Parenting While Powering Purposeful — The Team Reflects
Yeiwah Kaindaneh with Affia Bertin, Aminata Kamara, Boikanyo Modungwa, Chernor Bah, Josephine Kamara, Kaata Minah, Rosa Bransky
From our earliest days, parenting has been encoded into our DNA at Purposeful. Our co-founders launched Purposeful while one was pregnant and the other had a tiny newborn. Folks who’ve had babies whilst working on the team, reflect on these last five years.
What has it been like being a parent at Purposeful?
I was five months pregnant when I joined Purposeful. I was coming from an organisation with no maternity leave and where they deliberately kept me as a contract staff. When I got pregnant, one of the biggest fears was I’m going to lose this job because now I don’t have leave and I’m constantly working while pregnant.
When I got this call from Chernor to have a conversation about Purposeful. It was supposed to be an interview, but it was at a restaurant and it felt really as if I had known these people for years. My greatest fear was to tell them I’m pregnant and I didn’t tell them I kept it secret, because I’ve been used to jobs where when you’re pregnant, you’re no longer useful. So it was so shocking to me when he finally knew I was pregnant and he said, ‘Yeah, but what is wrong with that?’ I was shocked! Like how could the head of an organisation ask me what’s wrong with me being pregnant and coming to work?
By that time, I was six months and I started working fully pregnant and when I was nine months, they said that I could go for maternity leave. That was one of the scary parts. I thought that if I leave, the job wouldn’t wait for me. I was afraid to tell them that I needed time off, but to tell them that I needed money! I was so broke when going on maternity leave, and Chernor said, ‘Do you know you can ask for two thirds of your salary up front?’. And as scary as that was, I asked for it and they gave it to me!
I got pregnant two months after I started working at Purposeful. I just left my uncle’s firm and it was very tough decision for me to take, you know, family was like, ‘Oh no, you can’t do this, you are the one that has to take over the firm after your uncle blah blah blah’ and I said, ‘No, I want to do this for myself, I want to be independent, I want to earn some money for myself, I don’t want to depend on family properties and stuff like that.’ So when I got pregnant I kept it quiet, I didn’t tell anyone but a friend at work said, ‘Oh, don’t be scared, Purposeful is the best organisation to work for, and no, they don’t discriminate, you’ll be fine, we will take care of you, whatever you need.’ Working for Purposeful was the best decision I ever made. My teammates were the best, they checked upon me. If I had too much work, they helped me out, I had a colleague who picked me up for work, they constantly asked what I was eating and I took short naps during the day. The best part was maternity leave with a salary and my medical insurance.
My experience was that I was about nine months pregnant when I had my conversation about getting the job at Purposeful. I was heavily, visibly pregnant! Chernor was quick to allay my fears that you can go on your maternity leave, you have three — four months — I was shocked! I was looking at Chernor like, ‘Huh? Are these people OK?’ They sent me on fully paid maternity leave after just hiring me for a month. It was like a blessing that I didn’t even ask for — it was really everything that I could ever ask for from a workplace.
A year later, I got pregnant again and got a lot of support. People were not just concerned about my productivity and I told Chernor and Rosa in a meeting last week and they were; ‘How are you feeling? Are you OK? I mean you know you can take a break?’ Chernor tried to stop me going on a work visit because I was pregnant. In my previous job, I travelled from zero days pregnant to eight months, like no-one asked. All they cared about was I could get the job done. No one ever asked, ‘How are you? Are you OK? Do you want to do this?’ But at Purposeful, I got a lot of questions, asking about my antenatal visits, concerned about the food that I would eat at the office. They were so worried that I should not be hungry. The environment was really progressive, I never ever thought about money. I never thought about my leave days. I never really worried about childcare.
