Crafting the self-employed maternity leave

The last time I was anyone’s W-2 employee was in 2002. I’ve been running my own business through my (now extensive) baby-having years.

There are many upsides to this. I have reasonable control over when and where I work, with the ability to scale up and down.

However, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid (to some degree; some stuff is passive). More importantly, since the business is basically my words/image/voice/presence, if I stop working there isn’t much of a business. Given how much time I’ve put into building this thing, and the commitments I’ve already made, and — not a small point — how much I enjoy it, I don’t want to go completely dormant.

All of this means that taking maternity leave as a self-employed person tends to look different from the corporate variety of leave. As I approach my fifth time through this experience, I’m keeping in mind a few lessons learned over the years.

I shouldn’t assume everyone knows I’m pregnant. If I was reporting to an office 40 hours a week, my gigantic belly would be absolutely obvious to my co-workers. But I was reminded again the other day that with virtual work, even people you work with quite closely (as in exchanging daily emails) aren’t seeing you. So why would they know? If there’s going to be a workflow change, best to bring it up a few months ahead of time. (Whoops).

I can ask for a pause. I’ve had various recurring gigs over the years. When I’ve asked to stop meeting regular deadlines for a while, people have generally been OK with it. There’s no guarantee I won’t be replaced, or that the client won’t leave, with the new person having no clue who I am, but that’s the freelance life anyway. An alternate solution is to…

Work ahead. This is what I’m doing with my podcasts. My goal with Before Breakfast is to have episodes in the hopper through March by the time the baby arrives. Best of Both Worlds will also be recorded well ahead, though since I have a co-host who can produce episodes on her own, this is less of an issue.

I can say no to some things. I decided that I would not travel from mid-December through mid-April. This has involved turning down work (primarily speaking opportunities), which is never easy. As a self-employed person, I often feel like a hunter-gatherer. If someone tells me, hey, there’s a mastodon right over there, my inclination is to go get it. You never know when other mastodons will appear! But the funny thing is…they do. In the past I’ve said yes to a few marginal things and this time, especially since I assume it’s the last time, probably best to take it easy for a bit. That said, I can…

Manage the pipeline. Proposals tend to take a while to wend their way through systems. That means that the month or so before giving birth can actually be a great time to put in bids for new work, or to turn in things that will eventually come back to you, but need a lot of other people’s input in the mean time. With any luck, people will be ready to have you start a few months later. If you scale down this marketing and speculative work since you want to take time off, you won’t have a ton of time to work on it in the first few months caring for the baby, and then the pipeline will feel empty right as you’re ready to scale back up.

I can accept that it’s OK to be not completely off. This is the biggest difference between self-employed “leave” and employed leave. If you employ people they are entitled to whatever time off is contractually theirs without you bugging them. As a business owner, though, you might make different decisions. I could stop working entirely, but why? My feeling has always been that since I’m not reporting to an office away from my baby and I’m setting my own hours and choosing my own tasks it’s OK to do a few things here and there. I like my work and enjoy it. In the past I’ve generally been operating at about 25 percent capacity for a few weeks, and then around 50 percent for the duration of what might be a normal maternity leave. I’m probably at about 75 percent for the next few months. So I’m guessing that’s what it will be this time around too. The interesting thing with this sort of work is that while there’s some correlation between hours and productivity, some is just random. I wrote what has turned out to be my most successful product (the What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast ebook) in the 6 weeks after kid #3 was born in fall 2011.

If you work for yourself, how have you handled births or other major care-taking/medical events? Please let me know your discoveries!

Photo: Look what showed up at my house! I forgot how tiny the newborn sizes were.

18 thoughts on “Crafting the self-employed maternity leave

  1. This post comes at a great time for me as I craft my maternity leave at a new job. I started at the tail end of my second trimester and am due in March, and I’m running a new program for my company that is in the early growth stage.

    With my first baby, I was managing a team and had a truly “corporate” leave. I was very happy with the ability to completely unplug and know that my team and the interim manager had things under control. This time, I could take a similar approach but I really, really love the work I’m doing and plan to transition to some thinking/planning/writing work and ramp back up more flexibly. I’m still thinking through what this will look like.

    I’m happy to experience two different approaches and curious to see how I feel about it this time. Great to see you approach it with a mix of putting some things on hold and getting ahead.

    1. @Missy – thanks for your comment! Going on leave soon after starting a new job is I’m sure an interesting and probably challenging experience and I look forward to hearing how it goes. It can be a great time for thinking and planning – I’m hoping to devote some time to this too!

  2. Your post strikes me that academics fall into the same category as you. In my research lab, at the time my son was born I had a couple of PhD students working and some undergrads. They needed some guidance. And then outside consulting projects needed to keep going. So I did much of what you did in the four months of leave I took — worked about 10 hours a week in the first month or so and then scaled back up. The last month of leave I did a couple of workshops. So by the time I was done with maternity leave, my son had taken about 5 traveling trips with me and I had a good handle on how to travel with him, both for work, for family, and for fun. I think what is important – as you lay out in your post – is making something that works for YOU!

