A friend called her maternity leave a 'holiday.' It made her realize just how much she got wrong about it, too.


Samira Shihab, a principal at AC Ventures, a venture capital firm focused on early-stage startups in Southeast Asia, recently shared her reflections on maternity leave. Shihab, who is also the founder of two Indonesia-based companies, Tinkerlust and Stellar Women, found herself challenging the common misconception of maternity leave as a period of relaxation. As a mother of three children, including a three-month-old, her first experience with maternity leave led her to rethink its true nature.

In a conversation with Business Insider, Shihab revealed her initial expectations of productivity during her maternity leave, only to realize that caring for a newborn proved to be intense and demanding work. Feeling the strain of constantly attending to her baby's needs, she highlighted the physical and emotional labor involved, comparing it to the challenges of her leadership role in her professional life. Emphasizing the importance of recognizing maternity leave as an essential period for adjustment and bonding, she urged for a shift in perspective, acknowledging the rigorous demands and significance of this chapter for working mothers. Her candid insights underscore the need to reassess societal attitudes towards maternity leave and acknowledge the complexities of balancing career responsibilities with the demands of motherhood.  

Woman with her three daughters.
Shihab with her three daughters, who are 12, 8 and 3 months old. 
Samira Shihab

Shihab also said her new list of tasks as a working mother was a wakeup call: "You're not really going back to your old life. You're kind of going back to an updated life in which you need to then juggle."

Shihab is in good company when it comes to women discovering and defining what maternity leave means for them.

Anarghya Vardhana, a Bay Area-based venture capitalist, had just given birth, when one of the companies in her portfolio found itself in an emergency situation. So she cradled her newborn and logged on to a Zoom video call to help the company navigate an acquisition offer, BI previously reported.

"I have biological children and my portfolio companies, which are also children," Vardhana told BI.

Saira Taneja is another business leader who balanced career growth and motherhood, BI reported.

Taneja was pregnant during her job interviews and went on maternity leave two months after joining her new company, where she was the highest-ranking woman. She says was able to bond with her baby without compromising her duties as an employee because the company gave her time and resources from the start.

Women in male-dominated fields such as venture capitalism are also taking it upon themselves to spearhead maternity policies.

Allison Baum Gates previously told BI that she was the first pregnant person and the only female general partner at her firm, which meant the company had no policy for maternity leave. After talking to other women in the industry, Baum Gates put together her own proposal of five months leave.

Parental leave policies

The majority of Asian countries offer a minimum of 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, with countries such as Vietnam mandating six months of leave, according to the World Policy Analysis Center.

In Indonesia, maternity leave is 90 days and most startups and smaller companies abide by that, said Shihab.

Employees in the US are not guaranteed any paid maternity leave, making it one of seven countries with no paid leave policies.

Mothers with full-time jobs in America work an average of 14 hours a day or 98 hours a week between child and home duties and their actual jobs, BI previously reported.

Shihab said she took maternity leave on her own definition.

She went back to work three weeks after having her second child, because her ecommerce startup was new and needed her: "I wasn't replaceable and I knew it."

And with her third child, the lines between parenting and working were also blurred.

"I was always on Slack and plugged into my email, so not a hundred percent checked out. But that's not the company to blame – that's the person I am," Shihab said about her maternity leave.

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