It's working for Sarah Wells, CEO and Founder of Sarah Wells Breast Pump Bags
We heard about an incredible project in Maryland where they were transforming breast pump motors into ventilators to address the shortage; we put out a call to moms across the United States and brought their pumps into our team to process and donate to this amazing effort.
I would tell myself, and I tell all my new mom friends and family, that is I ok to have layers of feelings about this big life transition. Being a mom is all about the complex emotions; gratitude and joy for becoming a mother, while being scared, overwhelmed, and even worried about how it might change you. You never have to qualify your feelings, just enjoy the rollercoaster that is parenthood and feel all the feelings.
Prior to starting Sarah Wells Bags, I worked for 15 years in nonprofit organizations advocating for better healthcare and other policies for women, girls and vulnerable populations. I grew up in a very altruistic family, daughter of an Episcopal Priest, and a human services director, my sisters (now a social worker, and the other a public health advocate) and I learned early on the importance of giving back to and supporting your community. After the birth of my first daughter, I had the awesome idea for a stylish and functional breast pump bag product, but I worried a how I would bring advocacy passions into a business career; however, it has been natural and awesome to use this platform to do good. I can empower new moms returning to work not only with a product that makes their breastfeeding experience better, but also speak boldly as a champion for working moms.
In a way, it really is! I was entrepreneurial at a young age and felt passionately about all the causes I championed. It took becoming a mom to really see the path to where I am now, but I think I still am who I was growing up with the same drive and desire to leave the world a better place while creating and innovating!
When COVID hit, I felt the desperation we all did: in addition to following safety protocols at home, what can we do to help? In particular, a large portion of my Sarah Wells Bags customers are healthcare workers; mamas that carry my bags are nurses, doctors, healthcare administrators, veterinarians, therapists, dental hygienists and so on. They were on the frontlines all along. The stories I heard were heroic and scary: pumping for your own newborn while working the ICU all day. I needed to do something. The first step was tapping into my existing manufacturing expertise and network; I was able to donate and sell tens of thousands of masks and other PPE to healthcare organizations using my supply chain. Next, we heard about an incredible project in Maryland where they were transforming breast pump motors into ventilators to address the shortage; we put out a call to moms across the United States and brought their pumps into our team to process and donate to this amazing effort. It’s just a drop in the bucket of help needed out there, but it did feel amazing to support our mom customers, and the broader community, in this desperate time of need.
I grew up with an awesome, fun, supportive mom who worked a successful yet challenging career in the field of addiction, helping families during a huge life struggle. There are a lot of types of jobs, and I was always amazed by how she chose a path working in such an emotionally difficult field, while being able to come home all fun and light with us kids. I know this juggle was difficult. And then I learned about the work/life balance challenges myself when I became a mom. I think working moms are an incredible asset to organizations and believe we need to provide all the support we can.
The entrepreneurial drive is always in full force! Some are looking for that next breakthrough product. For me, while I keep growing my awesome product business, adding other creative and effective tools for breast pumping moms, I also see my role as using this opportunity (the mom community I’ve built and become a part of) as a platform for change. Right now, I’m working on a book concept to improve the workplace for moms. I’m also giving to organizations that are changemakers in the breastfeeding field, bringing diverse voices and experiences to the table and supporting families in times of crisis or need.
I’m really into the art of compartmentalization; I’m not great at doing ten things at one time, that just frustrates me, and I like to give my best to whatever it is I am doing. Even if the blocks of time are 30-minutes, I try to build out my day in chunks of time. If my daughters and I are going to a park, that’s one hour of total focus on park play. The laundry needs to get done, I put my phone down and knock it out the way I want it to be done in the 15-minutes I have. When I’m working on the bag business, even if it cannot be a full day stretch (with the pandemic, getting any long blocks of focus has been impossible), I try to give the time that I do have 100% effort. Right now, I’ve been going to the coffee shop for 4-hour blocks on the weekend to write my book. And I get up and walk early in the morning with friends for 45-minutes on the weekday for emotional and physical health. There is a limit to how many blocks of time exist, so I have been trying to be better at taking on projects that are most meaningful or highest need.
It took me a lot of years to realize that exercise contributes massively to my mental health. It wasn’t obvious to me (even though I intellectually understood the benefits) because I absolutely dread working out and pushing myself physically. (How could something you totally hate make you feel good?) But when I do exercise, I feel immense mental benefits. It energizes me and makes me feel confident and strong. For the last four years, I’ve been quite committed to weekday walks and high-intensity workouts a couple mornings per week. I wish I had learned this a long time ago, but better late than never! I’m also a huge fan of doing my work in unusual places that are comfortable and motivating; not everyone is productive this way, but you’ll find me working horizontally on the bed a lot (it feels lovely and restful), or at a coffee shop, or outside on the deck on a beautiful day. I need to get a lot done, but I also try to be kind to myself.
We, as a society, expect moms to just keep piling on without breaking (to the point of even managing their own mental health, silently). It’s a harsh truth. I read a lot of articles this last year, in major publications, about how moms are at a critical crossroads needing changes to public policies, mental health support and more, but well, we just kept going, doing more without the support. Moms are absolutely incredible, and their perseverance and strength during the pandemic, let alone those who balanced this while working on the frontlines, is heroic. But, I worry all the time about moms and mental health, and while the pandemic spurred some positive workplace changes (hello flexible telework), it has greatly exacerbated the challenge overall.
My biggest joy and challenge was becoming a new person. I left on maternity leave as one Sarah and came back after leave as another. Parenthood is fully transformational, on every level, physical, emotional, spiritual, financial, logistical. I didn’t find the idea of working itself the challenge (I loved my career), as much as I did figuring out the answer to: how do I navigate work now as this totally changed person? I think we should be talking more about this at work and supporting moms through this transformation. I believe the motherhood experience can truly enhance organizations. Moms have some pretty fabulous skills and drive.
Find all the support you can and put some work into it ahead of time. For instance, know your insurance coverage for lactation support, find a lactation provider you can work well with and have their in-home or office appointment process readily available. Think about how your partner and/or other family and friend supporters can contribute to supporting you in a way that is most useful to you. Everyone has different needs. Some people need that logistical help with laundry and meals and other people find comfort in doing that themselves and would rather you be a reliable late-night text support buddy.
I feel lucky to have a strong support system; my husband Greg has been there every step of the way to build my confidence and validate my feelings. My mom has always been an inspiration and role-model for what I wanted out of my work/family life. I joined a local new moms group (“PACE), and our weekly meetings and social support were key as I went back those first weeks. The organization I worked for at the time my first daughter was born was so helpful with their enthusiasm for my return and support for the flexibility I asked for.
Informally, I’ve been lucky to have many amazing mentors and role-models, in my own mom, in professional women I admire and who have opened doors for me, in my friends and other family members who inspire and give great advice. When I began thinking about Sarah Wells Bags, I was connected by a friend to the SCORE organization and ultimately ended up pairing with my mentor, Nancy. Nancy and I have worked together for nearly 9 years, talking sometimes weekly, and all remotely with her in Maine and I in Virginia. She is an incredible sounding board, advice-giver, connector to resources and all-around amazing professional whom I am so lucky to have had guide me on this small business journey. Now that I have been in business a while, I have come full circle and advise a fabulous startup called Tiny Organics (fresh-frozen organic baby and toddler foods). I will continue this path of supporting other businesses like I had a decade ago and get a lot of joy and satisfaction from paying it forward.
As a working parent, I never expected a total life transformation would be so hard and finding happiness in smaller moments would be so much easier.