When people hear that I’m a freelance writer, the first thing they usually say is how it must be nice to have flexibility in my schedule. It is nice, I admit. I spend Tuesdays and Thursdays with my one-year-old. Sometimes I go to Target in the middle of the day while he’s at daycare (casual flex). I rarely have meetings, and I can say no to projects.
But the freedom I have comes at a cost—like never getting paid sick days or holidays. This lack of institutional support was never more apparent than when preparing for my (completely unpaid) maternity leave as a self-employed person.
Maternity leave isn’t great for most people in the United States, self-employed or not. Only 27% of private industry workers have access1 to paid leave, a number that drops for civilian workers and state and local government employees. But most self-employed people know that they won’t be getting any help (unless they live in one of the few states that offer paid leave).
But I wouldn't just drop bad news on you and then leave you to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, there are ways to make maternity leave as a freelancer less painful, especially with a little pre-planning. (Though don't panic if you're in your third trimester reading this—there are still things you can do.)
I spoke with over 13 self-employed women as well as Arianna Taboada, author of The Expecting Entrepreneur3 and facilitator of the Mindful Return Maternity Leave Course for Entrepreneurs, to assemble the guide I wish I had had when it came time to plan my maternity leave.
When Should I Start Planning My Mat Leave?
There’s some good news and some bad news when it comes to timing. A few steps that can help you carve out a comfortable maternity leave while self-employed require advanced planning–like not-even-trying-yet planning. But there are other steps you can take that fit into the natural progression of your pregnancy.
“People tend to get really into the nuts and bolts of planning in the second trimester,” Taboada tells me over the phone. You may have more energy in the second trimester, and it also gives you a five to six-month window to build out systems, test those systems, automate any work (or hire sub-contractors), and notify clients.
While she considers the second trimester to be a “sweet spot” when it comes to preparing your business for your absence, there are two areas that you can (and should) consider implementing well before you even start trying to have kids. Both of these offer some degree of paid maternity leave for the self-employed.
Disability insurance: If you choose to purchase private disability insurance, you have to do it before you’re pregnant, as pregnancy is considered a pre-existing condition and you will not be eligible for coverage after the positive test. However, if you have a complicated delivery or are put on bed rest, there may be exceptions to that rule. Exact coverage will vary by policy, but it typically covers six to 12 weeks of partial pay (50 to 70 percent of your income.
A state-based paid leave program: If you live in a state with a paid leave program (more on that next), you also need to make sure that you start paying into it before you have your baby. If you were a full-time employee, your employer would be responsible for taking wages from your paycheck to cover state assistance programs, but because you’re self-employed—surprise, surprise—that’s on you. More on this next.
Is There Paid Leave in My State?
There are currently nine US states plus DC that have a paid leave policy that covers bonding with a new child.
“Colorado's isn't rolling out until 2024, but the rest of the states are active,” Taboada says, adding that Maryland, Delaware, Minnesota, and Maine have recently passed policies and will be rolling out programs starting in 2026.
Each state's leave program is organized a bit differently, with some considered temporary disability, others as medical leave, and others as a universal leave program and eligibility coverage. Policy details vary by state, but in Oregon (where I live), you can start paying at any time (even while pregnant). You pay 0.6% of your net income from self-employment based on your previous tax return and agree to make those payments for three years.
It’s always a good idea to visit your state’s self-employed paid leave website to figure out if there’s anything funky about the policy. For example, in New York, if you don’t opt-in to the paid leave program within 26 weeks of opening your business, you’ll have a two-year waiting period in which you can’t receive benefits.
All self-employed paid leave programs share a basic structure when it comes to the payments you receive during maternity leave: they pay out a certain percentage of wages for a certain timeframe after the birth of a child (or adoptions or foster care placement). To find out the specifics of paid leave coverage in your state, Taboada recommends A Better Balance2 , a nonprofit organization that offers a comparative family leave chart that they update regularly.