  3. Great post on crafting your maternity leave as a self employed person. One thing that I would add from experience is “I will more thoroughly think through any larger business decision that comes up either immediately before the birth or right after”. I found that hormones around that time kind of led to some frenetic business decisions that could have been better thought out or even put on hold for a couple weeks.

  4. For most people in the US (although probably not most readers of this blog), paid leave isn’t offered even if you have a traditional employment job. My husband didn’t have paid leave and his company doesn’t offer paid maternity leave, either. So when our child was born and I had an extremely difficult birth experience involving surgery and a hard recovery, he took a month off without pay. We couldn’t afford to go without income. I’m self-employed so I kept working as much as I could. I was working four days after the birth.

    Fortunately, since then our state enacted paid family leave into law. It still wouldn’t apply to me, but people in our situation will have an easier time. It all worked out.

    We have a tricky one to navigate, though. I’m the primary breadwinner now that my business has grown. I can (and often do) work from home instead of my office, but it’s still made parenting somewhat tricky to navigate. We didn’t know what to expect since this is our first kid (and we obviously didn’t expect complications). Next time, I’d plan ahead more so we don’t have to count on my income.

    1. This is an excellent point. My maternity leaves have been partially paid – I used sick time for full pay during the 2 week “elimination period” before short term disability kicked in to partially pay me until 6 weeks post-birth (typically 8 weeks for a C section). I used a mix of vacation and unpaid time to round the remainder of my 12 week leave.

  5. Great blog…. I worked through both mat leaves – keeping the clients I loved and outsourcing more things (you might add that to your list above) that I didn’t love. I found that I continued to outsource those things even after I “was back” and that made for a fun, more extended, gradual transition.

    Congrats and good luck!

  6. I did some really interesting things with my maternity leave from my engineer job for a government lab. During the first one I completed my PhD thesis. I was partially done, but the leave really helped me focus since I could not do my regular job work during that time at home. During my second leave, I transferred my job to our sister lab or of state and relocated the family. I had a short recovery at home, then moved the family and adjusted everyone in new housing and daycare. My husband works for the same company so this worked out really well for us. Making big career moves to coincide with maternity leaves is a great option for those working a traditional office or work study gig.

  7. Yes… with one caveat. I was so sleep deprived that first month after my daughter was born that I basically had to discard all the work I completed during that time because I made too many mistakes. My thinking was just not right. If you can hire a night nanny, that probably helps with that problem significantly, and I would recommend doing that. May not be necessary for people who only need 4 hours of sleep per night, but definitely would have been helpful to me.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as someone who is seasonally employed and just had a third baby (I work as a stage manager in the performing arts). For my second and third children, I went back to work less than a week after giving birth, both times for commitments I had made before the positive pregnancy test. When I discovered I was pregnant, I did briefly consider pulling out of those gigs, but then I thought it through and decided I wanted to make it work – my parents came to help, I got out the pump, and I figured I can do anything for eight weeks, knowing I had a month or two with no work lined up afterwards. I shifted my “maternity leave” to when my kids were 12 weeks old. Or rather I reframed a typical period of unemployment as “maternity leave”. I don’t technically work for myself in that I need to be hired by a performing arts organizations, and there is a limited amount of career crafting I can do in my niche; if no one is producing opera in my area, there is not much work for me, so there is an urgency to taking contracts when they are offered. I did lose a regular out of state summer gig after I had my second. I had worked from the time my son was born until he was 12 weeks old, and decided I wanted to take the summer for “maternity leave.” My summer gig (where I had been for ten years), told me that they would not guarantee that they would hire me back the next summer, something I am still annoyed about. I guess that’s a risk of opting out of one season of work, and though I loved that gig, I’m actually glad to have my summers free now that my oldest is in elementary school. I know maternity leave is always a choice, but I can’t decide in my mind if being freelancer it means I have more choice or less choice? Or perhaps it just means that I need to be very purposeful in my choice of how I spend my time employed vs. unemploymed. (Never mind that, particularly in this country, for many workers there is no maternity leave choice at all)

  9. Really interesting post, Laura. Personally, however, I’m even more interested in how you will set up your work life post-infancy. For example, how many hours do you really think you will be working once you are back to “full strength”? I think you’ve mentioned that you have been logging about 35 hrs/week for the last little while…is that where you think you’ll land again once baby isn’t, well, such a baby. Hope you’re feeling well!

    1. @Rinna – probably 35-40 hours a week is about right for me. So that is where I would aim to land. It does tend to go up and down depending on what I have going on…

  10. I love this post. (Truth be told, I love your work!). I have been away from reading any blogs for a while and I had NO IDEA you were pregnant again until I read a comment on a fb post about work/mom life ‘balance’. I am always recommending your work and blog to other people, so I was ecstatic to see someone else mentioning it too. And it reminded me to get back to reading your blog!
    But back to this post, the very reason why I love your work is because you love what you do and it shines through. I love the part where you are explaining why you don’t go dormant with your work- you enjoy it! Love, love, love that!!
    Thanks for continuing to share your perspective!

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