New arrival on the way? Congratulations! Getting your business into shape beforehand doesn’t need to be difficult, with the help of our guide to freelance maternity leave.
By Katie Byrne
Currently expecting a baby and have no idea what to do with your freelance business? You’re not alone. Pregnancy can be as overwhelming as it is wonderful for any expectant woman (whether she’s pregnant or preparing to adopt), let alone when she’s also got to decide how she can nurture her work alongside her new arrival.
After all, let’s not beat around the bush here: you’ve worked hard to get to where you are today, securing clients, pitching services and creating relationships that have allowed you to build your brand and expand your business.
So what happens when you’re supposed to put all that on hold?
Fundamentally, there are four business options that any freelance parent might find themselves facing:
- Put your business entirely on-hold while you’re on leave
- Pass over work to a colleague or trusted peer
- Get work prepared and scheduled in advance
- Carry on as best you can, how you can
Of course, the feasibility of these scenarios varies hugely according to the industry you work in and the kind of business you run, but hopefully they give you a rough starting position to begin with.
Much like anything to do with pregnancy, maternity leave won’t look the same for any two women. Whether you’re planning to take two weeks off or six months, factors such as the wellbeing of you and your baby, your finances, your support network and your perhaps deep-down desire to get back to work will all have an influence over how long you have away from your business.
However, while your set-up might be different, there are certain fundamental principles that every freelancer can apply to get their business ready for maternity leave. Whether you’re planning to have your ‘out of office’ on for months or will be checking your emails from your hospital bed, make sure you’ve taken these points on-board as you countdown to welcoming your new arrival.
1. What financial support is available to freelance parents in 2021?
The current rate of Maternity Allowance for freelancers and the self-employed sits at £151.20 a week. To qualify to receive this amount, you must have paid Class 2 National Insurance (NI) for at last 13 of the 66 weeks that immediately precede the birth of your baby.
If you haven’t paid enough NI, the figure significantly drops by 82 per cent to £27 a week, for 39 weeks. It’s worth noting that you might be able to increase this by making early NI payments; HMRC will be able to advise.
“I’ve found navigating it a bit difficult - there doesn’t seem to be much clear-cut advice or information,” admits marketing freelancer Katie Middleton, who is currently expecting her second child. “When I was in employment, it was much easier to arrange. Because I’m fairly new to self-employment, I haven’t had the chance to pay any NI contributions yet so as it stands I only qualify for £27 a week. Thankfully, I was able to tick the box to give permission for the Maternity Allowance team to get in touch with HMRC on my behalf to offer me the chance to pay my NI contributions early, so I should hopefully receive more.”
You could also give some thought to Shared Parental Leave (SPL), if you can make it work for your circumstances. For science writer Richard Berks, applying for SPL for the birth of his first child (when in full-time employment) was a no-brainer but by the time he was a freelancer and preparing for the birth of his second baby, it didn’t have the same appeal.
“I’d like to take a long period of parental leave again but I’m not sure how viable it is,” he says. “I’m looking into how I might be able to outsource more work though I’m not sure I’m at the stage where I’d be able to hand over everything I do to another person. We’re also in a different situation financially now than we were with our first child. Of course, I’m in a privileged position as a freelance father to a new baby - freelance mothers in the same situation may not have any choice but to hand over their work.”
2. How can you prepare your self-employed business for maternity leave?
Of course, readying your business for any period of leave - whether it’s maternity leave, a much longed-for holiday or even just a Christmas break - will vary according to what exactly it is that you do. That said, there are some fundamental steps every self-employed parent-to-be can take.
Creating a plan well in advance of your leave beginning will make things easier for everyone: you, your clients, any colleagues or peers you work with. After all, knowing where you stand makes everything that bit easier.
Communications consultant Isabel Johnston decided to pause her sole trader business, IJ Communications, as she prepared for the birth of her third child. “The month before I went on leave, I basically didn’t seek any new opportunities and a few of my clients came to a natural stop point,” she explains. “A couple of clients on retainers said they were happy to pause the work and pick it back up when I was ready.”
