Nine days after my c-section, I took on a new client.
In the final days of my pregnancy — in excruciating pain from my ribs being pushed out from the inside, like some horror-movie reverse corset — I read an article suggesting that after you have a baby, you should wear nursing pajamas all day as a visual reminder that you are still recovering and should not be expected to cook or make your guests a cup of tea.
I might have been wearing those nursing pajamas when the email came in. A new client wanted to get started right away. I called her back. We made plans to meet a few days later.
Maternity leave — what’s that? As a business owner, GRE tutor and author of educational books, I knew my maternity leave would be anything but typical.
We live, of course, in the only wealthy nation that doesn’t offer paid maternity leave. The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) “entitles eligible employees of covered employers to take unpaid, job-protected leave for specified family and medical reasons” for up to 12 weeks — emphasis on “unpaid.” In New York State, some women may qualify for pregnancy disability benefits — which max out at $170 per week.
But none of that applies when you work for yourself, as I do.
If you’re an entrepreneur, freelancer, working artist, etc. and you want to have a baby your choices are some variation of the following:
- Take an actual maternity leave in which you do not work and make no money. Save up beforehand or have a partner with a really good job.
- Cut back on work and make less money, indefinitely.
- Cut back on work for awhile and ramp back up over a few months (or years).
- Full-time child care, keep working as before (good luck if you’re breastfeeding).
- Give up completely
Given every option, ideally I’d have preferred my partner to stay home while I ran a variety of companies, working an action-packed but flexible schedule. And in fact, my partner said the thought of caring for a baby everyday was “dreamy.”
Then, however, I actually became pregnant and was immediately unable to work more than sporadically. It was like having the flu for eight months. I needed two hours to recover after a shower. Having to stand and wait for a subway train for 20 minutes could wreck me for the entire day following. And then there were the skin, joint and digestive complaints. The inability to catch my breath, even when sitting. Did you know that “frequent nosebleeds” are a perfectly normal symptom of pregnancy? Suffice it to say, no one ever once told me I was “glowing.” I did not glow.
I also lost tens of thousands of dollars in potential earnings because I was unable to continue my work as a freelancer.
By the time the baby arrived — delivered one week early due to cholestasis, a pregnancy-related liver problem that results in, no joke, unscratchable full-body itching — my finances were not what they once were. My many exciting and precisely-cultivated revenue streams had slowed. My partner wasn’t going to quit his job.
In addition to financial considerations, I didn’t make childcare plans allowing me to go back to work (on my own businesses) right away, because I wanted to actually meet my baby before making a decision. Hell, I wanted to just meet a baby, period. As a 30-something New Yorker, I hadn’t even seen a baby in over a decade. What are babies like? Do they like sandwiches? Playing fetch? Chamber music?
I also didn’t make plans for a self-designed maternity leave. I figured I would do what I could, try to focus my work on only what was the most lucrative or the most high-impact, and see what happened.
I also considered that, since now everybody works 24/7 due to technology, even people on formal leave are often answering emails while “not working.” The people whose jobs can’t be tended to over phone and email — people who work on their feet, in the service industry, for instance — are often the people who don’t get any maternity leave at all. So, who’s really taking a real maternity leave, anyway?
Here’s how I handled my admittedly unusual situation: I worked when I could during the first five months.
Around the three-month mark, the baby became interested in watching people do things, so I could handle a baby while cooking, packaging up merchandise for shipping, etc. But she would become immediately upset if I sat down at a computer and stopped moving or paying attention to her. So, I pushed most computer-based work to evenings and weekends.
My take-it-as-it-comes approach wasn’t a bad one, although I knew some changes had to be made when I found traditional gender roles seeping into my relationship a little too much. My partner has primary responsibility for the baby on evenings and weekends; if he wants to be elsewhere, he hires a babysitter or makes an arrangement with me, but he can’t just assume I’ll step in. Egalitarianism: we have that.
Yet, there were a few days in which we played out some tired play from decades past: man gets home from tough day at work only to have woman in sweatpants thrust baby at him, cantankerously. Man asks about dinner. Woman responds with withering look. This serves no one. The farce must be stopped.
I needed to stake out dedicated time and space for work. Time when my partner does baby care the same way I do. I designed a better schedule: I have a babysitter all day Wednesday. That’s when I have in-person meetings. On many weekday evenings, I bring the baby to my partner’s office around 6 p.m. and then work in a co-working space (and/or nearby wine bar) until late. Friday is me-and-baby-only day. Saturday is family day. Sunday I work from dawn until late-night, including teaching classes as part of the education business I have been soft-launching over the last few months.
I used to hate staring at my tiny iPhone screen, but now I’ve downloaded every app for every service I use, and have pushed many tasks to mobile so I can do some work one-handed from my phone while with the baby.
It was crafting this highly personalized schedule that led, over a period of two or three weeks, to my decision that what I had been doing before — working here and there, often at home — had in fact been a kind of a maternity leave, and that it was now over. Abruptly and adamantly over.
I decided to announce via email that I was back from the maternity leave I had never announced I was taking in the first place.
I certainly didn’t have to announce. In some ways, it might have been better for business if I hadn’t mentioned to mere acquaintances that I had had a baby at all. Plenty of people will make assumptions about what your reproductive choices indicate about your work mojo. But then again, many people will already be aware that you have had a baby and will assume you’re out of the game unless you explicitly tell them otherwise. (“Who’s on our short list of conference speakers?” “Well, Jen Dziura just had a baby, so…” This tendency must be prevented at the outset.)
Ultimately, I decided to announce the end of my “maternity leave” as a way of reconnecting with people and announcing that I am, again, open for business. If anything, this was a pretty good excuse to do some introvert-friendly networking and reconnecting. I didn’t actually say I was back to work “full-time.” (What does “full time” even mean for a freelancer, entrepreneur, working artist, etc.? ) So, rather than using that phrase, I said I was back “full force.”
In another life — or if I decide to have another baby — it might be nice to take things more slowly and actually wrap up some projects and push others to the distant future.
Nevertheless, I certainly didn’t regret taking on a new client so soon after having my baby. I actually didn’t mention the baby at all until the client suggested that, instead of meeting at my office, we meet at her home. I wrote back, “I do need to keep all my meetings at the office — I had a baby two weeks ago, so I’m really just taking a cab to the office and back to meet with people.”
That settled that, and my client is still a client five months later.
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