Some thoughts on leaves of absence (maternity and otherwise)

A former student recently contacted me to ask some advice about taking maternity leave as a freelancer; she is pregnant with her first baby and her new freelance business has recently been gaining momentum, so she wants to take time off but doesn’t want to lose all of the energy she’s put into her business. My daughter is entering middle school this year so my experience is a bit dated, but I’m interested to hear other people’s thoughts as well. Whether you’re taking maternity or paternity leave, taking care of an aging parent or various other reasons, here are some factors to consider:

  • As a freelancer, taking time off is always anxiety-provoking. Let’s just admit that and get it out of the way. Building up a financial cushion to tide you through the period when you’re not working; stressing out about whether clients will find another translator (who, in your paranoid fantasies, is always better, faster and cheaper than you); stressing out about how long is too long to take off, and on and on. That part, you just have to live with, and maybe do a lot of yoga and meditation to help calm the inevitable anxiety!
  • I think it’s best to be up front about the reason for your leave. To me, it’s unnecessarily vague to contact your clients and say “I will be unavailable for the next six months” with no further explanation. If you’re taking a medical leave, I would not provide the details about your health problems; just say you’ll be on medical leave.
  • But you want to keep it a little vague as well. When you have an in-house job, you have to be really, really ready to go back to work before you commit to a return date, because you have to feel up to working a full day, and you have to have child care in place. But as a freelancer, you have no paid leave time, so you don’t want to close the door for longer than you need to. For example you might say “I’m expecting a baby in mid-October and I plan to be on maternity leave until approximately the end of November, but my exact return date will of course depend on how the baby and I are doing by that point. I’ll plan to contact you by November 25 with an update” or “I will be working reduced hours for at least the next two months to care for my ailing father. I anticipate that it may take me longer than usual to respond to e-mails and phone calls and I will probably not be able to handle rush projects. But please let me know if I can help out with any non-rush work during that time.”
  • How long you need to take off depends on a lot of factors that you can’t control. We’re talking about maternity leave here: I commented to my former student that although I felt completely fine within a few weeks of my daughter’s birth, her habit of wanting to be held and nursed for about 23 hours a day kind of precluded doing any substantive work. In addition, she didn’t sleep through the night until she was over a year old, so I was pretty exhausted a lot of the time. Other babies are the opposite: if your kid is happy napping in a crib for hours at a time, you might be working close to full-time within a few months.
  • Be honest with yourself about your choices and tradeoffs. I’ll address this one from the mom/wife point of view because it’s the one I’m most familiar with. At some point during my daughter’s first years of life, I realized that for me, the work/life balance will always swing toward life rather than work. I realized that when my daughter is grown up, I will have gotten some things right, and I will have messed some things up, but mainly I want to have been there, and to have had not only quality time but quantity time with her. Same with my husband: if he’s really sick, I don’t go into the co-working office and I stay home with him; if he has to have some medical procedure, I go along.In a lot of ways we’re pretty traditional: we cook a real dinner and eat together pretty much every night. We mostly socialize as a family; my parents live near us so we basically never use babysitters even if we go out at night, and so on. I recognize that this choice involves tradeoffs. Essentially every moment of my day is scheduled, because I work primarily while my daughter is at school. I could make more money if I didn’t take a month off every summer to go on an extended family vacation; I turn down pretty much every out-of-town speaking engagement request that I receive, because my ATA Board responsibilities already require me to travel at least four times a year. In order to fund our travel habits, we practice freelance frugality to a pretty extreme extent. But I accept that this is the way of life that makes me happy, and that in order to maintain it, I have to prioritize.

    On the other side of the coin, there are lots of moms who need to work full-time, either for financial reasons or because that’s what makes them happy. In a doctor’s office waiting room a while ago, I read an interview with Ivanka Trump in Redbook (I know, that’s not normally where you’d expect enlightenment to come from, but I take it where I can get it!), in which she unapologetically admitted that she spends just an hour and fifteen minutes with her toddler daughter on a typical weeknight because she works up to 16 hours a day. It goes without saying that if you’re Ivanka Trump, part of the reason you can do that is because an armada of nannies and housekeepers and cooks are picking up the slack during those 16 hours. However I really appreciated Ivanka’s candor: she seems to really adore her daughter, but also says that working hard at a job she loves makes her happy, and makes her a better mom when she’s with her kid. So I think it’s not so much a matter of saying “if you’re a mom and a freelancer, you must do this,” but of finding a quasi-balance that works for you.

Any other tips (practical or philosophical) on leaves of absence??

21 Responses to “Some thoughts on leaves of absence (maternity and otherwise)”
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