Sprints: Freelancing with a Baby or Toddler Around

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Katharine O’Moore-Klopf, ELS, a board-certified editor in the life sciences, has been self-employed since 1995. She has helped researchers in more than 20 nations get their articles published in more than 35 US and UK biomedical journals by removing language barriers. On Twitter, where she networked her way into coauthoring a book, Katharine’s handle is @KOKEdit. Learn more about her at http://www.kokedit.com.

One of the best techniques for dealing with seemingly daunting projects is to break them down into a series of small tasks. When I went freelance full time at the start of 1995 just two weeks after giving birth to my second child, I intuitively used that technique. It worked so well that I employed it through that child’s toddlerhood and preschool years—and then used it again after giving birth to my third child. My workday logs back then read as if I were doing a series of sprints. My second child is now a high school senior and my third child is now a fifth-grader, and both they and my editing business are still thriving. Hey, childless colleagues who doubted years ago that I’d survive, are you listening?

When each of my two sons was a baby or a toddler, my workdays were spread out over a 12-hour period—though I got nowhere near 12 hours’ worth of work done—and ran something like this:

• Breastfeed the baby/feed the toddler. Get Child dressed for the day.
• Eat breakfast myself once Child is settled.
• Take a shower while my mother-in-law watches Child.
• Begin answering e-mails and editing.
• Stop to breastfeed, diaper, read to, or play with Child.
• Do some more editing.
• Stop to breastfeed, diaper, read to, or play with Child.
• Do some more editing.
• Feed Toddler lunch and eat my own lunch.
• Do some more editing.
• Stop to breastfeed, diaper, read to, or play with Child, or put Child down for a nap.
• Do some more editing.
• Stop to breastfeed, diaper, read to, or play with Child.
• Continue as needed.

Compare that with my current schedule: http://editor-mom.blogspot.com/2011/08/do-freelance-editorial-professionals.html.
In 2002, I posted to a freelancers’ e-mail list some tips for surviving self-employment when you’re a new parent. I wrote:

I work 25 to 30 hours a week, without using day care, and I have an 18-year-old daughter, a 7-year-old son, and a 4-month-old son. I’ve done things this way for my last two children, so I’m thinking my system works. In case some of these things work for you, I’ll give you my tips. Take what works for you and chuck the rest; the best advice I can give you is that you are the expert when it comes to the needs of your child. I’m not trying to be preachy here; these things just work for me:

1. Purchase a baby sling-type carrier. (If you want a list of businesses—and their web-site addresses—where you can purchase one, let me know. I have it set up as a Word document.) “Wear” your baby in the sling as you work. I’m doing that very thing as I type to you right now. Your baby will nap and be calm in the sling because he or she knows you’re right there. Your life partner can also wear your baby for great parent–child bonding.

2. If you’re female, breastfeed. It’s the healthiest thing you can do for your baby, and it’s the easiest and cheapest way you can feed him or her. My 4-month-old nurses in the baby sling while I work, as did his brother before him. Bottle-feeding in a sling can work too.

3. Don’t answer the phone if you don’t have to during working hours. I have a dedicated work phone line and keep the answering machine on. The tape says I’m “either editing right now or away from my desk. Please begin speaking after the tone, and if I’m available, I’ll pick up the phone.” If you really, really need to communicate with a client but your baby’s fussy, which means you can’t talk on the phone, settle Baby in the sling, let Baby latch on if you’re breastfeeding, and then call or e-mail your client.

4. When you sleep at night, sleep with the baby in bed with you and your life partner. You and Baby will both sleep better because you don’t have to stumble groggily out of bed to go get Baby from the crib to feed him or her, and Baby will be secure, even while sleeping, in the knowledge that you are right there. While you’re sleeping, turn the alarm clock away from your line of sight. If you don’t really know how long you’re up during the night, you won’t feel as sleep-deprived.

