For many parents, returning to full-time employment after a baby’s arrival can be a daunting prospect. Many wonder how they’ll cope with a job and a baby, whether their new bundle of joy will take well to fulltime childcare, or whether it might be better to leave their job completely, embracing full-time parenthood.

With rates of maternity leave in the UAE still a low 45 days (compared to global averages) and the low availability of part-time working hours, many mothers find the prospect of self-employment alluring: they go freelance, or become ‘Mummylancers’, if you want to use another one of those mum-related neologisms.

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There’s no doubt that freelancing definitely has benefits over most full-time employment, coming with flexible hours that allow you to spend more time with your children, give you ownership of the working day and the choice to take on the work you want. In theory. But is freelancing really a better option for parents, or is self-employment a hindrance when you’ve got small people to look after?

It can certainly work for some. For Lisa Martin, an accountant who has been self-employed since February 2017, freelancing was a logical step. After eight years in the UAE, she found herself in a job she didn’t enjoy, working long hours for a corporate that meant she hardly saw her two sons aged 13 and 15. “I’d stuck it out for two and a half years, the summer was coming up, my parents were getting older, I didn’t get to see my children very often… And I thought ‘what am I doing’? so I decided to move on,” she says. Having spent the summer back home in the UK, she returned with the full intention of looking for a new job, only to find that her job prospects as a regional financial director were severely lacking due to a market downturn.

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Marcomms manager Sadaf Khan says that freelancing didn't work out for her family life

However, Lisa spotted an opportunity for self-employment, and decided to go for it. VAT was being introduced at the end of 2017 in the UAE, meaning that there would be hundreds
of companies looking for accountants to help with their returns. “Now I work the hours I want, when I want and because everything is in the cloud I can ship o# to the UK for two weeks… and my clients don’t know I’m not there.”

Two years on and she works for 60 clients: “I don’t earn as much money as I did before I left my last job, but the benefits of this for me actually outweigh that extra bit of money. I’m not going back to employment ever again,” she says.

Freelancing was also a perfect fit for photographer Tara Hamilton, who started freelancing after being a full-time parent to her 10 and 11 year-old children for three years. “I think freelancing has its pluses and minuses. It can be very worrying when there is no work – especially during the summer time when everything slows down – so I work 24-7 when it’s there,” she says. “It’s just always worked for me because it’s allowed me to put the kids first when I needed to. I’ve rarely missed a football match or event for them. I don’t like routine or the thought of being in an office environment. I like variety and flexibility.”

Flexibility is often cited as one of the most appealing aspects of freelancing and self-employment – something that Greg Hucker, founder of online freelancer community Maharati noticed as a potential draw for UAE workers. “Flexibility is the new workplace currency and career experience is more important than the career ladder,” he says, continuing that the gig economy can allow parents with small children “borderless” work opportunities, with the absolute freedom to work from home or anywhere they like, choosing the jobs they take on, the hours and the terms of work.

Read more: '6 Things to consider when returning to work post-baby'

IS THE GRASS GREENER?
However, being self-employed can be tough: although you can set your own hours, you also need to generate your own work, and it can be difficult to switch o# when your home is also your place of work.

And freelancing can be particularly tough on mothers, according to a German study released this year. The researchers found that freelancing mothers are left with a “double burden”, working the same number of hours as their other half, but spending an average of three more hours on childcare per week than the father. All of which comes, of course, without any visa or health benefits, or even colleagues to bounce ideas off and socialise with.

For UAE-based marcomms and social media manager Sadaf Majdy Khan, mum of two boys aged one and three, freelancing didn’t work out : “I started freelancing after having my children. I had to take a break from full-time work and I thought it would be easier to continue working as a freelancer while still being able to take care of my young babies,” she says. “But it wasn’t easy. The demands were too much, the pay not enough. With freelance work, you are kind of expected to be available round the clock since you are not working to a set schedule. Balancing home and especially very small children with freelance work actually became more difficult for me, so I decided to pause it for a while.”

While flexibility is supposed to be the main benefit, it can also become the main problem, says freelance writer Imogen Lilywhite, mum to four-year-old and three-week-old daughters. Freelancing is not something that mixes well when you have young children she explains: “People (usually those who don’t have kids) say things like ‘Oh that’s fine you can work from home and look after your little one at the same time’. Nope. Small babies who have colic don’t care if you’re meant to be working; you may get 15 minutes free every now and then, but they need constant attention. Unless you have a nanny, that can mean waiting until your partner is home to take over babywrangling so you can work in the evening or at weekends – so you can also forget about any ideas you may have had about spending quality family time together,” she says.

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Freelancer Imogen Lilywhite says that flexibility can be both a help and hindrance

“I have always enjoyed the freedom of freelancing as I’ve done it on and off for eight years," continues Imogen, "but since I had my kids I’ve found it harder. It’s all very well pulling an all-nighter to meet deadlines when childless, but that doesn’t really work if you’ve got a teething baby who’s awake half the night or up at 5am needing your attention.”

Dr Rose Logan, Consultant Psychologist at The Lighthouse Arabia, adds that working from home or freelancing can give parents the opportunity to do more with their children, as long as “parents have boundaries around when they are working and when they are parenting so that they don’t end up stretched and working into the night to compensate.”

However, she believes that more flexible full-time work environments may be a favourable way forward. “I believe strongly that flexible working environments that recognise that everyone – not just parents – have lives outside of work help reduce stress. The research shows that productivity and retention increase when people are able to work flexibly, which is surely a win for employer and employee.”

Read more: 'How to get hired again after a baby break'

3 STEPS TO JUGGLING FREELANCING AND PARENTHOOD

1 Set your boundaries
Balance home and work life by not mixing the two – trying to balance a laptop on one knee and baby on the other is bound to end in disaster.
2 Cover yourself legally
Your freelance dream will come to an abrupt end if you’re found trading without the correct licence; and could be costly.
3 Check your deadlines
If you work to tight deadlines, prepare a back-up plan for when/if your childcare falls through (or be prepared to work until the small hours, then get up at the crack of dawn with your children!)

ARE YOU READY TO BECOME A MUMMYLANCER? ASK YOURSELF...

• Are you a creature of habit who likes the routine of a workplace?

• Are you prepared to work evenings and weekends, plus during holidays if need be?

• Do your finances allow for the freelance ‘downtime’ (when work dries up) that can often happen?

• What is more important to you, flexibility and working your own hours or having a job that you can ‘leave at the door’?


Read more:

'The UAE working mum's survival guide'

'5 Ways to refresh your CV post-maternity'

"Confession: Sometimes I stay late at work to avoid my kids. Am I a bad mother?"

'Tips on having it all from a Dubai working mum with seven kids'