Navigating New Parenthood as a Freelance Illustrator
Since becoming a full-time freelance illustrator 6 years ago I’ve had 2 beautiful children. I call them the pterodactyls, because that’s what I imagine they sound like when they cry. That means 2×9=18 months of induced sleepiness from growing a human being, and over 2 years of sleep deprivation (the second year of which I’m nearing the end of). So 3.5 years out of 6 of physically not feeling 100%. In addition to adjusting to a changing self-image, the resultant search for motivation that I had thought could never flag and navigating maternity leave as a freelancer. It’s been a roller-coaster.
Whether you’re a Dad or a Mom, it can be a struggle balancing work and home. I’ve been surprised by how few resources there seem to be out there. There is great general advice, but when you search for ‘Working At Home Mom’ advice the bulk of the hits are from people looking for work. And, take make it worse, much of these hits are pretty questionable spam. Here and there I’ve found some really supportive people, but often it’s people who’ve been in the business for many years. Their kids are older, and the early years are enough of a blur that they’ve forgotten how they made it through.
So in the interest of later reminding myself what I went through, and perhaps helping others struggling (to commiserate if nothing else), my next few posts will talk about learning to juggle an expanding family and freelancing.
Maternity Leave Logistics:
A common reaction to telling someone you’re a freelancer/small-business owner is,
“oh, that’s great, you can take time off whenever you want”.
And in regards to maternity leave,
“that must be so nice to not have to explain to a boss, figure out leave etc…”
The reality is, as a freelancer taking time off means no pay and having to turn away both established and potential clients. The short term act of turning away clients means loss of work at that moment and in the future. By comparison, in traditional workplaces, you share overlapping duties with your co-workers. So when you’re out, whether it be one day or a couple of weeks, there is someone to cover for you.
Not so as a freelancer–no vacation or sick days to use, no one to cover your work. Sure, you can find friends and colleagues to cover your work, but you can never predict if those clients will still be yours when you come back. Ultimately, as a freelancer, you’re a one-person-shop. So for a longer duration leave like maternity leave, it means telling clients on a ‘need-to-know’ basis that you’ll be out for a few months, and deciding which clients fall into which category.
For the clients that you do work with regularly enough to warrant telling them you’ll be out, it means being professional (sometimes that’s so hard!) and referring them out if they request it. Maternity leave means that some clients, even the nicest, most well-meaning ones, will think you’re not serious about your work anymore. It means losing clients; whether to a temporary replacement or to a bad economy that was just looking for an excuse to cut budgets.
What Was the Advice from Others on Transitioning to Freelance Parenthood?
For the reasons above, most seasoned industry veterans counseled me to not tell anyone that I was going on maternity leave. For both my pterodactyls, I made the choice to selectively tell my clients that I was going to be out, and to tell them why. I didn’t want the stress of having to ‘pretend’ to be in the office. Also, it made more sense to be honest and up-front, rather than leaving them in the lurch and having them guessing why I was AWOL for so long. The results were a mixed bag.
Initially, pretty much all of my clients were sincerely happy for me; many going through similar life changes themselves, or fondly remembering when they did. Unfortunately, being happy for me and staying committed to our working relationship turn out to be two different things. Whether leave is for a good reason or not, the reality is, your clients need you to get work done. So if you’re gone longer than they can wait, they may need to look elsewhere.
How Did Maternity Leave as a Freelancer Impact my Client Relationships?
The Not so Great, Ghosting:
- A great (?) client that I never heard from again after g-pterodactyl was born. I stalked their website for a while, and it appeared that they just cut out illustration altogether. Perhaps my leave was a good excuse to decide they really didn’t need illustration?
- A potential client seemed really excited to work with me on an ongoing basis. Then, I never heard from again after b-pterodactyl was born. He begged me for referrals to other artists. I suspect he found another artist that he’s now formed a relationship with.
The Great Clients Who Understood:
- A long-standing client patiently waited through both my leaves, and welcomed me back with awesome projects after.
- A textbook editor walked-the-talk when he told me, and then reminded me, that family should always come first. The book, originally scheduled to finish just before my maternity leave, didn’t quite stay on track. I worked soon after b-pterodactyl was born to finish the book. Rather than panicking upon hearing about my leave, the publisher trusted me when I said I was committed to finishing the work. At the same time, he understood when I had to admit that I might need an extra day on an agreed-upon deadline
One of the benefits of being up-front about maternity leave, is that clients are a lot more understanding about your schedule if they know it’s because of a 1-month old infant, rather than just general poor-time-management. 🙂
Without too much conceit, I identify myself as a hard worker. A large part of that stems from finding a profession I truly love. I really didn’t think my motivation could ever waver. How wrong I was! I was a little shocked to discover how hard it was to get work done both while pregnant and later once baby came. My workaholic ways were being tested! I never wanted to quit, but I did find myself wanting to sloooowwwww down. In the next few posts I’ll talk about some of my surprises adjusting to life with a baby, getting work done, and some of the logistical complications.