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If I’m honest, the only reason I’m freelancing is because of my children. Pre-motherhood I had a great career in advertising in London. I worked for some of the world’s top agencies on interesting accounts and met friends for long lunches in Soho. And then I fell pregnant.
I have since learned that full time copywriting in big London agencies and motherhood in a small south coast town don’t mix. After trying to accomplish both (and doing neither to my full ability), I decided to say goodbye to secure employment and become a freelancer – certain that my life was suddenly going to get easier.
And in many ways it has. My commute is now down the hall to my office, and I see much more of my children. But freelancing with kids also has its problems – and some of them have really taken me by surprise.
If you’re in an office and a colleague is on the phone, you know it’s polite to keep quiet and wait for them to finish before interrupting. And naively I assumed that my children would recognise the same thing. But unfortunately, as I have learned to my cost, they don’t.
Sometimes, they even think it’s a good idea to join in. Over the past few years I’ve had my share of conference call ‘bombings’. My son once announced loudly during a call that he’d done a poo in his pants at school that day, and my daughter interrupted a Skype call to the MD of a global organisation with, “Daddy, is that you?”
If I am on the phone to a client who is a parent – or better still another mum – it’s fine. We laugh with the shared horror/familiarity of the situation. But if the client doesn’t have kids, the phone just goes silent as they work out quite how to respond (or make a mental note never to use me again).
Not only is it embarrassing having work calls interrupted with toddler toilet requests or demands for their favourite TV show, but it hoiks up your professional freelance veneer and reveals you to be human, or worse, a mum.
And mums and copywriting usually don’t go well together. The client wants to see you as an expert in your field, and likes to imagine you sitting at a Getty Images-esque office desk in a power suit. As soon as they hear your three year-old’s voice they are instead picturing you at a sink, probably in a stained track suit – and immediately mentally knock at least fifty quid off your day rate.
So now I make sure I arrange any conference or Skype calls for when the children are safely out of the house – and try keep the toilet talk to a minimum with my clients.
When my children were babies and toddlers, and needing me pretty much all day every day, I dreamed of the day they’d start school, and I would have six delicious, uninterrupted hours to work, or travel around the country enjoying grown up client meetings.
But I didn’t factor in the school run. You see the downside to school is that someone (i.e. me) has to take them to school in the morning, and be waiting at the school gates for them in the afternoon. And six hours isn’t a whole lot of time to manage your freelance work, keep the house running smoothly and find new clients.
In fact, six hours can feel alarmingly short when you’re trying to squeeze a full time freelance career into it, plus housework and food shopping. And those leisurely client meetings I was looking forward to? They simply don’t exist. Most of my clients are based in London – a minimum of two hours travel there, and two hours back. Factor in walking to and from my local train station, and half an hour for possible train delays and you’re left with barely an hour to meet in. And that hour MUST be exactly in the middle of the day.
Which doesn’t make you the most flexible freelancer when arranging meetings with your clients (especially when your unmovable one hour window is their lunch break), or lend itself to relaxing meetings when you have one eye on your watch to make your train home.
I’m sure my children think their school day drags on forever, but for me it whizzes by all too quickly. And let’s not even begin to get into how short the school terms seem now you’re not in school!
But as short as they are, school days are a breeze compared to sick days. When I was little, I used to think my mum was heartless – my brother and sisters and I used to joke that we needed a death certificate to get out of school. But now I’m a mum myself, I get it.
If you freelance from home, you jealously guard every minute of your professional day – and it’s usually planned out in military detail. Cancelling everything one day to look after a poorly child – as sympathetic as you are – can throw your entire week out.
It’s even worse if the one day your child isn’t feeling well is the day you’d booked in a meeting with a potentially important new client – or needed to complete an urgent project. Miss just one meeting or deadline, however good your excuse, and that could be the last project a client asks you to work on.
So now I have come to dread the sound of a hacking cough or hoarse rasp in the morning, and am immediately mentally calculating who I’m going to have to let down that day.
On the plus side, the risk of losing a day’s work, and potential clients, due to sickness has made me ensure my children get a balanced diet packed with fresh fruit and veg – and are probably among the healthiest kids at school.
It’s not just me (thank goodness).
Of course this is far from a comprehensive list of the ways that my children have attempted to sabotage my freelance career. But I’m holding in there, and at least I can take comfort in the fact that I’m far from alone – mums are apparently the fastest-growing group of freelancers in the UK.
And if nothing else, my embarrassing experiences make great tales to share with my freelance mum friends. They also led me to start Talented Ladies Club, a website to help other freelance mums. My friends can usually add equally cringe-worthy experiences of their own too – like the time my friend’s daughter accidentally called an important client at 7am and shouted “You poo poo head” into their voicemail. Like I said, it’s good to know you’re not alone.