Maternity Leave When You’re Self-Employed

What worked, what didn’t, and how much leave I actually took with my first baby.
mikaela and pepper in a tutu

Even though we’d been planning to get pregnant, I hadn’t thought a lot about running my business and taking care of a newborn. Was self-employed maternity leave possible? I wanted the freedom to recover and bond with my baby. But I wasn’t sure how my small business would survive. 

A lot of people asked me, “Is maternity leave paid for a self-employed woman?” And the answer is, it can be. In 2019 the government released a new paid family leave option. As a small business owner, this can be tricky. 

It requires you to have been paying in for a period of time and to close up shop while on maternity leave. I don’t run a business that can just shut down and pick back up easily. I have on-going contracts. And if I pause them, my clients are going to need to shop elsewhere. 

The following are the steps I took to create my own maternity leave as a self-employed woman, including insights into what was successful and what wasn’t.

6 Steps to Create Your Own Self-Employed Maternity Leave

  1. I Created a Master To-Do List
  2. I Talked to My Clients ASAP
  3. I Hired Some Help
  4. I Pre-Drafted Baby Announcement Email & Out-of-Office Response
  5. I Got in as Much In-Person ‘Face Time’ as Possible
  6. I Worked A LOT

1. I Created a Master To-Do List

The very first step I took was creating what I called my “Baby War Board.” In hindsight, the name is a tad bit aggressive. But that’s what it felt like at the time – like I was fighting to earn my maternity leave.

The board was a massive to-do list. It included every task I could identify from the day I created it through three months after my due date. 

I typed up each task, separated them by client, and taped them to a big white poster board. The board was pinned to the wall by my desk in a prominent location. This ensured I saw it when walking into my office and when sitting at my desk.

How Successful Was It?

INCREDIBLY! On days when I was ready to tap out or didn’t feel very motivated to work ahead, the board made it clear if I didn’t work now, I’d be working later.

It also allowed my friends and family — especially my husband — to see what I’d accomplished and what I still needed to do. Saying no to fun things is hard on everyone. But I’ve found it’s substantially easier when everyone understands the why.

Another benefit of my massive maternity leave to-do list was that it allowed me to see where I could say yes. It gave me the freedom to prioritize some fun stuff that would be is harder with a baby.

Baby Bucketlist

Baby Bucket List

For me, a baby bucket list is all the ‘fun things’ I want to do before I’m responsible for baby. This rather humble list includes fun outings and activities.

2. I Talked to My Clients ASAP

We announced I was expecting at the three-month mark. As we did, I talked to all my clients about the bun in the oven. Each conversation included:

  • My desire to take three months off
  • My commitment to helping their business succeed like I always had
  • The steps I was currently taking to ensure their service wasn’t impacted
  • Anything I needed from them to make this happen
  • Any worry points I was still trying to address
  • And, an invitation for them to address any worry points they saw

Here’s something you need to know about my clients — they are amazing humans. I take a lot of pride in saying that. Because as a freelancer, it’s pretty easy to just work for anyone. I don’t. 

The people I work for are kind and thoughtful. They’re human, to be sure. But they are committed to making their business succeed by doing the right thing. And that’s something I believe in.

How Successful Was It?

Overall, I’d say successful. One client didn’t like part of my plan, which felt like a huge blow. She offered an alternative idea, and I remember walking out of that meeting thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

But in the long run, her suggestion was best for both of our businesses.

I also had a client who really struggles with asking for deliverables in a timely manner. While they were very receptive and understanding of why that wouldn’t work during this period, they continued to drag their feet. I wish I’d been more persistent in sending follow up emails recapping chats and requests.

3. I Hired Some Help

This was a suggestion that came from my client — the one who didn’t love every part of my original plan. And? I’m SO GLAD I did.

There are parts of my job that can’t be done in advance. And I needed someone on the front lines to monitor and respond when I was incapacitated — like when I was birthing a nearly nine-pound baby.

I hired a good friend of mine who had a lull in her work schedule at the exact right time. She took care of monitoring and responding to typical stuff. (I provided standard response prompts). And then when something more sensitive arose, she’d reach out to the appropriate party or me.

