How to Take Maternity Leave When You’re Self Employed

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When I made the leap to become fully self-employed (a whopping 6 years ago) planning for maternity leave was the furthest thing from my mind.

At the time, I was 23 years old and my business was my baby.

But now I’m getting ready for a real, live human baby to join my family, and I’ll be honest, like all first-time mothers, I have no idea what to expect.

(Even after reading plenty of “What to Expect” type books!)

One of the things that I found most overwhelming when I first found out I was pregnant was what I’m going to do for maternity leave.

Maternity Leave Policies Can be Confusing

Even when you’re employed in a regular job, maternity leave seems like a less-than-straightforward thing. In part, this is because the United States is far behind other countries in maternity leave laws. This leaves a lot to be desired when you get ready to plan for and take maternity leave.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires employers with 50 or more employees to give 12 weeks of unpaid leave for mothers. But for companies with less than 50 employees, there is no requirement to give time off to mothers.

In addition, only a few states in the US have maternity and family leave laws that give employees access to paid family leave. Most of these programs are employee-funded via payroll taxes.

Paid leave programs may not pay your whole salary while you are on maternity leave. Some may offer partially paid leave or have programs that may technically be part of their sick leave or short-term disabilities policies that pay you during your maternity leave.

Worse news yet for the self-employed is that, unlike some other countries, the United States offers nothing for self-employed women who want to take maternity leave. There are a few states with parental leave programs that allow freelancers and contractors to apply, but many other states have little or no support for the self-employed.

Challenges of Taking Self-Employed Maternity Leave

As I mentioned before, one of the things that I wondered and worried about after getting pregnant was how I’ll be able to take self-employed maternity leave and make it all work.

Right now I have a hard time stepping away from my business for more than a couple of days without checking in or doing work of some kind!

I love my work and I have a hard time taking time off normally. And even though it seems like being self-employed should make it easier to take time off for maternity leave, that’s not always the case.

There are some pros and cons to consider when it comes to being self-employed, and that applies to maternity leave and returning to work afterward.

Here are just a few of the challenges I thought about when it comes to taking my self-employed maternity leave.

Financial Instability and No Benefits

Self-employment as a virtual assistant has more flexibility in some ways. For example, I can work whenever I want vs having to work 8-5. But since I’m self-employed, I don’t have paid time off for vacation or sick leave.

If I’m looking at the service-based side of my business, it means that if I’m not working, I’m not getting paid.

Most freelancers can agree that financial instability can already be more of a challenge when you’re self-employed. There can be good months and bad months where you earn more or less money, which can make it difficult to budget and to prepare for major life events and expenses, like having a baby.

This is where an emergency fund can come in handy. Or since you have about 9 months (or so) after finding out you are pregnant before baby arrives, you should consider building a baby savings fund that you can use to pay yourself during your maternity leave.

How? By taking on extra work, or even a side hustle, and socking away extra income in a savings account for your maternity leave.

One additional challenge with this is that you may not always have the energy or focus to work EXTRA while you are pregnant in order to save up money for your baby fund.

Difficulty Covering Deadlines

Another challenge of taking an extended leave, like maternity leave, when you’re a freelancer is that it can be difficult to meet deadlines.

As a freelancer, it’s not like working for a company where you have a co-worker sitting next to you doing the same thing as you every day. There’s not always someone else you can pass your duties off to for a few weeks while you’re gone.

For me, this felt especially true since I’m not only a freelancer but I’m also the Founder/CEO of my own brand and business, too.

Little Advice or Information to Turn to

There isn’t a lot of information or advice about preparing for self-employed maternity leave or about maternity leave for small business owners available already. As I prepared to write this article, I quickly discovered the absence of advice while I was Googling and scouring the internet.

So, instead I decided to reach out to my audience on social media and via email to get tips and tricks to point me in the right direction.

Advice from Moms on How to Take Maternity Leave When You’re Self-Employed

After years of sharing with moms how they can get started as virtual assistants through my course, $10K VA, and my private coaching sessions, I’m so glad some of my students can now share their experiences of being a new work-from-home mom with me, and now with you via this blog post! 😉

Here’s what some of them had to say about how to take self-employed maternity leave.