Note that if you are offered a great assignment or decide to take on a project while receiving state-paid leave, your benefit amount will be recalculated for that timeframe, and getting paid by a client will lower the amount of money you receive.
Should I Take on Extra Work While Pregnant?
If you aren’t eligible for or interested in a paid benefit or insurance plan, you will be 100% responsible for covering your time off. One option is to start building up your own maternity leave fund, which typically means you have to double down on your workload or put systems in place so that your business can continue making money while you’re out.
“I think something that isn’t really talked about is how much work is required to set up maternity leave beforehand, which often means working long hours [during your] 7-9 months pregnant,” says Sarah Blackledge, a PR and communications consultant in Lousiana.
It makes sense that freelancers often try to front load work before taking time off, and for some, it may be essential to do so. The problem with planning to just work a little harder during your pregnancy is that there are a lot of things that are out of your control. Some lucky people may feel good and energetic throughout their pregnancy and might not mind putting in the extra time. But that isn’t always the case.
I worked up until 40 weeks pregnant, but in the last two weeks, I only had the energy to set up the nursery and deep clean my kitchen cabinets (nesting is no joke). I found even my regular work difficult to manage. Blackledge says the one thing she would do differently next time is to phase out some work by the end of the second trimester so that she’s not working long hours near the end of pregnancy.
How Long Should I Plan to Take Off?
“I had originally planned to take a full three months but ended up going back after ten weeks because I was getting very anxious about finances,” says Sarah Wood, founder of a boutique communication agency and a solo parent by choice. I did the same when I found I had less money and more time than I thought I would (big shout out to having a chill baby).
While the amount of time you decide to take is largely personal (and may change depending on how you or your new baby are feeling during the postpartum period), Taboado, who is a health researcher by training, says she encourages people to take off at least the amount of time needed to recover from childbirth physically—usually six to eight weeks for uncomplicated deliveries.
“That said, I‘ve seen a lot of freelancers feel like they can't piece together eight weeks,” says Taboada. “What the available research says, and again, not typically US-based research, but research from countries that have long-established paid leave programs, is that six months of paid leave is the amount that is supportive for perinatal mental health and is supportive for infant health. We're nowhere near that.”
Blackledge started working with one client two months after having her baby. “To be honest, I would not do that again next time. I think there’s real pressure and fear (at least for me) not to lose everything you’ve worked for when you are self-employed and taking time off. In hindsight, there will always be more work, and that time is so precious,” she says.
How Can I Prepare My Business?
Apart from preparing your personal life and finances for the whirlwind of a new baby, you also need to think about preparing your business for your time off.
Your strategy will vary depending on your business, whether or not you have a partner’s income to rely on, and if you’ll be receiving any paid leave. However, Taboada says most people benefit from more detailed financial planning. This includes personal finances, like plotting out exactly what your business needs to bring in to support changing family costs like medical bills or childcare, as well as also business finances.
She suggests asking yourself the following:
Where are the places where I can cut costs?
What kind of services or software will I not be using during maternity leave that can be paused or stopped?
Is this the right time to raise my prices?
Is this the right time to cut out some of my services that are not quite as profitable?
Whether you have a team or are a solo entrepreneur, there are also operational strategies that you can put into place to be in a good spot when it’s time to leave. As yourself:
Can you delegate this to someone?
If not, is there a way you can automate it?
If not, is this something that you can pause completely?
“Going through all of your core income-generating activities and asking those types of questions of them can help you figure out, what actually goes into maintenance mode? What gets turned off? What can I prep ahead of time or batch ahead of time? For a lot of self-employed solo entrepreneurs, most things are in the pause mode.”
You will also need to be realistic about how much money you will need during this time. To come up with the amount that will help you live comfortably during mat leave, think about:
What your average monthly expenses currently are—the amount you and your family have been spending each month over the past year.
Next, factor in the cost of the new addition. According to 2015 data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture4 , it costs $9,300 to $23,380 per child per year. (The wide range accounts for different locations, income levels, personal decisions like childcare, lifestyle factors, and more.) This baby cost calculator 5 can help you get a more precise number.
