Working for yourself and finding out a baby is on the way conjures up conflicting feelings. On the one hand, there’s excitement, happiness and relief. On the other hand, there’s stress, sadness and anxiety. Or at least, these were the feelings I had as I planned my maternity leave.
The stress and anxiety came from not knowing how to prepare my freelance copywriting business for my planned leave. And then felt overwhelmed when I realised how much need doing.
The sadness was because I was stepping away from my business and my clients. Both of which I adore.
The relief was the flexibility that comes with working for myself.
But I needed ideas on how to make my maternity leave happen. How was I supposed to prepare my business, my clients and myself for an extended absence? Naturally, I turned to Google for answers. Surprisingly, I was disappointed by what I found, which is why I’m writing this article.
In August 2021 I started four months of maternity leave. What follows is my experience: stuff I found helpful when planning my maternity leave as a freelancer and the practical steps that put my plan into action. I’ve tried to keep the advice non-industry specific so it shouldn’t matter what sort of sole trader you are. But there are a few parts that are a bit more freelance copywriter specific.
Give yourself enough time
Planning started about four months before I was due. There are a couple of things that will influence how much time you need.
- The size of your business and number of clients. A bigger business will likely mean you need a longer lead time.
- Any ongoing projects that mean you need to arrange cover.
- Your expectations when it comes to salary and how much you want your business to pay you while you’re off.
I’ll talk more about finding cover and maternity pay later on. But once I’d identified how much time I needed to prepare my business, I created a Trello board listing the tasks I needed to do. As a lover of lists Trello was the perfect way to help me see everything clearly, while still juggling full-time work and, ya know, the joys of being pregnant.
Give your clients enough time
How I told my retainer clients I was going on maternity leave was different to how I announced it publicly. I’ll explain why.
When to tell regular and retainer clients
I did this as early as possible, giving them as much warning as I could. So roughly three months before starting my leave. This gave clients enough time to:
- Gather any essential work they wanted me to tackle
- Book any meetings or calls they wanted
- Ask me any questions they had about my plans.
How I told my clients
I started with a short email explaining that I was pregnant and when I hoped to start my maternity leave. I also included a rough date for when I hoped to return to my desk.
In the email I reassured them that I was putting plans in place so disruption to their projects or our process of working would be minimal or non-existent). Really, there was nothing much they needed to do or worry about.
I included a link to my meeting calendar for anyone who had concerns and wanted to book a call. No one did. But I left the door open for any of my clients to book a meeting, free of charge, any time before the start of my leave.
When to tell everyone else
I left this pretty late. I didn’t publicly announce my pregnancy or that I was going on maternity leave until a month and a half before I was due. The reason? I didn’t want the enquiries and work to dry up too soon.
At the time, I was still building up a financial cushion so I’d be comfortable during my leave. My concern was that announcing my out-of-office date too early would cause potential clients to hesitate, meaning I’d lose work even though I was still fully functioning and working full time.
How I told everyone else
There were a couple of bases to cover here and because I was still juggling active projects and working, I had limited time so did them in order of importance.
- My newsletter subscribers were my first priority. Here’s the message I sent them. I wanted to give them first dibs on my availability when I returned.
- My website visitors were next. When I reached the point where it would be tricky to have the time to start and finish some of the larger services I offer, I added a notice to my website. I posted this on each page of my website, positioning it in a place that felt natural in the copy. I still wanted to receive enquiries while I was away so I would have some leads and work to come back to.
- Social media was last. I wrote a thread on Twitter and posted this on Instagram.
I was keen for potential clients to understand that I’d be gone for a little bit. Not forever. And I wanted to make sure they stayed engaged with my brand if they were thinking of booking me. So in this blog post, I encouraged them to join my mailing list so they’d be the first to hear about my return.
If they needed copy sooner, I sent them in the direction of some trusted communities and resources. The tip here is to be helpful. People remember helpfulness. Even if they can’t work with you this time, your show of good industry knowledge and that you have a network means they are more likely to come knocking again.
Booking maternity leave cover
If you need to sub-contract some client work because projects are marching on, here’s what I found useful to consider.
Approach colleagues you know and trust. Ideally, you’re familiar with their work. Perhaps you’ve collaborated with them on a project before? Placing my regular, most loyal clients in the hands of other writers felt like a really big deal to me. I wanted to feel as relaxed and as comfortable about it as possible.
