Can I help you?Agency director and mum of twins Linda Jones shares some expert tips on how to successfully balance the demands of a freelance career with those of a growing family.

For many parents, a freelance career is a dream. To keep the dream alive, you have to be realistic about your prospects, how much work you can manage and how it really fits with the demands of a family.

It’s sometimes impossible to know who can be the most unpredictable – customers or children.

Which one would you banish to the naughty step if you really had the choice? The little mite who lets slip a rude word or the client who moves the goalposts so far from your original brief you begin to question your ability to understand your mother tongue.

Even the most meticulously planned childcare arrangements can go to pot when a call comes through as your youngest is on the potty or an unexplained rash puts you in the doctor’s waiting room.

So where can you start?

First off, I’d say take a long hard look at the hours you really can work.

Expecting too much of yourself and nurturing a wildly over ambitious financial target is a recipe for disaster and potentially a nervous breakdown.

Setting your hours

Antonia Chitty, author of Family Friendly Working (White Ladder Press 2008) says it’s important to take a business-like approach to freelancing from the start.

“Set yourself some realistic working hours,” she says. “Build in breaks and make it a strict rule to turn off the computer at the end of your work period.

“It’s all too easy to end up burnt out. Obviously there are always exceptional deadlines, but if you can keep work for weekdays and evenings and weekends to relax you will feel better and work more effectively too.”

Media coach Joanne Mallon agrees. She says: “It’s easy to get sucked into working way more than you ever would if you were on staff.  Decide how you work best and feel free to change your hours when you need to, this is one of the perks of being your own boss.  Are you a morning, afternoon or evening person?  Do you need to go out on the school run?”

Separating ‘home’ and ‘work’

I found out early on that expecting a would-be client to come to my home, littered as it was with wonky naked Barbies and remnants of mashed up chicken stuck in the skirting board wasn’t the best plan.

Joanne has some excellent, practical advice to help you avoid the hell that can be caused by lack of organisation.

She says: “File work-related books and paperwork on a high shelf that children can’t reach. Always keep plenty of printer paper, as children will steal this for ‘projects’.

“Make sure that your family and friends know that you are actually working and are not always available to run errands or chat on the phone.

“Teach your children from an early age that they are to be quiet when you’re on the phone.

“They’ll get the message eventually, though they may still want to sit on your knee while you’re talking.

“Many freelancers find that Very Important Phone calls tend to coincide with their child’s bowel movements, so don’t be surprised if you’re interrupted by a child waving something pretty revolting at you – revolting for the client that is, you’ll possibly think that as long as they’re quiet, it doesn’t matter.”

And in these days of social media networking, Joanne advises making sure you’re not clogging up professional channels of communication with personal trivia.

She says: “Have separate email accounts and if possible a separate phone line. If you use Facebook and Twitter, think about whether you’re going to be in ‘home’ or ‘work’ mode and whether you want them to overlap.  Do you really want your clients seeing your latest holiday snaps?”

Should you get an office?

I did. People asked me how I could afford it. I said I couldn’t afford not to. The carnage wrought by toddler twins was no breeding ground for a successful career.

Antonia adds: “It’s ideal if you can have a separate workspace. Depending on how noise resistant you are you may need a desk in the corner, a separate room or even a garden office.

“Make sure you have space for records and filing. I like to have a bookshelf for work books too. Because my children are younger I actually do a lot of work in the centre of the home, and I’m used to punching out quick replies to emails and writing in short bursts. This doesn’t work for every project so I save in depth research for when the kids are out. I do have an office, though, where I can leave papers and ongoing projects out.

“If you’re thinking of renting an office, think about the pros and cons. It is lovely to have a clear office space, but can make a great difference to your business finances. Your earnings now have to cover rent every month.

“If you find working from home an isolating experience a shared office is ideal. Do visit a few times to see the office in full swing, though, to find out whether you desk would be next to a loud sales person. And if freelancing is just the start of grand business ideas, you should incorporate the cost of an office rates, and insurance.”

Time management is key

Joanne says: “Freelancers can be such procrastinators – I call it the freelancer’s dance, when you mess about for ages and end up only just about hitting your deadline.

“It’s very easy to feel you are being pulled in all directions, and that no-one is getting the best of you.  Do not use every time your child starts to play as an opportunity to check your emails – actually get down and play with them and give them your 100% attention.”

Antonia adds: “One of the big ups of freelancing in the chance to take time off during the week, to go for a swim when the pool is at its emptiest or meet a mate for a long lunch.

“But to do this and still have money to pay for it, you need to plan ahead. Work out how much you need to earn each month to pay your bills and have spending money.

“Allow for tax and National insurance too.  You might wonder what this has to do with time management….but time is money. Your income will depend on the hours you put in”

Dealing with family emergencies

It’s stressful enough telling one boss you can’t come into work because your toddler son has food poisoning, telling the three people you were supposed to be working for in one day is even harder.

But Antonia says that one of the great upsides of freelancing is that you can drop everything if you need – and pick it up again later.

She says: “Trouble is, you end up working into the small hours to catch up.”

Joanne adds: “We can never totally plan for emergencies, but there’s no harm in having a back-up plan.  Who would be your emergency childcare?  Who could you outsource work to if you needed to?

“One sure thing about life is that the unexpected will always occur, whether you’re freelance or not.  Don’t waste too much time worrying about what hasn’t happened yet, and trust in your ability to deal with whatever life chucks at you.”

* Former TV producer Joanne Mallon is a freelance journalist and media coach. She works with media professionals to help them and fulfill their potential. For further information about media contact her by email or see www.joannemallon.com.* Antonia Chitty is author of Family Friendly Working, A guide to Promoting Your Business and a number of parenting and health books. You can find out more about her own freelance writing career and her PR business.

By Linda Jones, Copywriter and author

Photo by smallestbones

Do you have stories and advice to share? Or questions for Linda? Use the comments section at the bottom of the page to add your advice or queries.