Freelancing and Parenthood

Kicking back on a Malaysian beach, I vowed to Lucy that if she became pregnant I’d wave goodbye to full-time employment and pursue the freelance life I’d fantasized about for so long. 4 months later, the pregnancy kit announced the pending carnage; it was time to follow through and make the leap into self-employment alongside becoming a parent for the first-time.

As a result, my business is roughly the same age as my son, Archie—around 2.5 years old. I’ve worked from home for the duration of his life, experiencing a huge range of emotions, challenges and amazing moments. For those about to embark on a similar adventure or already deep in the trenches, there are a few things that helped me to meld these two areas of life together.

Fact: children don’t want you to sleep. EVER. You may never be as tired as in that first year. Everyone tells you that things get better but that’s little comfort when you’re on your knees following the 58th consecutive broken night (or perhaps 800-odd as in our case). Any productivity guru will tell you that a good night’s sleep is the foundation to achieving our goals for the coming day, so what to do when that’s a guaranteed non-starter?

It’s time to focus on that you can control. The web industry is thankfully becoming more open about the inherent physical and mental health stresses, and there’s no getting away from the fact that we need to prioritise our personal well-being; the reality of having a newborn thrust into your world only emphasises this further. Sleep aside, nutrition and exercise are the pillars from which to build resilience. We all know this yet we’re generally still pretty crap at looking after ourselves.

I find it best to keep things simple and stick with the fundamentals. Armed with the de facto Nutribullet, the following helped me to adopt positive habits and give a fighting chance of peak performance through that exhausting first year of fatherhood:

Despite best efforts, it’s inevitable that some nights are insanely rough and leave you drained the following day—power nap to the rescue! Sitting comfortably with a glass of water ready for wake-up, set the timer for 20mins, close the eyes and empty the mind. The restorative powers of a quick bit of shut-eye never fails to amaze me; it’s been a huge productivity win on days where it looked like I was out for the count and swallowed up by the day.

When a quiet home for 2 adults and a lazy dog becomes a setting for daily cries, giggles, banging and screams, there’s always a reason not to be sat at the desk whether by design or due to interruption. The potential pitfalls of working from home as a freelancer are suddenly magnified ten-fold. It’s easier than ever for the day to become fragmented and never quite attain the flow or deep level of concentration required for work of value.

Initially this feeling of chaos left me hugely frustrated. Over time though, I learnt to regain a sense of control over my daily schedule through time-management techniques such as time-boxing, being careful to allow enough space for unforeseen breaks. Combined with some serious Pomodoro action and greater self-discipline when the urge came to break ranks, I eventually managed to find order amongst the chaos and enjoy the fruits of fatherhood whilst still having a productive work day.

The biggest self-imposed change to my routine which had the most impact, was a consistent and earlier wake-up time. Whereas my previous wake time was around 7.30-8am, I now rise at 5.30am which allows me a couple of hours to get off to a rip-roaring start with a solid morning routine on my own terms. I had always considered myself a night owl but that was never going to be sustainable with a restless baby also eager to ‘work’ through the night. It took time and willpower to get there—15mins at a time and cutting out the snoozing—but I now firmly believe you can be productive at any time in the day if you stack the cards in your favour. An unforeseen benefit was the positive impact on my mindset throughout the day—having my house in order before the family awoke meant I was less likely to be short with anyone following an interruption. Wins for everyone concerned!

The world can become a very small place as a freelancer and new parent with time seemingly predestined to either work or baby duties. In an ever-changing industry and the pressures of client work, it’s easy to neglect skill development as well as starve yourself of human interaction with peers; not good for the soul. To keep abreast of the web industry, I focused my Twitter followings and RSS feeds on a few select sources that cover a good chunk of any developments (e.g. Smashing Magazine, CSS Tricks, A List Apart), culling the noise elsewhere. Finding a couple of monthly meet-ups also really helped to get out of my own (somewhat fuzzy) head. Interacting with like-minded peers away from the screen just once a month makes the world of difference (try Creative Mornings or Design Stuff Cardiff / Bristol if nearby).

On a more macro level, with a new family member comes added financial pressure. Previous wiggle-room in the monthly cash-flow may now be substituted for stress and anxiety as project enquiries and payments linger. Fortunately, this really helps motivate development of the business side of freelancing. A lot of freelancers, myself included, find working on as opposed to in the business unfamiliar territory and hard-work, but areas such as project management need to be finely tuned for a project to be successful, paid on time and get those gazillion nappies paid for.

Whereas most of the above is turning negatives in your favour, working from home with a flexible schedule allows priceless time with your new chum. It’s such a privilege to watch your child grow into the world and not missing a single thing. Personally, it’s been a special time. Yes, the working day has become longer in terms of start and finish time, but it’s amazing to have the chance to take your little one swimming regularly or visit the park on a nice day etc. These little injections of magic—forcing that mental break—have a hugely positive impact on the work mindset, leading to greater productivity and quality of output.

The opportunity for creative pursuits is also amplified by the new family member. It may sound trivial, but taking the time each morning to create a new toy-train track layout is such an enjoyable design challenge. Exposure to new stimuli in the form of books and media also work those right-of-brain impulses in fresh new ways ready for the next design project. Our current favourite is Dip Dip; a beautifully simple and inventive animated series. You definitely don’t need kids to enjoy these little streams of consciousness.

At the risk of sounding like an Oscar acceptance speech, mixing freelancing and parenting is only truly facilitated by the super-human powers of a partner who backs you all the way and stands tall where you fall short. As with parenting, freelancing isn’t just about you—your situation impacts on the whole household so successfully navigating the two is far easier if everybody’s on the same page. Behind every successful freelancer is someone that puts up with it!

Freelancing from home brings a unique set of challenges and with a newborn sharing your office, you’re set for a whole added dimension of fun and bedlam! If you can develop healthy habits, lose the bad ones and learn to embrace the upheaval, I’m sure you’ll enjoy some of the most memorable times of your life.