It’s not much fun being a dad and a freelance writer at the same time. I mean, sure, the hours are loose enough to let me watch my kid grow up, and that’s a luxury that many of my full-time friends don’t enjoy. Plus, yes, if we were ever unlucky enough to encounter some kind of medical emergency, it’d be relatively easy for me to quickly down tools and take care of things.
But still. I’m a freelance writer, and that’s something I have to live with. For instance, one day – when he’s big enough to talk – my son will tug on my shirt, look me square in the eye and ask, “Daddy, what do you do for a living?” And then, just as I’m about to open my mouth to answer him, I’ll get an email asking me to write a quirky listicle about the 14 funniest types of face that dogs pull when they get hungry, and I’ll be too embarrassed to answer him, and my son will have to just grow up thinking that I’m a professional hermit.
So there’s that. But also, more pertinently, being freelance means that I didn’t get any paid paternity leave. When my son was born, I stopped working for a couple of weeks. That was it. Rather than attempt to haplessly stagger on following the single most life-changing event I’ve ever experienced – an event that left me shell-shocked and sleepless, and genuinely incoherent for much longer than I would have liked – I decided that it’d be easier to simply throw my energy into my new family, go unpaid for a bit, and hope that I’d somehow saved enough to insulate us from the worst.
I’m pleased I took that time off because – and brace yourself for the world’s biggest understatement – it turned me into a mess. My wife and I essentially took two-hour shifts with our son, holding him close to us while the other attempted to sleep, which it turns out can very quickly reduce a person to a dribbling wreck.
Clearly, I was the smallest mess of the lot of us – my wife had a panic 4am caesarean, a trauma enough in itself, and she could barely even walk up the stairs. Meanwhile, our son was struggling to adjust to his big, cold, wombless new home. Compared to them, I was just a bit tired. But I would have still been useless at work. I’d have been sluggish and distracted and foggy-headed. Pieces that usually take half an hour to write would have taken all day, and end up full of typos, and loop off into endless tangents about how much I resent people who actually get to sleep at night.
So I took unpaid leave. I just accepted that this was the easiest way to go, because I’ve been a freelance writer for a decade and frankly by now I’m used to being messed around by the system. However, in February, when Julie Deane’s review [of self-employment in the UK] called for greater support for new parents in self-employment, it struck a chord.
The review highlighted that, while the statutory maternity pay enjoyed by mothers in full-time work is enhanced to 90% of their earnings for the first six weeks, self-employed mothers simply get a low-end flat-rate maternity allowance. Her recommendation that statutory maternity pay is brought in across the line seems like nothing more than common sense.
my son will tug on my shirt, look me square in the eye and ask, “Daddy, what do you do for a living?” And then, just as I’m about to open my mouth to answer him, I’ll get an email asking me to write a quirky listicle about the 14 funniest types of face that dogs pull
If I’d been in full employment, my son’s birth would have given me two weeks of paid paternity leave, during which my rights to things like pay rises and holiday would have been protected. If my wife had wanted to return to work, this would have increased to up to six months of Additional Paternity Leave, paid at roughly the same level as statutory maternity pay. Had my son been born 10 weeks later than he was, we would have qualified for Shared Parental Leave, although that wasn’t really anything I paid much attention to because, hey, I’m freelance so none of it really applies to me anyway.
And here I’m conflicted. On one hand, the introduction of paternity pay for the self-employed would have been a godsend. It would have been a helpful little cushion to ease us over a difficult hump, and allow me to give my child the right amount of attention without any worries distracting me.
But at the same time, the chances of me actually taking it are pretty slim. There’s still a worryingly pronounced stigma when it comes to paternity leave – perhaps because men’s egos are traditionally tied up to their careers.
And that’s in the relatively slow world of full-time work. When you’re a freelance writer, and you have a number of different editors working at a number of different publications, things can change really quickly if you take your eye off the ball. People can get promoted or – increasingly – made redundant, and if you don’t keep up with the churn, you run the risk of losing an all-important contact. Freelancing is largely about momentum, and that’s something many of us would want to lose at our peril.
But it works both ways. Again, when you’re in a position to only get paid for the jobs you do, the easiest way to help provide for your family is to take on more jobs. Suddenly having a family to provide for is a fantastic way to keep you motivated. In my experience, you’ll be so keen to keep the money rolling in that you’ll start doing work you’re not proud of (please remember this next time you see me on any Channel 5 talking-head clip show), but it won’t matter because it’ll keep you afloat.
So maybe, in the long run, it won’t matter if the self-employed get paid parental leave on the level of their contracted counterparts. Because we’re self-employed. Necessity has made us scrappy and hungry, and there’s no stopping us if we want something. And, sure, necessity has also made us poor so that we may never be able to afford a pension, but that’s why we have kids in the first place, right? To pay for everything when we’re old? Right?
By Stuart Heritage