Taking time off work as a new parent can be daunting no matter what job you have; but as a freelancer, you might feel totally baffled as to how to begin with planning a parental leave. There’s no human resources team to guide you, and no set plan to follow. But the good news is that taking maternity and paternity leave as a freelancer is possible, especially if you plan ahead. Here’s where to start.
Assess your budget
Sit down with your partner and look at your monthly budget. How much do you need to make each month to pay your bills? How much of that equation are you, personally, responsible for? Multiply that income goal by the number of months you plan to take off, then write that big number down somewhere; it will guide your financial planning.
Do you have that amount in savings already? If not, consider how you might earn a bit extra in your freelance business before your baby comes. If you have 9 months, break the number down by nine and plan to bring in a few hundred extra dollars each month. Tuck that extra amount into a savings account or a bucket each month; even if you don’t use it all during your period of parental leave, you’ll be glad to have it in your reserves.
Check for state benefits
These states currently have paid family leave policies:
- Washington D.C.
- New Jersey
- New York
- Washington State
- Rhode Island
Look at your state’s policy, as they vary widely; in some, the birthing parent can get up to 16 weeks of paid leave once per year, often with up to $1,000 per week in payments. This also applies to a non-birthing parent, who can often get up to 6 weeks of paid leave from the state, and sometimes up to 12.
The process of opting in to your state’s parental leave policy varies by state. You’ll likely need to enroll in the program online. You’ll typically pay a small percentage of your overall revenue, due quarterly, into a “pot” to be accessed by anyone who has a medical issue or needs to provide caregiving. Often, and especially if the program is new, that amount can be paid retroactively. You’ll usually need to agree to pay into the program for several years as well. Call the number provided on your state’s website to check in about eligibility and application processes before your baby arrives.
Investigate short-term disability plans
If your state doesn’t provide paid leave, a lesser-known funding option for the birthing parent involves investing in a short-term disability plan. These policies sometimes come through work, but you can also apply for them as an independent contractor. A few notes: If you want to use the plan to cover leave, you must sign up before you’re pregnant; pregnancy counts as a pre-existing condition. Short-term disability plans also don’t cover the non-birthing parent, and some plans require you to pay into them for three to six months before you become pregnant, which means you’ll need to think way ahead if you want to use this option.
Talk to your clients
Once you’ve determined how long you plan to stay home with your child, let your clients know when you’ll be stepping away. Make plans with them to either get work done early, or to hire a replacement while you’re away. If you’re on a retainer, consider taking on a month or two of extra work in the second or third trimester, to add to your savings and give your client a bank of work to draw upon while you’re gone. Communicate with your contacts early and often, and be as helpful as possible.
If you’re not on a retainer with your client, ask if you can get in touch when you return from leave. Freelancing is a momentum game, and losing momentum during leave can be tough, so any guaranteed work you can secure upon your return will be welcome. Expect that it will take a month or two to get back up to full capacity, too. And if you have the bandwidth, plan to check in with your regular clients about a month before you return to work.
Make a back-up plan and a back-up-back-up plan
Babies are unique, and you don’t know what yours will be like until they show up. Some children sleep all the time, leaving lots of room for parents to work. Others are fussy and don’t leave parents with much time at all. You won’t know what you’re dealing with (or how you’ll feel!) until your baby arrives. Many freelancers recommend planning for a full leave after your first baby — at least 12 weeks. Be flexible, have a back-up plan, and hold your best-case scenarios loosely. You won’t know how you feel until it happens to you!