My freelance origin story
When someone asks me how long I’ve been a freelancer, it’s not a difficult number for me to calculate, even as a non-numbers person, because my freelance business is the same age as my daughter. I’ve been freelancing since October 2002, which means that my business and my kid are now (not sure how this happened?) an amazing twenty years old.
Over the years, I’ve written and talked a lot about being a freelancer and being a parent. A few resources from the archive are:
- A post I wrote in 2009
- A podcast interview that Eve Bodeux and I did with Jennifer Nielsen and Elena Langdon
- A podcast interview that Eve Bodeux and I did with Miguel Armentia, Jonathan Downie, and James Perry
- A podcast interview that Eve Bodeux and I did with Karen Tkaczyk, Marianne Reiner, and the late Andy Bell
Now that my kid is an adult (legally, at least!) and launched (as an engineering student on the other side of the country), I thought it might be time for a report from the other side, for those still in the trenches. Note: For the purposes of this post, I’m going to use the term “parent,” (rather than “mom”) in order to include all freelancing parents.
The early years
Before my daughter was born, my husband (who works in IT) and I decided that we both wanted to work very part-time for a year after she was born, so that one of us would always be home with her. We were able to do this (by living very frugally both before and during this year), and we also made a major move, from Boston to Colorado, when my daughter was 10 weeks old. This was a lot of transition, because both of us worked full-time in pretty demanding jobs before having a kid. However it worked well for us, and I was able to work 10-15 hours a week without hiring outside child care, and during that first year of freelancing I made $9,000.
Then, our division of labor bounced around a bit: our savings cushion was getting thinner, so my husband took a full-time job for a year, at the same time my freelance business was ramping up, and we hired a babysitter to come to our house for two to four hours every weekday. For the next three years (ages three, four, and five for my daughter), we both freelanced and my daughter went to half-day preschool and then half-day kindergarten and my husband and I traded off taking care of her in the afternoons. When my daughter was six, my husband got an IT job at one of the government research labs in Boulder (where he still works), first working three days a week for a few years, then four days a week for a few years, and finally five days a week when my daughter went to high school.
Typing all of this out, I realize that we had a lot of advantages. We live pretty frugally and have no debt; we paid off our mortgage more than 10 years ago and have never had a car loan, credit card debt, or other consumer debt. We’re also really, really fortunate that my husband’s job has been both stable and flexible, and that we get very good benefits (specifically, health and dental insurance) through his employer at a very reasonable cost. We also live in an area where tons of people are freelancers or patch together multiple part-time jobs, so our way of organizing our work/life balance was never seen as weird or even atypical.
Despite all of these advantages, I, like many freelancing moms, still did the majority of the juggling: stopping work at 2 PM to pick my daughter up at school, covering school days off and vacations, snow days, sick days, arranging summer camps so that I could work at least a few hours a day, etc. I love my job and I honestly like working in general, so as my freelance work volume bumped up, I was reluctant to turn down work that I wanted to do, and by the time my daughter was eight or nine, I was trying to work more or less full time, with no child care outside of school. This meant that for years and years, I essentially considered evenings after my daughter went to bed as part of the work day. I recently came across some old project notes, and (fortunately the memory of this has since faded…) saw that I had worked until after 11 PM for 10 nights in a row to finish a big translation. This was honestly pretty draining because I’m really not a night person, but I got through it.
The view from here
From the perspective of having a 20 year-old, I can now think a little more clearly about how the whole process of being a freelancer and being a parent shook out, what worked, and what I would do differently.
- Prioritizing. I’ll put this one in bold. You can’t be a full-time freelancer and a full-time parent. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, unless you only need two hours of sleep a night (I need eight to nine hours!). Fortunately, I always felt clear about my priorities: to do interesting and lucrative work while being available when my daughter needed me. There’s no wrong answer here: I’ve worked with freelancers who stayed home for 20 years and then re-launched their freelance businesses, and I’ve worked with freelancers who put their kids in full-time day care at three months old. You do you. But be clear about what your priorities are, because there are going to be tradeoffs to whatever you choose.
- In a big-picture way, I have a fulfilling career and a thriving business while being the kind of parent I wanted to be. I always said that at the end of the day, the thing I wanted to be able to say about my daughter’s childhood was: I was there for her. Given the things we were able to do as a family (we typically took the entire month of July off and did a big trip), I honestly don’t think any in-house job would have been flexible enough for my needs, while providing the level of income I wanted to earn.
