Two weeks after giving birth to her second child, Alina Dizik, my friend and fellow freelance writer, was back to work, turning in stories and taking on new writing assignments. Her commitment was inspiring. It was also slightly terrifying. With a toddler at home and a newborn to boot, she was jumping back into work quickly. Is that breed of tirelessness really what it takes to juggle freelancing and having a family?
In the U.S., of course, where parental work leave isn't a given right for all, this is an unfortunate reality. But that's another story altogether.
Even as a freelancer without company-sponsered maternity leave, wasn't two weeks too little? I asked Dizik what in the world she was thinking. Industrious as she's been in the many years I've known her, wasn't this a bit extreme?
Not really, she says. While she took six weeks off after having her first child in 2013, the second time around, she was better prepared. "I felt like I was ready to get back to part-time work," she says. "I already had child care and wanted to stay in the game."
Staying in the game is a big concern for many juggling freelance work and having kids. But with the right strategies in place, it's possible to be your own boss and still have time for family.
Before she had kids, Dizik would work early in the morning, take a nap midday, and often work in the evening. But while an erratic work schedule is plausible when you're on your own, with kids who thrive on routine, it can add more chaos to the equation. Now Dizik works more traditional hours, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., so that she has time to spend with her kids in the evening before bed. "Putting in a system and schedule that we keep to as a family has made it easier," she says. "I treat my freelancing as a full-time job, and that helps everyone around me understand that even though I have a flexible schedule, I work regular hours."
Building a realistic daily routine for freelance work will help create and enforce those boundaries between work and family. And it will help cut out hours of wasted time procrastinating. "It's helped me become even more productive because I'm so much more mindful of my time than I was in the past," says Dizik.
Having a home office is a great idea in theory, but unless you have a heart of steel and can stand the sound of your own crying children begging at the door to play with you, it's best to simply find a way to get out of the house for a few hours a day to really buckle down. "Find a space to work where you are not in the house," says Jennifer Hill, chief operating officer of Remedy Analytics, a health care data-technology company, who has worked as a freelance startup consultant over the years while raising her two young children. "Even if you go to Starbucks for two hours every single day, you will get more done," she says.
As a freelancer, it's easy to feel like you need to do everything by yourself. You are, after all, your own boss. But that's often an unrealistic expectation, particularly when you have kids. Find smart ways to outsource tasks that can easily eat into your day. Hill, for example, has both groceries and diapers delivered to her house rather than having to go out shopping for them.
That might also mean getting an extra set of hands to help with work tasks—outsourcing things like updating your website, transcribing audio, or bookkeeping to an outside hire. "There are many things you can do to outsource the day-to-day of your life," says Hill.
If you're freelancing full-time and juggling multiple projects, it may be time to take a step back and figure out what your workload needs to be once you have a family, so that you aren't working yourself to the bone. "I set a monthly quota for myself for how much money I need to make in order to continue living the life we live as a family," says Dizik. "I try to work up until that instead of taking on as many projects as possible. It allows me to guiltlessly hang out with my children instead of thinking about the work I could be doing to earn more money."
And taking this kind of strategic approach also allows you to focus more strategically on projects that interest you. As a freelancer, you can shape and change the direction of your career as you please, which is the beauty of working for yourself. Don't let that get lost in translation after having a family. "I get to cherry-pick projects in a way that helps me get experience exactly where I need it, rather than on somebody else's schedule," says Dizik. "It helps me build my career on my own terms."
When Ben August, a screenwriter based in New Jersey, realized that he didn't have a reliable source of income, and his wife was pregnant with their first child three years ago, he had a reality check. "I started looking for more steady work," he says. "I even went to the Jersey City Police Department and filled out an application for being a cop, because I thought it was steady work for having a kid."
Luckily, August's writing picked up some traction and interest in Hollywood around that same time, and he was able to take on more writing projects. In March, his film Remember comes out in theaters. "You have to be realistic," he says. "Look at what you are trying to do and if you are not going to realistically make it, you have to make that decision of working full time."
There are always ways to stay connected, even if you're mostly at home with small children. Often staying in the game really just means staying in contact with the people you've worked with and have a relationship with professionally. That can be as simple as an email or phone call. "Just be present and keep reaching out to your network," says Hill. "Keep in touch with people and let them know what you want to do, and what you're excited to do next."
Hill keeps track of people in her network that she contacts at least every six months or once a year. "If you make lists and look at it as to-dos, each week gets a little bit easier," says Hill, whose children are now 3 and 18 months old.
Hill has always been upfront with clients about the fact that she has small kids at home. But she's also never let it get in the way of her quality of work. "The relationship with your client should be such that they are so excited about the work you're doing, that anything else in your life is a side note," she says. "Focus on output. They don’t need to know whether you are working eight hours a day or two hours a day."
And there's no need to be apologetic about having a life and obligations outside of work. For most of us who opt to take this route, freelancing is not just a career choice, it's a lifestyle choice. "Being freelance helps me be the dad I want to be," says August. "Living this life and making my own hours allows me to do that. There's certainly stresses involved, but you just have to be confident in what you are doing. If you're not confident, it's going to show up in your work."