It’s ironic that the reason why many women, in particular, choose to go freelance or become a consultant is because they have children. (According to IPSE, the number of new mothers choosing to go freelance work rather than return to full-time work has risen by 79%.)
And yet one of the most common struggles freelance parents face is making their career work around their family.
In 2007 I became one of the many parents choosing to sell their skills on the freelance market, and over the next decade I built a successful career, first as a single mum with a small child, and later with the addition of a newborn baby.
I’m proof that it’s possible to earn good money and still be there for the school run every day, if you need or want to be. But it’s not always been easy navigating this journey. So here’s my advice to any freelance parent looking to make it work.
When I first went freelance, I was one of many copywriters vying for the same projects, so I had to be excellent at what I did. But, as a single mum with a small child at school, I was restricted in the flexibility I could offer clients. I couldn’t work in-house if they needed, and it was difficult to attend meetings in their offices.
I know that if I just presented clients with problems – a list of things I couldn’t do – then they’d soon find a more easily available replacement. So instead, I identified a USP that would genuinely solve a problem for them, and hopefully distract them from my lack of availability.
And so, my USP was: “You give me a deadline and I’ll meet it.”
This meant that, if a client had an urgent brief, I was always accommodating. In rare and extreme cases, I’d take a brief at 10pm and have it ready by 9am the next day if needed. And if work had to be completed over the weekend, I was the woman they turned to.
This flexibility ‘sleight of hand’ worked. Clients didn’t mind briefing me over the phone if it meant they always looked good to their boss by turning in work on time. And as a result, I became the go-to writer for several small agencies. The work from these agencies alone earned me enough money to put my son through private school.
So work out what makes you unique – how you can offer something a client really values – and make yourself their go-to person. Not only will you earn repeat business, but clients will happily overlook any limits to your availability as a parent.
Something else I quickly realised was that clients didn’t really want a freelance copywriter. Instead, they needed someone to take a problem off their hands. And that problem just happened to involve writing copy for them.
So my approach to work wasn’t just to find out what they asked me to do, but what they needed to achieve. What was the real purpose of the piece of work?
I also made sure I was as easy to work with as possible. I made sure I got everything I needed to do the job properly at the beginning, so I didn’t need to clog up their inbox with irritating questions. And if I encountered a problem when completing the work I would try to solve it myself, rather than helplessly ask them. I’d use my initiative and experience, and sometimes present with more than one solution, if appropriate.
I was always unfailingly polite and pleasant too, even if the client was difficult, irritating, or made a mistake. Because, given the choice, wouldn’t you always want to work with someone who made a job easier, and made your day better? As before, this edge can ensure someone chooses you over a competitor who has more availability.
As a result, clients loved working with me. Indeed, many took me with them when they changed companies, and several have become friends.
I can’t write about making freelance work as a parent without mentioning the C word: childcare. Whether you’re the day-to-day carer for your child(ren) or occasionally need to fit work around your family, you need to come up with solutions (and ones that don’t cost more than you earn).
When your child is a young baby, it can be easy. I continued working right through the birth of my second child (admittedly I did break for labour…). I made the most of naptimes and her lack of mobility.
As she got older I would take her out for a walk or a play at the park in the morning, and then work while she napped, played or watched TV when we got home. I also had a freelance friend with a daughter the same age, and we’d swap childcare. I’d look after both girls in the morning while she worked, and she’d return the favour in the afternoon.
Once my daughter was three, I took advantage of my free childcare hours, and worked solidly in them. When my children were school age I used after school clubs to buy me longer working days, and found affordable activity days in the school holiday. I’d use these two, work two or three days a week, depending on my workload, and then spend the rest of the week with my children.
While my motivation to go freelance was purely to be around my children – I left a fantastic, well-paid job that unfortunately had a five-hour round commute to work for myself – now that they are older, I would never want to return to working for someone else.
As a freelancer and Founder of Talented Ladies Club, I’m free to choose the days and hours I work, and the projects and clients I take on. If I fancy a day off, I take it. I can always make the time up later.
The freedom and flexibility that enabled me to be there for my children’s formative years, do the school run and be a full member of their lives has become a valued part of my life, and I’m not prepared to give it up.
So – when you start out as a parent and a freelancer or consultant it might seem tough trying to find clients and manage a workload that fits around your commitments, but I’m proof that it’s not just possible to survive, but to thrive.
How do you make self-employment and parenting work? Join the conversation below…