“I don’t know how you do it” freelancing with children

Since my husband was made redundant in November and I have been translating full-time again, friends locally have been coming up to me in the street and saying “I don’t know how you do it”, as if I was in that book by Allison Pearson, except that her heroine wasn’t a translator. Well to be honest, working full-time with a partner available for childcare is a darn sight easier than working part-time was. The children-work juggling act is difficult, and at the Proz Translator as a Strategic Partner conference in November, I kept having muttered, brief conversations in coffee breaks with people, all women, about exactly how we do it. As Sarah Dillon says here, it’s something the translation industry seems reluctant to debate, probably for fear that translation will once more be seen as something that women do for “pin money” rather than a job for professionals.

So, if anyone wants to know, here is how I did it. In 2001 I had been freelancing for five years, had taken on an employee, gained ITI membership and made the employee a partner.  Then I had a baby. Having a well-established business first helps. Having a business partner who kept the business going while I took 3 months’ maternity leave (the maximum at the time) and then while I worked part-time helped even more. The baby went to nursery two full days a week, my business partner booked work in for me on the other days and I would pop into the office with the baby to keep in touch as well. There were times when I used to wheel her round the streets in the pushchair at nap time until she fell asleep and then dive into the office  to type frantically for an hour until she woke up again, and I did quite a bit after she had gone to bed, but it worked. It kept working when I had my son in 2004 (longer maternity leave), although when the eldest started school, I could no longer work from 8 am – 6 pm and switched to three mornings instead.

In 2007 we moved out of Bristol and I had child no. 3. Since neither of us were now living in the same place, or in the same place as the office, we dissolved the business partnership at the end of my maternity leave.  From April 2008 I was working from home doing the juggling act on my own and it was much harder. The baby goes to nursery three mornings a week and often naps when she gets home. That was as much time as I wanted to be working but when I firmly stated that I was not available on Tuesdays and Fridays, I found that clients ended up not contacting me at all because they couldn’t remember which days I worked. As soon as my husband was made redundant and I contacted everyone and told them I was full-time again, the work picked up.

In my experience, the biggest issue is contactability/availability. I work mainly for agencies, often on small projects with fast turnaround. They don’t mind when I actually do the work, but they do need to know fairly instantly whether I can take it or not. If I am working part-time, there will consequently be times when I am answering work enquiries with children in the background. I think, and my experience last autumn shows, that clients would prefer that to me not answering at all. Isn’t not getting back to them promptly more unprofessional? I do try to make e-mail the default rather than the phone and I have Skype so clients can tell when I am at the computer for instant replies. As I said above, at the moment it’s all less of an issue because I am working full time and my husband is entertaining the baby when she isn’t at nursery. I stop at 3.30 when the children come home from school, but my Scandinavian clients are coming to the end of their working day by then anyway.

I also have the advantage that Scandinavian clients seem to be more child-friendly than UK ones. Work-life balance is more advanced there than it is here. I have had project managers (even male ones) tell me they are working at home while looking after  a sick child, that they have to leave early to pick up a child from daycare but will get back to me in the evening, or ask very politely if I could deliver early because it is sunny and they want to stop work and take their children to the park. I don’t have a problem with that, or think it makes them more unprofessional when they are at work. Why does the UK?

When the baby starts school in 2011, I’ll be able to work from 9.30 to 3, five days a week, and that will be fine. If my husband finds a job before then,  I’ll be single-handedly juggling again and I’ll have to think hard about the contactability issue. We shall see… This business is flexible. And it’s my business. And in our experience, over the past eight years it has proved to offer more job security than the IT industry. Why, when I have spent 12 years building it up, would it make sense to abandon it completely as soon as I have children? I am still the same person and I am just as professional now as I was back in 2000, probably more so as I am aware life offers more distractions these days and double check everything. And if I had stopped work completely due to having babies, what on earth would we all be living on now?

5 replies on ““I don’t know how you do it” freelancing with children”

Thanks for sharing this, Kate. Interesting to see how attitudes differ in Scandinavia – as you say, if only people were similarly open-minded here in the UK!

I was also particularly interested to read about how you approached the problem: having a business partner…I don’t think this is something many of us freelance translators give enough thought to. It throws up the question of entrusting your ‘baby’ (and here I’m talking about a translator’s freelance business ;)) to another person…

We had known each other for ten years when we started working together and worked together for three years, I think, before I went part time. We still collaborate, cover for each other’s holidays and check each other’s work where required, but as two separate freelancers. I think you do have to be very good friends for it to work and that 7 years of acting as my secretary in addition to his own work was probably about the limit.

Kate, this is a great post, thanks! The U.S. is not a very child-friendly place overall, so I hear you on this topic! Personally (from the perspective of having a 6 year old daughter; I’ve freelanced since she was 3 months old and my husband and I shared the child care for her first 5 years), I don’t find it unprofessional when people a) have their kids with them while they’re working because of an exceptional circumstance: kid is sick, babysitter canceled at the last minute, etc. or b) limit their working hours to when they have child care. The thing that I find worrisome is when people (female or male) seem to think that they can work from home full time with no child care for small kids; personally I think that everyone loses in that situation. The parent is distracted, the kids are bored, and everybody’s whining 🙂 . It doesn’t bother me at all when someone says “you might hear my daughter in the background, she had to come home sick from school,” but I avoid working with translators whose default mode of operation is to be making lunch for the kids while playing a game of Candyland while talking about the glossary for a current project. Not that any of us has the perfect solution, but I think you’ve hit some of the nails on the head: take an amount of maternity/paternity leave that allows you to really be ready to go back to work; try to direct clients toward e-mail communication whenever possible and look for clients whose work day aligns with yours. In my case, I worked very part-time until my daughter was 15 months old, then gradually ramped up until getting back to a relatively normal (8-2:30) schedule now that she’s in school for a full day.

Above all, I think that you just have to accept your own limitations and choices; if you want to be very involved in your kid’s life, you just are not going to be as available as someone who either doesn’t have kids or uses 50 hours a week of child care (which is the norm for parents with full-time jobs in the US). If you want to be available to your clients from 8-6, you just are not going to be as much a part of your kid’s daily life as you would be if you worked less. Personally I tend toward the first option; although I love what I do for work and we really benefit from having my income, I also think that I have a limited amount of time to be a big part of my daughter’s life, whereas if all goes well I have at least 30 more years to tap away at the computer before retirement. I really try not to be judgmental of people who make other choices because I think that there are lots of ways to be a good parent, but I do feel that one of the main advantages of freelancing is that I can be very involved with my kid while she’s still young enough to like me 🙂

I completely agree that you should only work when you have childcare. Working with children underfoot is bad for the work and bad for the children. We all have emergencies when the children are ill or the childcare fails but they should be emergencies, not the default setting.

For me, having someone else manning the office on the days I wasn’t there was a perfect solution to the problem of wanting to keep the business going and have whole days to spend with my children when they were small, but not everyone is going to find that possible. An office separate from the house was another plus (which I no longer have though I hope to again one day) and a separate phone line (clients ring my mobile not the domestic phone).

At the moment it isn’t a problem because I can fit the work in in the early mornings (good for my body clock and my clients’ time zones) and before 3.30, and my husband looks after the baby. If I do end up going part time again before the baby starts school, I might try shorter working hours (with childcare) on more days rather than taking two days off completely. This might prevent clients from writing me off completely because they can’t contact me on Tuesdays.

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