Define a Budget

As I mentioned above, one of the big challenges of taking maternity leave when you’re self-employed or a freelancer is the feast and famine of trying to budget with irregular income.

To make this more of a challenge for my family, my husband is also self-employed and doesn’t have paid leave either. (Did you know that he works with me in the business?) And even though I’m talking about maternity leave primarily in this post, he wants to take paternity leave too!

When we got ready to look at our family leave plan, we had to account for both of us taking time off from the business and how that would affect our budget.

This is the time to estimate what expenses will look like after baby. Maybe they’ll be increasing (Babies can expensive!), or maybe you’ll be able to re-allocate funds from your current budget categories into a new baby category.

For example, see if you can re-allocate money you usually use for eating out, entertainment, and shopping into money to be used for the baby, without really affecting your overall budget.

Earn Extra Money

Once you have a budget in mind, you can start to look for resources to help you cover the money you will need to earn during the weeks you’ll be on maternity leave.

You may need to take on extra clients or work, or even a side hustle prior to taking leave.

Eden Cheng, the Co-Founder of PeopleFinderFree, said, “Many first-time parents underestimate just how much a baby costs and also how much work they’ll actually be able to get done once the baby is finally born.”

She said, “As soon as you realize you are pregnant, you should use that time to hustle even harder than you have been. If you need to, try to take on extra work assignments to help you to save extra cash. This will not only help you budget for lost income during your maternity leave but also factor in new expenses, like childcare, for when you return.”

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, one additional challenge with this is that you may not always have the energy or focus to work EXTRA while you are pregnant. This was definitely the case for most of my pregnancy where I had lower energy and concentration because I was dealing with nausea the majority of the time.

If you already have a solid emergency fund, you may be able to rely on that to help you cover extra expenses for your maternity leave. But keep in mind, this fund will have to be refilled after you use it!

Paid Family Leave is Offered in Some States

One tip to look into is to see if your state is one of the few with paid family leave benefits that include self-employed individuals. Each state has different eligibility requirements and offer different amounts of pay and other benefits but it’s worth looking into to help you take your self-employed maternity leave with peace of mind!

States with family leave that self-employed individuals may be eligible for include:

Washington and the District of Columbia just started offering their programs in 2020. Note that some of these programs may have different terms and eligibility due to COVID-19.

Short Term Disability Insurance

If you’re a pre-planner and are not pregnant yet, another thing to look into is short-term disability insurance. Short-term disability insurance usually pays a percentage of your income if you are unable to work.

Some policies will include pregnancy as a disability. One caveat here though is that you usually have to be enrolled in the plan before you become pregnant.

Decide on Maternity Leave Dates or Length

After creating your budget, you should be able to more easily determine how long you want to take off for maternity leave.

I’ve decided to take 6 weeks of full maternity leave, where I don’t plan to work at all (if I can help it!) and after that, I hope to slowly ease back into work.

Of course, you never know exactly when baby will make an appearance, so it’s important to have some flexibility in your maternity leave plan as far as dates go. You never know if baby will arrive early, late, or on-time. Plus you might end up needing to stop work early, before baby arrives, if you have any complications toward the end of your pregnancy.

Since we’re due in a few weeks at the end of September, I’ve planned that my 6-week maternity leave could start as early as mid-September or as late as early October. With a 6-week plan, that puts me back in the office as early as the end of October or as late as mid-November.

I blocked ALL of this time off on my work calendar as “tentative” maternity leave.

Carmen Smith from Living Letter Home agrees with setting dates on your calendar and sticking to them! She said, “Look at your calendar and set definite dates to be away. Meaning TOTALLY away. No phone calls, no emails. That one reply to an email can be a gateway into coming back into when you just aren’t ready.”

Communicate with Clients (and Others)

If you’re a self-employed freelancer, you’ll next need to communicate with your clients about your maternity leave plans. There’s no perfect time to do this.

From talking with my audience, some freelancers tell their clients about their upcoming maternity leave when they hit about 12-13 weeks pregnant, in order to give their clients plenty of notice. Meanwhile, others don’t tell their clients until they hit the halfway mark around week 20 of their pregnancy.

Keep in mind, when you communicate with your clients that this is not you asking for maternity leave. You are the boss of your business, so this is you telling your clients that you will be taking maternity leave.

