Preparing for imminent parenthood? Congratulations! Whether you’re counting down to your due date or are about to adopt, it’s hopefully going to be a time filled with excitement, hope and anticipation – and, inevitably, worries about what to do with your freelance business.
After all, if you’ve spent years of hard work steadily building up a glowing portfolio of clients and recommendations, the thought of putting it on pause while you get to grips with a whole new challenge can be daunting. Unnerving. A bit ‘Oh god, how do people actually do this in real life?’. Because can you ever really take a break from work when you’re your own boss?
Put bluntly: for many self-employed parents-to-be, switching on an out-of-office and having a few months away from work just isn’t feasible. “If you’ve been able to save up money in the lead-up to maternity leave, you might feel more relaxed about taking a set amount of time fully off,” explains Annie Ridout, author of The Freelance Mum. “Or if you have a partner who can support you financially, you might prefer to take a proper break from work while you care for your new baby. But if money’s an issue, or there’s no partner, things are harder – and let’s be honest, maternity allowance is not enough to live on.”
Whilst the financial factor is hugely influential, it isn’t the only element that can create hesitation for freelance mums-to-be. Others include the potential impact an on-ice period could have on your hard-won client list, the possible dwindling of that visibility you’ve worked so hard to achieve, a loss of a sense of self… But be assured that you’re not alone with the conundrum – there were around five million self-employed people in 2019 according to ONS data – with a third of those women – and the figure is only expected to have risen following the impact of Covid-19.
Don’t be deterred. “I truly believe that having your own business is the best way to get the freedom and flexibility you want when you have young children, without having to compromise on doing fulfilling work,” says success coach and business strategist Anna Lundberg. “You just need to think about how to set-up your business to make it work for you.”
So how can you get the perfect balance: for yourself, your baby and your business? Happily enough, it doesn’t have to be impossible – here’s everything you need to consider to find what’s right for you.
1. Consider your timeframe
There are three key dates to keep in mind when it comes to maternity leave, which will help you gage a rough idea of the timeframe you’d be potentially taking off.
- The date you’re planning to start your maternity leave (if you’re planning to take time off): whether this is baby number 1 or number 4, those few weeks before birth could well be your last chance to indulge in a bit of down-time, if you can justify taking it off. Even if you plan to work until the end, be conscious of trying to fit in some extra relaxation.
- Your due date: the weather forecast of pregnancy, this gives a vague indication of what you could expect. Either way, you’ll probably need an umbrella and some SPF50 to cover all bases, because there’s no knowing when your little darling is going to make their grand entrance.
- The date you want to return to work: having an idea of when you’re going to get back to work will help you structure your maternity leave. This date will most likely change; you might go back sooner, or you might decide to prolong it.
You probably won’t be able to decide on this timeframe until later down the line – but even just starting to give it some thought will give you longer to work out how you might structure your leave.
2. Know your rights and get applying ASAP
It might sound obvious but knowing what you’re entitled to from the word ‘go’ can make things a lot easier, allowing you to cast ahead in terms of finances.
In terms of maternity allowance, familiarise yourself with gov.uk to ascertain what you will receive and how long for; talking to self-employed friends who’ve already been through the system can also help to put it into a more relatable context. At present, the full weekly rate of maternity allowance is £151.20 and there are a range of factors that can influence the final figure you will receive.
On that note, don’t delay applying. Understanding your rights will help with other decisions; equally, getting that Maternity Allowance (MA1) Form filled in sooner rather than later means there’s less chance of any nasty surprises closer due to your due date. Once you’ve submitted the paperwork, you should hear within 20 working days if your claim has been accepted or not.
If you have a partner, it could also be worth looking into Shared Parental Leave; self-employed parents can’t take it themselves but if your significant other is employed and meets the criteria, this could be an additional option for you to consider.
3. Start putting aside money as soon as you can
Saving money isn’t possible for all freelancers (especially off the back of the havoc wreaked by a certain pandemic) but if you’re able to, do. Whether you need to buy a new pram, pay for unexpected car repairs or just want a safety net for your taxes, having your very own ‘rainy day’ fund can help alleviate pressure.
To be blunt: with the government’s maternity allowance figure currently totalling in at a maximum of £5,896.80 for self-employed women, being as in charge of your own finances as possible is essential.
That’s exactly what award-winning freelance PR consultant Samantha Crowe had in mind when she moved across the country with her family shortly after giving birth to her second child. “I knew I needed to take six months off,” she explains, “to help me manage maternity and the move, as well as give me time to meet people, as we didn’t know anyone in Manchester.” She built-up cash reserves in advance, meaning she had a buffer in case the six months needed to be extended.
And it’s not just about saving from what you’re already earning. “It’s a good idea to ‘frontload’ your year,” recommends Anna. “This means arranging your business calendar, launches and projects so that they fall before you begin your maternity leave, as well as taking on extra clients and getting more money into your account while you’re still available.”
Remember that nothing’s black-and-white when it comes to prepping yourself and your finances for maternity leave. “It’s been different for each of my three babies,” admits Annie Ridout. “After the first, I’d lost my job and was building my career again from scratch. I had savings to last me 10 months so I didn’t earn during that time. After my second, I was properly freelancing so did what I could, when I could. Our third baby arrived just after I’d launched The Robora, the business I run with my husband. We teach marketing and mindset to online course creators, and they had really taken off. So we slowed down for a month and then snapped back to it.”
4. Know what you can offer your clients before you talk to them
You’ve worked hard to gain the trust of your customers – so what can you do to keep them happy whilst you’re on leave? Knowing your ideal scenario for client relationships and how you see the coming weeks or months playing out is crucial to helping create a situation that works for both of you.