5. Get your life partner to take over care of Baby when he or she comes home from work (if your partner isn’t self-employed), except for breastfeeding if you’re the one who’s breastfeeding. You need physical space to rejuvenate yourself so you can do intensive parenting during the work week.

6. Know that your workday will stretch throughout the day. I start work sometimes at 8:30 a.m. and don’t finish until 7 p.m. But I do only 5 or 6 hours of work total, taking breaks for meals, playing with my kids, supervising homework time, showering, etc.

7. Avoid working weekends whenever possible. You need this time for fun with your family. Your life partner needs you and you need him or her.

8. Get relatives and friends to help out with care of Baby. My in-laws live in the downstairs apartment of the house that my husband and I own. Now that my mother-in-law’s retired, she comes upstairs in the morning so I can do a few household chores, get out for a 1.5-mile walk, and shower. Before that, my father-in-law is outside waiting at the bus stop with my 7-year-old son so that I can give the 4-month-old his first nursing of the morning. Then at lunchtime, my mother-in-law comes back up and plays with the baby for a while so I can have the use of my entire body for my own lunch. Getting your own physical space is very important for recharging your emotional batteries. I didn’t have the luxury of help from my in-laws before they retired; I just did it all myself when my second child was a baby. That was when I hugely appreciated my husband’s taking over the second child’s care when he got home from work.

9. Make sure you have plenty of friends and mentors—live and in person or online—to vent to and compare notes with. Support is critical.

10. Become very, very good at multitasking.

And when my third child was a toddler, I added these tips for my colleagues:

11. Occasionally, when cash flow is good, my toddler will spend three hours, three days a week, at the in-home day care center that my next-door neighbor runs. He doesn’t really need the care, but he gets to play with friends there. If you can make similar arrangements, you’ll get in some good working time.

12. Track your working time, which you’ll get in fits and starts, with time-tracking software that allows you to add up your work periods each day.

13. My office is in my kitchen [and it still is, in 2012], which flows into the living room without any interrupting walls. My husband put up baby gates so that the kitchen–living room area was like one giant playpen containing me and my toddler. This allows the toddler to run over to me and ask me to read books to him at my desk and then run off back to the living room to play. He naps right beside my desk. I nurse him to sleep on my lap as I work, and then when he’s soundly sleeping, I lower him into the rocking baby seat next to me. If you can set up your working space so that you and your child have quick access to each other, working with your child around will be much easier.

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5 thoughts on “Sprints: Freelancing with a Baby or Toddler Around

  1. There are some great tips here. When my son was born, I freelanced full time. My son was a month early, so I wasn’t as prepared as I had planned to be. It was in November, so I had my husband bring the holiday cards and my laptop to the hospital, and I finished my holiday cards while in labor and the few days after my son was born. Once at home, my son would take several naps each day in the swing, so I worked on my projects then. Little housework was done, only what was necessary. My main struggle was to learn how to enjoy the time with my son and not worry about a project I was working on.

    • I forgot to mention how I handled housework when my sons were small: I simply didn’t do it at all on workdays, and I learned to lower my tolerance for messiness on the weekends. Plus, when I absolutely had to do some cleaning on a weekend, my husband was right there doing it with me—or doing it by himself while I relaxed or slept. And many times, he was “wearing” a baby in a baby sling while he swept the floor or picked things up and put them away.

  2. Sam Hartburn

    This is an inspirational article, thank you for sharing your experiences. May I ask what your set-up was when the baby was in a sling? I have a ring sling and mei tei, and struggle to use the computer with either of them. Admittedly I have a very hefty 7 month old, but would be interested in any seating tips.

  3. Sam, my computer sat—and still sits—on a roll-around computer cart. (Shades of the ’80s, I know!) I have always has an office chair on wheels, so that I can move around seated as necessary. When my sons were babies, I had a ring sling. I wore the baby and sling in front, so when I was sitting at the computer, the distance from me to the keyboard was like it was when I was pregnant. When I had the sling on while in front of my computer, I always sat with my legs spread wide, to accommodate the baby and sling. I never tried a mei tei carrier.

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