That said, I’d still recommend that you approach the subject of your maternity leave with care. This is a great time to remind your clients that you like working with them, and why, and that you’re excited to share some personal news.

Eden Chen added, “Be aware that not every conversation with clients will go as smoothly as you would like. After all, breaking the news to clients tends to be akin to making a tightrope walk, you could make it all the way to the middle, only for one client to rain on your parade.”

To lessen the chances of this happening, make sure you have as much information prepared as you can before having the conversation with your clients.

What to tell your clients about your maternity leave

Your clients will need to know when your due date is (or when you plan to start maternity leave and be out of the office) and how long you’ll be gone for. From there you can expand the conversation to topics like:

  • What is your plan to make sure they and their business are still taken care of and running smoothly while you are gone?
  • Can you batch and work ahead on any of your work for them before you’re gone for maternity leave?
  • Will you be available for any communication during your maternity leave? Will you be doing any work at all?
  • Is it possible to have a subcontractor step in to help cover your duties? What does that look like for you and for your clients?
  • If you’re on a retainer, will your clients pay you the extra early for working ahead or will they continue to pay your retainer for the weeks you are on maternity leave?

Kiri Mohan, Chief Operating Officer from the Association of Virtual Assistants, said she asked her clients if they wanted temporary help while she was out on maternity leave.

She said, “Only about 40% wanted that. The rest wanted to save money and do it themselves while I was gone.”

After talking with your clients about your maternity leave, you may also need to talk with other people who need to know, like:

  • Subcontractors or contractors of yours (your team) who may be covering your work or your client work while you are gone
  • Other freelancers hired by your clients that may be affected by your absence, or who may be helping to cover while you are away

What about new or potential clients?

In addition to people you’re currently working with, you’ll also need to decide how to communicate with any future or potential clients who come your way between the start of your pregnancy and the start of your maternity leave.

Perhaps you’ll decide not to take on any new clients during your pregnancy. Then you may be able to keep things simple by just telling everyone “no”.

Or perhaps you’ll decide you can commit to some new clients and projects during your pregnancy (especially if you need to earn and save extra money to hit your budget goals!). If that’s the case, you’ll have to communicate with them about your maternity leave plans, too.

Make a Priorities List

Another harsh reality you might have to face while planning for your maternity leave is that pregnancy may also be harder for you than you imagined. I’ll admit it, the first trimester of my pregnancy this year kicked my booty. This forced me to look more closely at everything I was doing in my business to decide what the real priorities were.

I had to decide to let go of some projects in my business and push others back a few months, or even a year, because of the time I needed to take off during my early pregnancy days and because I knew I wanted to take maternity leave when baby arrives.

This is where creating a priorities list comes into play. You should look at everything you and your team (if you have one) are doing. Then with each task or project, you can decide to:

  • keep doing it yourself
  • automate it with tools and systems
  • delegate or outsource it to a subcontractor or other team member
  • or delete it

Sometimes the things we’ve been doing for months or years and thought were “necessary” really aren’t. And Lucy from Cheers to Life Blogging agrees.

She said, “Make a list of the tasks that absolutely need to get done before you go on maternity leave. It’s also helpful to create a list of non-urgent tasks that you would like to get done during this period too.”

But the bottom line is, you’ll have to cut back on the things you are doing.

For example, in my business, we used to run live launches each month for my course, $10K VA. Last year we stopped doing those in favor of putting more time and effort into our evergreen sales funnel since that wouldn’t take our continued time and attention once it was set up.

Creating a priorities list may also be a process you have to work through with your clients and the work you do for them in order to make sure everything they need is covered while you are out on maternity leave.

Create Passive Income

If you’re a freelancer, who primarily earns income from done-for-you services for clients (like a virtual assistant!), this may be the time to start looking into creating passive income in your business.

Laura from Copy by Laura said this was her top suggestion.

Creating passive income can be especially important if the majority of your revenue comes from you working for clients. If this is the case, you won’t be getting paid unless you are working.

(Exception: you might be able to have a subcontractor complete some work for you while you are on maternity leave. More on that below.)

With passive income, you can still earn revenue while you are out of the office on self-employed maternity leave. Then you can use that to help pay you at least a portion of your normal salary.

