Freelancing with a Family: How to Balance Your Work and Your Kids

Freelancing mom: balance work and kids
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The freelance life can be crazy. There’s always a call to make, a contact to pursue, a pitch to send. It takes time and energy to manage everything without going nuts.

Now imagine incorporating family, children and pregnancy into the mix — adding the needs and schedules of additional people into your freelance life. How do you embrace the constant stream of demands from your partner, children, self, work and friends without feeling pulled in a million directions?

The Write Life Founder Alexis Grant recently wrote about the benefits of setting up a freelance writing career prior to having kids to allow for greater options once family and children arrive. As a pregnant freelancer with an older child, I can vouch that freelancing does provide greater flexibility than an office job.

However, freelancing with a family definitely requires an additional set of rules and skills. Here are some of the strategies that have helped me manage:

Make a plan

Be crystal clear on your business and your goals. What comes first? What are the top three must-do items on your list?

Setting your priorities allows you to organize your daily and weekly activities so that they support your long-term goals. At the end of each week, lay out what you want to accomplish the following week. At the end of every day, make your to-do list for the next day. Then, each morning, you need only open your to-do list and start working through it.

Outlining your goals will also help you manage your time when emergencies arise. For many freelancers, family comes first: regardless of deadlines, when your family needs you, that’s where your attention goes.

In this kind of situation, rather than scrambling around in triage mode, simply focus on the top items on your list. The rest can wait until you go back to your regular schedule.

Figure out when you do your best work

Maybe you’re the type who grabs available time when it appears and have trained yourself to work in small increments. Or perhaps, like me, you need long blocks of time to focus. Are you a morning person? Or do you work better at night when the kids are asleep?

Find the time that works best for you, and block it off as writing time.

Bestselling women’s fiction author and mother of four Catherine Mann divides her tasks into three types depending on the level of concentration she needs for each. “I edit when waiting in lines, and it’s easier to start and stop. I research while sitting with the family watching television. Fresh writing happens during the precious quiet hours alone.”

Outline your schedule

Lay out all your commitments in your calendar, including deadlines, time to write, meetings, school and anything else you want to do. You may choose to include both work and personal appointments.

Zach Everson, a father of two-under-four who writes for AOL Travel and Gadling, suggests “blocking off family time like any other project. If a client asks for that time, the answer is always no. It’s non-negotiable.”

Some prefer to schedule each minute of the day down to the last second. Others schedule only the most important or organize their time more generally. For example, my daughter Lila goes to school in the mornings, so that’s when I work on my book and write articles. In the afternoons, I focus on smaller work projects, social media and spend time with family.

Always remember to leave extra room in your schedule for the unexpected. While you don’t want to make a habit of deviating from your plan, you want to be flexible enough to accommodate projects that run longer than planned or other life events that might arise. (Click to tweet this idea.)

If possible, rely on a partner…

In her book Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg advises that to create a successful work and home balance, you need a partner who is really a partner, someone who puts as much into your home life as you do. She may have been referring to C-suite executives, but her words apply to freelancers as well.

While nothing in this world is perfect and equal, it’s crucial to have a conversation with your partner to assess the needs of the household. Who needs what and when? What is reasonable to expect from each person? Taking all variables into account, decide together who will take responsibility for what.

… Or outsource so you can work efficiently

What if you don’t have a partner? Or if it’s unrealistic to expect your partner to take on additional responsibilities? Sometimes, it simply makes more sense to hire the help you need.

First, identify where you most need extra support. Perhaps formatting blog posts stymies you, or you resent the time it takes to schedule your social media updates. Next, decide which items on your to-do list must be done by you, and which you can hand to someone else. Finally, create a document that outlines how to accomplish each task; you’ll simply hand over processes for someone else to implement. Remember, also, you can hire someone to help you with household chores or babysit if that is more appropriate to your life.

Jillian Tobias, a writer who runs her own social media strategy company, brings in a babysitter to care for her nine-month-old twins for a few hours every day. This arrangement allows her to concentrate on work without worrying about her mom role. As an added benefit, knowing she has limited time to meet deadlines forces Jillian to be hyper-focused and finish her work quickly and efficiently.

Procrastination is your greatest enemy

If you procrastinate away a day of writing time, it’s unlikely you’ll recover that time elsewhere. Instead, you’ll lose sleep, family time or time you set aside to complete other projects.

It takes practice sticking to a schedule and trial and error to learn what works best for you. Ultimately, you have to be honest with yourself. If you’re wasting time, find ways to stop.

Let go of the idea of doing it all

There’s this misguided idea out there that parents must be perfect. Square meals. Proper bedtimes. Only educational activities. Oh, and please keep the house immaculate while writing impeccable prose.

Professional blogger and writer Leigh Ann Dutton advises that you clear all guilt from your mind. “Guilt takes up precious real estate that could be better used moving projects forward or caring for your family.”

If the house gets messy, if you end up wearing dirty clothes, if you order in — it’s ok.

