Pooja Sankar headshot
Pooja Sankar, CEO and founder of Piazza  Courtesy of Piazza
Commentary

Confessions of a pregnant CEO: 3 ways I’m working differently

Dec 10, 2014

In 2011, when I discovered I was pregnant with my son, Arjun, I was busy running an ambitious, fast-paced start-up. While my husband and I were beyond excited to become parents, Arjun’s due date in summer of 2012 wasn’t the most convenient time for this major life event. August is the most critical month of year at Piazza, the college Q&A and recruiting platform I founded in 2009. As students and professors return to campus, we scramble to sign up and onboard new users, tweak our website, and address thousands of questions. In 2012, we were still experimenting with our product; my team, a makeshift assemblage of interns and part-timers, was young and untested. Needless to say, I was involved in every decision.

Taking three months off to care for a newborn just didn’t seem possible. Instead, I took four days. Team members came to my house for meetings almost immediately after I brought Arjun home from the hospital. I don’t remember much about those crazy first few weeks — and that’s probably a good thing — but I do recall a nagging feeling of guilt that I wasn’t properly bonding with my son, or managing to be present during those rare, precious little moments.

Six months later, I was working the same hours as before my pregnancy, but without coffee (which was really unfortunate for everyone involved), and I still had very little control over my emotions. As Arjun’s first birthday rolled around, I was still struggling to lose my baby weight (for me, this proved much more strenuous than running a company – I’ve rarely seen a bowl of cereal I haven’t wanted to devour).

The whole experience was much harder than I ever expected. It now seems like the most obvious thing in the world, but working mothers really do face an uphill battle. I am now pregnant again, with a daughter, and this time I'm giving in to the biological reality of my situation. Pregnancy is hard; post-partum recovery is harder. I have accepted that I can only operate at 80% of my typical productivity level right now. But I’m also doing a few things to ensure that I bounce back faster — and that my company gets along just fine while I focus on bringing a healthy infant into the world.

I’m taking care of myself. I was never big on working out. It just wasn't part of my upbringing in India, which made my first pregnancy something of a nightmare. Because I spent hours each day sitting and doing very little exercise, I was barely mobile by month six. No, really: We had to reinstall the toilet paper holder in our bathroom because I couldn't twist around to reach it. This time, I’m staying (relatively) mobile with a combination of weight-training (still hate it) and regular visits to my chiropractor. To prioritize my health, I’ve blocked out time on my calendar for workouts, often in the middle of the day, and I’ve made a conscious effort to delegate where possible. It’s easy, as a founder, to get swept up in every minor office emergency, so this has often been difficult. But the upside is that at eight month’s pregnant, I can actually walk!

I’m making my own schedule. When I was pregnant with Arjun, I’d wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and, unable to fall back asleep, end up canceling my early morning meeting at the last-minute. This time, I’m not accepting meetings before 10 a.m., or sometimes even before noon. If I wake up at 4 a.m. and can’t sleep, I no longer beat myself up. I just turn on my computer and enjoy some uninterrupted work time, then take a mid-morning nap before heading into the office. I’m also working from home and doing remote calls as much as possible to conserve energy; my team has had to learn to block out the crunching sound of the ice I chew 24/7 to keep cool. Having a flexible schedule improves my productivity — and has given me a lot of empathy for other women who desire flexible arrangements as they care for young children.

I’m preparing my team. Because I had no intention of slowing down during my first “maternity leave,” I spent very little time preparing my staff for my absence. This time, I’m lucky to have trusted employees who have been with me for several years, and I’ve been working with them to figure out discrete projects they can accomplish while I take it slow during those first few weeks. They’re not mission-critical projects that would require my oversight, but at least I know the company will be making progress during my month away. They’re obviously not getting rid of me completely—that’s not my personality—but I’m hoping to spend my maternity leave more as a resource than as a day-to-day hands-on leader. I want my daughter’s birth to be, in addition to a chance for me to spend some meaningful time with my family, an opportunity for my team to grow, make decisions, and figure things out on their own.

I realize that I’m extremely fortunate to be in a position to have this flexibility for my second pregnancy. Unfortunately, most women don’t have this same level of luxury. That said, there are some accommodations that should be within reach for many professional women who summon up the courage to ask. For starters, most of us can carve out at least some minimal time for health and fitness. At my company, it’s common for employees to have “walking” one-on-one meetings. Instead of booking a conference room, we have our conversations strolling the streets of downtown Palo Alto. And in bad weather, we just walk around the office (I’ve learned to ignore the strange looks)! You’ll be surprised how just this small change can make you happier and healthier.

Then there’s the issue of flexibility. We can’t all postpone meetings until noon, but in this day and age, why do we really need to be in the office all day? Between laptops, Skype, and Google Hangouts, we should on occasion be able to take meetings from home, especially late in the pregnancy when long commutes can be particularly uncomfortable. I know as women we can sometimes hesitate to ask, but if there’s one time in your life you should be selfish, it’s now (and after all, it’s not selfish if it’s helping your baby thrive).

And then there’s the thorny question of maternity leave. While the maternity leave policy in the U.S. leaves a tremendous amount to be desired, I’ve seen lots of women work with their managers to figure out creative solutions to supplement their leave. My own vice president of marketing worked part-time for a month after her full-time leave ended, so she was able to gently transition back to her job . Ask if you can work part time, work from home for a few months, or creatively use your vacation and sick days to get that extra time. If you’re fortunate enough to work at a firm that provides adequate paid maternity leave, or if you can afford to take unpaid leave, then by all means take it, and don’t feel guilty!

I can’t wait for my 30 days of family bonding – nor can I wait to return to my other baby, my company.

Pooja Sankar is founder and CEO of Piazza, a social learning and recruiting platform that connects college students with classmates and instructors in real-time.

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