When I launched my freelance career 11 years ago, I had two little boys and was pregnant with my third. Over the next decade, I gave birth to two more babies, never once taking more than a few weeks off from my full-time writing career.
Now that all my kids are finally in school every day, it’s interesting and a little therapeutic to reflect back on how I made it work for all those years. For anyone in the midst of that hectic struggle to balance parenting with working at home, or wondering how it’s even possible, here are my tips for developing kids and a career at the same time—all without losing your cool.
1. Make the most of the time you have
I always tell fledgling writers that there is no such thing as a “time fairy” who will come grant you eight uninterrupted hours of work each day. This is especially true for parents of young kids.
For years, I had both a baby and a toddler in the house, meaning I rarely had more than a half-hour block of quiet time. One strategy I relied on was to make a list of things I could do for my writing business in quick bursts of five, 10, or 15 minutes, and post the list by my computer. That way, in that magical moment when the kids start playing quietly, you can use the little freedom you have to be productive rather than sleeping in your chair with your eyes opened.
You may also need to get real with yourself about the time you’re spending on TV and mindless social media surfing. I’m not saying you’ll never have time for those things again, but if you’re truly strapped for time, it may be worthwhile to abandon it all during the beginning of your career.
My advice? Boil your life down to only your greatest priorities (for example: family, marriage, work) and let the rest of it go for a while. You may find that you’re less available to your friends, fall behind on Game of Thrones, and have to deal with a messier house than you’re accustomed to, but remember that you won’t need to sacrifice forever. As your career gains momentum, you can add leisure activities back one by one when you have a better handle on how to efficiently juggle everything.
2. Get creative with child care
For freelancers just starting out, particularly if they have more than one child, paying for a nanny or daycare is often out of the question. Even when I got to the point that I was making a full-time income as a writer, using daily child care never appealed to me.
Instead, I relied on a few strategies that got me through the early years:
-Swap with a friend: Find another parent who’s in the same boat and arrange to watch each other’s kids a couple of days per week. For years, a good friend and I swapped our youngest children, with each of us getting an “extra” child two days per week. Personally, I’ve always found that two children are easier to care for than one because they keep each other company. And another benefit: Our kids are now great friends.
-Share a sitter: Babysitters or nannies will sometimes agree to watch children from two different families at the same time, particularly if the kids get along well. You’ll end up paying a bit more per hour than you would for just one child, but since you’ll be splitting the cost down the middle with other parents, the total cost winds up being a lot less.
-Hire a mother’s helper: Maybe all you need is someone to entertain your kids for a small window of time, and in those cases, a preteen who’s not quite old enough to babysit on her own can be a perfect—and cost-effective—solution. A 10- or 11-year-old playmate won’t charge as much as a teenage sitter, but I’ve found that they can be very responsible and enthusiastic caretakers.
-Use what you’ve got: If you pay for a gym membership, child care is often included as part of your monthly package. There’s generally a limit on how long your kids can be in there (it’s not meant to be a replacement for daycare, after all) but I found that the half-hour left over after I was done exercising and showering was a great opportunity to answer an email or two, outline a story, and squeeze in a quick edit.
3. Think outside the 9-to-5 box
The beauty of working from home is you can operate outside of the typical work schedule. I’ve conducted interviews from the hood of my car as my babies slept in the air-conditioning and from inside a walk-in closet while chucking snacks at a preschooler in the adjoining room. I’ve also stayed up ridiculously late to finish stories (and then made it up to myself by napping with my toddler the next day). With kids, sometimes things just don’t go as planned, and there’s no point bemoaning a day lost to a sudden stomach bug or a no-show sitter.
In other words, be flexible. When I first launched my career, I found it easy to stay up late to work. Soon after I hit 30, my ability to burn the candle at that particular end started to wane. Now it’s easier for me to get up early and cram in an hour or two of writing. Freelancing allows for a great amount of flexibility, but you don’t want to get to the point where you’re just working all the time. Put some boundaries on your life—for example, setting hours you absolutely won’t work—so you don’t burn out, or tune out the people you love.
4. Mine your life
I’m a big fan of specializing—pursuing a specific niche rather than writing about just anything—and have found that tapping my experiences with kids was one of the most effective ways to generate ideas and cut down on research. After all, I was in the thick of parenting, so I already knew exactly where to go to find answers, sources, and other moms and dads to interview. The great thing about using your own experiences is there are so many sub-topics within the general parenting arena that make it easy to relate to your interests.
5. Convey (casual) professionalism
Feeling like a “real” writer isn’t always easy to do when your desk is littered with sippy cups and there are crushed Cheerios by your feet. I used to stress out about never letting anyone know I had children around me as I worked, to the point where if I hired a sitter for an hour or two and then a source cancelled, my day would be wrecked. I finally started to loosen up a little when I realized my editors, sources, agent, and other professionals I interacted with often returned my calls from busy airports or noisy coffee shops, or with kids or dogs making noise in the background.
With technology making it easier to be on-call these days, we’re all, to a large extent, in the same boat. So these days, I don’t worry if people know I work from home near my kids. Chances are, they’re doing the same thing. I convey professionalism in the ways that count: by doing what I say I’ll do, meeting deadlines, handling feedback with a positive attitude, and clearly communicating when I need more time on a story or have a concern.
Balancing parenting with work was a challenge, but once I realized I had to learn how to juggle major responsibilities with a certain mindset, taking care of my kids never could’ve stopped me from being a successful freelancer.