Celebrate your wins

It’s easy to berate yourself for what you haven’t done and forget how much you’ve accomplished. Instead, take time at the end of every week to highlight what you finished and give yourself a huge pat on the back. Your to-do list will be waiting for you when you return on Monday.

Life is too short to spend worrying or feeling frazzled because you can’t do it all or be everything to everyone. Instead, balance your time and life so you can not only complete the work most important to you, but you can spend satisfying, relaxing family time as well.

Do you balance freelance work with family time? What’s your favorite strategy?

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Leigh Shulman writes, travels and runs Creative Revolution Retreats, a women-only writing retreat designed to help you decide who you are and what you want as a writer. S... .

The Future Is Red | @thefutureisred

Leigh Shulman
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Comments

  1. Great piece, Leigh! I’ll admit to being like Alexis: a family is a few years still down the road for me and my husband, but we both like the idea of having flexible schedules when the time comes.

    A fellow freelance writer (with two kids) recently told me that she thinks every parent who works at home needs a nanny at least part of the day. I was wondering if you agree with that, or if you find other ways to manage your time?

    • Hey Katherine,

      I can’t say I agree that having a nanny is crucial for everyone. I haven’t needed one, because between school, activities and friends, my daughter is away enough time for me to work. I think people should do what works for them. If someone needs or even just wants that extra buffer time, they should most definitely hire.

      As for your situation, a lot of the things I mention here are good practice for before there are kids in the picture or even for people who choose not to have them at all. I mean, who among us doesn’t procrastinate? Or try to do too much? And who wouldn’t benefit from keeping an organized work schedule. 🙂

  2. You need to decide when is your most productive time and make the most of it. I find it I am more productive under pressure. I know the kids are coming back at four and I know what I need to get done before. Drinking tea, having a nice long break and all the other things can wait and be done with children. Solid 5-6 hours of work is more effective than 8-9 hours of forced work. You can be imaginative as well. We have a quite time in our house in which everyone does their own thing. Children do their homework and I do my work together in the same room.

    • Exactly. Each person has to decide for him or herself what works best. Every family dynamic and person is a bit different, so in writing out these tips, I did my best to leave room so that anyone reading it can figure things out for themselves.

  3. MaryBeth says:

    This is a great article. I’ve been freelancing for eight years now (I can’t believe it’s been that long) and have an 11-year-old and a 10-year-old. I love that freelancing allows me to still do what I love (write) while being able to spend time with my kids. This has lots of great tips and I’ve found I’m most productive before everyone gets up and relied on a babysitter sometimes during the summer to help entertain the kids while I worked. It’s easier to freelance when you have kids when they’re in school; it definitely gets more complicated during the summer.

    • Hi MaryBeth,

      Yes, it is most definitely easier when you have kids in school. Not to mention easier when you have slightly older kids who can occupy themselves and go places — like friend’s houses, birthday parties and the like — without parental supervision.

      What you say also points to the fact that having kids while freelancing requires you to be flexible. Sick days. Changes for summer break or winter holidays. If you live in the US, President’s Week drives a lot of people nuts.

      Personally, I prefer the mild chaos that goes hand in hand with those changes, because it means I have more flexibility in other areas of life.

      We have a new baby arriving any day now. It will be interesting to see how things change after this. 🙂

  4. Hi,
    I find that mobile devices help a huge amount. I don’t have to do the social media or even some lighter editing from home. This can be done on the go, while commuting, while waiting at the doctor’s, when in line at the supermarket. It’s worth the investment of a dataplan and saves me a huge amount of precious time, where I can be “properly” at home.

    • Hey Ronika,

      Very good point. I know plenty people who work on their hand helds or pads, and it works very well for them. I personally prefer not to use either. I figure, working at home leaves me easily reachable all the time. When I leave the house, I’m away from work or I bring my computer to write with uninterrupted offline time.

      Bottom line… there are many tools and ways to navigate the freelance life, and each person works out what’s best for him or her. So thank you for adding this tip for others to try as well. Who knows, I may try again, too.

  5. Leigh — Thanks so much for writing this. It’s helpful even for those of us *thinking* about going the family route and wondering how we will manage to balance everything! ~Alexis

    • It was a pleasure to write, Alexis. I enjoyed sharing what I’ve learned with others and also hearing other’s tips.

      The bottom line is when you love what you do — and I love writing and working with writers — you find a way to make it work.

      Thanks for the opportunity to share on The Write Life.

      xoL

  6. This is TOTALLY ridiculous and also why radical, second-wave feminism is too! Ladies, stop pushing “career” crap on young mothers. Let them enjoy the few years they have with their kids! All this does is substitute guilt for the joy and happiness they should be experiencing while caring for their precious children.

    • Hi K.Q.

      Why do you assume this article is written only for young mothers? Fathers and women with older children also write, freelance, build their own personal businesses and take part in family.

      That said, this article is in no way about feminism. Nor is it about guilt. In fact, if you read to the end, you’ll see I specifically include a section on why people shouldn’t feel guilty.

