Thirteen years ago I resigned from my job in corporate communications to enter the heady world of freelancing. I wanted greater work variety and the freedom to choose my working hours – not only because these things appealed to me more than the rigidity of corporate life, but also because I hoped, in due course, to start a family. I reckoned that freelancing would be the perfect way to combine motherhood and work and get the best of both worlds.
Was I right? Essentially, yes. I now have two sons, aged eight and six, and somehow manage to work and earn some money every month in between school lifts, extramurals, play dates, and supervising homework. But I say ‘somehow’ because truly, there are days when I juggle more than that remarkably agile chap we saw at the circus last week, and yes, I do drop a few balls from time to time. Over time though I’ve learnt how to make it work so that the wheels don’t fall off completely, and here are some lessons from my experience.
The unquestionable value of a support system – and being realistic
Successfully combining freelancing and motherhood would be impossible without a support structure. I have a full-time nanny (essential), some great mom friends who help with lifting when I have to attend a meeting that clashes with school pick-up time, and fortunately, a hands-on husband who also has some work flexibility and can step in when necessary.
This works well in times of normal workflow, but as any freelancer knows, workflow is not consistent, and sometimes I find myself completely snowed under. This is when things do go pear-shaped and if I try to do everything perfectly, I’ll lose the plot. So I’ve learnt to go with the flow and lower my domestic standards, because, for example, I can’t always put wonderfully balanced meals on the table every night when I’m very busy. I now know that the kids are not going to turn into malnourished waifs just because they had spaghetti and cheese two nights in a row.
It’s easy to be available
Technology is a wonderful tool for freelancers. Clients don’t know whether I’m working on a document while sitting at my desk or on my laptop in my car at the school gates. And they don’t really care – as long as I’m available and getting the work done. Yes, I’ve had to take calls on my cellphone with my incredibly loud children around, but the boys know that when mom’s phone rings, they must be quiet (it has, however, taken a while to get to this point!)
One cold winter’s day last July my eight-year-old couldn’t go to school due to a temperature of 39°C and a hacking cough, and the nanny couldn’t get to work due to a family crisis. I needed to attend a client’s AGM starting at 8.30 a.m. with a brief to write a press release that would be circulated to the financial media. It was a wicked combination of events and it put me in a panic – there was no way I could pull out of the AGM or find a replacement in time, but who would look after my child at short notice?
My husband came to the rescue and turned the day into a ‘Take a Boy Child With You to Work’ event. My son went to work with his dad, and with the help of Panado, a box of Lego, and some fussing from dad’s staff, survived the day. So did I, with the client none the wiser about the logistics and anxiety behind the scenes.
It can be hard, but I do keep my family dramas out of the picture when it comes to client service. In fact I seldom talk about my children unless a client specifically asks about them. I think it’s more professional that way. (However, should a real emergency arise, like a call from school to say my child has fallen out of a tree and broken a limb just as I’m about to walk into a meeting, I would without a doubt choose my child over my client.)
Getting the balance right
Most of the time I try to crack through as much work as possible in the mornings so I can be with my children in the afternoons, and then I work again in the evenings. One of my boys has special educational needs and it’s very important to me that I spend time with him checking homework and giving input where necessary. I’d hate to leave that significant task to someone else. This is one of the many wonderful advantages of freelancing – the opportunity to be with my children after school and participate in their lives, even if it means working again at night.
As much as I strive to make time for the kids, I also strive to be a better freelancer. I attend workshops, explore time management techniques, and maintain professional connections through, for example, being a member of the South African Freelancers Association (Safrea).
I’ve had times when the juggling gets crazy and I’ve thought wistfully of going back to work full time. Wouldn’t it be nice to sit on a fancy leather chair all day and earn a nice stable income, while an au pair does the hectic ‘mom’s taxi’ stuff that I do every day? But then something happens, like last week when Cape Town dished up one of those glorious balmy days and with homework done and no urgent deadlines, we headed off to the beach. It was an exquisite afternoon, warm and windless, and being able to enjoy it with my children on a weekday was priceless. On days like that I realise once again that I wouldn’t want things any other way. It’s all about finding the work/life balance that resonates with oneself, and isn’t that what we should all be doing for ourselves anyway?
Celia Fleming is a freelance business writer and editor, specialising mainly in financial services.She is a member of the South African Freelancers’ Association.