Full disclosure: I’m not a freelance parent myself. But, from what I understand, being one is one of the most incredible, fulfilling, exhausting, exasperating things going.
Suddenly having a tiny person in your life who is utterly dependant on you, and who you love an almost inexplicable amount, is – as big deals go – a pretty whopping one. While most parents have to work, for the majority of them, that means leaving these little bundles of joy with someone else. But for freelancers, the juggling act becomes more complex: creche and studio can become one, and that’s not an easy space to reconcile.
So how do people do it? Sure, it means you don’t have to farm out for childcare if you work and care from home; but how is it possible to do both? Can client calls and Peppa Pig truly coexist?
It’s an important thing to discuss – and one that it can be tempting to brush aside in favour of answering “how are you?” with “good thanks!” when in fact you’re exhausted, stressed, and worrying that you’ve lost your previous identity to parenthood. “We feel it’s important to highlight parenthood in the same way that any life shift works.” Says our site’s founder Paul Gosling, himself a freelance parent (and no relation to me.)
“There are hurdles like not being able to spend as much time on your passion; your passion impacting on your relationships with your growing family; and possibly having to evaluate your passion from a commercial stance because of its impact on essential money-generating work.”
“That said, hurdles often bring positives. Having children might help you push your craft that bit harder or evaluate what it is that you actually like. Or adversely you may change direction and do something you really love that you weren’t doing before. All because you don’t have as much time and are looking at it under a microscope.
In recent years, careers have become less of a “9-5 in the office” situation and an increasingly slippery and flexible one. More people than ever work on flexitime, for themselves, and across “portfolio” careers (making ends meet across a few different projects at the same time, sometimes even in totally different fields). Many work both in-house, and from home.
As such, the freelancing-with-children life is one being lived by many people in the creative fields.
According to 2016 statistics from the UK’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the number of jobs in the UK’s creative industries rose by 5% in 2016, compared to the 1.2% increase in the wider UK workforce; and 24% of the workforce is freelance. It makes sense that many of those are parents, so how do they find that elusive sense of balance?
The ever informative Mumsnet AIBU (am I being unreasonable?) threads throw up some of the most common issues and dilemmas: “AIBU Or is it impossible to freelance when you have young children?” asks one poster.
The many, many responses reveal the double edged sword of this life: “I just had no idea how difficult this would be with a baby – I can’t respond to things quickly, I can’t commit to meetings outside normal working hours, I can’t function well when ds [darling/dear son] is ill or not sleeping,” she asks.
And while countless respondents share similar experiences, many others point to freelance careers as a no-brainer for single (and even joint parenting): “I found freelance was the way to go being a single parent. I also had a zero hours contract job to top up when necessary,” says one, “The thing with freelance work is that it can be so very flexible,” adds another.
However, across the thread there’s a consensus on a very important caveat: freelancing or not, working is not the same as childcare: “I think freelancing is possible, but you have to limit yourself to very few hours unless you have childcare in place,” points out one respondent, “I think you are setting yourself up to fail without a separation between children and work”, adds HoorayHenri. This answer sums it up nicely: “It is starting to sound like you have a childcare issue not a freelancing issue. Are you trying to get work done while minding your one-year-old?”
Adriana Blake is a Toronto-based freelance parent and animator, who says that childcare is “the only way I can get work done. Also, we only have the one kid, so getting her out there to socialise with other kids is important too.”
Concept designer Josh ‘Badger’ Atack agrees:
“at this point it feels pretty essential for my eldest to go to nursery. Errands are able to be run and more importantly [our] little one is able to learn about socialising, sharing, play etc.”
For Josh, like most people, having children marked a vast shift in his life, and has made him view his career as something that will from now on be constantly in flux. “I’m certain having young children comes with very different priorities compared to when they are in school, and older,” he says.
Having gone freelance around a year ago, he saw the move as a way to “reassess time priorities before launching into another time consuming London commute.” Now, his day begins with getting up with his kids in the morning—“hopefully not before 6am, but you never know”—and they then “potter around, have breakfast, prep for nursery etc.” Depending on his schedule, the afternoon might involve a trip to the park.
“The break and fresh air are great refreshers creatively, and being able to share some time when the kids are awake and at their best is a joy.”
Sounds idyllic, but as with everything relating to life and work, it’s never all that clean cut.
“Full time work is also very varied, if I was back working in film or games in London the day is a lot longer than if something local came up, and with that the pressures switch from financial to having enough time again,” he says. “Usually the investment you have in a more long term project is greater, and my freelance work is primarily short term. I’d say I miss the creative buzz of a studio and the ability to have a clearer separation between work and home.”
So is he happier with work life now, with that (relative) sense of freedom freelancing can offer? “I’d say it depends on the timings, when I’m working on a new exciting project and getting to take my kids to the park at lunch then it’s a real joy,” says Josh.
“I’d say when none of my leads quite come through with any actual work I can get a bit anxious, but I’ve ridden a few of those waves now, things come up, it’s important to use that down time effectively and enjoyably. Overall I’m almost certain I’m happy being freelance right now.”
The reality for many a freelance parent is that time isn’t as fluid as allowing for park trips and pottering around. Blake is freelance by definition, but moves “from contract to contract” full time, “so no difference there,” she says.
“Part of me wishes for something much more reliable and constant, but going from contract to contract has taught me a lot as well! There’s definitely no room for boredom when you switch projects on a regular basis.”
She adds: “The one thing that’s changed since my kiddo was born is that I’ve had to work from home instead of in-studio. I’d love to go back to working in-studio at some point (I miss seeing co-workers and socialising with them), but we’ll see how it goes. Playing it by ear for now.” The nature of Blake’s work means her quality “kiddo” time is the same as that of most working parents: “mostly after work and weekends.”
