Freelancers Can Take Maternity Leave Too. Here’s How.By Jenni Gritters November 1st, 2019
When I found out I was pregnant six months ago, all I could think about was my new business. I’d started working as a full-time freelance journalist just one year before, when a media company laid me off.
By all accounts, I’d had a great year: I made six figures, worked with a lot of interesting companies, and wrote nearly 100 stories. But how could I continue my success with a newborn? And more importantly, how could I cobble together a maternity leave plan all on my own?
Ask any freelancing parent and they’ll tell you that it’s not impossible. In fact, there are a few ways to plan a maternity leave—a real one—while working for yourself.
Save Money For the Dry Spell Ahead of Time
For better or worse, a healthy savings account will be the bedrock of any freelance maternity leave. Most freelancers end up socking money away into a high-interest savings account during the months leading up to delivery, skimming $500 or $1,000 off each month’s income.
Sounds simple, but the truth is, to save a lot in a short amount of time requires not only massive willpower but total budgetary awareness. To get there, map out how much you need to make each month to pay your bills after saving a third for taxes, then multiply that by the number of months you plan to be on leave. That number is your savings target.
Cheryl Lock, a 36-year-old freelance writer in Colorado, took three months off for her two daughters’ births. Her savings, combined with her husband’s income, allowed her to set work aside entirely each time. “As a freelancer, I don’t have any paid family leave or disability insurance,” she said. “So it was all about saving up as much as possible.”
The tradeoff? You’ll likely be working harder than usual while you’re pregnant.
Buy Short-Term Disability Insurance
This option can be tough to implement because it requires a lot of forward planning—but if you’re an organization nerd, it may be the route for you.
Some insurance companies offer short-term disability plans that cover 12 to 16-weeks of maternity leave. Rates and policies vary but in most cases, you’ll pay into the plan for a year before you’re able to take leave.
That said, you must enroll before you become pregnant, in most cases at least three months before. Pregnancy counts as a pre-existing condition, so you won’t be covered if you’ve conceived before signing up. As always, read the fine print.
Use State-Backed Paid Family Leave
In six states—California, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Washington State (and the District of Columbia), self-employed residents can opt-in to a state-led program that provides wage replacement and job security for parents following the birth of a child.
Of course, these programs differ by state. For example, Cynthia Calvert, a senior advisor at The Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, noted that in New York, freelancers have to purchase insurance policies for both paid family leave and disability leave in order to take advantage of the program. In California, self-employed workers must apply to the program and make quarterly payments. In other states, too, workers must pay into the program for a set number of years in order to get benefits.
“Many of these laws are new,” warned Calvert, “and the rules about how to participate and how to get benefits may change as the kinks get worked out.”
Benefits differ by location. In Washington, for example, self-employed workers are eligible to receive up to 90% of their normal paychecks, up to $1,000 per week for 12 weeks. And in other places, like in Washington, D.C., you must also prove that at least half of your work takes place inside city limits.
While state-run programs can ask for a lot of paperwork (applications, notes about income, claim filing and more), they usually offer enough pay-out to make the effort worthwhile. Calvert suggests calling your state’s paid family leave office (if they have one) for a full run-down right after you get pregnant.
Work Through Your Leave, If You Have To
Some freelancers, like Olivia Howell, a 34-year-old social media manager, work through their leave because freelancing is flexible. Howell said she scheduled posts for her clients about a month ahead of time so she could take leave right after her second child was born.
“I did lose money when I took time off,” she said. “My husband at the time joked that I was managing social media during labor and delivery—it may have been true!”
Some people get lucky with an easy kid. Sara Jensen, a 37-year-old freelance copywriter and marketing consultant, went back to work a few weeks after she gave birth to her second child. “My daughter was an amazing sleeper almost from day one,” she said. “A few weeks after she was born, I started to get restless and checked my work email. When I did that, I felt an overwhelming urge to jump back in.”
The decision to work through maternity or paternity leave is a private one, but most of the women I spoke with didn’t recommend it. According to medical experts, you will likely need at least six weeks to recover medically from a natural labor (more with a C-section).
Hire a Sitter for Your Business (It’s a Thing)
Christine Emmer knows what it’s like to need maternity leave while working freelance. That’s why she recently launched a new company called BizBabysitters, where she babysits other women’s businesses for a fee while they take maternity leave.
“My biggest piece of advice is to take radical responsibility for your maternity leave,” she said. “Give yourself exactly what you need and then some. Our society tends to reward overwork and it can be easy to see burnout as a badge of honor, so this is going to require some deprogramming.”
Other experienced freelancers note that you should let your clients know about your planned leave well in advance, often at least three months ahead. That way, you can work with them to make sure their projects and needs are covered while you’re away.
“Treat your freelancing like what it is: a business,” said Lock, the mother of two from Colorado. “I made sure to let each and every client know that I was pregnant and expecting to take three months off, to ensure I had time to finish up any projects I was currently working on. I also let everyone know that I enjoyed working with them, and that I would be in touch as soon as my leave was over, which I was.”
Finally, give yourself room for flexibility. If you need to change your plans once your baby arrives, do it without shame.
“You won’t know what your day-to-day will look like until your baby arrives,” said Jensen, who got back to working sooner than expected. “Remember that your baby will only be teeny tiny for a very short time. Your early child-rearing years probably won’t be your best years financially, and that’s OK!”
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Jenni Gritters is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle. She typically covers healthy living and you can find her bylines in The Guardian, Elemental magazine, Outside magazine, the REI Co-op Journal, and many other places. When she’s not writing, you can find her hiking the Pacific Northwest trails with her husband and puppy, teaching yoga and meditation, or cooking.