Match your stand-in to the client. I ended up subbing work out to two different writers. The processes, writing style and availability of the writer guided me on who to put with who, so the needs of both parties were aligned.
Sending a sub-contracting contract. Depending on who you’re subbing the work to, you may want to put an agreement in place. Something that clarifies how long they’ll be working on the account, what’s expected of them, payment terms and a ‘don’t-be-a-dick-and-steal-my-client’ clause. I didn’t end up doing this with the two writers I booked. We’d worked together a lot over the years and I know where each of them lives. But on a serious note, you may feel more comfortable having the peace of mind of a written agreement
Hold introductory meetings. This only needs to be a 10-20 minute call, Zoom, or coffee but take the time to get everyone together before you go on leave. Not only is this a chance for everyone to put names to faces and ask questions, but you get a feel for how people are gelling. Again, it’s about doing what you can to put your mind at ease while you’re away.
Prepare handover notes. Give the subbie all of the accesses or logins they will need for any shared work spaces. For example, I needed to let my folks into Asana and some shared Google folders. I also offered notes on email addresses they’d need, the names and roles of people they may need to contact, and of course gave them any briefs for projects they’d be finishing up for me. The rest would come direct from the client.
Clarify the invoicing and payment process. Non-payment is the quickest way to piss off a freelancer. Making sure everyone knew who was being paid by who and when was very important. For me, I had a bit of a mix. Some clients were happy to pay the subbie directly whereas others continued paying me and then I paid the sub-contractor. Always ask what will work best for you, your client and the subbie.
Getting all of this organised will take time and brain power. Two things you probably feel like you could do without while pregnant. But it’s worth it. I had clients emailing me during my maternity leave thanking me for how smooth the transition was and how well received the work was from my cover writers. Knowing everyone is happy will give you peace of mind, so you can focus on the kid and your fourth-trimester recovery.
Know what financial support you’re entitled to
It’s likely your self-paid salary will take a hit. It’s very worthwhile researching what financial support you’re entitled to as a freelancer and applying for those government payments.
Here in Australia, primary caregivers can apply for Paid Parental Leave (PPL). You can find out more about it here, but the important thing to note is that sole traders and freelancers are entitled to apply. It comes with a few caveats, one of which is showing that you’ve worked more than 300 hours in the last 12 months. But if you meet the criteria, it’s very easy to set up online through Centrelink.
Paying yourself a maternity leave salary
Employers pay maternity/paternity pay for good reason. Even if your money is no longer going on fancy dinners, cocktails and holidays (because, baby) you still need to live. So I took my lead from the world of in-house employment. I knew I still wanted my business to pay me some sort of salary.
Having less income meant I wasn’t comfortable paying myself the usual amount. I dropped to a little over half my monthly salary. I knew this would be sustainable for the four months I was having off, and still meant I could pay any direct debits and contractors that my business owed.
Planning your return
Before going on leave, I knew that after a few months I’d be chomping at the bit to return. I wasn’t wrong. By November I was gagging to get my head back into some work. I’ll explain how that’s all panned out in a minute, but what I want to say about planning your return is be kind to yourself and be flexible. Here’s why.
My experience of trying to return to work
Originally, I planned to only take off four months and then return part-time in early 2022. It’s now late 2022. My plan has not materialised, for various reasons. (Lack of childcare, the time needed to complete projects, my partner’s working hours/commitments, weaning… There are just a few.) It has been frustrating but I’m in a fortunate position financially. I don’t have to rush back to work. (Although some weeks, for my own sanity, I wish I was back at my desk more consistently.)
How long you take for maternity leave may depend on your financial situation, childcare arrangements, and health impacts after pregnancy and birth. It is hard to know for sure. My advice here is if you find you can’t return to work as quickly as you like, try to roll with it. As with everything to do with parenthood (especially first-time parenthood) things will look, feel and work differently. Including your business. It won’t be forever and, as I was wisely told, the clients and work will be there when you return.
I hope the information and ideas I’ve included about my own maternity leave journey as a freelancer has helped. Please drop a comment below or message me if you want to chat anything over. I’m happy to help if I can.
All that’s left to say is good luck and congratulations on your new arrival.