How do you plan for paternity & maternity leave as a freelancer?

And get your business going again afterwards

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One of the topics I'm often asked for advice about is how to prepare for maternity leave as a freelancer.  After that initial excitement of announcing a pregnancy, thoughts turn to the more practical and financial elements of having a baby – including how you’ll afford taking time off while keeping your business intact. And I'll be the first to admit, it can be daunting.

With my first baby, I planned for a full 12 months of leave. I’d waited so long to be pregnant and I wanted to enjoy every minute of it. I’d saved a fair bit of cash in the process and had set things up with my accountant so I could still claim statutory maternity leave while doing the odd bit of work here and there.

To make this work, I had to make myself an employee of my limited company so I could still claim SMP without being penalised for earning a small income. (I believe this is different if you’re a sole trader and you’re only entitled to work for approximately 10 Keeping in Touch days while claiming).

So that was my financial plan. But there were other elements to consider and I worried A LOT about losing all of my work for good as I was still relatively new to freelancing back then. I also missed writing a lot too. So, three months in, I started emailing editors to tell them that I was ready to take on commissions again.

I found that my son slept a lot in those first few weeks and months so it worked quite well - I also became a pro at typing with one hand while he napped on my chest. As I’d saved a good nest egg, working also didn’t come with any pressure. I wasn’t doing it to pay the bills, but to keep my contacts going and my brain ticking.

What I did find a little more challenging was getting my business back to where it had been 10 months or so after my son had arrived. Yes, I’d saved for a full 12 months, but I hadn’t taken into consideration that when I was ready to take on more (and also needed to because my savings were running low) a larger workload wasn’t going to just fall into my lap just because I’d booked my son into nursery. In the same way it had done when I first went freelance, it was going to take a bit of time to build.

This was something I hadn't planned enough for and, in hindsight, should have expected. If I had, I don't think I would have put so much pressure and expectation on myself so early on.

Part of the reason for this was that while the work was there, it was unpredictable in a way it hadn’t before – no real surprise after being out of the full-time game for a few months and losing my regular contracting role. My son was also only at nursery two days a week and I often found that work would come in on a Thursday or Friday, leaving me typing away at the weekend and less busy when we had childcare. Thankfully, work did return to normal after a few months and I slowly worked out how much childcare I needed and how much I could commit to.

So how do I intend to do it this time around? A little bit differently, I think. While I know that going from one to two children is going to be a challenge, I now also know that stepping away completely from work doesn't make me massively happy so I want to strike more of a happy medium. I’ve worked really, really hard to get my business to where it is now, so I don’t want to just let it all go if I can help it - but I still want to enjoy my time with me baby too.

So what's the best way of striking this balance? My plan is to keep a small number of my most valued and regular clients who are easy to work with and pay well. I also have a good idea of how much they expect of me in any given month so it makes it easier to plan around. That way we should be able to align our expectations of each other and continue on working in the way we have been doing. I’ll pause any other additional work, explaining to those editors and clients that I’ll be back in touch when I can commit to more time.

I feel so very lucky that the nature of freelance writing means that I can work in this way while looking after a baby, but I'm also aware that putting too much pressure on myself too soon won't be good for me or the baby. So I plan to not over commit and be as realistic as I can.

One of the ways I'm being realistic is by enlisting the help of a my very trusted freelance buddy who's going to help me keep things ticking over for the first six weeks or so. We've already started planning and chatting about how that will work, so I'm hoping that she'll keep the ship steady while I'm in that newborn fog.

Of course, this isn’t a plan that would suit everyone and I'm not saying that there's ever a one-size-fits-all goal. It depends so much on the type of work you do, how you like to work, and the support you have around you.

To offer some nuance, I thought you might also find it helpful to hear from some other freelancers about how they organised their own maternity and paternity leave. When I had my son, I didn’t know any other freelance parents, so I had no one to speak to about it with or ask for advice. Hopefully, if you're in the same boat, you'll find this helpful and reassuring.

