by Brittany Duggan

child-1073638_1920As a dancer-turned-journalist, many of the new parents in my life have been freelancers. Paid maternity leaves are mostly foreign concepts and continuing to work has usually involved an impressive juggle of scheduling, creative childcare, and evolving expectations.

Many lines of work in Canada are made up of freelance or contract labour. In fact, a quarter of our country’s workplace is made up of non-traditional workers, according to a report from the human resources consulting firm Randstad released last year. And that number is only predicted to grow.

This means more and more parents have freelance work as their full-time work. And while freelancing lacks the security many people likely seek before thinking about having kids, many parents are figuring out how to make it work. In fact, for all the reasons people prefer freelancing — flexibility, variety — they’re finding it works in combination with parenting, too.

I talked with a few freelancing parents who assumed the primary caregiver role for their young children about how they managed, what they learned, and the advice they’d give for new parents or parents-to-be.

PLANNING FOR LEAVE

Self-employed individuals now have the option of paying into employment insurance benefits and receiving a certain amount for a maternity or paternity leave. Signing up is required at least 12 months before a baby is born and once you start, you’ll owe for the remainder of your freelance career.

The realities of the workflow for many freelancers — here, there, and everywhere — can mean this isn’t an ideal option. For example, what if you need to do some work while on maternity/paternity EI to maintain your business? You might be better to just sock away some cash and work a bit while baby is young. But it’s worth looking into given your specific situation.

Finances aside, taking time out can be challenging, even guilt-ridden, for many freelancers. Aparita Bhandari is a regular contributor to the Toronto Star, the Globe and Mail and CBC, and she says she found people understanding. Some even encouraged her to take that first year off.

“I had many colleagues who understood what being a new parent is about,” she says, “and they understood my limitations. When I would be concerned about coming back, many of them would tell me to take the time.”

COMING BACK PART-TIME

As you ease back into work, before or after your baby’s first birthday, prepare for some of the inevitable challenges that are unique to freelancing.

One is getting back in the loop. When you return to a newsroom, for example, you’re thrown back into the thick of things. But as a freelancer, you’re more isolated and need to re-establish relationships with editors and build back pitching momentum.

One way Bhandari eased back into work was by not removing herself from communications in the first place.

“I should have probably signed off at one point,” she says, “but I didn’t, which was a weird reminder of all the stories I wasn’t doing, but later on it came in handy because some of the PR people remembered me.”

Bhandari, who is an arts reporter and needs to be out some evenings and weekends, also acknowledges the support – financial and otherwise – from her partner.

“I have a very understanding husband who understands that he’s not a babysitter but an actual parent.”

The biggest challenge facing most freelance parents in these early days is probably finding the time to work. For journalist, interdisciplinary researcher and health and education editor for The Conversation Canada, Heather Walmsley found nap training crucial.

“I literally wrote my PhD thesis during her nap,” says Walmsley, speaking of her first born. Walmsley advises working on routines and structures, which she says is very healthy for kids.

“One thing I found as a parent, if you want to have any freedom, then you need structure.”

Of course, anticipate that babies can be unpredictable. Not every baby can be “trained” like Walmsley’s, but attempting to work around their down time can be key.

BACK TO FULL-TIME ALL THE TIME

The myth is that parents who freelance will finally get back on track once their kids are finally in school. Not so. Gail Johnson, a regular contributor to Vancouver’s Georgia StraightGlobe and Mail, and CBC Radio, says once kids start school, their schedules seem to just get busier, which means yours does too.

“While I feel very fortunate to be able to drop off my kids at 8:45 in the morning and pick them up at 3 p.m.,” she says, “the time in between goes by very, very quickly.”

Here are some tips from Johnson for how to make the most of your time around your school kids’ schedule.

  1. Be super organized and set reminders.
    “I have to write everything down in my Google calendar, I’ve found if I don’t write something down—like a phone interview—it doesn’t happen.”
  2. Take your laptop everywhere for even the briefest of work opportunities.
    “It is literally always with me in my backpack.  If I can even slip in 10 minutes between commitments to respond to emails or set up interviews or do some fact-checking, it all helps.”
  3. Don’t forget your recorder for any last-minute interviews while you’re out and about.
  4. Get used to writing in short spurts.
    “Gone are the days of having hours and hours of quiet, uninterrupted writing time.”
  5. Be realistic and honest about what you can accomplish and let whoever’s asking know that you’d like to be considered the next time around. “It is hard for freelancers to say no, but the last thing you want to do is do a crappy job on a story and potentially lose that client for good.”
  6. Go with your new reality. “There have been times when I’ve had to bring one or both of my boys with me to do interviews. It’s certainly not ideal, but it works for us. I’ve never had an interviewee have a problem with it.”

Many of these learnings were echoed by Michael Ripley, an actor, playwright, and designer.

“Freelancing gives me a freedom that a 9-5 job can’t allow,” he says. But that doesn’t make it easy.

“Organizing my time and clocking what was a sustainable schedule was a challenge. Getting used to the distractions of working from home was also difficult. Especially when the kids weren’t in school. I learned to maximize my “free” time—to plan exactly what needed to be done before the window of opportunity presented itself. Having a home office with a door was also helpful.”

Ripley also found reprieve in family and the YMCA’s free after school childcare program. He also says that if you’re hiring babysitters, try nurses in training — he and his wife found that they make excellent caregivers.

ONGOING EFFORT AND REWARD

“Find your tribe,” says Bhandari, who found that surrounding herself with people who understand what she was going through helped a lot.

Walmsley has found informal daycare and childcare arrangements day-saving and more cost effective. She’ll take a friend’s kids when she’s working part-time knowing that when she’s in a pinch, they’ll take hers. It’s the informal stuff that will come in most handy, she says, like online networks for your community on Facebook or Craigslist.

And then, of course, there’s the reason why so many freelancers enter into this juggle: it’s worth it. There might be costs or delays to your career, it’s not likely to be easy, and you are likely to melt down a bit now and again, but I’ve yet to meet a parent who says the sacrifice isn’t worth it.

And just think, now you’ve got a new niche to pitch.

Brittany Duggan is a freelance journalist and editor based in Vancouver. Her work has appeared on CBC Radio and in the Georgia Straight. Brittany is a research assistant for Canada’s The Conversation and is a lover of the arts. Follow her on Twitter @brittanynduggan and find on her LinkedIn.

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