new company – especially a high growth high tech startup – is risky. You risk that your cofounders get sick, get run over by a bus, get bored; that you don’t get funding or your tech doesn’t work out; that someone else beats you to it. You don’t not start a company because there’s risk. You measure the risk and you do the best you can to overcome problems when they come up. There’s always going to be personnel problems because people are hard! And they might just as easily hit the young white male founder himself, as anyone else he’s working with.

  5. Cindy Auligny

    My (male) boss said, “You know, being a woman is one of the most marvellous in the world. Don’t think that you are in the weak sex. You can do whatever you want and wish to.”
    I’m just a single girl, not a mother young children. My older sister, she’s a mother young children. Two years ago, my nephew was born. She had to stay at home, quitted her job, to take care of him. After 1 year, she’s decided to startup again, not because of herself, also because of her family. She has to do that. She sends him to day-care school. At the very first time, it’s not easy for her to both go to work and do housework. But she’s tried her best. I admire that. Now, everything is ok. She’s got interesting in her job, my nephew is healthy, she has a cosy life.
    That’s wonderful.

  6. VinaigretteGirl

    If you’re going to be good at doing startups anyway, then a baby is actually just another management issue, of greater or lesser magnitude, depending on circumstances. Sometimes magnitude is pretty damn’ high, of course, and that’s where the crunchy stuff kicks in: if, like me, you breastfeed but your oxytocin levels make you pass out, then you’re not going to keyboard away and BF at the same time, because your work goes to hell and you drop the kid on its head and That’s Bad. But that’s a challenge, not an outright defeat.

    If you’re actually not good at being part of a startup a baby is a complication too far – but so is a dysfunctional relationship, a bad head for syntax or maths, a broken ankle needing further surgery, a track record of irresponsibility, or any number of ills to which the flesh is heir, and that’s true of all humans on the gender spectrum.

    Fixating on the (non-existent, monolithic class of) “women-with-kids” is a confession of total inadequacy in the face of life’s realities. Graham’s a Very, Very Silly Man.

  7. Maile

    What’s your experience, if you’ve worked as a mother young children? If you’ve been an entrepreneur or business owner, do you think that that was uniformly harder than being an employee, or in some ways easier, or generally easier?

    I am four months pregnant, with two children under the age of six, for whom I am the primary care-taker. I also just opened my first small business — something I have dreamed of doing for a long time. Now, my company (selling science/tech inspired accessories) is several degrees of magnitude simpler than a tech startup or other highly complicated business, so I don’t think my experience can be generalized very far. However, I have found running my own business to be much easier (and more rewarding) than being an employee. I work from home and have extreme flexibility in when I put in my hours — I can put in time during naps, after kids go to sleep at night, or during playdates. Even doing all the startup paperwork filing wasn’t that bad: I just rolled the stroller into whatever city/state/bank office I had to file with next and gave my toddler a toy or bag of cheerios to keep him busy while waiting. Because I was not committed to a 9-5 job, I was able to get to all the various offices quickly.

    While I was working on the startup paperwork, website, accounting, and so on, I definitely had to let some things slide at home…but now that the business is open, I am cleaning up the messes we made during the past month and enjoying getting orders. If I can make this company profitable, it will be ideal for running while raising young children. My daughter has been paying close attention and frequently surprises me by how much she is learning about entrepreneurship. I imagine that as she gets older, she will be able to help with small tasks and feel like she is really “contributing” to running a business.

    So far my experience has been extremely pleasant and certainly not impossible while caring for young children. However, I think that a tech startup is a completely different world. There is no way I could put in 60 hour work weeks AND be the primary care taker. But like Laura said, it’s not only women who are primary care givers. Men can’t put in 60 hours and be primary care givers to 2-year-olds either. It’s all about the time and support you have, not about your gender.

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