When I came to Purposeful, my child had just been born. Before I started, I don’t remember my pregnancy coming up in the conversation even though Rosa knew I was pregnant when we first started discussing this role. When I came on board with a four-month-old, I understood a feminist organisation should support children. So I don’t remember having any thought in my mind that it would be different, and it’s true that Purposeful is very supportive of people in whichever situations they are in. For me now, looking back, especially this month that I have been off, I’m just realising now how hard it is to have a new baby and then change jobs because your brain is working halfway most of the time, right? I think there’s just so much that having a baby takes out of us which I feel like it’s something I’ve been really wanting to unpack what that means for your mental wellness. Not even wellness, just how good you feel about yourself, how you’re showing up for spaces.
And then the pandemic happened and it brought a whole complexity that I never envisioned of working from home. Because I belong in an office where you’re always eating together and making noise — I was just in dreamworld working on my own. But in trying to navigate that, in trying to figure out my role at Purposeful, all I found was lots of grace and lots of acceptance. There was no day where I felt that anything concerning my child couldn’t happen because of work.
Last year, my child needed to undergo an operation but I had just switched insurance cover so I was just chatting with Rosa, and I was just telling her that I needed a day off because my child is getting this operation and she was just like, ‘Ah but you have insurance, they’re going to pay for it.’ And I was like, ‘No, actually I don’t have it, I don’t have insurance because I have just switched insurance because the people who used to house my insurance cover previously kicked me out so I needed to start one where I have to wait nine months to have any form of operation.’ So Purposeful went out of their way to pay for the bill of my child’s operation which is something of course that just doesn’t happen — everyone assumes you have insurance cover so you should be able to cover whatever needs you have for your child or for yourself.
For me, it really demonstrated the feminist aspect of Purposeful. And I feel like some of those things happen without you really thinking about it. I didn’t have to present all the papers from the doctor to show what was needed and why I was asking, why I deserve this or need this. I feel very grateful — starting with Purposeful was like you feel when you’re joining the highway. You can see that the traffic is flowing, and then you join it and when you start moving there’ll be something keeping you moving forward. I was very happy when I came, I found that it is something that has continued to grow in really fantastic ways for me.
It was really interesting hearing one of you talk just then because we were pregnant at the same time, and I’ve had two pregnancies and they couldn’t have been more different in terms of what you think you have the right to ask for, to expect. I had the same fear as you about taking time off because I had never worked in a feminist organisation before. My assumption was that I’m never going to have any time off. I got pregnant the week after we quit our other jobs for Purposeful — I was completely freaked out and it felt like a problem. I really wanted this baby but it also felt like this was in direct conflict with my career and this work that I wanted to do. And I didn’t know how to navigate that. I found it really hard to negotiate for a policy because it felt like I was negotiating for myself which I really struggled with. And actually having other people like you made it much easier to say, ‘This isn’t for me, this is gonna be for all of us. It just happens to be that I’m pregnant while we’re writing this policy.’
And it was complicated that time, right? Because resources were so small, like now it’s not such a big deal to say, ‘Oh, now people are having six months off’ and there’s enough of us that if people step in and out, it’s not such a big deal. But they were quite big decisions to make, weren’t they? And we didn’t take them lightly. There was a lot of tension, there was tension in interesting places about what our maternity policy should be. And I think it was probably the first time that we really looked in the face what it meant to say we were going to be a feminist organisation. Like this parental policy was ground zero. If you can’t be pregnant in this organisation then we can’t call ourselves a feminist organisation. And it was so quick in our founding that we had to get to that with each other. And I think that it was difficult and so important, I am so glad that issue was forced in our very first days.
And there are consequences and that means we can’t do other things but let’s do this. But I think that they were the best decisions we made. I definitely have some regret and some pain about how quickly I went back to work. And some of that was about starting Purposeful and because my identity was so tightly bound up with work and I was stepping into my leadership for the first time, I couldn’t allow myself to not be around for these foundational moments and conversations and decisions.
