How Does Maternity Leave Affect Your Freelance Career?

By Aubre Andrus November 28th, 2014

he The 53 million freelancers in America get a lot of benefits when it comes to a flexible schedule and working from home, but paid maternity leave is not one of them.

For women who are self-employed, a pregnancy can seem like quite a professional hurdle to overcome—loss of work leads to fewer clients and less income. But there are freelancers out there who’ve worked successfully through the transition from freelancer to mother and back to freelancer.

Copywriter and corporate storyteller Judi Ketteler worked through her pregnancy—all the way to the delivery room. “I was in labor working on this article,” she said. “I’ll never forget being at the hospital writing about firefighters.”

However, before you find yourself meeting multiple deadlines in the delivery room, there are a few factors to consider: How much time will you take off? Will you tell your clients about your pregnancy? And will you hire childcare help after the birth so you can resume your career?

Taking Time Off

Freelance writer and editor Melanie Lasoff Levs of Atlanta, Georgia, is now a mother of three kids all younger than eight years old. After each pregnancy, she took a maternity leave of approximately three months but “never completely stepped out.”

Instead, Lasoff Levs checked email, stayed involved in the Atlanta media scene, and kept her name on the local stringer list for publications like The Washington Post and the New York Daily News. “I’d never not be involved,” she said. “I’m still a member of ASJA [The American Society of Journalists and Authors] and the Atlanta Press Club, and I get together with my writer friends a lot. It’s just a part of my being.”

While on leave, she called on other writers in her social circle for help when she couldn’t take on work. Clients always appreciated her referrals, and her friends appreciated getting more work, so it was a win-win situation for her connections.

“It’s good to have that support group of other writers you can be social with but also call on when there’s a project that needs to be done,” she added. “It’s the same as being a mother, you hand off each other’s children.”

Informing Clients

For freelancers who’ve landed steady work from great clients, stepping away temporarily can put you in a vulnerable position. Ketteler was selective when mentioning her pregnancy and recommends other freelancers take a similar approach. If she was in the middle of a project and there was a chance the work would be interrupted, she notified her contact, but a majority of her clients didn’t even know.

“I didn’t want anyone to get ideas about what that meant,” she explained. “I don’t want them to think I’m juggling my kids. I want my clients to think they’re my number one priority.”

Ketteler didn’t want a client to assume she wasn’t coming back to work or was unable to travel just because she was a mother, so she made an effort to keep her personal life separate from her professional life.

Jumping Back In

New parents who are used to busy days may get cabin fever during those first few weeks of motherhood. That’s what happened to Ketteler, until she started working again.

Ketteler hadn’t planned for a definitive maternity leave, but she was working “on the fly” just one week later and quickly found herself scheduling interviews around breastfeeding.

“I was obviously mindful of the fact that I just had a baby, but I was always checking email, and if a great assignment came in, I wanted to do it,” she said. “For me, work is how I feel normal. All I wanted to do after I had my first baby was go to a coffee shop and write a story.”

Ketteler recommends establishing really good time management practices before any kids enter the picture. Once those good habits are in place, it’s easier to transition back into work mode after a birth.

Asking for Help

According to researchers at George Mason University, even the smallest interruptions can ruin your level of productivity, which is why many freelancers who are mothers rely on at least part-time childcare.

For Ketteler, full-time childcare helps her emotionally and lets her take her career seriously without having to worry about changing gears for a crying toddler or a wet diaper.

“People do juggle. That’s one of the reasons people love freelancing,” she said. “I’m not in it for the juggling. I’m not in it to be flexible for my kids. I’m in it because this is all I want to do.”

Ketteler’s husband now stays at home with their kids, ages 4 and 6, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and the family depends solely on her income, a responsibility the mother takes in stride. “It’s my career and it’s never going to be on the side,” she added. “I was never going to be at home with the kids and write. I need my routine. I need to be focused. I need to know what I could expect every day.”

She firmly believes freelancers who pull in a significant amount of money must prioritize their careers: “If you look at it as ‘it’s this thing I’m doing on the side for extra money,’ then that’s all it’s going to be.”

For Lasoff Levs, a babysitter relieves her two days per week, which allows for uninterrupted time for work. However, occasionally, she’ll work outside of this dedicated time. She recently brought along her 13-month-old to a meeting with a new client: a business that focuses on mothers.

“We’re in a position where my income helps, but it’s not crucial to the family,” she said. “What’s crucial to the family for us is that I’m home. My kids are my boss now.”

Changing Focus

Figuring out how to manage time is often the number one adjustment for mothers who return to their careers following a pregnancy. And managing that limited amount of time may require a mental shift.

“It’s made me a much more confident negotiator because I don’t really have a choice now,” she said. “I determine if something is worth my while, and if it’s not, it’s an automatic no.”

Lasoff Levs has also found that her approach has changed drastically in the last five years. Before becoming a mother, she built a steady flow of work; now, she often accepts big projects then takes off a month before starting the next job.

“There’s no one way to do it. You have to define it for yourself and take control of it,” Ketteler said. “You don’t have to do what anyone else does. Make it your own even if it seems weird and disconnected.”

Image by Monkey Business Images
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