She continues: “Towards the end, people could clearly see I was pregnant and I did find some reluctance to work together from clients. That was a hard pill to swallow but I turned it into something positive and as I got closer to my due-date, I’d opt for shorter contracts - such as one-off media work and training delivery - which meant it wasn’t an issue that I wouldn’t be around in the coming months.”
Richard took three weeks of paternity leave following the birth of his second child in 2020. “Plan your leave in and keep clients informed,” he recommends. “Make sure you can subcontract or handover work to other freelancers - even better, do a trial-run beforehand so everyone is on the same page. I even went as far as drafting emails to clients to let them know how long I’d be off for, so I could just pop in the dates and send without much thought when I was ready to.”
For Katie, planning-in work ahead of her imminent leave has proven helpful. “My clients have thankfully been great and have told me to take as long as I want and need, and just asked that I keep them informed,” she says. “I’ve got some work scheduled already for whilst I’m off, so will continue to get bits done in advance as and when I can.”
If you like the idea of preparing work in advance - whether it’s for your own business or on behalf of clients you look after - start with the basics:
- Ascertain what does (or doesn’t) need to be done: Work out what’s essential to keep your business active, and what can be paused while you’re off. Similarly, decide how much of it you need to do yourself, or if there’s someone else you can hand the responsibility over to temporarily.
- Plan social, blog and newsletter content: A tool such as Hootsuite will allow you to get social posts lined up in advance, whilst drafting blog posts means you’ll at most need to press ‘publish’ if a schedule function isn’t available. If you’re creating content on behalf of client(s), give yourself enough time to get their approval, too.
- Decide if you want to hand work over to anyone else. If you work on your own, could there be value in passing work over to a friend or contact you hold in high esteem? The answer could well be ‘yes’ but make sure you’re clear about boundaries and time frames to ensure there’s no scope for resentment or even client poaching.
- Settle on the message you want to give new leads: For example, you could create a new email address purely for contact from potential clients that can be monitored by yourself or a trusted peer; equally, you could ensure your ‘welcome’ email to new sign-ups contains appropriate CTAs and insight to satisfy newcomers to your brand.
- Be selective with how you can be reached: Make it clear how you can (and can’t) be contacted. Whether you’ll still be checking emails or will be taking a total break, adjust social bios, website contact pages and your out-of-office accordingly.
Of course, if you’re not working on your own and run your business with someone else, the pressure to prep might be reduced. For Laura, having the invaluable support of her The Doers co-founder meant things felt more manageable - to an extent. “I was very lucky to have the full backing of Jess,” she explains. “We were honest with our clients about my pregnancy and our plans, and we focussed on finding the right freelancers as part of our collective to support Jess while I was off. The client-side felt manageable and I planned to take six weeks fully off and then start flexing work around my baby.”
She continues: “The flip-side was that we were building a business and that couldn’t just stop overnight. Whilst the client-servicing and ‘doing’ part was in safe hands, I continued to run the admin side: invoicing, VAT returns and so on. This was partly necessary to keep the momentum of the business going but was also partly for me, too - it gave me some headspace from nappy changes and made me feel engaged and interested in life outside of the newborn bubble.”
3. Health matters: Remember to listen to your body
In among the whirlwind of change you’ll be going through both pre- and post-partum, your own health and mental wellbeing should still be a priority. Putting pressure on yourself about returning to work could be the last thing you need when your body is still recovering from pregnancy and birth, and while you’re adjusting to your new parental role.
“Rest and sleep are essential ingredients required to heal and recover, and yet a new mum will find these in short supply,” says Emma Brockwell, author of Why Did Nobody Tell Me? How to Protect, Heal and Nurture Your Body Through Motherhood (Ebury, 2021). “The demands of motherhood, the sleepless nights, the constant lifting and nursing, along with all the other daily requirements of being a new mum, are extreme. It can take its toll on any mum’s mental and physical health - and the addition of work stresses is likely to affect even the most resilient of women.”
