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How to take parental leave as a freelancer

Taking maternity or paternity leave can be challenging when you’re freelance. We spoke with self-employed workers who have done it successfully.

How to take parental leave as a freelancer
[Source photo: cottonbro/Pexels]

Earlier this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced that four weeks of national paid family and medical leave was getting added back into President Biden’s social safety net bill, just a week after Democrats initially removed the provision. But while the final fate of the bill remains uncertain, this fact remains: The United States is currently the only wealthy nation without any form of national paid parental leave

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The situation is especially challenging for many freelancers who become parents. Currently, the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act offers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for female W2 employees and is considered “short-term disability.” However, this doesn’t apply to men who become parents—or to independent contractors. (There is also no leave mandate for those who decide to adopt, use a surrogate, or otherwise welcome a child into their home.)

A few states currently do offer some sort of compensation or protection to self-employed, including California, New York, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and Washington state. Fair warning: It’s a lot to weed through and requires tons of paperwork, but it could be worth the deep dive, depending on your situation. 

Fast Company reached out to freelancers to learn how they planned ahead, maintained their client relationships, and prepared for the financial impact of welcoming a child into the world:

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Prep far in advance to feel less overwhelmed 

Jaime Maser, founder of Maser Communications, opened her agency in 2014 and has taken three maternity leaves. She is planning for another one in the coming months with baby number four. With each of these experiences, she started planning early into her pregnancy to give herself time to digest all of the nuts and bolts of her business. Her suggestion to expecting parents is to begin creating a Google doc ASAP in which to brain-dump everything including coverage tasks, responsibilities, debriefing materials, training documents, and so on. 

In addition to being well prepared to be away from clients, beginning early is also recommended since pregnancy and birth are unpredictable. If you’re expecting a baby, you may have bouts of nausea and exhaustion, which can make it tricky to put pen to paper. Plus, a due date is always just an estimate. 

“My children were all born premature, so I am oh-so-grateful I started prepping documents for my maternity leave in advance of my due date. Otherwise, I would have been at the hospital, hooked up to a million monitors for blood pressure issues, sleep-deprived, and delirious, with a baby in the NICU, trying to be coherent and clear and deliberate in my thoughts about my business,” she says. “It’s better to start in advance and work on the various debrief- and transition-documents whenever you can, rather than waiting until you’re 38 weeks along—uncomfortable, exhausted—and then try to bang out a plan.”

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Get your finances in order

When freelance writer, content strategist, and editor Diana Kelly Levey was preparing for maternity leave, she made the goal to save $10,000. This would cover her for roughly three months of personal and business expenses, and made her feel more relaxed with the concept of taking a break. To meet this aspiration, she took on new projects and assignments and increased her hourly freelance rate while pregnant. 

“Having a financial goal, and date I had to reach it by, helped me be more confident in rate negotiations,” Levey says. She’s now expecting her second baby, and her advice for freelancers is to save up more money than you think you’ll need for leave. 

Not only will this hopefully ease some of the emotional burdens that come with freelancing and finances, but it will also help you set up a budget that’s sustainable during your time away. It’s also not a bad idea to factor in the cost of childcare, should you need it, to return to work after your parental leave. 

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Be picky about who fills in for you

While you’re adjusting to sleepless nights and a significant shift in your daily routine and lifestyle, you don’t want to have to worry about who is answering your out-of-office. If you intend to keep freelance contracts but have a fill-in, Maser advises tapping your network to find leads and potential fits for your coverage. She’s used the same fellow freelancer for two of her pregnancies and will again for the upcoming one. Whoever you select, don’t be afraid to be picky. 

“Ask around to industry friends and colleagues for names and referrals—and do your due diligence,” Maser continues. “This person is essentially acting as you during your leave, so you want to be sure their reputation is spot on.” 

Some questions to consider include:

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  • Do peers, previous clients, etc., respect them? 
  • Do they have a stellar track record? 
  • Are they personable and likable and understand the importance of client service? 
  • Can they be flexible? 
  • Are they communicative? 
  • Do you feel good about leaving your business in their hands so you can wrap your head around your new role as a parent?

Keep the lines of communication open 

Jamie Han, founder of Jamie Madrid Consulting, started freelancing in 2012 and discovered she was pregnant with her firstborn in 2017. She took a six-week maternity leave with him, and then for her second, born in July 2021, she took eight weeks. Rather than shying away from her growing family, Han was upfront about her leave with her clients far in advance, so they could plan as well. 

Her suggestion for fellow contractors is to be transparent and to share your timeline and plans with your clients so that you can work together on the best plan. “It can be intimidating, but the more you can prepare them for your leave and make plans for your absence, the more comfortable everyone will feel,” she says. “Plans don’t need to stop just because you’re out, but this ensures everyone is on the same page and reduces stress for both parties.”

Also, it’s important to note that everyone handles parental leave differently, and while you may decide to be 100% checked out, you might also crave the distraction of work from feedings and changings. Maser says she checked in with her clients two weeks into her maternity-level coverage to make sure all was copacetic. She continued to do this periodically. “My reputation and my business are built on relationships, and it was of ultra importance to me to ensure those relationships were maintained. So if there was an emergency or an occasional touch base/check-in call they wanted me to partake in during my leave, I would. That’s part of being in client services.”

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Plan for an adjustment period when returning to work

After you become a parent, your life will undoubtedly change. And the freelancer you were pre-baby might not be the freelancer you become. Or, it might be. The trick is to ease into the transition, and give yourself time to figure out the right balance between work and family life, says Apryl Ash, a PR consultant who has taken two four-month maternity leaves. “If it is overwhelming, you know you need to make small changes to make it more manageable,” she adds.

Also, if your income and your workload took a hit during your leave, try to be patient as you build your client base again, Levey says. “It took about two months from the start of working on the assignment to receiving my first paycheck for most clients. I find it helps to be mentally and financially prepared for that transition period once you start up again.”

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