Luckily, I’ve been building my own brand for years alongside the freelance work I was doing for clients. And over the last couple of years, I’ve significantly lessened the amount of revenue I receive from providing client services, while increasing the amount my business earns from passive income products, like my VA training course.

Work Ahead

Once you’ve decided what’s a priority to continue doing throughout your pregnancy and maternity leave, now it’s time to work ahead if possible. This was one of the most repeated tips I got from surveying my audience.

If you run an online, content-based business like my client and I do, you can try to pre-write and pre-schedule all of the social media, email newsletters, and blog content for the period of time you expect to be out of the office.

Working ahead can not only help you create a gap in your task list so you can create the time off for your maternity leave, but it may help you generate some extra revenue to add to your budget to cover your time off, too.

I’ve been working with my team and my client and his team to pre-plan and pre-schedule as much content as possible to keep things running while I’m out of the office.

Repurpose Content & Work

In addition to working ahead, another big tip to help you take a successful self-employed maternity leave is to repurpose as much content and work as possible. This can help you cut down on the number of new things you need to create to get ahead by several weeks to cover your maternity leave.

Shalona from Moms Need a Break Too, said, “As long as you plan as much as you can, your maternity leave can feel (almost) like you never left. What helped me the most was a combination of repurposing and pre-scheduling content. Because I already had good content published, I used it to help me schedule other helpful content while on maternity leave – instead of having to produce all-new content. It worked seamlessly!”

Have a Team or Hire a Subcontractor

Even with working ahead and some of these other tips, you may also it helpful to hire a subcontractor to help cover client work while you are on maternity leave, or create a team to help run your brand and business.

In my case, my client already has a team of VAs who work underneath me. (I’m working as his project manager.) So I’ve been able to pass off some of my tasks to them to help cover my maternity leave. As far as my own business, I also have a team in place already. So again, I’ve been able to pass some tasks off to my team to handle while I’m gone.

Before passing things off to your team or your subcontractor, you may need to spend some time creating training documents, videos, standard operating procedures, etc. to teach them how and why things are done the way they are done.

My advice is to start this process early. That way you have time to create those guides for your team. You should also give them the chance to do the tasks a time or two before you are gone. This way they can ask questions if things are unclear. Plus, you can provide oversight to make sure everything is done correctly.

You may also need to make yourself available to your team, your clients, or your subcontractor for an occasional update or questions about things while you are gone. Many moms I heard from suggested having a set time once per week (or even less often) to be available for these kinds of things.

Create a Childcare Plan

Do you really need a childcare plan if you’re self-employed? It depends!

Some moms I spoke with said their businesses allowed them the balance of working from home while caring for their new babies with ease.

Imani Francies, an insurance copywriter, said, “I work from home, so I am able to continue breastfeeding and bonding with my daughter while I work. Other working mothers do not have this type of flexibility when planning their postpartum timeline, making the process more stressful for them.”

But other moms, like Eden Cheng, disagreed and stressed the need for creating a child care plan before baby’s arrival.

She said, “While it can be tempting to think you will be able to successfully juggle child supervision and job duties, just because you work from home, the reality is that things never go that easily, especially not with a baby around.”

She also stressed that it’s important to plan ahead because many child care centers have waitlists.

In my case, since my husband and I both work in our online business, we do plan to juggle childcare and work between the two of us – at least in the beginning.

Start Back to Work Slowly

Finally, one of the biggest pieces of advice that moms shared was the need for grace and understanding that you may not be ready, even at the end of your pre-determined maternity leave period, to just jump back into work with both feet.

That’s why my husband and I are both planning to re-start work on a part-time basis as we come back from leave while juggling caring for our newborn.

Imani Frances said of her self-employment, “Not having to worry about adhering to anyone’s timeline for when I start back and how much work I start back doing makes this time frame peaceful.”

Kiri Mohan said, “At about 7 weeks postpartum, I started feeling like I could take on some clients. So, I started with 2. I then kept adding more as I felt like I was ready and the baby was on a more consistent nap schedule. By the time I was 15 weeks postpartum, I was back at full client workload.”

The Bottom Line

I hope you’ve found this advice as helpful as I have for planning your self-employed maternity leave. Of course, I haven’t taken my leave yet. But I’ll be sure to let you know how it goes in a few weeks!

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