I think about motherhood in waves. Not in the brooding sense of picturing cute smushy faces and tiny soft hands or even counting down the years until I become a mother and looking at the steps I should be going through in order for that to happen, but more the system and structure (or lack of) motherhood brings. How so much of parenting, or in fact, motherhood seems like sacrifice.
For those women like me who are freelancers and wish to be mothers one day, there’s a common unsaid acceptance between us that this dream will have to be pushed back. Without maternity leave, the notion of jumping into motherhood without any savings feels both impossible and petrifying.
The National Women’s Liberation Conference, which took place in Oxford in 1970, demanded four initial changes: equal pay, equal educational and job opportunities, free contraception and abortion on demand and free 24-hour nurseries. It’s now fifty-one years later, and how many of those demands have been met?
Yet during the past twelve months, when it has felt as though the world was falling apart time and time again, mothers, especially those who are working and are self-employed, have rarely been addressed. With coronavirus revealing what we already know, that women are the main carers for family and homes regardless of their professional lives, it has therefore felt like an additional layer of sacrifice mothers especially have had to get on with.
“In the conversations about children and schools closing and working from home, I have rarely seen mothers included in the discourse and consideration of how this pandemic has affected their daily lives,” points out Selina Bakkar, COO, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Amaliah, Insights Amaliah and Halal Gems. “For those advocating for the closure of schools, was there any consideration of building support structures for mothers and parents working, educating and doing so when all at home and alone?” It’s clear that the pandemic has furthered away the junctures of motherhood and working from home in addition to being freelance, making it harder to maintain both.
“Lockdown as a parent has made working freelance very difficult,” shares Danielle Pender, founder and editor of Riposte Magazine and creative consultant. “I don’t have the time to develop ideas or pitch on new projects so I have to focus on what’s right in front of me. It has meant a lot less work and money. It’s felt very stressful but I think it has been like that for those who are employed as well as those parents who are freelance.”
Pender goes on to say that naturally, every person’s experience of parenthood is different as are their freelancing careers. “In general, I’d say if you want to have children whether you’re freelance or you’re employed, you can normally always find a way but it won’t be easy and you can’t do everything.”
It’s common advice to save up one to three months of living costs before you become freelance as you may not have a regular income at the start, but what’s not as common to speak about are the tight moments you can find yourself in as a working mother.
“There’s a mad stage in between maternity cover ending and free nursery places starting that you have to cover financially which is difficult,” says Pender. “During that period, I shared childcare with my husband and worked on my business the days I didn’t have my daughter. I didn’t go out very much or spend money on clothes. We didn’t go on holiday for a few years and we had a small budget for food. They were the choices we made and I focussed on that rather than trying to live like I had before I had a child.”
Pender also recommends to have the most fun now and build audaciously. “Pitch the work you want to make, create your own platform or projects that you can get lost in, go out (when we can!) all the time and make the most of your relative freedom because having kids is really amazing but it does restrict what you can do and when, and appreciating the kid-free fun when you can is really vital.”
Similarly to all the other mothers who are working from home with their children right now, Bakkar says that she too is always re-evaluating and re-assessing her approach to running her businesses while being a single mother. “When I had my second child, I used to babywear them when I needed to go into work or meetings but my approach changed after a few months as they started walking.
“I have often brought my child with me, letting office managers or the person know I am bringing extra hands. Inclusivity for me begins with me breaking expectations of others and myself,” she added.
With 31 per cent of women making up 1.1 million gig economy workers, it’s been reported women are half as likely to take on freelance work and the work they do take is one usually of labour such as cleaning services and working with asset-based platforms renting out rooms or trading and selling clothes or toys.
On the other hand, a recent report by Harvard University shows the number of women who are becoming freelance has outgrown the number of men in the past decade. Meaning, in order to benefit the future of all industries and the ways in which we work, we have to restructure our work lives. It cannot keep falling on mothers especially to make it work.
“I think one thing I have observed is that the pandemic has revealed the gaps. Structural gaps and gaps in our own lives,” says COO Bakkar. “How little is created to support mothers, who have had to create their own communities and lean on one another for decades because structures often do not recognise them. I find increasingly that places of work are not inclusive enough or understanding enough of the changes, which sadly means the loss of talent too.”
In addition to the necessary change that needs to be made so those who are freelance and self-employed can have maternity leave and other corporate benefits, it’s also crucial the same benefits are given to fathers. On the condition that we want to see happy families, we have to make the process an option. “If we are going to ensure that parenting isn’t focused on mothering only then we need to be inclusive of fathers or the other parent benefiting from flexible working for a longer period of time,” states Bakkar. “Perhaps in cases where the mother may not be with the other person at the time of birth, we need to assess who else can support and how it affects their working, for example grandparents who are still working.”
Though it sounds near impossible to be a working mother who is also freelance, it was made clear by both Pender and Bakkar that when it works, it works great.
“When things are good financially, working freelance as a parent has been perfect because I’m not tied to being somewhere according to an imposed schedule. I can be flexible with my time, take my daughter away mid-week, go to the fun stuff in the middle of the day, pick her up from school, etc. That has been amazing,” conveys Pender. This scenario is perhaps why more professional women who are mothers state that the free gig economy brings the benefits of having both.
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These experiences of a more balanced work and home life that puts everyone’s well-being first are echoed by Bakkar who says, “Have there been some days where I’ve thought a 9 to 5 p.m. would be more sensible? Yes, but on the same wave, I have also been hugely appreciative of some of the flexibility I can have and the breadth of work I am able to do.
There are challenges like when there are days the kids are unwell or some meetings are just fixed but whether you choose to go back to work, take on freelancing or project work the days of balancing it all will continue. I enjoy motherhood and I enjoy my work so I have tried to build a life that works for both.”
When you read about systemic change that needs to happen in order for parenting to be more equal or the imbalanced ways in which mothers in particular work, which disproportionately affects their mental, emotional and physical health, motherhood on top of freelancing may feel like a large feat. Yet still, both Pender and Bakkar’s key advice to those who want to have children is to simply have them.
“It’s part of the territory [to question both being self-employed and motherhood] and more so from the perspective of logistics. As a practising Muslim one thing I came to learn is that we believe with every child provision comes, rizq comes. Rizq means provision,” concludes Bakkar.
Pender adds, “You can overthink everything. You can catastrophise any scenario and having kids can sometimes feel like a total catastrophe but most of the time it works out. If you want to have kids and you’re able to conceive or adopt, have kids and embrace family life. It’s all over so quickly and we can spend too much time worrying about the what-ifs instead of living in the here and now.”