Surviving school holidays as a freelancer

Dee Primett

Wicked Creative UK

“How is it nearly the school holidays AGAIN”, said my mum when I was talking to her about our upcoming plans. And if you are a parent you will know all too well that each set of holidays rolls around extremely quickly. I’m pretty sure that they’ve only just gone back after Christmas, but we are actually only a matter of weeks away from the May half-term break. And that means that the big one is just around the corner.

“The Summer Holidays” is a phrase that strikes fear into the hearts of many parents, especially if they are working. As freelancers, not only do we not enjoy the luxury of paid annual leave, but with most of us not having a guaranteed salary, we also need to ensure that we have enough work to pay the bills every month. When your capacity is severely limited because of the little ones being home from school, how do you juggle both keeping your clients and your kids happy?

I’ll say this now. I’m not a child expert. I have no child-related qualifications. So, this might all be bollocks. As they say in that cheesy 90s rom com, Never Been Kissed, to write well, you have to write what you know. This is what I know. I am a mum to two kids, aged 15 and 12, and I’m in my 8th year of surviving the summer holidays as a freelancer.

Work with your natural energy and create a routine

It doesn’t matter if you are a full-time parent, employed or freelance, the school holidays are bloody exhausting for anyone with a child who is usually in education for the vast majority of the year. Even parents of older kids who are more independent in many ways, will quickly tire of the traditional teenage laziness, whining, messiness and theatrics of their older offspring – not to mention being asked to play taxi multiple times per week so that they can hang with their pals.

That’s why it’s important to try and work with your natural energy as much as you can, rather than going against it. As much as you need energy to spend time with the kids, if you try and work when you are too tired, you probably aren’t going to produce your best stuff. Working when tired can lead to mistakes, and this can mean finding even more time to correct them.

And if you aren’t producing your best work, it could put your client relationships under strain. This is certainly true for me as a copywriter/content writer. But depending on the nature of your freelance business and the type of kids you have; you may find that your highest energy levels are better channelled into wearing your little Duracell bunnies out!

What does my routine look like?

I’m fortunate. I work far better in the afternoons and evenings. Ironically, I’m actually writing this pre-8am and largely un-caffeinated, but the truth is that I’m just not a morning person. I hate getting up, and I have to feel my way to the kettle before I can even open my eyes. I’ve always been the same. But I’m quite happy beavering away at my desk at 9/10pm. So, for me, the school holidays always had the same sort of routine until very recently:

  • up earlyish with the kids (massively against my will)
  • breakfast and heading out the door around 9am to wear the kids out with a trip to the park, farm, zoo, cinema, bowling
  • or if we weren’t going out, activities indoors. However, I always tried to go out every day to get them in the fresh air and because, psychologically at least, it seemed to make them feel more like we had ‘done something’ – plus, honestly, it meant I couldn’t doze off on the sofa!
  • lunch
  • kids left to their own devices in the afternoon so I could work, hopefully suitably worn out enough to prevent arguments and trashing the house entirely with toys
  • dinner
  • work a few more hours
  • baths and bed for them
  • downtime with husband/worktime
  • collapse into bed in a heap

Although I’m actually at my best energy-wise in the afternoons, the older age of my kids now means that they prefer to spend their mornings either sleeping or chilling out, so I often get a few hours of work done after breakfast.

Now, this is only what worked for me and mine. Your routine may be the total opposite. But creating a routine that works with your natural energy will both help your kids know what to expect each day and enable you to plan out how much work you can feasibly take on.

Be honest with your clients

Unless your clients are absolute dicks, they’ll understand that the school holidays are hard work. Many will probably share your struggles of coping with childcare, although they may at least have the option of paid leave to help. But honesty is always the best policy when it comes to coping with the school holidays.

Let clients know your plans, whether that’s a change of working hours, limited availability for meetings or a risk of your 6yr old popping up in his pants on Zoom. And let’s face it, if a client is going to moan about you needing a bit of flexibility to juggle raising small people, you probably don’t really want to work with them anyway.

Be realistic about what you can manage

I’m absolutely terrible for biting off more than I can chew where my schedule is concerned. I’m the one saying yes to client with a last-minute project when my inner personal assistant is looking at my diary and screaming at me to say no. But at no time is this worse than in the school holidays, when kids often stay up later than usual or things crop up that throw your carefully-planned workload into chaos.