When I found out that I was pregnant again with Rudy, I felt really clear with myself that I was going to practise our values and live this policy out loud and I was going to do it fully. I took nine months off and it felt absolutely terrifying and it was the most humbling thing that I’ve ever done. Because you realise really quickly that you’re not that central but like in a very good way that things carry on, that they look different when you come back, that that’s a good thing, that that’s what it means to be in collective responsibility with other people — that’s what it means to build an organisation based on trust. But it really took me some work to get there, and it was honestly one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, to say I’m going — both Chernor and I at the same time. And, it was humbling — I just feel like I’ve learned a lot from that experience. And I have some gratitude now that I’ve had these two pregnancies now at really different moments in the trajectory of Purposeful.
I just wanted to say that listening to all of this reminds me of what was happening when we were making some of these calls. And I wanted to say that it sounds really beautiful and romantic now as we say it, but I think that I want to underscore that these were not easy calls. They were really not easy calls — and the fact that Rosa was also pregnant, and I was a young parent. I remember initial meetings with Rosa being very pregnant, with my very young baby in New York, basically throwing up constantly — my baby would throw up on Rosa, and she would just throw up right back at the baby. And those moments were really foundational for us. So starting Purposeful as well as a young father whose wife needed to go back to work quickly — she got 10 days…The norm was so offensive to me because she worked in New York in an NGO that basically gave no maternity leave. She had to go right back to work so I had to stay up, take care of the baby, and then be on the calls that were setting up Purposeful. So that really informs how we came to this — not just our feminist values but also our experiences and how it affected us directly as human beings. Those were really important in those early days.
Also, one of your babies was constantly crying in your interview and you were freaking out and you would be like, ‘I’m sorry, I think the baby’s OK now’ and I kept saying, it was OK because actually we were having our conversation, my own baby was there and I was responsible for my baby and I understood — I was in New York where we didn’t have help.
So of my own personal experience, it’s really important to say that it wasn’t easy. Keep in mind it was three months which we thought was very generous but I also wanted to use the opportunity to pay tribute to Rosa who, because of her personal experiences, but also in the leadership team, it was not always easy for Leadership to get this progressive policy. We had tough conversations, we had tears, we had people walk out of meetings and I know not everyone sees that, but Rosa really held us to that. I can give you a window into how decisions are made at Purposeful — we’ll have a tough conversation, and Rosa will give me a call and we’ll have a long chat about how we can bring other people along. So even though we’re co-Founders and co-CEOs, we’ve always thought that decisions should not be made just by us but we need to bring the organisation on board. And that’s not always easy because people are at different stages in your lives, and their own feminism. People were like, ‘No, we can’t give six months, it’s so long!’ For Rosa it was a four-year crusade for the six months!
It was a four-year set of really difficult conversations and we learned from other organisations and we pushed ourselves and our values. Rosa had made it abundantly clear that she wanted to take almost a year off and it really helped me to say that we all needed to take more time, for me as a man too. Being a feminist man, working in an organisation it’s not even a question, I now take it for granted that I say, ‘Oh, I’m on parental leave for six months.’ But when I tell my friends, they laugh. Like literally laugh, ‘What? You’re the man, why?’ But I live in this environment where it is a matter of fact — I travel, want to be with my partner, have a baby together, step in and out of work, be flexible with my time, take that time off so it’s been a real joy and a real learning and I’m just incredibly privileged as well and grateful to all of you for this opportunity.
I had about two miscarriages before I came to Purposeful and then I had a third miscarriage so when I was pregnant, it was more about, is this baby going to stay this time? At work, I was constantly going to the bathroom, checking to see if there was any blood, wondering what’s going to happen. And then a colleague was also pregnant and she became my pregnant twin. I threw up a lot, if I smelled anything — fumes, food, perfume smells, but I could talk to people constantly about my fears.
I always had to go to the hospital, I was on hormonal treatment for 12 weeks and the injection was every week to make sure that the baby would stay. That meant that I had to use the Purposeful car, and people that just understood that and what I was going through.
I had the constant fear of losing the baby. That was one of the things that I had to work with while I was working. I could always speak to people and be like, ‘This is what I’m feeling.’ ‘Your food makes me…’ ‘There’s no way you’re eating your food here, you have to go eat your food somewhere else.’ I was constantly aggressive and everyone made room for that. I was just grateful that everyone else made room for that.
