Everything feels worse at 3am, doesn’t it? 3am is always the time your brain will not turn off and anxiety sets in. It feels like something is nibbling on my brain in these small hours. Over the years I have zoomorphized those weird little nibbly critters into "Madness Hamsters."
In the autumn of 2014, thanks in part to the Madness Hamsters, I realized I was never going to get anywhere at the insurance company where I worked. I had an administrative job and it was boring me to tears. After eighteen months there, the Hamsters were out in full force. They whispered things like, “You’re not a corporate person” or “What’s the point in having a salary if you have no time to enjoy it?” Or “The more bored you get, the more we will steal your brain” and so on. They are very annoying. I also tend to think they are right with irritating frequency.
I didn’t want the Hamsters to steal my brain, but I was resigned to what I thought was the sensible option – working the secure, decently-paid, and non-stressful job for a number of years in order to save up enough money to start a coffee shop. The coffee shop was and always had been my dream, but there were other factors to contend with too: as a new immigrant, I had to sort out my permanent residency status in Canada, build up a good credit rating, and not rush headlong into enormous financial risk, ill-prepared. I had only emigrated from the UK with my small family two years previously.
However, a lot of things happened extremely quickly. It was not always a deliberate effort, but I have often found that as soon as I make a conscious decision to do something, things start falling into the place to make it happen. In this instance, I met a very smart, ambitious guy at our office party. Matt was new to the company, and my first impressions were that he was conservative, straight-laced, and a model corporate employee – and thus someone I would have little in common with. Fortunately, our boss engineered the introductions despite my reluctance. Matt is a graduate of the University of Regina business school and had a very keen interest in entrepreneurship, but hadn't yet had the opportunity to actually start a business of his own. We suddenly had a lot to talk about.
Over the next three months, we emailed each other back and forth between the insurance company departments, met on our lunch breaks to walk around town looking for venue inspiration, and drank a lot of coffee. Something about him coming to work on Halloween dressed as a six-foot hotdog set me at ease. By the fall, we had formulated a plan to do something together.
My newcomer status in Canada and my total lack of capital meant I had no way of funding a new start-up, especially one on this scale. Matt did not have these problems: he is young, local, and solvent, and he did not have huge bills like painful townhouse rent or childcare to contend with, as I did. Spurred on by this, he summoned the confidence and applied for a very large loan.
We then scouted for a building, and after a lot of disappointments and frustration, I found a near-perfect one. We negotiated the lease with the landlord (who I just happened to have made coffee for a few years ago at another job). A lot of phoning around got us a general contractor company to turn the huge empty building into a pleasant social space with two bathrooms and a coffee bar. Thanks to some luck, some bravado, and a great deal of chatting up random people in our different social circles, it finally all came together.
Then a huge spanner hit the works just two weeks after we had signed the lease. The Madness Hamsters were finding new and ingenious ways of keeping me up all night, and I had a sneaking suspicion that something major was coming my way. I was right: I was pregnant!
This wasn’t entirely unplanned. In fact, my husband Carl and I had been trying for a while, long before I’d even met Matt or got serious about a new business. We’d had problems, though, including an utterly miserable experience over the summer when I miscarried at thirteen weeks. With the advantage of hindsight, I can see that I was deliberately throwing myself into complicated projects like the café as a way of avoiding dealing with that grief and frustration. Possibly not the best basis for starting a new business. As is often the case, though, the simple act of not thinking about pregnancy resulted in pregnancy.
Carl and I kept it to ourselves for as long as we could manage, not wanting to in any way jinx it. I told Matt, though, and tried to reassure him that I was still completely committed to the cafe. In some respects, going solo at this point worked to my advantage. Setting my own hours and my own schedule gave me the freedom to handle pregnancy on my own terms. Additionally I thought that I'd also be able to take the baby to work with me and not worry about childcare. By the new year of 2015, I was blissfully happy with the world, extremely excited about everything to come, and throwing up every day.
Soon enough, the time came and I gleefully quit the day job. This was a momentous occasion. Leaving at this point (on Friday 13th, no less) was either very brave or very stupid. Had I stayed, I would have gotten the generous Canadian one year paid maternity leave, and a job to go back to afterwards. Now, of course, I would get diddly-squat except the state Employment Insurance benefits. Was paid maternity leave worth hanging around being bored for another few months and passing up the opportunity to open the cafe? I’d like to think not.