Sit down and work out how many hours a week you can feasibly work. Then reduce it by the number of days you are working that week. You need to allow at least an hour per day for interruptions like demands for snacks, requests for quick cuddles or, at least in my case, refereeing/breaking up scenes from WWE. Let your clients know what your new working week will look like just as soon as you can. I’ve had my annual leave dates for June in my email signature for the last 3 months….

Suck up screen time

Whether it’s an iPad, a Nintendo Switch, Netflix or something else, there’s no denying that digital devices are a godsend when it comes to parenting. They are also something that cause a degree of division between parents – from those who strictly limit their kid’s screen time to just an hour or two a day, to those who adopt a much more relaxed approach.

The fact of the matter is that when the school holidays roll around, digital screens become an invaluable source of babysitting. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! As working parents, we do what we have to do to juggle our situation. BUT, if you feel bad about their screen time, there are things that you can do to alleviate the guilt:

  • download educational games for their digital devices. Puzzle games help to develop logic and reasoning, while there are plenty of actual ‘learning’ games suitable for ages that work on skills like spelling, vocabulary and maths.
  • feeling bad about TV time? Pop on a cute animal documentary, or David Attenborough’s ‘Planet Earth’ and BOOM, they aren’t watching telly, they’re learning!
  • offset their screen time by matching it with time outdoors, only choosing screen time on those days where you’ve been out first

The above not working for you? Chill. A little extra screen time isn’t going to slow your child’s mental, spiritual or physical growth. Do what you need to do.

Share the load

As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child”. You don’t have to cope with the summer holidays alone. If asking your kid’s grandparents to chip in on childcare isn’t an option, see if you can link up with friends to share the responsibilities of childcare – you’ll have their son every Wednesday morning if they can take your daughter on Monday afternoons?

You might even be able to find another freelancer nearby who you can build up a relationship with before the holidays hit and who you’d be comfortable letting look after your little one. You can both reap the benefits of child-free time, as well as you and your kids making new friends.

Quality not quantity

Studies have shown that positive attention helps children to feel secure and valued and is essential for their self-image and development. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean you have to devote every waking moment to them. In fact, some people suggest that giving a child too much attention can be harmful too – producing kids that are attention-addicted and act out if you don’t put them above anything and everything else.

I’m not a child expert so I can’t say for sure if any of these things are right, but what I do know is that when you are juggling work, it is the quality of the time you spend with them that counts most, not the amount of time. You can spend all day with your little darlings, but if you aren’t interacting with them, listening to them and aren’t mentally as well as physically present, you might as well not be there at all.

How that quality time looks will depend on your own schedule and what works with your family. It could be an entire morning or matching every hour of work with another hour focused purely on them – an intense game of Jenga and playing swingball in the garden, followed by an hour of work, then baking cookies before a client Zoom and sending out a couple of proposals. The most important thing to remember is, do what suits your family.

Hurrah for holiday clubs!

If you can afford them and find one that your child enjoys, it is transforming. But provided they don’t hate it, never feel guilty about sending your kid to holiday club if you need to. That is all.

Parental guilt NEVER goes away

REMEMBER: YOU WILL ALWAYS FEEL GUILTY ABOUT SOMETHING! Parent guilt is a real thing. And it doesn’t matter how much or little you do with them; you will inevitably focus much more on the things that you haven’t done than those that you have. So, STOP BEATING YOURSELF UP about it! Are your kids fed? Clothed? Reasonably clean? Minimal bloodshed? If you can say yes to the above, and your kid is happy then you’ve done everything that they need, and that is all that anyone can ask of you.

As I’ve written this, I’m aware that it sounds like I’ve got it all figured out. Honestly, I haven’t. I’ll still be driving myself crazy every school holiday until my babies leave education. But I’ve lived the freelance parent life for a while now, and as a mum to older kids, these are the lessons I’ve learnt along the way. I hope they help you. And if all else fails, there is always gin*

Good luck!

This blog was inspired by a tweet by Gareth Thomas and the Doing It For The Kids community and podcast (Follow Gareth on Twitter. Join the DIFTK community). And kindly proofread by the wonderful Bonnie Harrington (@wordsbybonnie on Twitter).

*wine, whisky, vodka, beer, chocolate, pastries or whatever else gets you through the tough days!

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