Timelines and expectations: Maternity leave analysis

I’ve been super busy with projects lately, which is a wonderful thing! And I’ve been looking at this project cycle in relation to my decision to take maternity leave as a freelancer; effectively, I had to start hustling for work just as hard as when I’d started freelancing in the first place. (Note: the bulk of my work has been in educational publishing, so the cycle I’m outlining reflects project lengths and payment periods common to that field. An editor working primarily on medical journals would likely experience a different cycle; an editor working primarily with independent authors would experience a cycle that’s different still.)

  • June/July 2013: I decide on the dates I’ll be away on maternity leave and notify my clients well in advance.
  • August 2013: I AM SO BUSY finishing up projects and squeezing in short ones before my leave starts.
  • September 2013: My daughter is born, with no complications. I recover quickly. Invoice payments continue to roll in.
  • October 2013: Rosaline turns out to be a happy, healthy baby. Invoices keep getting paid. I’m a tad bored, but life is good.
  • November 2013: I start working again, slowly, touching base with current clients and reaching out to new ones.
  • December 2013: The Holidays. A few new projects start up. Just about all outstanding invoices are paid by now.
  • January 2014: This is, unexpectedly, the point at which I started to feel the financial pinch from maternity leave. Not much money was coming in, few of the projects I’d started in November had reached a point at which I could invoice for work done, and savings were starting to run out.
  • February 2014: Busy, busy month. I add more projects, send a few invoices, and keep hustling. I win a couple of regular gigs.
  • March 2014: Several large projects reach a midpoint at the same time others wrap up. I feel like I’m working nonstop. More invoices go out; more projects come in.

When I was figuring out how maternity leave would work, I expected that November and December would be the tough months, but starting in January, I’d be able to pick up steam again. Instead, the cycle looks much more like August–December 2012, when I was wrapping up a full-time job and transitioning into Last Syllable full-time. I picked up a few clients right away, put in the work on the first projects, invoiced when they were done… and then finally had those invoices paid in January 2013. After that point, invoices got paid at about the same pace as new projects came in and work went out, so the business was sustainable.

Judging by that information, April 2014 will be another tough month, but May 2014 should be better, and sustainability should come back around June or July — almost a full year!

So financially, I’m not sure how good an idea it was to take two months of maternity leave. However, I recovered very quickly from birthing and had no complications. Other than a bit of jaundice, my baby was born perfectly healthy; she took right to nursing and has thrived. If any part of that calculus had been different — if I’d had a difficult birthing, had to recover from a C-section, or had lasting issues from the pregnancy; if Rosaline had been sick or colicky or had trouble nursing or gaining weight; if none of us had slept well and I couldn’t think clearly; just to name a few possibilities — then a two-month maternity leave would have looked like a far wiser choice. Of course, I couldn’t predict any of these outcomes ahead of the birth, let alone far enough ahead of time to change my plans. And there were other benefits to the way I did it: no juggling deadlines and diapers until I had a pretty good handle on baby’s routine, for example. I didn’t have to stress about being sure I could keep a project on schedule, sure I could think straight, even if I was physically and mentally up to the challenge.

Is it possible to take maternity leave as a freelancer? Yes. Would I do it again? … I’d think very hard about that, given what I’ve learned, and I’d probably approach it as more of a temporary slowdown than a complete break.

Not a morning person

6:45. 6:45. 6:45.

I used to chant the time to myself as I fell asleep at night. In middle school and high school, that was the time I needed to get out of bed in order to get showered and everything before the bus stopped at the end of our driveway. Usually, I hadn’t had any breakfast, or maybe in my hands I had waffles with peanut butter on them like a sandwich — milk turned my anxious stomach that early in the morning, so no cereal, and no time to stop and eat it anyway — and I’d be flying out the door, running down the driveway, praying the bus driver would see me and stop. My mom and I used to have such fights about this. She’d always try to get me to bed earlier the night before and I’d be like “I’m years old, Mom! I don’t need a bedtime!” Or she’d try to get me up earlier, which I would protest more quietly but no less vehemently; I’d timed each and every part of my morning routine, knew how many minutes each part usually took and what I could skip or hurry along or do on the 45-minute bus ride once I made it there. So I knew exactly how many minutes past 6:45 I could stay in bed. (More or less.) Mom would be shouting at me the whole time, trying to get me up or telling me what else I should do to get up earlier, and I’d be shouting back because I was tired and stressed and also a teenager and didn’t understand or couldn’t express what I was really feeling, deep down, so I was mad at the clock. And Mom.

