Let’s start with a little intro to Ashley’s business…
I started Brooks Editorial Services as a newlywed and recent college grad in 2012. Ever since middle school, I’d dreamed of editing books for a living, and I didn’t see any reason why I couldn’t do that from home. Little did I know that freelancing would be en vogue by the time I was ready to launch my career! I also knew I wanted to have a family, but I never saw those as opposing goals.
It takes time to build up a solid client base, so I started freelancing immediately rather than seeking out a traditional full-time job.
This turned out to be one of the smartest decisions I made since it gave me time to grow my business before having kids—and discover that the business I thought I wanted wasn’t a good fit for me. Instead of editing for publishing houses like I’d originally planned, I now focus on a combination of blog editing, freelance writing, and developing realistic content strategies for intentional creatives.
When did you first start thinking about your leave? What kind of feelings did you experience as you planned?
I’ve taken maternity leave as a solopreneur twice, in 2014 and 2016. They were two wildly different experiences! I wasn’t worried at all about taking maternity leave with my first baby, mostly because I was so naive about the transition to motherhood and maternal health issues. I pictured myself working away while my baby played quietly or napped in the background. Ha!
Because of that, I made the mistake of planning a six-week unpaid maternity leave with my first baby.
I didn’t do much to plan besides notifying my clients that I’d be unavailable for work for a few weeks. Honestly, I didn’t give enough thought to my maternity leave, and I ended up suffering the consequences. I was totally unprepared for the wild ride of postpartum emotions and hormones, and I was forced to continue working instead of taking time for my health because I hadn’t planned for a longer maternity leave. I was afraid to tell clients I wanted to extend my leave, plus I was feeling pressure because I hadn’t set any money aside to pay myself during my time off.
I learned my lesson!
I started planning my 2016 maternity leave before I even reached my second trimester. I felt confident in my planning because I had done this once, so now I knew what to expect. I wanted to treat myself even better than a corporate employer would.
I committed to standing up for myself and what I needed while I took time off to be with my baby and recover.
I told my clients well in advance (about four months before my due date) that I would be taking a three-month leave, and I offered many of them the option to work ahead on their projects. Luckily none of my clients had a problem with my maternity leave plans, but I was ready to advocate for myself (and maybe even lose clients) if I had to.
This helped me continue to pay myself during maternity leave and kept their work on schedule—it was a win-win! I also planned financially by picking up extra work during my pregnancy and cutting back on as many expenses as possible. This allowed me to pay myself my regular salary during leave.
Tell us about the maternity leave you planned for AND what it actually ended up looking like
My first maternity leave didn’t work out as planned at all.
I thought I would take six weeks off, then seamlessly integrate business with motherhood. The reality? I experienced more extreme emotions that I ever could have imagined. I also underestimated the harsh toll of sleep deprivation. I didn’t feel mentally ready to return to work in six weeks, but I also didn’t think I had a choice since I wasn’t earning any money and clients were expecting me back. I even let one client talk me into taking a small project only four weeks postpartum!
I ended up stumbling through work and life and feeling dissatisfied with both for about six months until I finally got my footing as a mom.
My experience with my second baby couldn’t have been more different! I planned a three-month leave so I would have more time to adjust and bond with the baby, but I didn’t experience the massive mood swings I had with my first. My overall recovery was smoother and my baby slept and nursed better than my first had.
Surprisingly, I ended up feeling bored and not like myself because I missed having projects to focus on besides just being a mom all day. I started dabbling in behind-the-scenes business work after six weeks postpartum, and I voluntarily returned to client work after two months instead of three. Returning earlier than planned was the best thing for me this time around! It reenergized me and made me feel like each day had a bit more structure.
One thing that did go according to plan was taking the paid leave. My budgeting during my pregnancy paid off. Not only was I able to pay myself my usual income during my two months off, I also gained an extra month of income since I decided to return to work early. It was a nice little bonus!
What were the systems you put in place to keep things moving without you?
I didn’t have a team backing me up while I was on leave—I actually stopped working with my VA during that time to cut expenses so I could afford to keep a steady income while I wasn’t working. Instead, I relied on communicating with clients well ahead of time about how we could work ahead or reschedule other projects until I was back from leave.
Once I was within a week of my due date, I added a notice to my client intake form that I wasn’t accepting new projects until X date. I also had two email autoresponders written and ready to go so that I just had to turn it on when I went into labor. The first autoresponder, which I left on for the first three weeks postpartum, said that I was caring for my new baby and wouldn’t be responding to email for several weeks. The second, which I used through the rest of my leave, said that I was on maternity leave but would do my best to respond within one week. Both autoresponders also included information about when I was available for new projects, as well as declining any opportunities for interviews, guest posts, etc. for the foreseeable future.
Tell us about your transition back to work after leave
Returning from my first maternity leave felt like I harsh jolt.
I succumbed to client pressure to come back before I was ready, so I felt out of control of the situation. Even though my workload was relatively small, I didn’t have enough time for self-care, and I struggled to navigate my new role as a mother.
Looking back, I wish I’d been assertive and confident enough to regulate my workload on my own terms.
I eased back into work after my second baby, first by tackling my own work projects so I was fully in control of my time. I notified clients about two weeks before I planned to return to work. I started with clients who have less stressful job duties and more flexible deadlines and eventually worked my way back up to my full client workload. This was a much better fit for getting back into the flow of work, but it wasn’t without its hiccups. I had gotten used to having several uninterrupted hours to work each day while my toddler napped. The new baby threw off that schedule, and I did eventually cut a small number of clients whose deadlines and turnaround times weren’t conducive to my new lifestyle with two small kids.
Lessons learned and takeaways
My second maternity leave was a dream compared to my first! As much as I’d like to chalk it up to planning, I know a lot of it had to do with luck: having a baby who slept well and ate well, and not experiencing a huge wave of postpartum hormones.
My two maternity leave experiences have taught me to plan for the worst case scenario but be flexible along the way.
In future pregnancies, I’ll continue to prepare for a three-month paid leave. But if that time feels too long or too short when I get there, I’ll change the plan as I go. And that’s my tip for other mamapreneurs:
Ultimately, you are the one in charge of your business.
Give yourself grace. Be flexible. Listen to what your mind, body, and baby need from you. Your health and your baby’s health are more important than your business. As scary as it is to worry about losing clients due to maternity leave, it’s always worth it to take care of yourself and your family first.
Ashley Brooks is the content marketer and strategist behind Brooks Editorial and a cohost of the Chasing Creative podcast. She’s on a mission to help intentional creatives make their blogs work for them, starting with the Blogging for Business workbook, a DIY resource that helps busy creatives turn their blog readers into paying customers. Ashley works from home with her toddler and baby in tow, and you can always find her with an iced mocha in hand and a book in her purse.