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Why Maternity Leave Doesn’t Have to Kill Your Career

By Naomi Tomky February 2nd, 2016

“What’s the latest we could push this due date back?” It was three a.m., and I had just finished nursing my two-day-old daughter. “I just had a baby, but would still love to take this on.”

The original email commissioning the article had come when I was 48 hours, two morphine shots, and an epidural into giving birth. It was from an editor at a major magazine in my vertical; I couldn’t pass up the opportunity. And now that the baby was out, I had to make sure that whatever maternity leave I took didn’t athill—or even slightly impede—my career as a freelance writer.

As poor as the parental leave policies are for full-time employees in the United States—it ranks dead last in a Pew Research ranking of 38 countries—freelancers have even less protection.

Only one state, California, has any sort of paid leave that freelancers can opt in to. And job security, a challenge freelancers already manage on a daily basis, is practically non-existent.

Freelancers who become parents are forced to choose between working through their child’s first days and jumping off a career cliff. It’s possible this could change sometime soon, thanks to a recent push for better family leave policies. Until that becomes official, however, there are ways to handle maternity leave without falling off that career-killing cliff.

Help on the horizon?

Last March, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced the FAMILY Act (Family and Medical Insurance Leave) in Congress, proposing a trust fund within the Social Security Administration paid for by employees and employers to cover up to 12 weeks leave in case of major factors like serious health conditions or child birth. Anyone, regardless of employment type, can use the benefits to earn 66 percent of a typical monthly income, up to $4,000 per month.

Vicki Shabo, vice president of the National Partnership for Women and Families, told me the bill was designed to introduce “policies that recognize the changing nature of employment,” which includes more freelancing. The Act currently has the support of 21 senators, 115 members of the House, and President Obama, but it is unlikely to pass a Republican controlled legislature since employers would have to pay half of the trust. (Freelancers, however, would have to pay a full share since there wouldn’t be an employer to cover half, according to Shabo.)

Freelancers in California already have a preview of the FAMILY Act in the state’s Paid Family Leave insurance program, enacted in 2002. While not required to pay into the program, freelancers have the option to do so. According to the Legal Aid Society, a nonprofit, between the state disability insurance program and paid family leave, Californian freelancers can take up to 12 weeks of paid leave (at 55 percent of regular income) if they choose to pay into the program.

Rhode Island and New Jersey are the other two states with family leave policies, but their programs are only available to full-time employees. So short of moving to California or purchasing disability insurance that covers pregnancy and newborn care, freelancers can’t currently get financial help.

Shabo hopes to recruit freelancers who can help change that.

“We’re in a moment of incredible progress and momentum,” she said. “That makes this even more urgent for freelancers to speak up and say that whatever policy solutions are constructed need to recognize the evolution of the employment relationship and the role that freelancers are playing in the economy.”

Until there are more laws that help new freelance parents in America, self-employed workers are still going to have to design their own paths for dealing with parental leave. Even though there aren’t concrete guidelines for how long to take off or how much work you should do, there are some best practices that freelance mothers were happy to share.

Know your cashflow

For most freelancers, the financial downturn of maternity normally happens during the leave itself. Freelance science writer Cassandra Willyard, however, had the opposite experience.

“When I was on leave, the checks were rolling in,” she explained. “I’m now back at work, and the cash has stopped flowing.”

Her experience demonstrates just how erratic cashflow can be for freelancers on maternity leave—you never know when a down period might hit. So save early and save often in order to cover the gap.

Freelancer Katharine Gammon, who is about to have her second child, saves half of her income leading up to her due date so “the pain gets spread out over several months.” Considering that California’s disability insurances pay out at 55 percent, Gammon’s method results in a fairly similar pay scheme.

Work ahead, and keep clients updated when necessary

Chaunie Brusie didn’t even bother to tell her editors she was having a baby. “I simply worked like a madwoman to get everything done way ahead of time,” she said. Fortunately, since most of her work is monthly, she she could front-load her output and comfortably take off for a month.

But this strategy requires careful planning and a bit of luck. Christa D. Terry, co-founder of Hello Mamas, tried this tactic and found herself in a pickle when her daughter arrived six weeks early. Having a baby is almost never predicable, so even the best laid plans can go to ruin.

Freelancer Leah McBride Mensching believes that honesty is best for dealing with clients while on maternity leave, particularly when you don’t have the luxury of getting all your work done ahead of time. When planning her three-and-a-half month leave, she wanted to make sure her editors and clients knew when she was due. That way, they wouldn’t expect immediate responses.

“They’ll be more understanding in helping you to wrap up projects and then not bug you for awhile when your time off starts,” she said. She also found an unexpected bonus: Telling others she was not working helped her stick to her self-imposed deadline.

Be flexible

For someone with a traditional office job, maternity leave means 24/7 baby-bonding time, but freelancing often means you have to balance work and time with your child—even if you take time off. Nearly every freelance mom I spoke to told stories of conference calls while pumping, interviews during naps, and nursing while typing.

During my maternity leave, I wrapped up edits, negotiated a contract, and met with a new editor in an effort to keep my established place as a weekly writer for one of my clients. I even took on a rush job for the new editor to help him out of a bind.

As Brusie makes clear, some freelancers don’t see this as a problem: “If you have to do a little work that you can do parked on the couch with a newborn on your chest, than you might just have the greatest job ever.”

Thought not all freelance mothers will continue to work while on leave, freelancer Julie Schwietert Collazo pointed out that “editors stay in touch with writers who keep themselves on their radar.” In other words, a little flexibility and work during leave makes for an easier time getting back to business later. But you should also take time to take care of yourself.

“Balancing work and home life is hard, and when you’re a freelancer the two tend to blur together,” Mensching said. “Get out and take a breather whenever you can, even if it only lasts a minute or two. Self-care, even in small doses, adds up.”

Most freelancers I spoke to simply worked through having a child. Some realized years later just how much ground they lost by gaining a kid. For others, the benefits of freelancing outweighed the lack of protected leave.

As Collazo said, “The fact that I can stop in the middle of my day to go read a book at my daughter’s school, chaperone a field trip, or take my kids with me on a work trip is worth all the trade-off.”

The reality is that being a freelancer means a lack of job and income security. And until the United States changes its policies on parental leave, taking maternity leave just magnifies it.

Image by Ekaterina Pokrovsky
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