      This is a list of ideas and tips for women AND men who have made the choice for themselves and want to find ways to balance everything so that they can enjoy their lives.

      • Many, many young women, with children, read your blog. There is never a balance between “career” and mothering. It’s unattainable. Inevitably, the children get the raw end of the stick, and the result? unavoidable guilt.

        • I think you arrived here with an agenda and left with it as well.

          Yes, many young women read this website, but so do many men and other people as well. Read through more articles on The Write Life and you’ll see view points from men, women, people with families, single people as well.

          I agree, there is no such thing as perfect balance — something I also address in this article — but there is such a thing as finding what works for you and your family.

          I spoke to many parents while writing this article, and one thing that became abundantly clear is that when the kids need you, everything else stops.

          I completely disagree that the kids always lose out. In fact, I think happy parent=happy child. And a mother who stays home even when she’d rather be writing is probably not likely to be very happy.

          As I said before, this article is not meant to be about feminism. It’s meant to be a simple list of tips aimed at guiding people who want to find the best ways of working with family.

    • I’m wondering what you would say to those young moms who need to work to help their family make ends meet and freelance/working from home is that answer. As someone who is grateful for the opportunity to be able to work from home while still being very present in my young children’s lives, I’m thankful for this article. It offered practical tips while keeping the focus on our priorities and grace for what we can’t accomplish.

      Furthermore, I am so grateful my children get to see what Mommy does each and every day. They see Mommy pursuing dreams and living out God’s call on her life. It’s my prayer that my children will be inspired and supported to pursue audacious goals even when it doesn’t make sense to the rest of the world.

      I don’t think this makes me radical or feminist. This makes me a Mom who is seeking to be intentional, use my gifts, and thank God that I don’t have to go into an office every day in order to pay a few bills … or do something I love outside of raising my children.

      Thanks, Leigh, for a great article. I really found it super helpful and encouraging!

      • And thank you, Leigh Ann, for chatting with me to help put this article together. I love your outlook and insights. The idea that guilt only holds us back so we might as well let go of it immediately is such a fundamental lesson.

        You make another great point here. What if a woman has to work? Again, it comes down to choice, but I do very much appreciate that in working from home I’m able to have lunch with my daughter every day when she comes home from school. Meanwhile, I have my mornings to write. My daughter, for her part, also loves writing and creating.

        I feel very lucky.

  7. Thank you for a great article. Sticking to the schedule is indeed the difficult challenge. At the same time, I love just flowing with the process and being more sponteneous. I have learnt to trust that if I don’t write when I think I should, but always write when the book is ‘calling’ me even if it’s at midnight, then that’s the best writing that I do.
    So I walk a path between being disciplined and spontaneity and the rest of life seems to find a way to keep happening in-between anyway!

    • Sherry,

      So you’ve found what works for you! Fantastic. What I hope is the biggest take away from this article is that there is no one perfect way. Each person has to figure out what works best for for his/her kids, self, family, career and all the other pieces of life.

      You mention a book…. I’d love to know what you’re writing, too. 🙂

  8. This is very good advice. As someone whose children are already in school, I find I am much more productive if I actually leave the house. If I have a deadline or a pile of work that has to be done today, I go to the library or a coffee shop to do my work. If not, I end up being sidetracked by laundry, dishes, food-prep, etc.

    I suppose if your kids are still at home, that would not be possible. I always tried to teach my little ones to entertain themselves for some part of the day. It helped me get some stuff done, and it also helps them to stop the whole idea of ‘Mom, I’m bored!” every time they don’t have my full attention. It encourages their own creative thinking.

    • Excellent point, Ansie! I think these days there is more pressure for parents to keep our kids actively engaged all the time. Letting them know you’re busy and they can occupy themselves for a bit is a really great practice.

      I mean, it’s not like the rest of the world will constantly meet our needs as we need things. Learning to be self sufficient is an incredible life skill to pass on to our kids.

  9. Great post Leigh!

    This is such a timely article because this is precisely the challenge that I’m dealing with. As a Mommy of a precious 3 1/2 month old daughter, I’ve been really struggling to move forward with my blog and business. Like you, I need long blocks of time to focus, but as you know, babies can be very unpredictable and the long blocks turn into 30 minutes and not the hour I hoped for. However, I think I’m slowly getting the hang of it, forcing myself to work during those few nap times during the day. Thank you Leigh, for encouraging us that it can still be done!

  10. I have a question. I am searching with no success on grants to allow me to write while I am taking care of my three kids. One thirteen year old that I home school and a set of identical twin toddler boys with needs for occupational and speech therapy. I am also a freelance writer (for over 7 years) and knock out around 5-8k words a day to try to pay bills. I need to find a grant that will supplement that freelancing income so I can work on the book and my writing career. I am so exhausted and live on Monster energy drinks. I am sinking fast. I cannot write my book and keep up on everything else that is a definite priority. Please, if anyone knows of a grant of this nature, I would appreciate the lead. Thank you! 🙂

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