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Chris Bolin/© 2008

Jessica Jacobs launched her own shoe company so she could spend more time with her children. The plan worked a little too well.

Soon the Calgary woman and her daughter, Amaris, were spending every minute together, designing, packaging and hauling their colourful children's shoes to local retailers. Shop owners joked that the pair should get matching shirts with their business name, Little Soles.

Amaris would need a special size, though. She was two months old.

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"Unfortunately, when you're self-employed you don't get the type of coverage that people do with corporations," says Ms. Jacobs, 34, who was back to work six weeks after her daughter's birth.

Last week, in a bid to woo female voters, Conservative leader Stephen Harper promised to extend maternity and parental benefits to Canada's 2.6 million self-employed workers. About 35 per cent are women, a segment that, according to Statistics Canada, has increased from 26 per cent since 1976.

Some met the offer with cautious optimism, including Robyn Ramsay, a 26-year-old dentist in Saint John who's postponing her plans to have children until her year-old practice is more firmly established. Even then, three months off is the most she could manage, considering she would be losing money during her absence.

"It would be a nice idea to have something in place," Ms. Ramsay said of the proposed maternity leave program.

But others say maternity leave for self-employed women is practically an oxymoron.

"I don't know any entrepreneur, especially in the first five years, who can take a year off," said Kathryn Bechthold, founder of The Mompreneur magazine, a Calgary-based publication for mothers juggling families and a new business.

It's a conundrum many self-employed women face. Being your own boss allows you to set your own hours, pursue passions and, in some cases, work part-time to spend more time with family. But even the best-laid plans can't be actualized when reality sets in.

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Rebecca Simpson knows both sides of the coin. When the Saskatoon woman had her first son, Noah, she was a teacher and had a full year of maternity leave.

But her second son, Adam, was born a year after she launched a retail store, Cravings Maternity & Baby Boutique, with her business partner - another young mom. The plan was to split the workload so they could each work part-time.

Instead, she popped by the store on her way home from the hospital - just to check in. Eighteen months later, she's working evenings and six-day weeks. A nanny makes life bearable, but she still feels guilty.

"I dream of working on the assembly line," Ms. Simpson says. "I think I'd be very bored, but it would be nice to have a job that you leave at your job. I don't feel like I can give my 100-per-cent attention to [the kids]ever."

Others, such as Vancouver chiropractor Debbie Wright, say they're trying to figure out how to factor a family into their working life. At 31, she says it will be three more years before her practice is built up enough that she can take some time off.

"You're basically forced to decide between your business and being a mom," she said. "It's something we all struggle with. You do work hard to build up your practice, and you don't want to see it decline."

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Currently, self-employed workers do not pay into the Employment Insurance program and are not eligible for benefits.

Most take less than four weeks of maternity leave, compared with six months for female employees, according to a 2003 report from the University of Guelph.

Some associations, such as the Canadian Dental Association, have lobbied the government for maternity leave for their members. Maternity leave was also one of the recommendations that came out of an international conference on women entrepreneurs that took place in Ottawa last year, hosted by Carleton University and Industry Canada.

"It's long overdue," said one of the conference chairs, Barbara Orser, a professor who studies female entrepreneurship at the Telfer School of Management at the University of Ottawa.

But others say Mr. Harper's promise - which is still short on details, such as how much the premiums would be and what women would receive - is a nice idea but short on practicality.

François Brouard, associate professor at Carleton's Sprott School of Business, says you just have to do the math.

Only 17 per cent of self-employed women make more than $30,000 a year, he said, citing Statistics Canada figures. For the majority of self-employed women, it isn't feasible to pay EI premiums and earn only a fraction of their income during a significant leave, he said.

"That would probably be under the level of poverty."

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