In college, I avoided scheduling classes before 10 a.m. I had some early-morning science classes in my first semester, I think, and an 8 a.m. speech class once when I couldn’t take any other sections. (Performance days were the worst in that class. It was 6:45 all over again.) I knew exactly how many minutes it took me to walk to each class from wherever I was on campus. Sometimes, I still rolled out of bed and barely made it to class on time for the 10 a.m. ones, and sometimes I slept late and missed them completely. I skipped classes for plenty of other reasons, as is traditional, but for the morning ones I had usually just overslept.

After graduating, I only ever had one job that required me to be there at 8:00 a.m. exactly, and it … didn’t work out well. 6:45. 6:45. 6:45. I had a stash of oatmeal to eat at my desk, I lived almost within sight of the office, I had an hour for lunch so I could go home and make something instead of having to have it prepared and brought with me, and I still showed up late too often. (And I had to dress nice, too, so I couldn’t skip much of my morning routine.)

Years passed, I was pregnant with my first, and I had been working second shift at a different job for more than six months before I finally started to make peace with mornings. Before I started to work with my schedule instead of fighting against it. Before those shouting matches with Mom didn’t ring in my ears when the alarm clock went off. Before I even stopped bothering to set an alarm. I actually have some fond memories of the mornings when my daughter was only a few months old. I’d put her in the swing and start washing dishes, and she’d fall asleep from the sound of the water and the motion of the swing. I’d have half an hour of peace on a spring morning while I cleaned the kitchen and had my coffee and cooked eggs or made a clafouti or whatever I was inspired to do.

I’m so grateful to have kept that peace with mornings. It’s one of my favorite parts of the work I do now. Depending on my schedule (and what kind of chaos reigns when the girls wake up), I can take the time to make pancakes on a Wednesday. Or put on a pot of coffee, drag my bleary self to my desk, wake up and plan my day or week as I read e-mail, and then open some files and get to work. No bundling up to shovel snow or scrape off a car. No scrambling to get self and children clean, dressed, fed, and out the door before my body is even ready to be out of bed.

Avoiding those little daily miseries won’t last through my daughters’ school years, I’m sure. They’re 3 and 5 months now, so I see my share of sunrises. But the part of me that’s still a stressed-out, angry teenager feels like I’ve won some kind of victory.

Mercurial silliness on a Sunday

I have discovered IsMercuryInRetrograde.com, a site that provides a valuable public service!

Mercury retrograde is an astronomical event that occurs three times a year and lasts for three weeks each time. (All the planets have retrograde periods, actually. The Wikipedia page at that link includes an animation showing Mars retrograde.) The planet Mercury appears to stand still, then move backward, then stand still again before moving forward in its usual orbit. In astrology, Mercury rules communication, awareness, thinking, the expression of thoughts, and the tools we use to accomplish all those things. How exactly that manifests depends on the sign Mercury is in; during retrograde periods, something from the past could be dredged up or communications will go wonky, for example. You might lose e-mails, gloss over or misunderstand an important piece of a contract, feel like you’re talking past people, get stuck working through some issue you thought was settled, or be plagued by computer problems. The usual advice for surviving Mercury retrograde is to avoid signing contracts, starting new projects, installing new software, or any of the other tasks affected by Mercury.

I care because Mercury could rule my entire business, practically. I can’t stop everything for three weeks. And if you go down that Top 10 list, I believe I have done every single one of those things since Mercury went retrograde on February 6! Making agreements, signing contracts, starting new jobs/projects? Check. Scheduling meetings? Check (I’m actually supposed to be in one now, but there appears to be some kind of miscommunication about it!) New software? Check. I bought the full version of MathType and had an awful time trying to get it to work on a different computer and version of Word. Auto repairs? Check, lolsob. We had to pay for jump starts and unexpectedly replace our truck’s battery. I even bought something that I regretted: a shirt whose design turned out to be mostly made of sequins, which I didn’t realize when I bought it. And, naturally, when I washed the shirt a few of the sequins and ruined the design anyway.

So instead I try to appreciate the benefits of Mercury retrograde (which may come naturally to me, as an Aquarius with Mercury in Libra). I had a couple of old clients contact me to start new projects when I hadn’t expected to hear from them again. I’m a terrible procrastinator when it comes to cold-calling (or its e-mail version, which doesn’t have a snappy name), but something about Mercury retrograde tends to light a fire under me, and I find the inspiration to send a lot of those e-mails plus a few that weren’t on the to-do list yet. I get all kinds of ideas for new projects and new ways to organize information — and half the time, something gets screwed up and out of the chaos comes an even better way than I had planned.

