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Facing a personal crisis when you’re self-employed

Karen Bright

Bright Words

PRO

In this blog, I reflect on some life-changing events which have affected me personally. Some readers may find the themes distressing but I hope that the blog provides helpful, practical advice for anyone facing a similar situation.

I’d worked in corporate marketing for more than 10 years when I decided to take the plunge into freelancing in 2012. By 2014, I was starting to build a good portfolio of clients and repeat business. I was also really enjoying my work.

But in June that year, I had some devastating news. The week before my 40th birthday, I found out that I’d had a missed miscarriage and lost a baby at 12 weeks.

This is a silent miscarriage where the baby has died but you don’t have any physical signs. I’d been given this news at a three-month scan. It was heartbreaking.

Taking a break from work

Without going into too much detail, the miscarriage wasn’t straight forward and I needed two rounds of surgery. It was obvious that I would need to take some time away from work to recover both physically and emotionally.

Miscarriages are very common. According to the Miscarriage Association, around one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage – the most common form of pregnancy loss. But miscarriage is one of society’s taboos and rarely spoken about.

I’m not one to bare my soul (particularly at work) but I was very direct about my miscarriage to my clients. I decided that, if a client wasn’t understanding about my need for some time off, they probably weren’t the sort of client I should be hanging around with.

But I was also worried about letting on about my pregnancy in case my clients didn’t want to work with a freelancer who was imminently planning a family and a leave of absence from work.

But the response was quite the opposite. I was inundated with lovely messages of support from clients (nearly all men) telling me to take off as much time as I needed and not to worry about work.

Perhaps I had underestimated them. I suppose, on a human level, most people can sympathise with the loss of a child.

Reaching out to other copywriters

I was lucky to have offers of help from freelance friends who knew my situation. This took a real weight off my mind – knowing that I could take some time out without worrying about work.

Nonetheless, I wanted to ensure that my clients had all the support they needed and weren’t left in the lurch. I handed over urgent work to another trusted copywriter to manage in my absence – which just shows the value of having a network of professionals to help in such a situation.

Of course, it’s important that, if you are sub-contracting work in this way, you have an agreement in place so your fellow freelancer doesn’t walk off with your clients at the end of the project.

I had a verbal agreement with my friend but, in most cases, it’s best to have a formal written contract setting out these terms.

Managing a loss of income

But, of course, there are also the financial aspects to consider as well as the emotional elements.

I was fortunate that my husband could cover the financial shortfall for a few weeks. But what if I had needed an extended period of leave?

Many freelancers take out insurance policies to cover the related loss of income. It’s well worth reading Leif Kendall’s excellent blog on a related theme, Sick pay: the options for freelancers, which covers income protection.

I didn’t have insurance in place at the time but nowadays I set aside a small amount each month for my rainy-day fund in case it is ever needed. This whole experience certainly made me realise that I needed to look ahead and plan a bit more.

The most important area of support throughout this time was, of course, my immediate family – my husband, my mum and my dad. Unfortunately, life took another unexpected turn just six months after my miscarriage when my dad passed away very suddenly.

I had always been exceptionally close to my father and I was deeply affected by his loss. Everyone deals with grief in different ways.

I really wanted to take some time off to grieve. But, at the time, I was in the middle of a project for a European communications company and I was worried about handing this over to another copywriter at such a crucial stage…even though my client was happy for me to do so.

My dad had been a great believer in giving everything you do 100%. I knew he would have wanted me to fulfil my commitments. So, after a great deal of thought, I decided to continue with the project.

Fulfilling my work commitments

In a way, work provided a welcome distraction. In between sorting out the funeral arrangements and supporting my mum, I needed to be doing something rather than just moping around.

Life-changing events often come like a bolt out of the blue. 2014/15 was certainly my ‘annus horribilis’ but, with the support of my family and my clients, I was able to get through this very difficult stage in my life.

I’m still working with many of the clients who were so understanding and supportive during that difficult time nearly five years ago – proving that trust and loyalty can work both ways in a client/supplier partnership.

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