There is a moment, which I will call The Highlight Of My Freelance Career. It is the moment I covertly breast-fed my screaming three-month-old baby whilst on a Skype call with Some Very High Up People at A Very Important Arts Organisation. Because sometimes you have so much work as a freelancer, breastfeeding your three-month-old baby who was supposed to be asleep during the hour you set aside for a key work meeting, really is the only option.
I think we can all agree that freelancing definitely has its merits — and covert breastfeeding during meetings is only one of many. I can control my hours, spend time with my littles and keep my skills up-to-date in case the lure of the great employed becomes too much. And yes, on a good day, life is pretty good: Radio 4 is on in the background, I’ve got a healthy to-do list and I’m firing through it. I’m getting results. I’m awesome. I. Am. Mumboss!
But then that particular project ends and you get The Fear. The self-doubt. ‘It’s gone a bit quiet’, ‘hmm, no one has anything for me right now’, and suddenly I have no work coming in, no projects lined-up. It’s a well-known pitfall of freelancing. It really can be feast or famine working for yourself and right now I am starving. Not literally of course (I have cake).
I know that nothing is going to come up in December for me. I know this. I (should) plan for this. But yet, I still have The Fear.
The thing is, I knew this particular gap was coming because it happens every year. I’m a freelance publicist who specialises in books. I spent 10 years in London working at various publishing houses, looking after bestselling novels and prize-winning authors.
I loved my job. Like, really loved it. And one of the best things about it was that I got two whole glorious weeks off for Christmas guilt-free. Because nothing was happening. Nothing is published over Christmas. It’s all already out there, luring people to Waterstones with its promise of being the perfect gift for your weird great uncle. The autumn is the busy period. From September to November I could barely breathe for work.
So I know that nothing is going to come up in December for me. I know this. I (should) plan for this. But yet, I still have The Fear.
I guess I’m not a natural freelancer. I really hadn’t wanted to leave my job. But the reality was that having a much loved, much wanted but unplanned baby, saw my new family join the statistics of people who couldn’t afford to live in London anymore. Not with the childcare costs, not with the insane rent on a tiny apartment and not with the expensive, excessive and unpleasant commute.
No, instead we moved to Bristol. (And Bristol is awesome, by the way.) But Bristol is 120 miles from London and it meant I definitely had to leave my job and I definitely had to find something else to do. Freelancing, for me, like the other 280,000 freelancing mums in the UK I’m sure, was one of the only ways I could balance income with childcare costs and spending time with my kids.
I feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m not trying hard enough. I feel like a failure.
I do miss the office, the parties, the gossip, the cake and the wine (hey, it is publishing after all, some stereotypes are true!) Hell, even the meetings. Who knew bouncing ideas around with a colleague would be the thing I missed most about being an employee?
But also, knowing where the work was, up to a year in advance. Knowing that quiet spots in my year were an opportunity to take the foot off the pedal a bit, catch up with contacts, do that office admin that gets left behind at busy times. Eat slightly more cake than usual. Take a lunch break for once. And always with the knowledge that there would be a nice regular salary at the end of the month.
Sure, you can plan all those things into quiet periods of work as a freelancer but what there isn’t is that guaranteed income. The knowledge that despite it being slow, you will still definitely contribute to the family finances.
When I see my epically hardworking husband doing all the hours in the day to support us, I feel so, so guilty for not paying my way. In the early morning, as I listen to my neighbour leave for her very demanding job as a teacher I feel so, so guilty for not leaving my house at some crazy time in the morning to go to a traditionally salaried job. I feel like a fraud. I feel like I’m not trying hard enough. I feel like a failure.
If I’m honest, this is the bit about freelancing which is most likely to see me doubting myself, idly flicking through noticeboards for jobs I probably couldn’t do and which definitely wouldn’t accommodate my childcare requirements (and my work-all-hours husband).
I know you need to have a plan. I know you need to market yourself. Use the ‘downtime’ to do all those things you normally don’t have the time to do.
You just can’t measure the value of a parent by the income that they bring to the table.
So I give myself a week-long ’holiday’. That autumn period was mental. There are few more stressful situations than having-slightly-more-work-on-your-plate-than-you-do-childcare. So I deserve a break, right?
I clean the house because I’m not sure I’ve hoovered in about 2 months and fluff tumbleweeds are multiplying in our hallway.
I sweet talk a friend into helping me update my website (again).
I design a newsletter to send to all my clients reminding them how awesome I am.
I go to London and meet some contacts.
I do my tax return.
Then there are the client Christmas parties to go to.
I go for a run.
Then I… then I…
Then I’m out of ideas. Then I get The Fear.
So I’m going to make a pact with myself. I’m going to be kinder. I’m going to believe that the best that I am doing is good enough. That I’m doing all the right things.
Freelancing is still pretty new to me, it’s only this last year that I’ve been able to work regularly. In time, projects will become more regular. My clients will increase. The gaps will become more predictable and certainly (I hope) less scary.
And more than any of that, I am doing what I feel is the right thing for my children. I have the right balance of working days and looking after the kids days. You just can’t measure the value of a parent by the income that they bring to the table. And maybe, for the next half an hour at least. I’m OK with that.
Photograph by Kelly Pike.