You’re all making me weepy but with happy tears. I think for a long time, I tied my value to what I could produce. As a young woman working in this field, it feels like you can’t take a break. You have to always be 100% involved in a thousand different things, otherwise you disappear and there’ll be no room for you. So I think seeing it with my own eyes that, OK, these people are not freaked out, there’s a plan, they’ve got a support system and they’re going to come back to work made me realise that, OK, you can do this. So as soon as I left Freetown, I was pregnant a few months later so thank you everyone!
Our value is not about what we produce. I think that is the biggest lesson for me and that your people show up for you. Your value goes beyond that contract paper, that people care about you — I think that’s why I’m weeping — all of the stories are a reminder that we are not those pieces of paper. We are not the deliverables, we are not the work. And yes, we’re all committed, right? We all are working towards the same thing and my value is not tied to whether or not I’ve produced X, Y and Z. So that’s been my journey, having six months of leave has been incredible, it gave me time to ease into being a first-time mum, to deal with the doubts, it gave me time to cuddle with my boy. Like, yeah, I’ve loved every single bit of it. And in comparison to what my friends have gone through, I know that this is a huge privilege. I don’t take it lightly. I know that it doesn’t even make sense to me, every time people are like, ‘What? Six months? And you were fully paid?’ So I think I’m really grateful for it as well and hope that it can be a message to everyone else to do the same.
For me, I had just moved to Sierra Leone and my daughter used to get sick quite a bit and I remember I used to take work off and they made the environment really open for me to even feel comfortable to bring my child, even in that small room where we were all cramped in the first place. Imagine bringing a one year-old baby. So it was a really great experience and I’m really happy that as we grow, a lot of fabulous women also have their own stories to share. So I’m really happy that we’re having this conversation.
I think even beyond people understanding the policies, it’s like, how does another woman that gets pregnant not have that feeling that they need to hide it. How do we hold people beyond what’s written on a piece of paper so they know that not only is it not a problem, but that it’s our superpower that we show up in this world and the work and that our understanding of solidarity and justice and our investment in girlhood comes in so many ways from our parenthood. What can we collectively do to help other people understand that?
I think it gets much more difficult as we’re getting bigger because then everybody becomes fragmented, but it’s just about an extension of the culture that this is a safe space — that everything you come with is a part of you, it’s not about just doing your work. This is a space where you have sisters you can talk to openly about anything when you’re going through something, even first-time pregnancy. It’s also a space where we share the challenges of childcare.
As a first-time mum, getting my child into the school system and just balancing picking up my child, getting her home and also keeping up with my calendar was really a struggle. My team gave me the reassurance to block out my calendar each week when I needed to pick my baby up from school — nothing will take up that space now!
For me, I need to travel quite a lot for my work. I don’t really have childcare and it’s expensive and rigid in the UK. I feel I carry quite a lot of guilt about leaving the kids and have not resolved that in myself at all. And then I find the transition from working and finishing at half five or six and having thirty seconds from going from my computer to then being with the children and trying to get into mum mode and not being short with them or impatient. And you’ve often just come off the back of eight calls and suddenly you’re on the ground pretending the toilet roll is a rocket.
One of my challenging bits about parenting and working is when my daughter gets sick, especially with malaria and typhoid — the initial stages of taking work off to take her to the hospital and then returning back to work but she’s still at home sick. And then also the times during COVID were really challenging for me. It was really hard for me to transition to working from the office space where a child is not always trying to get my attention to working from home, where I had to hide. I had to pretend that I was going to work.
I’m just really grateful to become a mum with all of you and we get to be a bit open with each other and name the hard bits and try not to feel nostalgic looking back but think about how we can bring some of that spirit into the future. Just gratitude to all of you.
Same, same, gratitude and just hearing these challenges as well that we’re all sharing.I know it’s the reality but it’s just gratitude and love for all of you on this journey. So thank you.
You can read more about Purposeful’s five year journey in our new publication — Building Our Feminist Hub