- It’s sad that this still has to be said in the 21st century, but my husband is a great dad and partner. Whenever I do presentations about work/life balance, I always ask, “Does it still need to be said that it’s a big advantage to have a partner who’s actually a partner?” And the audience’s answer is always: yes, it still needs to be said. The fact that my husband has always been super-supportive of me as a freelancer and that he loves spending time with our kid is a huge advantage. A key example here is that I was on the Board of the American Translators Association for seven years, from when my daughter was in fifth through eleventh grade, and that involved a lot of travel. My husband never (literally: zero times) complained about taking the primary responsibility for our daughter while I was gone, and many times rearranged his own work schedule to accommodate mine.
- Personally I’m glad that I never completely stopped working. Everyone has to make their own decision, but I think that it can be a lot harder to get back in the game after you’ve stopped working, even if continuing to work means (as it did for me) working just a few hours a week when you have a very little kid. I personally feel that I would have felt unfulfilled as a person if I had stopped working completely, and I would have felt unfulfilled as a mother if I had worked full-time when my kid was tiny, and in the end I think I had a good balance of the two.
- Another personal decision, but I’m glad that I had my daughter at the age that I did. She was born two weeks before I turned 31, so by the time she approached independence, I was still young-ish, or at least young enough to go back to school for an interpreting degree! Again, personal, but I also don’t regret having only one kid: I’m also an only child (my poor husband, who has two younger sisters and then lived for 18 years with two only children!) and to me, having one kid was a good balance between the joy of having a child and the independence of still having my own life.
What I would change
Fortunately, I have almost universally positive things to say about my experience with being a freelancer and being a parent. I really have no major regrets, but I will say:
- Being any flavor of working parent in the U.S. is expensive and exhausting; that’s just the reality. I love the U.S. in many ways, but our situation with parental leave and child care is pretty dismal. In my family’s case, which I think is pretty typical for a middle class family, neither my husband nor I had access to any paid parental leave, nor any free or subsidized child care until my daughter went to public school. As a result, even half-day babysitters and half-day preschool were extremely expensive. Even when my daughter went to kindergarten, only half-day kindergarten was free, so we paid for three days a week of full-day kindergarten. For most freelancing parents, especially if you’re still building up your freelance business, this creates a chicken and egg situation where childcare can consume most of what you earn, especially if you have multiple kids.
- In hindsight, I think I was a little phobic about putting my daughter in child care. I think it was an advantage that we used no outside child care for her first year; it was a really special time, and I still have great memories of the three of us spending most of our time together. Still, I did a lot of shortchanging my own health and sanity (working six to seven nights a week) in order to keep that up until she was old enough to be unsupervised.
Looking back on the experience
In closing, I would say this: if you’re a freelancing parent, I think you need to have an “and” mentality. It’s exhausting, and it’s worth it. You’re going to be burning the candle at both ends, and that doesn’t mean that you’re doing anything wrong, it’s just the reality of the situation. It’s definitely survivable, and when your kid is/kids are adults, I think you’ll be very glad that you had the opportunity to run a (hopefully) fulfilling and thriving freelance business while spending those years with them.
Corinne McKay (email@example.com) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!
Marjolein Thickett says
This is so reassuring to read. The way you describe life as an early freelancer and parent to a young child is exactly where I am now. Specifically the fact that you enjoy your job and were unwilling to turn down jobs you enjoyed. I find myself accepting a lot because I am enjoying myself and want to grow my business, but sometimes my husband worries about the evenings I work (I only work 3.5 days during the week though). Let’s hope things works out as they did for you. I am yet to take off more than the standard 2 weeks in the summer though.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks for your comment, and glad you enjoyed the post! Right, funnily enough, my husband and I agree on *almost everything* in life except how to load the dishwasher (he’s been trying to reform me for 23 years and it still hasn’t worked!) and the fact that I love my job and enjoy working in general, and my husband finds his job moderately interesting and would probably love to devote all of his time to his non-work interests if we could swing it financially. Personally I think three and a half days plus evenings sounds reasonable!
A grounding post, as always! Thank you, Corinne. I’m beginning to see the light above the trenches as we move into new phases of parenting (my two are 8 and almost 11) and I too don’t have any major regrets so far.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Philippa! And yes, I totally agree that those ages are when things start to get a little easier. Good for you and keep going!
You are so inspiring Corinne. I have the chance to follow your stories as a freelance translator for more than twelve years now, and I have seen the evolution. Congrats for your daughter and for you and your husband who did manage to work as a team. I like the note about living frugally during the part-time job periods. Freedom is priceless, and it is wise to not engage in huge mortgages and other loans in order to enjoy one’s life peacefully, especially when we are freelancers and parents at the same time.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Maeva!! Glad you found it helpful!