Additionally, scheduling in ‘you’ time might be something that’s far from the top of your to-do list when you’re juggling a newborn and a business but it’s essential.
“I found that making time for regular exercise when I had my third baby made a huge difference to both my physical and mental health,” says Laura. “Now it’s something I won’t give up! I feel better, my standard of work is better and I’m a better mum. ‘Me’ time has meant my shoulders aren’t up by my ears and I don’t snap at the smallest of things. Try to start with even just 15 minutes - have a hot shower, a quick walk or sit down with a magazine and a cuppa. You’ll feel so much better for doing so.”
4. When should I start thinking about heading back to work?
Whether you’ve got a rough idea or a precise plan for how much time you plan to take for your maternity leave, there’s a strong chance that the dates you’re thinking of will change.
After all, while it’s easy to idealise your ability or desire to get back to work, the reality is that you have no idea how you, your body or your baby will feel post-birth. Trying to imagine yourself back at your computer after just two or three weeks might sound completely doable now - but be fully prepared for having to re-estimate that down the line as your new life sets in. Instead, a slower return could be preferable.
“I set a rough date in advance, telling clients I expected to return by late spring 2020,” says Isabel. “This didn’t work out due to Covid-19 and the other pressures that brought on, so I returned gradually instead. Once I had more enquiries coming in, I upped my work. It felt like I’d been off for years rather than months - the pandemic had totally changed how people were working and everyone was so comfortable with Teams, Zoom and WFH in general. I really had to build my confidence to get back in the game.”
As well as setting a rough date, it can also be helpful to think ahead and consider the tasks you’ll be doing when you get back to work.
“Flex your to-do list,” suggests Laura. “Whilst you’re still pregnant, take some time to plan the first six months post-birth if you can and create two to-do lists: an 'I can do it with my eyes closed’ list and an 'I need to be with it' list. The first is for those slightly easier essential tasks that don’t require much brain power - do those jobs when you’ve had a terrible night’s sleep and when your brain is fogged.”
“The second list is for the jobs that need a little bit more brain power. Save these tasks for the days when your baby miraculously slept for an hour longer than normal or when you have some extra help and can shut yourself away properly. Trying to do the big jobs on a day when you’re just not up to it will only make you feel awful and won’t help anyone.”
Of course, being your own boss has one big advantage that employment doesn’t: you can play by your own rules. “Enjoy the flexibility of the situation,” says Isabel, “not having a set ‘return to work’ date can allow you to slowly build work back up, and that’s a real benefit. You don’t have to choose between returning to work full-time or being a full-time parent - it can be gradual and allow you to do both.”
5. Finally: Don’t put pressure on yourself
The inadvertent expectation of our social networks and society as a whole can leave many of us feeling we need to be nailing everything in order to consider ourselves as ‘acceptable’ functioning adults, parents and business owners. The ‘perfect’ myth we’re fed via social channels and the media might also make you feel like you’re far from nailing motherhood, business or, well, anything.
“Your body has just done an incredible thing and this is likely to be your most important role to date,” says Emma. “Enjoy it, embrace it and don’t ever be afraid to reach out for help. Motherhood is a rollercoaster - some days you’ll nail it and others, the juggle will be very real. Know that every other parent is going through this too.”
Additionally, there might be a point when you feel under pressure for considering your work; for example, some women might feel guilty for wanting to get back to their business sooner than they’d imagined, whilst others might wish they could have more time away from it. Either way: do what’s best for you, rather than what you imagine is expected of you.
“There’s a real tendency to glamourise the working mum who has it all,” says Laura. “Perfect kids, her own business, great body... Don’t believe the hype - it’s simply not the case and wouldn’t it be boring if it was? Working with your baby sleeping in a sling, crying into your laptop, not showering for days - those are the realities. It’s hard but I promise you, it will get better.”
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