In April 2014, I sat alone in a black, royal, horse-drawn carriage. The Ambassador and his wife sat in an even more elaborate carriage just ahead of me, horses’ hooves clip clapping on the uneven cobblestones. We had a wonderful private audience with the King. It was exciting and possibly the highlight of my almost four-year foreign posting.
A couple of years later, and my days morphed into endless diaper changes, feeds and wiping snot, vomit, and poo in no particular order. The plan was to take one year of parental leave. Yet, after just four months, I felt I needed to go back to work.
But the woman who went back to the office was different than the girl who had left a mere 7 months earlier. I soon realized that the career I had studied and worked for could never match up to my ideals of motherhood. I couldn’t stand being away from my daughter, having antiquated rules dictate how much quality time I could spend with her, when most of the work could be done from anywhere.
My daughter was asthmatic for the first two years of her life – so my vacation leave was spent at hospital, and my sick days to recover from whatever bug I would catch while with her in hospital. My immediate superiors were understanding and went out of their way to support me. Yet, the whole system was flawed and grossly tilted against a proper work-life balance for parents.
The last straw was when my daughter was admitted to hospital and I couldn’t get to her for three long hours. I decided there and then to take a break. That break soon turned into a resignation and a completely new freelance career – one that is far more rewarding and actually a childhood dream come true.
Taking on a Freelance Career
I can’t say being a freelance mum has been easy. But the fact that I’m doing this for myself and for my kids gives me the impetus to constantly work harder – and smarter. There’s no safety net of a set salary falling into your bank account every month. You earn what you work for. And that makes you more aware of how every second counts – how you must make the most of every hour (or few minutes) of work.
Many mums dream of going freelance – of being their own boss, setting their own hours, and being present for all the important milestones. Freelancing is great, but it’s also hard work, sometimes more than a regular 9 to 5 is. You’re your own company’s management, finance, marketing, HR and procurement departments – at least for the first few years. Alongside this, you’re also caring for your family – possibly even the primary caregiver.
It’s a lot. But, four years in, and I’d say it’s doable.
Here are some real, no nonsense, tips for those considering the switch:
Have a safety net
The first few months may be slow, and there will even be some dry spells along the way. Having a few months’ worth of savings to fall onto will relieve some of the pressure. This is especially so if your work depends on creativity. Nothing beats up creativity like the thought of impending doom.
Find your village – or island!
Just because you’ll be working from home and making up your own hours doesn’t mean you can do it all on your own. Being a freelance mum can get very demanding at times, especially if the service you’re offering is seasonal. Have a group of people ready to help, be it with childcare, meals, or keeping the house liveable. If finances allow, outsource what you can’t do yourself. If your hourly rate is much higher than home help, for instance, outsource the home help and use that time to work instead.
Keep those around you accountable – If someone says they’ll help, then set a date and time and make it clear that it’s important to you. Not having an employer breathing down your neck seems to send off the message that you’re flexible and that it doesn’t matter if offers of help fall through. This is – putting it mildly – frustrating and disrespectful.
With those around you, mostly. Just because you can set your own hours doesn’t mean you’re available to run every errand or open to unannounced drop ins at home. As freelancers and parents, we have to be stricter with our time, and everyone should respect that.
Lower your expectations
Setting the bar too high will only leave you stressed and disappointed. It’s great to aim high – but do so with reasonable expectations. List the things that you must do for your business to flourish, and things that are nice to have. You can do without the nice to haves for now – maybe it would take longer to achieve your goals, but you would have reached them without sacrificing your wellbeing.
Identify your goals
What are your goals, and what do you have to do to reach them? Where do you see your freelance business in a couple of years? Would you like to grow, but only once the kids are older? Or maybe you’d like to work towards a stable stream of passive income? Whatever your goals are, make sure that the work you’re doing today, however little or a lot it may be, is getting you a step closer to where you want to be.
Meet your deadlines
This may sound like a no-brainer, but it actually isn’t. It differentiates between the freelancers who thrive and those who don’t. As a freelancer, you’re setting your own hours. You have deadlines to meet, but you decide when to work to meet them. When you’re a freelancer and a mum, this gets harder. There will often be something that derails your plans. Shit happens, the kids get sick, the baby is clingy. The reality of the past months. You all end up in quarantine and by day 3 everyone’s ready to kill each other. When you schedule deliverables, add an extra day or two as a cushion. And, if everything goes smoothly, deliver your work earlier. The client will love your commitment, and you would have saved yourself a lot of stress.
Work around your kids
Another obvious point? It wasn’t for me in the early days of freelancing. When I first started out, I would dedicate time to both work and rest during my daughter’s nap. But, I soon realised that watching an episode while she napped and before I started working, didn’t leave me much time for actual work. So – sorry, but the relaxing has to wait when you’re your own boss. Of course, this makes you more susceptible to burn out (and burnout is real), so try to at least save one day per week solely for you and your family.
Yes, this can mean working on weekends, too
Sometimes I manage to get five whole hours of work in one day – sometimes it’s just an hour. When the one-hour work days go on for a few days, it means I have to work during weekends. Then, my husband is home to help with the kids. When you’re freelancing as a mum, you just have to do what you have to do.
There’ll still be mum guilt
To be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to live without mum-guilt. (If you do know how, then I’m all ears.) There will be moments where your freelancing business will require more of your time. When your kids beg you to play but you have to say no. Mum guilt is just something we have to live with, no matter what.
It’s not all doom and gloom
I love being a freelance mum. No question. I love the flexibility, I love being able to cuddle my son as he goes down for his nap and to be there when he wakes up, his cheeks all red, his body all warm and cuddly. Moreover, I love that I’m able to be with my kids if they’re unwell without having to justify to anyone why I’m taking a day off. I also love that I don’t have to plan my vacation days weeks in advance to make it to my daughter’s (pre-Covid) Christmas concert.
But, more than anything, I love that my kids can see that you can be successful in a career you love, and be a physically-present parent. All I do is for them and, unashamedly, for me.
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