If you have a team who will continue working whilst you’re off, this is a lot easier. However, if you’re a ‘solopreneur’ who’s entirely self-reliant, you might need to give it a little more thought.
For Samantha, thinking ahead with her clients’ content output helped her to feel reassured that she would be able to ‘build back up’ quickly when she returned to work. “I secured article placements with news sites for a number of retained clients, meaning they would have a steady flow of coverage coming through while I was off,” she says. “For other clients, I provided strategic advice as and when they needed it, as well as the odd piece of writing, just to keep my hand in. This gave me the time I needed and also provided a sense of continuity to clients.”
Ascertain what work you can prepare in advance for your customers to ensure a smooth transition and, if needs be, decide if you should pass on bigger projects to trustworthy peers, ‘either via a reciprocal agreement or by commission,’ suggests Anna.
In a nutshell: if you can confidently present your clients with a proposal of how you can retain their business whilst on maternity leave, they’re more likely to be on-board when you come back. Win-win, no?
5. Plan ahead to keep your brand visible
Depending on the business you run, your content output will be hugely influential. Getting weeks’ worth of material ready in advance might not sound appealing but it could help your brand to maintain a presence even when downloads or swipe-ups are the furthest thing from your mind.
So how do you do it? Anna has a few ideas. “Assuming you usually have a clear strategy and content calendar for your channels, and know the topics you want to cover, you can create as much as you like ahead of time,” she says. “Record videos and podcast episodes, draft blog posts, schedule social content, prep automated newsletters for keeping in touch with prospects so they don’t forget about you… All of these are things that can go out while you’re off; anything else that’s not a ‘must’ can be dropped or at least reprioritised without any real impact on your business.”
Visibility is crucial to keeping your brand at the forefront of your existing customers’ minds. It’s also important to consider those potential clients, too. “Make sure your warm prospects have somewhere to go,” adds Anna. “Put them on a waiting list and sign them up to an email sequence that sends them to your Facebook group or podcast in the meantime.”
6. Think smarter with your processes
For Rebecca, the due-date of her first child fell just as her freshly launched business Piddle Patch was beginning to gain traction. “Maternity leave was not on the table for me, nor was paying someone else to do my role in the business,” she says. “The options I had were to either continue working – without a break, as it’s a subscription-based business – or to close the business down.” She chose the former and ‘shifted into high-performance mode’ to ensure the brand was able to operate as normal: “instead of napping when the baby slept, I would catch-up on emails and coordinate orders”.
Her advice for making it work? Get savvy when it comes to your communications and create a system that can blend into your day rather than take it over. “It was necessary to set customer expectations and set boundaries,” she explains. Her tips include:
- The out of office: “I put an out-of-office on for a few months, informing customers I would be slower to respond because I had recently given birth. If anyone had an urgent need to reach me, they could type ‘Urgent’ in the subject line and I would respond ASAP – otherwise, I gave myself a couple of days to reply.”
- Cut the (phone) cord: “I stopped providing phone support, and moved contact to email and social media only. This helped protect my time and meant I was working to my own schedule rather than reacting to someone else’s.”
- Create an FAQ on your website: “This can help reduce the number of people getting in touch to ask questions that could easily be covered by a Frequently Asked Questions section on your site.”
On that final point: don’t have a website? Create a social set of FAQs and save them as a highlight on your Instagram profile.
7. Have a plan of where you’ll begin when you return
Easing yourself back in slowly – if possible – and knowing what you’ll start with when you return to work is recommended. As well as allowing you to find your feet with a new working rhythm, this approach will also give you a chance to catch-up on everything before you throw yourself in at the deep-end.
“It’s probably wise to have a set date for returning – and then to block out the first four weeks of that for planning and getting back into the headspace,” advises Annie, who runs a course that’s targeted at women who want to smash their goals but have less time available. “Researching, getting inspired, listening to podcasts, reading business books, checking in on social media… Also, create a planner for how you’re going to work now, around your baby. It’s all about balance.”
It’s also worth keeping in touch with relevant players throughout your time off. Rather than dropping off the radar, take time to check-in with your network, touch base with key clients and perhaps even share the odd update on LinkedIn.
8. Don’t feel guilty if you want to get back to work sooner rather than later
Guilt, work and motherhood are the unholy trinity that we’re meant to accept as a given. In fact, a 2019 study found that 61% of UK mums feel guilty about taking time to exercise – let alone returning to the business they’re passionate about. As such, you might feel ‘bad’ if you’re desperate to get back to work sooner than you expected. But don’t.
“Women enjoy having something to focus on outside of motherhood, and want to keep the connection to their work and contacts,” says Annie. “It’s down to the new mother. I don’t think it’s crucial that we stop working entirely, if we want to keep a foot in. But it is crucial that those freelance women who do want and need time off are supported enough to make it happen.”
9. Know that it might feel difficult – but it won’t be forever
The prospect of juggling your freelance business along with your baby might feel overwhelming – or it might seem blissfully simple. Either way, remember that this phase won’t last forever. As such, it’s crucial to not only deal with business worries as practically as possible but to also look after yourself and savour time with your new baby.
“Looking back, it wasn’t easy,” says Rebecca. “I don’t even really know how I did it. The truth is that there wasn’t an option for me to not do it if I wanted to keep my business going, so I just did what I had to.”
“Be ready for the unexpected,” adds Anna. “You never know how you’ll feel during or after your pregnancy. Do what you can to prepare but allow yourself the flexibility to adapt to whatever your new reality looks and feels like. Just trust that your business will be there when you get back.”