How to Survive (and Thrive) as a Freelancer with Kids
I was 27 years old when I sat on my couch in my living room, staring wide-eyed at the positive pregnancy test in my hands. I was ecstatic about the idea of becoming a mom, and quickly envisioned squishy baby cheeks and stroller walks in the park. However, along with the joy came a long set of worries. I'm a freelance advertising and editorial photographer, and I've worked tirelessly to build my career over 12 years. I'd finally reached a point where I was photographing top celebrities and public figures, working with my favorite brands and magazines, and seeing my ad campaigns on billboards in Times Square and in the pages of GQ. I didn't want to give any of it up -- but could I do this while also being a mom?
Books like Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In inspired me and motivated me, but I found that most of the advice was targeted toward women working in the corporate world. I struggled to find answers specific to the obstacles freelancers face.
But, now, six years (and a second child!) later, I can share the answers I discovered myself: Yes, it is possible to juggle a successful freelance life with motherhood. It just takes a lot more planning, and the willingness to draw boundaries and truly stick to them. Here's what I learned.
1. Turn your clients into communities.
When I was pregnant, I was concerned that clients wouldn't want to hire a pregnant photographer, and so I completely hid my pregnancies from social media. Eventually, though, I couldn't hide it on set. I remember arriving to shoots, worried that my clients and subjects might be disappointed to see their photographer arrive with a baby bump. But, to my surprise, everyone was welcoming and supportive.
Ed Sheeran offered to help with my camera bags, and my growing baby even got a private serenade backstage. Swizz Beatz was positive I was pregnant with a boy, even though I was sure I was pregnant with a girl (spoiler alert: he was right!) and showed me sweet videos of his children that made me so excited to meet my own. And Kelly Ripa helped in my search for baby names and chatted with me about life as a working mom.
Once the secret was out, I discovered something I hadn't realized: Many of the people I was working with were parents, including producers, directors, photo editors, publicists and even the musicians I was photographing. They all sympathized, and were happy to give advice. In all this, I realized something very important: Although I wasn't in an office, I did have a community of other freelancers I could turn to for support.
Freelancers -- especially those working in physically demanding jobs -- can face different obstacles than those in the corporate world, when navigating pregnancy and motherhood. Connect with other freelance parents in your industry: They will be sources of support and advice as you navigate your own career.
2. Set clear boundaries.
As a freelancer, you don't have a HR department or boss overseeing your work environment. You are your best advocate. If you find your work putting you in a position unsafe for yourself or your pregnancy, be clear about your needs.
In a competitive field like mine, I've always made an enormous effort to be the most reliable, drama-free photographer for my clients. Before I became a mom, I never took a sick day, and I prioritized my clients needs above all else. However, once I became pregnant, I found myself having to balance the needs of my clients with the needs of my growing child.
As much as I dreaded making any special requests, I found that in some cases, it was necessary. I was upfront with my clients that if my subjects were smoking, I would have to ask them to stop, or remove myself from the room. When shooting 12-hour days, I learned to build in breaks to drink, eat and rest. And after my son was born, I had to be clear that I would need to build in pumping breaks on long shoot days.
3. Build a team and have a plan.
As a freelance parent, it's vital to have a strong team at home. Consider your childcare plan: For some, daycare or a nanny are great options. However, for me, it never made financial sense to pay for full-time childcare when my shoot schedule is so unpredictable from week to week.
Instead, I've assembled a team of babysitters that I can call on when my shoots are booked. Last year, I was called to photograph Katrín Davíðsdóttir ("The Fittest Woman on Earth") for The Boston Globe Magazine, but my husband was out of town for work, and my go-to babysitter wasn't available. It was a scramble, but at the last minute, a family member took a couple hours off from work and met us at a library near my shoot. I loaded up my car with all my gear and the kids, and they had a fun library adventure while I photographed Davíðsdóttir. It isn't always easy, but with a strong network of trusted babysitters, it is possible to having a thriving freelance career without paying for full-time childcare.
And remember: Freelancers don't get sick days, so have a plan in place for when your child gets sick. Try to identify a family member or close friend who can help at the last minute, or consider having a trusted set of colleagues you can refer clients to last-minute in case an emergency comes up.
4. Do your best, but give yourself a break on the tough days.
As a freelance mom, you will do everything in your power to be the best mom you can be, and the best professional you can be. But, there will be days (we all have them) when balancing both just isn't possible.
There is serious pressure on working moms to not allow their parenthood affect their job performance -- and not meeting that expectation, even occasionally, can feel crushing to some. But, know that you are far from alone. Even the most professional, successful parents have days where they just can't meet the expectations of both their work and personal lives.
There are tough days for sure, but I have found that working to achieve success in my freelance career, while also growing my family, is something I cherish every day of my life. And coming home at night from a long shoot, throwing my gear on the floor, and hearing my daughter's feet running toward me as she jumps into my arms, makes all the hard work worth it.