The reality for many a freelance parent is one of late nights, very little sleep, and no shortage of struggles. For Toronto-based Megan Kearney, who’s been freelancing for five years in illustration and animation (a move that’s made her “far, far happier”) and a freelance parent for a big part of that, she’s been forced to make her working hours pretty nocturnal.
“My son is still an infant, so most of my day is dedicated to childcare, with a few stolen work hours here and there if he miraculously drops off into a nap,”
she says. “Currently my more solid work hours are at night. I wish I could afford a babysitter! My son is still nursing, so longer period childcare wouldn’t be an option anyway, but someone to come in two or three days a week to sit with him in the other room while I’m working and give me a shout when he’s hungry would be a godsend.”
Matt Lewis is based in north west England, and went freelance in summer this year while his wife was on maternity leave with his second child, “so it wasn’t something I was taking lightly,” he says.
“The timing wasn’t ideal, but in the end it felt like it was now or never. My aim was to freelance at agencies, and build up some of my own client work over time, which I could do from home. The latter has taken off quicker than expected though, meaning the hours have been very long initially as I’m trying to build up those working relationships.
“I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t occasionally impacted on time with the family, but the flip side is the flexibility which you just don’t get with full-time work. I can sometimes lose an hour or so from the ‘office hours’ to help out at home, and make them up in the evening when it’s nice and quiet.”
His regime is a lesson in discipline and organisation—essential qualities in not only freelancing, but in making creative work and parenting, too.
On his days working from home, he takes his four-year-old to preschool and ensures he’s back at his desk working before 9.30am.
“That’s great as I get to have breakfast properly with the family, do the drop-off, and start work at a reasonable time. We also have an 11-month-old, so I get to see him more, and put him down for his naps! Those little things I’d call quality time,” he says. “What I’ve also tried to do is build relationships locally, meaning if I’m working in-house I’m mostly still home for the evening meal, bath time and stories before bed. Stories is my ultimate quality time. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of not seeing my kids before they go to bed because I’m working late.
“Having kids has put a different perspective on life, in a good way.”
However, Lewis also has the luxury of childcare to free up his time, as well as freeing his physical and mental space in which to knuckle down. “Our four-year-old was in preschool for three mornings a week, which we changed to two full days as it was a better fit with my new way of working,” he explains. “The other three days my wife’s in charge as she’s still on maternity leave. That will change as she’s starting school in September and [my partner’s] going back to work. Then the other one will go into childcare, but we haven’t decided for how many hours/days yet. Our families both help out too as both sets of parents are recently retired.
“This is a huge help, I don’t know how people do it without some additional support!”
So what advice do we have for parents considering freelancing in the creative industries? Before making the leap and turning into a freelance parent, Kearney stresses you should
“put away enough money to live comfortably for six months to a year before you leave your stable employment, and be prepared to maintain a side gig to support yourself.”
Her side hustle was teaching, first private kid’s workshops, then college courses; while her studiomates have continued to work part-time in bakeries, coffee shops, and tech firms to fund their personal work. She adds: “Make social media work for you, and leverage crowdfunding platforms. Understand that you’ll likely have to put in about five years of solid, persistent, unacknowledged work before you begin to see things become stable.”
Lewis echoes her directives:
“Understand the financials. If you’re looking to hook up with recruitment agencies, they might pay things like tax for you. But to be completely independent you will need an accountant.
If possible, find one that has other clients in the creative industries, as they’ll have a better understanding of how things work. We’ve all got bills, childcare fees, swimming lessons and things to pay for, and you’ll find that you get paid at odd times during the month. Make sure you’re on top of your direct debits!”
Even before you think about the financial and practical sides of your career, though, it’s vital to spend considered time and energy soul-searching about the hows and whys of making the leap. “Really think about what it is you want to get out of it,” Lewis says.
“Are you looking for a change of scenery for while, but don’t want to job hunt? Experience different agency and studio environments? Work with different people, on different accounts? Make new contacts in the industry? All valid reasons in my opinion. But work out what it is YOU want to get out of it and how you’re going to achieve it. And most importantly, think about the impact it will have on family life. Be prepared for a very different way of working.”
If you’re working from home, it’s vital to make sure you feel like you’re at work, as well as at home: carve out a dedicated workspace (“the kitchen table’s not going to cut it for long,” as Lewis points out.) Part of that means ensuring you’re not isolated from the world either; and that you represent yourself as you would your agency. Lewis advises talking to as many people as possible, and “sounding them out, not just potential clients or sources of income, but anybody you might know, with and without kids, who’s already doing it.”
He adds: “Try not to burn your bridges. It’s not a huge industry and you will come back into contact with people you thought you never would. The first thing I did was make a list of all my potential contacts. The last thing you want is to be scratching your head because you’ve pissed off everybody you’ve ever worked with!”
On a more abstract level, it’s vital to surround yourself with a supportive network around you; be that in a professional or personal capacity. Blake sums it up nicely: “Having kids while freelancing can be done, but your life WILL change, so having people to help you out can make all the difference in the world (whether that’s your partner, grandparents, or friends). Look out for community resources in your area; depending on where you live you can find new parent groups, workshops, and so on to help you out. Also, reshaping your life after kids may take time, but do your best to not disappear off the face of the planet!
“It took me a while to get back to work and back to drawing, but I’d try my best to stay in touch with co-workers, attend a few events here and there and things so you stay on people’s radar. It makes it easier to find work when I was ready to pick it up again. And last but not least: be kind to yourself.
Parenting is hard and freelancing is hard, and sometimes all you can do is take things one day at a time (sometimes even just one minute at a time!).
Take rests along the way if you have to. Take deep breaths and small steps…you got this!”
*Image Credit for header and thumbnails Liza Otchenashenko