Freelancing with a Newborn - A Survivor's Guide
Having a little gremlin that insists on being fed after midnight added to the mix when you're freelancing brings along a whole new set of challenges. Having only been working for myself for six months, perhaps this meant it was easier for me to adjust - fewer routines to break. Perhaps not, as I still have plenty of inefficiency in my working processes. Either way, these are a few of the things that have made my life as a work-from-home developer a bit easier.
This is inevitably going to be focused on male developers, because this is all from my own experience. Also, some of these tips and thoughts relate to being a new dad in general and aren't specific to being a freelancer.
Before we get started, let me introduce you to the newest member of the Added Bytes family. He screams, he poops, he smiles with his whole head and he's awesome. He's Henry:
1. Write Down Everything
As a developer, you probably (hopefully) have a pretty good memory and are used to keeping lots of threads on the go at once. When a baby arrives, that's going to change, at least to begin with. By my reckoning, I lost a third of my memory to sleep deprivation, and a third which was instead occupied by baby-related thought.
The solution for me was to write down everything. Everything. No matter how mundane. Took some paracetamol? Write down the time. Going to the shop to pick up a loaf of bread, and nothing else - write a very short shopping list. Client phoned up for a simple, easy-to-remember change? Write it down. Making notes now? Make a note to remind yourself to do it.
2. Take Time Off
My main responsibility right at the start was to look after my significant other. Dishes, laundry, fetching her water or juice, making food, making more food, making something to eat, buying food, cooking ... all of these things were my world. Clients, at the very start at least, have to take a back seat. The more stressed the mother gets, the more stressed baby is likely to get, especially if she is feeding the baby. A stressed baby makes for a stressed mother, and you'll quickly get yourself into a vicious cycle.
I've been able to grab a few minutes a day to reply to emails, just to say I'm not really around but I received the message, with a very broad idea of when I'll be back to work. I also planned ahead and booked in a minimal amount of work around the due date. That means I've not had to worry about client management or hitting billing targets.
3. Sleep When You Can
Remember how I said it's your job to look after the new mother? That also means it's important she gets plenty of sleep. You might have to man up for a while and do without sleep, but don't worry, your turn will come. That also makes it important, at the start, to grab sleep when you have the opportunity, even if it's in the middle of the day. Make a bedroom into a dark-all-day room that you can both crash in when you have a moment.
4. Have Awesome Clients
This may be out of your hands a little, but life becomes very unpredictable with a newborn, so having clients that are understanding is very handy. Phone calls with screaming in the background, late starts after bad nights and even a few short-notice cancellations of meetings are all to be expected, after all, and most clients will be fine with this, especially if you prepare them well in advance. By the same token, they aren't going to be too happy if you agree to deliver a critical project in a short timeframe around the due date and are then unable to do so - after all, you did know disruption was very likely.
5. Be Flexible
It's been a few weeks now, and I've found a routine that is working for me. I start early (6am usually), and work till 8 or 10 at night. I take Henry for an hour or so in the morning, spend an extended lunchtime with my other half and son, and take a couple of long breaks at other points in the day. Inevitably Henry has some times when he needs to be heard, so I usually down tools for a while and help with him then as well. So for a 14-16 hour start-to-finish workday, I actually work for anything from 8-12 of those hours. It's a good balance - the breaks help keep me fresh, I get to spend time with my family (which, after all, is the whole point), and I get enough good working time to keep on top of work.
I tried a few other approaches, but they all led to either not spending enough time working, or being unable to be any use when actually needed to help with Henry. Flexibility was the key, although the downside is that it's difficult to feel like you're ever not working if you're working so much! This will improve, with any luck, as Henry develops his own routines.
Not So Good
I heard and had a few ideas that I tried and that didn't work so well. Working with Henry in my office has been a mixed bag. He has a little bouncy chair he sits in, but he gets agitated after a while and needs attention. It's great having him with me for a short period, but not more than half an hour at a time.
I also tried keeping strict office hours. That was great for preventing work spilling over into the evenings, but meant that I missed out on anything interesting happening in the day. I found that approach just too inflexible (and keeping hours that suit my working patterns was one of the benefits of going freelance).
One of the biggest mistakes we made early on was trying to do too much in a day. Visiting too many people, or taking him out too long, or playing music with him for too long, all resulted in an unsettled baby for the rest of the day, and often the following night.
As Henry grows, his needs and the challenges of working from home will change. Once he can walk, and open my office door, it's a whole different ball game.
A few people have suggested renting out an office or a desk somewhere. The idea is tempting but not something I want to do yet. If working from home becomes unproductive (and it might well do as Henry gets older, or is joined by another bundle) then an office space makes a lot of sense. It's probably inevitable at some point. For now, I'm loving being at home and involved.
For now, though, freelancing and working from home with a newborn is a great experience, and one I'd recommend to anyone starting a family.