Finally, you'll need to start thinking about the hospital or birthing bills. While payment plans are generally available depending on your choice of provider, you will probably want to have some additional money stashed away to start paying them off.
While the monthly price tag you come up with might be a little shocking and stressful, it's important to face these questions head-on. Figuring out how to cover those costs (think about any savings you have, your partner's income, any passive income you can generate, and additional work you can take on before you give birth) will help ensure that you have a comfortable maternity leave. Plus, you don't want to have to worry about money after the newborn haze sets in.
How Should I Prepare My Clients?
One thing pretty much all freelancers across industries have in common is that they have clients. While Taboada’s advice varies depending on how much of your personal life you feel comfortable sharing with your clients, she typically recommends making a couple of approaches to prepare them for your absence.
“First is a written touchpoint of the time you will be out and what it means for your clients. And it’s not just saying, ‘I'm having a baby!’ That [may make clients think] ‘Oh my God, are you disappearing? Is my work still going to get done?’ Be clear about how it will affect your client's experience and what they can expect from you.”
If you have a smaller number of clients and you are in a highly relationship-driven business, she suggests offering to follow up with individual, personalized conversations. “And then, because people are busy and get a lot of information every day, usually sending a few reminders leading up to leave is also helpful.”
If possible, designate someone on your team whom clients can go to with questions, or prepare an FAQ sheet (which will also help ensure you’re not getting bombarded with emails while binge-watching Netflix with your infant in a milk-soaked shirt). Don’t forget to turn on a maternity leave out-of-office notice giving clients directions on what to do while you’re out.
Returning to Work After Maternity Leave
In hindsight, I don’t know why I thought I was going to resume work at a normal pace after my three months of leave ended. For starters, I was only working three days a week as opposed to a full five, and I was breastfeeding, which meant even when our babysitter was on, I was taking a 20-30 minute break every few hours (plus, I was super hungry and needed to make sure I was eating). I was frustrated with myself for not having the energy I was used to and felt like I’d failed my clients.
I’m not alone in this—almost everyone I spoke to mentioned both the difficulty in transitioning back and feeling like they hadn’t taken enough time off.
“One recurring theme that I see over and over again is people thinking they will just jump back into work at the same pace and the same hours. It ends up feeling like they come back to an avalanche of work,” Taboada says, adding she often works with people to create a “transition back” plan. On the flip side, sometimes they’re surprised to find that they didn’t have as much work to return to as they expected.
Wood took no maternity leave when her first child was born in 2018. “I didn't feel like I could take a maternity leave and have my business survive. And as a single mom by choice, I am the only income available to support my family. I sent my first work email from the hospital before I came home with him,” she says. Her son was not a good sleeper, she was recovering from a C-section, and she found the transition into motherhood amazing but also “very, very hard.” She did not want to go through that again with the birth of her second child.
“I can't say I regret taking my maternity leave,” she says of the experience after having her second child. She says it was important for her recovery, for bonding with her new daughter, and for helping her son navigate his transition into brotherhood. However, she underestimated how much taking maternity leave was going to impact her business in the long term.
“I put money aside for the time I wasn't working, but I did not anticipate how long the ramp back up to being fully booked with clients would take,” she says. “Looking back, I have mixed feelings about taking maternity leave at all. We needed it, but it has put a lot of financial stress on me, and by default, my family.”
You Run Your Own Business–You Can Do This!
Taking maternity leave is hard for pretty much everyone. (Yes, even those lucky ones who get paid five or six months still have to navigate the transition back to work.) But it’s especially tricky for self-employed people who have to carve out a maternity leave without institutional support.
While it may be a little harder, remember that with proper planning and expectation setting, it’s more than possible to buy yourself the time off you need to recuperate and bond with your baby before easing back into the hustle of self-employment. If you’ve built a business from scratch and are preparing to birth a human into the world, you already have the skills necessary to create a leave plan that works for you and your family.