Which is why, when I looked at my screwed-up e-mails and the 31 tabs I have open in Chrome and this installation that isn’t working right, and I couldn’t even find the bill from the towing guy and this, that, and the other thing were completely going sideways… I searched “is mercury in retrograde” and the answer was YES.

(Mercury goes direct again on February 28. The other retrograde periods for 2014 are June 7 to July 2 and October 4 to October 25.)

Creativity and time management

This morning I read Rich Adin’s post The Business of Editing: Self-Discipline & Work Acquisition Costs (via Copyediting’s News Roundup) about the costs of dawdling on Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. in the name of marketing. Rich makes some excellent points, and as a champion procrastinator I recognize my former-ish self in the post. But I wanted to springboard from that post into a description of how I’m getting work done these days with very small children.

I started out trying to dedicate a few hours per day to work: go in the office, close the door, get things done. My husband Matt is a writer and stay-at-home dad, so I figured that he could pretty well handle things and bring me the baby whenever it was time to nurse. I set up the Pack-n-Play next to my desk and a TV with DVD player and Roku box and placemat for the 2-year-old.

That was a lovely plan, but it utterly dissolved when put into practice. Baby Rosaline was fussy, didn’t want to be put down, and wasn’t happy in a sling. Margaret, the 2-year-old, watched TV for maybe 20 minutes and then wanted to “draw” like Mama (who was actually writing daily plans and to-do lists), or had a meltdown when I wouldn’t give her my pen, or spilled chocolate milk no matter how spill-proof the sippy cup. One child was crying while the other had spit up or needed an immediate diaper change. Some catastrophe happened and everyone had to pitch in — like the day the elder child was so sick, all the beds in the house needed to be stripped completely of linens and waterproof pads and whatever other layers, all of which had to get washed, dried, and put back on the beds by naptime. While I was writing this post, Matt was rocking Rosaline to sleep for her morning nap, and Margaret slipped off a piece of furniture and thumped her butt on the floor. (She was fine; just needed a hug from Mama and a tissue.)

And I also try to keep in mind that one of the best things about working as a freelancer with small children at home is that I can take time to play with my kids. I want them (and Matt) to know I’m here, not locked behind a door, shouting for them to deal with whatever on their own. Yesterday, Matt and Margaret went outside to shovel the driveway, and I stayed inside nursing the baby and making hot chocolate. After dinner I settled in at my desk and edited some precalculus assessment items due today. (The plan was to do that work after the girls were asleep, but Margaret was uninterested in sleeping and I had to take a break to put her to bed.) This morning, Margaret was full of toddler rage at not being allowed to help scoop coffee grounds into the coffeemaker, but Matt distracted her long enough for me to make oatmeal for everyone. Then Margaret and I played Minion Rush for awhile over breakfast. Maybe that was wasted game-playing time, since I do have deadlines today. But it did give Margaret a few minutes with just her and Mama, and now she’s putting puzzles together in the living room while I’m working in the office.

Before Rosaline was born, my workday was a little more about self-discipline, maximizing billable hours, and increasing efficiency. And when both girls are in school and I have the luxury of losing myself in work for hours at a time, figuring out the best use of those hours might become a priority.

These days, however, I’m moving to project-based rates to help reduce the need for precise time-tracking (a decision I made after clocking in on an hourly project for seven minutes, then five minutes, then nine minutes, then 25 minutes, then four minutes…). I’m looking at the day as a 24-hour period and scheduling accordingly. Projects that need more focus get done after bedtime, during naps, or in the morning when Rosaline naps and Margaret is happier with self-directed play. Shorter projects get done in quick bursts in the afternoon and evening. Appointments and errands happen in the days between deadlines. It’s less about not getting distracted and more about being flexible, prioritizing, and seizing the moment.

And right now I need to put a load of clean clothes into the dryer and find out why Margaret just brought me an ornament from the Yule tree.

Today’s the day!

As of today, Last Syllable Communications is 100% of what I do!

To recap: I used the couple of months before my previous job ended to start my business, take care of paperwork, try out systems for file management and scheduling, talk to prospective clients, and not least of all, complete a few projects. Now I’m starting this phase with a handful of lovely clients and ongoing projects, an understanding of how I work and what my needs are, and a manageable to-do list.

At the moment I’m feeling a little bit at loose ends because I’d normally be getting ready to head into the office. Instead I’m about to settle my daughter down for a nap, and then I’ll review some testing materials and plan dinner (I’ve so missed cooking).

The new routine will take some getting used to, but it’ll be a good change. I’m very excited!