Not having the office job meant plenty of time (ahem) to work on “Dr. Coffee’s Cafe.” Even then it definitely was not easy, and many unanticipated events meant we didn’t manage to open exactly when we'd hoped. I was exhausted, but otherwise, the New-Human Growing process was going fairly well. As we neared opening day, I was feeling slightly less sick and disgusting now that I was over halfway through the pregnancy. We may not have opened quite to schedule, but even Wonder Woman needs a nap sometimes, I’m sure.
We finally got Dr. Coffee’s Cafe open on 13th April, 2015, when I was 26 weeks pregnant and two months to the day since I’d left the office job. The initial response to the place was so positive that I was convinced I must be on the right track finally. That went for everything else in my life as well. I had my cafe business, and my wonderful husband and brilliant beastling daughter to share it all with. There was another tiny daughter kicking me from inside my belly, my fantastic friends were all rooting for me from both sides of the Atlantic, the sun was shining after the long Saskatchewan winter, and all felt right with the world. For these moments, I felt very, very lucky.
However, I was getting larger and larger by the day, and more and more exhausted with pregnancy. I honestly do not know what possessed me to carry on as I did. I was still pulling sixty hour weeks right up until three weeks before my daughter was born. I can see now that that there was no need for me to actually be there myself as we had hired excellent staff, but I couldn’t accept that at the time. It’s only when I stopped and detached a little that I could see clearer.
Eventually, I gave in and took my maternity leave. Matt took over the general worrying and the shopping, and our baristas handled the summer amazingly well on their own. Why oh why did I not just let them get on with it prior to that? Put it down to stubborn arrogance. On some level, I wanted to feel indispensable. As wonderful as the staff were, my own ego wouldn’t let me trust them enough for me to let go of my business-baby, even while I was incubating my real baby.
I also felt like I had something to prove, to myself, but also to a lesser extent to Matt, who had seemed panicked when I told him I was pregnant so soon after signing the lease. Of course, growing a tiny human can’t slow me down! I can do everything! I can have it all!
Nope. That isn’t empowering. That was just stupidity. And it took me a full year to realize it.
I somehow expected my maternity leave to be a peaceful, idyllic, and "instagrammable" period. I could picture it, spending all day in pajamas, sipping my coffee with an adorable chubby baby sleeping angelically on my lap. Maybe I’d catch up on all those books I’d been wanting to read for so long.
This naive fantasy was very far removed from the reality.
Baby Theia exploded into the world within two days of her due date, and even as I was heading into hospital I was still getting text messages from the cafe asking where the hazelnut syrup was, and whether ‘BabyCoffee’ had arrived yet or not! It took 28 agonizing hours of labour, but arrive she did at over nine pounds, which rendered me out of action for the best part of the next month. My midwife released me from the hospital but forbade me from leaving my bed for a week, as I had lost a dangerous amount of blood. I was supposed to be taking it easy, and she didn’t advise walking too far for as long as possible. Needless to say, I got very bored very quickly: I wanted to go and show off my beautiful new baby!
And then there were the joys of entrepreneurship. Even if I was not actually pulling espresso shots, there were always at least a dozen emails waiting for me, or the website needed updating, or Facebook needed to take its daily slice of my soul, or it was time for payroll. At least while I was bed-bound, I could work from my laptop, I reasoned.
I'm not complaining; I honestly wouldn’t have had it any other way. Being self-employed and having the freedom to take my children to work with me allows me all sorts of benefits which few parents with conventional jobs can afford. Whereas I could have done with making far more money than I was at the time, I never had to sit in an office away from my kids, and never had to try and pump breastmilk while hiding in a stationary cupboard (as a friend once described having to do when she went back to work). Better still, I had caffeine on tap to cope with Theia’s 4am feeds and newborn sleeplessness, and most importantly I could run my own business and take care of my wonderful girls at the same time. That summer, I really did have it all, and it was well worth the sleep deprivation.
Sometimes it's worth listening to the Madness Hamsters.