So, I spoke to Helen Ochrya, a Journalist and Author, and Andi Best,  Director of Best Freelance Design Ltd. Here’s what they told me about their own very recent experiences of maternity and paternity leave.

Helen Ochyra, Journalist and Author

Helen began her journalism career at the Guardian and left to go freelance about 12 years ago. Since then she has mostly been writing about travel and now specialises in destinations including Scotland, Spain and Australia. She has also written numerous guidebooks and recently published her first solo book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes. During the first lockdown she wrote her memoir and started moving into writing first-person features about family and parenting. Her youngest daughter was born just last month, now making her a mum of two under two.

“I took about five months off, although during that time I did write a few articles and - as ever - spent plenty of time in my email inbox. After that my husband took six months of Shared Parental Leave so I was able to fully return to work pretty much before anyone noticed I'd been away. I attended one or two events while I was on maternity leave too and made sure all my regular clients knew exactly when I would be back. I think communication was key, and it didn't hurt that many of my clients are also working mothers who totally get it”.

“With our second baby my husband has taken his SPL straight away and is off for six months again. This was partly a financial decision as it means he qualifies for enhanced pay from his employer. But also it means we're both around to manage the madness of having two such young children. Our eldest daughter is also in nursery three days a week, which helps us to retain our sanity! I lost one of my regular (and very best) clients to redundancy, which was a huge blow, but I have picked up new clients along with work from existing ones reasonably easily. I think it's easier if you have an established reputation and I have certainly relied on the positive relationships I've made over the years”.

“I was definitely ready to get back to work but I've also found that the balance of having my daughter in nursery three days a week, and with me for two, has been emotionally less of a wrench than the transition from full-time maternity leave to full-time work might have been.”

“It has felt like those who don't have children have been able to respond more quickly to this bizarre past year, and I watched plenty of my colleagues jet off as soon as restrictions were lifted, their names appearing on articles with regularity. I, on the other hand, was largely trapped at home by pregnancy and our childcare needs”.

“I probably didn't pitch for work as much as I could have done, and I felt myself taking a step back, which is something I never thought I would do. At the end of the day though my family are the most important thing by far, and pandemic or no pandemic I won't be able to travel as much as I did previously - and wouldn't want to. So I'm in a phase of reflection at the moment, working out where I want to go from here. To help my confidence I've taken a LOT of webinars to increase and improve my knowledge in various areas and have also started studying for a Masters.”

Andi Best,  Director of Best Freelance Design Ltd

Andi is a freelance creative specialising in web design/development, graphic design and illustration. He has two young children and has been freelancing for 14 years. 

“I took two weeks off for paternity leave and they absolutely flew by. In preparation - six months prior - I had taken on an inhuman number of projects. I anticipated the pace being a lot slower once the baby was here, and I felt I needed to offset my wife's income dropping by her taking her year-long maternity leave”.

“About a month before I made all of my active clients aware of my own impending downtime. I'd also added a large brightly coloured banner relaying the message to my email signature so anyone contacting me about anything at all was aware as well”.

“As soon as the morning came that my wife was adamant it was showtime, I immediately set my out of office and didn't login to my account until I was back at my desk. Financially I was okay. All that extra work I took on had been paid for, and my active workload was waiting for me on the other side. The birth took place during lockdown, so we hadn't been going anywhere or doing anything, so savings had accrued, plus our holiday fund was untouched”.

“Thankfully, work was waiting when I returned. Clients were counting down the days, eager to pick up where we left off. With hindsight I perhaps would have taken a longer paternity period. It would have been to my detriment owing to the stress and late nights it would have entailed grappling with the workload, but with the subsequent lockdown and home-schooling just two months later that's what ended up happening anyway.”

How are you planning for your own paternity or maternity leave or do you have any pro tips to share? Let me know by replying below and I’ll share on The Freelance Parent Facebook group.

Until next time,

Cat x

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