When it came time for me to start thinking about having a baby, the thing that was first and foremost in my mind (even over childbirth, breastfeeding and nappies) was what I would do after I’d had the baby when it was time for me to return to work.
For some that decision is quite straightforward: You take maternity leave (paid for by your employer, if you’re lucky), you have your baby and then when you’re time is up, you and your employer come to a mutally beneficial agreement and you return to work. Lucky you!
But for me, that was never going to be an option. At the time we started trying to fall pregnant I was in a manager’s role in a creative, deadline-driven industry that could not be made part-time and could not be job shared. I am a graphic artist and I always enjoyed most aspects of my job (even the stressful times) but hours were long and the burn-out factor was high. My days were spent managing everybody’s time plus my own, dealing with deadlines that changed every five minutes, sometimes I worked through the night and on weekends, often “urgent” work landed on my desk at 7pm as I was about to leave for the day that had to be done by 9am the next morning.
Over the years I’d seen many of my co-workers go on maternity leave and try to come back “part-time”. Some lasted one day and others stuck it out until they (quickly) had another baby or were given a redundancy. None of them ever got promoted or were given any responsibility. And their “part-time” hours due to childcare restrictions were just an inconvenience to the company. In fact, to this day I do not know one mum who does the job I used to do.
When my time came I knew I could not come back to my job and do it in the same capacity my company was used to. “Full-time” for me meant minimum 12 hours days and no scope to “work from home”. I also did not want to commit to my work only to let them down and eventually be made redundant. Plus I was always stressed. I knew I would not be able to cope with a demanding job and with being a mum.
When I was 18 weeks pregnant, after a particularly stressful week I quit my full-time job to begin freelancing again. Of course, money was the main thing I took into consideration. My employer at the time had no policy of paid maternity leave, so all he was guaranteeing me that he would hold my job. I did not have a part time option to come back to either. So I figured that at least if I freelanced I would be able to earn money while I was on “maternity leave” and dictate my own hours. I knew I was making an unorthodox decision at the time but I always say “Leap and it will appear” because it just about always does.
The first thing I did was re-train. I was (and still am) a graphic artist who specialised in print and advertising. I learnt how to design and build websites and jumped into the most overcrowded market on the internet. The first website I ever built was my own and when I went live with it, I sent the link to every single person I knew. I told everyone I was freelancing (and pregnant). I actually got enough web and print work to get me through until I was 40 weeks pregnant! My son was born a day and a half later.
My only goal at that time was to establish myself on the freelance market. My stipulations were that I could not work in a company that needed me “full-time”, I had to be able to stop working at 5pm on the dot, and as often as possible I had to do the work from my home office. I had a dedicated office set up in my house and I dressed for work every single day. No TV, no couch breaks and no shopping trips. When I wasn’t doing paid work I was teaching myself new skills. My expectations after I had the baby were that I would start taking on work after six months and see how things went from there.
And you know what? It worked out. I kept in touch with my regular clients while my baby was very young. I took him to meetings for future jobs. He was welcomed into corporate offices with suits who got clucky halfway through giving me a brief. I have been able to build up my client base to keep me busy enough to work five days a week.
I have the flexibility to manage my client’s jobs outside of normal office hours and they are happy for me to do that. I still have to meet tight deadlines but I get to do it on my terms.
The one down side of this is, I don’t earn as much money as I used to when I was employed full-time. But I’m not working anywhere ner the same hours. I’m not stressed out anymore. I still get to be creative and the people I work with on a regular basis are flexible, like-minded business people. It’s amazing how many people you meet who are “family-friendly”, once you step out of an inflexible environment.
My story might not be an option for everyone. I’m not a mumpreneur nor have I made loads of money doing this. Money will always be the defining factor in these decisions and you need to be sensible about it. But if you are in a position to use your “maternity leave” to change your work circumstances, you should think about it. It might be the best thing you ever did.