Since becoming a full-time freelance illustrator 6 years ago, I’ve had 2 beautiful children (the pterodactyls, because that’s what they sound like when they cry). That means 2 x 9 = 18 months of hormone-induced sleepiness, and over two years of sleep deprivation (the second year of which I’m nearing the end of). So 3.5 out of 6 years of physically not feeling 100%, in addition to adjusting to a changing self-image and the resultant search for motivation that I had thought could never flag. It’s been a roller coaster.

My wonderful babies (now a preschooler and baby) often sound like pterodactyls (pterosaurs).

Whether you’re a Dad or a Mom, it’s a struggle balancing work and home, and I’ve been surprised by how few resources there seem to be out there. There’s great general freelancing advice, but when you search for WAHM (working at home mom) advice the bulk of it is actually people looking for work they can do from home, and much of it is 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 (I at least know they made it!). So in the interest of later reminding myself what I went through, and to perhaps help others who are struggling (to commiserate if nothing else), I’ll try to share thoughts on balancing family and work. You might be wondering why I’m taking the time to write this after explaining how strung out I am – for now, this is my therapy :-). After the jump are my experiences with maternity leave as a freelancer, and in future posts I’ll relate my thoughts on adjusting to being a parent and running a business, figuring out childcare, and more.

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…” 

Freelancing means that taking time off means no pay and having to turn away both established and potential clients, which in turn means loss of work then and in the future. By comparison, in traditional work places you share overlapping duties with your co-workers and 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.

As a freelancer, you’re a one-person-shop, and 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.

For the reasons above, many seasoned industry veterans counseled me to not tell anyone that I was going on maternity leave. For both my g and b-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, and 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 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 while I put it on hold turned out to be two different things. Whether leave is for a good reason or not, the reality is that your clients need you to get work done, and they need to look elsewhere if you’re gone longer than they can wait.

The not so great experiences with leave:

  • A great client that I never heard from again after g-pterodactyl was born. I stalked their website for awhile, 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 who seemed really excited to work with me based on recommendations from colleagues, who I never heard from again after baby-pterodactyl was born. He begged me for referrals to other artist’s for the time I was out and against my better judgment I provided them. I suspect he found another artist that he’s now formed a relationship with.  

The great:

  • A long-standing client who has patiently waited through both my leaves, and has welcomed me back with awesome projects after.

  • A textbook editor who walked-the talk when he told me, and then reminded me, that family always comes first. The schedule for the book to be done before my maternity leave didn’t quite stay on track so 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 up the work, and at the same time 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, client’s 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.)

Would I Do Anything Differently? 

After 2 pterodactyls and 2 rounds of maternity leave, I don’t know that I would. I handled each a bit differently; taking nearly 5 months off the first time around and only 1 month the second. At the time and in retrospect, both seemed to be the best solution to the circumstances at hand. One of the hardest lessons I’ve learned is that to a large degree, kids are entropy. You can’t plan for them, and if you do, prepare to be forced to change those plans. In someways, we as freelancers are ideally suited to rolling with the unexpected. The hard part though, is learning to accept that the unexpected isn’t just coming from your client’s changing deadlines, but also from your family. In future posts I’ll talk a little bit about my emotional adjustment, changing motivations for working, and figuring out childcare.