How Successful Was It?

I felt really good about it. I tried to pay her a reasonable rate and to make her tasks as straightforward as possible.

If I were to do it over again, I’d want to remember to check-in and let her know that I thought she was doing a good job more consistently.

I’d also like to make sure I let her know if/when I hop in and take of something. **More on this to come, but I ended up doing a few things and dropped the ball on communication.

4. I Pre-Drafted Baby Announcement Email & Out-of-Office Response

In the weeks before my baby was due, I pre-drafted an announcement email and out-of-office response. I made some small tweaks before I sent them, but this let me not worry about being ultra-thoughtful right after giving birth.

How Successful Was It?

Very. Do it. 

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5. I Got in as Much In-Person ‘Face Time’ as Possible

Relationships are personal. The more you get to know someone, the more you tend to be in their corner. I truly believe every one of my clients cares about me as much as I care about them. 

This isn’t to say they would prioritize me over their business. But, our relationships have meant they take care of me and are invested in my well-being and success.

Can you build strong relationships online and over the phone? Most definitely. Is the digital world a one-for-one replacement for ‘face time’? No. 

Tone of voice. Eye contact. The general sense of community that spending time together creates. These are all the kinds of things that contribute to developing good relationships. So leading up to my baby being born, I spent as much time on-site as possible. 

How Successful Was It?

Very. I think seeing me pregnant and watching my journey helped strengthen those bonds. It also allowed me to be as in touch with the business as possible before I had to check out. 

One thing I didn’t anticipate was COVID. (Who did?) I hoped to be back on site semi-regularly starting in March — with my baby. COVID changed the game for everyone.

6. I Worked A LOT

Make no mistake about it — creating a DIY maternity leave takes a lot of work if you still want to be collecting some kind of income. Working three months ahead was a lot of work.

It not only meant working when I didn’t feel like it, it meant saying no to some pretty fun things. The good news for me was that after my first-trimester morning sickness passed, I had a lot of energy. That second-trimester burst was real

So was my hunger to get ahead. It was fueled by a lot of things, not the least of which was fear. I was petrified of trying to juggle a new baby and work. And so I hunkered down. I busted through projects. I got ultra-efficient. 

How Successful Was It?

Very. I’m a workaholic by nature. I haven’t always been the smartest or the most athletic. But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who outworked me. And, that always held me in good stead. 

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**Did I Actually Take Maternity Leave?

Yes. And no.

I didn’t have to work. But by the end of week one, I needed some adult stimulation. My husband didn’t take paternity leave right away. In fact, he worked from the delivery room.

A huge project came up while I was pregnant and we decided he should be all-in. It was the best financial decision for our family, but it was hard to have him working full-time.

I had a plethora of visitors — both family and friends. All of whom took incredible care of me, helping ease the burden with food and baby cuddles and doing dishes.

But at the end of the day, I had a lot of one-on-one time with milk-sucking poop-machine. So, I started working two(ish) hours a day. When I didn’t work, I didn’t feel guilty about it. And when I did, it felt like a huge win.

Putting in those few hours during ‘maternity leave,’ gave me a few key advantages:

  • More Income. While I kept my business running, there were definitely some places where I wasn’t making as much. Plus, I was paying for some extra help. So any additional billable hours, meant more of a financial cushion for our family. 
  • Better Positioned to Come Back. I did some piecemeal work during maternity leave — random one-off projects clients needed. But I also used the time to work ahead. This meant when I did officially come back, I wasn’t jumping into the deep end. I had some wiggle room, which ended up being so helpful!
  • I Didn’t Lose (as much) of My Grove. ‘Mom brain’ is a real thing. Between the hormones, sleep deprivation, and insanely expanded list of responsibilities — it’s unlikely you’ll operate at the same capacity as you did pre-pregnancy. I’m still not firing on all cylinders. I think not unplugging completely helped me get back on track faster when I was officially returning to work. And notes. I take LOTS of notes. 

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