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Self-Employment: Put your creativity to work!

Julie Larose
Prescott ON Canada
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 25 No. 4, 2008, pp. 4-9

"Are you a stay-at-home-parent, or are you employed full-time?"

This question seems to pop up a lot on various surveys and questionnaires, and even during day-to-day conversations. It's interesting that it's often phrased as though the answer has to be one or the other. For me and other moms, the answer to the question is, "Yes and yes."

I work from home as a licensed child care provider and part-time writer. In the last five years, my nursing children have stayed near me while I work. Mothering breastfeeding children while running a business is a tall order for any woman. For some, there is little choice -- the income is a necessity for the family. If you're considering self-employment, you can approach the challenge in a variety of creative ways.

Some women find ways to earn incomes without leaving their babies and young children. Others work around the needs of their nursing children with minimal separation. When a mother is self-employed, she has ultimate control over the amount of work she takes on and the hours in which she engages in her business.

Working Close to Baby: The History

For most of human history, women have worked to provide their families with food and other necessities of life, usually with their nursing children alongside them. From foraging and gathering, to farming, to working in 19th century cottage industries, women contributed to the household income and the local economies (Pryor 2007). Today, in many parts of the world, young children continue to accompany their mothers to work, whether it includes selling in village markets or harvesting in the fields. These mothers often wear their babies on their bodies or allow them to play nearby, able to breastfeed when needed. In these societies, the practice of keeping children nearby isn't questioned -- it is expected (Hicks 2006).

In Western societies, the separation of children and mothers began in the late 18th and early 19th centuries during the Industrial Revolution. The number of mothers and babies separated due to employment has gradually risen over the last 100 years. The need for women to work has not changed, but the acceptance of babies in workplaces outside the home is different now.

The Motivation for Self-Employment

There are various reasons that motivate mothers to become self-employed. Some do so because they need additional income to support their family, some require the flexibility of setting their own hours and choosing which projects they devote their time to, while others may be looking for an outlet for creative energies.

Twenty years ago, Judy Peterson's second daughter was a high need baby. Judy found that parenting was easier when she kept her daughter close, so she designed a soft, sturdy infant carrier to wear her baby for long periods. Whenever she went out, many people asked her about the carrier and how they could obtain one. Judy began making the baby carriers by hand and selling them individually. She decided to take a risk and made 30 carriers for a local trade show. When she sold 23 of them in one day, she saw that there was a need and a demand for her product. She found people to sew her carriers, and a new business was born.

For Angela Athay-Hunt, a theatre director/ practitioner in Bristol, England, being her own boss meant that she was able to be flexible to meet the needs of her daughter, Evie. When Angela began work after Evie was nine months old, she organized workshops around her nursing sessions. Although she left expressed milk for her mother to feed Evie, she says, "There were instances when I would have to race through train stations in a superhero manner in an attempt to get to my daughter before the next feeding because the train was late." Angela wanted to be present in her daughter's life as she grew and met new milestones. She says: "I wanted to be the person who fully weaned my daughter, and introduced nutrition to her in the same way I wanted to be the person who breastfed her."

In my case, a lack of quality babysitters was the prime motivation for my self-employment. I had been offered a desirable part-time job after the birth of my second daughter, but I could not find suitable child care in our small town. I couldn't justify leaving my children with what seemed like mediocre child care, even though we sorely needed extra income. I drew upon my background in working with children and opened a home daycare.

A Family Affair

Sometimes the motivation to be self-employed centers upon including children in a lifestyle where the entire family lives and works together. When both parents run a business, responsibility for child care can take many forms.

When Pam and Peter Martin (now the parents of teenagers) were planning a family, they wanted to work together and raise children in a rural setting. As a result, they began a licensed dog and cat boarding facility in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Committed to putting the needs of their children first, one of them was always able to attend to any situation that arose in the family while the other dealt with clients. In the early years, it was often Pam who attended to their children's needs since she was breastfeeding.

Fathers also make loving primary care providers. Shirley Broback is the producer of a baby fair. She and her husband have two children, ages four and two. Shirley works full-time hours throughout the year with her business, while her husband works part-time hours. He is responsible for about 70 percent of the care of the children during the day, but "my husband and I work on the business together and trade off our time with the kids. I am able to hang out with them several times a day: I take care of lunches, dinner, baths, and bedtimes." When Shirley's youngest was breastfeeding more often, she would plan business activities around nursing times.

Samantha runs a certified organic farm with her husband's help. She has two nursing daughters, two and four years old. She says, "Most things we do here are done with our children in tow. There are many nursing sessions in the garden, not so much in the chicken coop! Our children know how to pluck a chicken, and they know where their food comes from. They also know that there are lots of things Mom can do while she nurses, and there are also times they have to wait."

Nursing While Working

When a breastfeeding mother plans to keep her baby close while she works, it seems only natural that nursing will occur. When a baby is very young, breastfeeding while on the computer or telephone allows a mother to multi-task. Wearing an infant or toddler in a carrier helps with jobs that require more movement and activity. It also allows for babies to nap, nurse, or watch the world around them.

Judy thinks that her business encouraged her children to nurse for an extended period of time. When her children needed to nurse, she made a conscious decision to work on projects that she could do at the same time. As a mother and business owner, Judy set limits on her work activities so she could be responsive to her young children. "It's just so convenient to nurse a toddler when on the phone!"

Vanessa Roman is a general contractor who redevelops homes with a hired crew of trades-people. Her daughter, Charlie, is 10 months old. When Vanessa started a new project soon after Charlie's birth, she wore her in a carrier all the time at the job site. When she needed to breastfeed, she went into a room that provided a quiet, private environment. In cold weather when the site was unheated, she nursed Charlie in her truck.

In my own business, I found that carrying my young baby in a sling throughout the day allowed me to meet his needs with very little disruption to the flow of activities. He could nurse at will, and was contented while I served snacks, prepared crafts, or took the other children outside. He was also able to nap whenever and wherever we were.

Loving, Creative Care

Some job-related tasks are nearly impossible to complete with baby in tow. As children become older and more active, they are often happy to spend time in the company of familiar adults who can provide quality child care.

Judy used creativity to find supportive child care for her older children. Since she had five sisters, each with young children, who lived in the same town, they arranged their own nursery school. Each sister took in the children on one designated day of the week. On the days her children weren't with her, Judy could focus on her business because she knew the children were in the loving care of family. Nursing infants stayed with Judy while she worked.

Heather Drewett employs a nanny for the hours that she works as a technical writer. She says: "I work from home and pop in and out of my children's activities during the day. Having someone here to make meals, play games, clean up messes, and organize activities means I can focus on my work and get it done!" Heather's youngest child often stays with her during the day and is able to nurse whenever he wants.

Johanna St. Michael can handle the online portion of her business while caring for her 10-month-old daughter, Isabella, but the design aspect of her business requires focus and creativity for extended periods. Since Johanna and her husband did not want to send their daughter to a daycare facility, they made arrangements with Isabella's grandparents to watch her three days a week for about four hours a day.

Reality Check

Self-employment seems like an ideal situation that offers mothers income and flexibility for meeting the needs of children, but there are trade-offs in pursuing this course. One of the risks that any self-employed individual has to consider is the uncertainty of starting a business. It can take many months to attract a client base, and there may be periods with little or no income. Caring for a breastfeeding infant is already a large responsibility; the stress of owning a business may be too much for some new mothers.

Another challenge is having realistic expectations about productivity. Someone who is used to working long stretches of time in a conventional employment environment may become frustrated by the difficulty of completing tasks in a timely matter while caring for small children. In Nursing Mother, Working Mother, Gale Pryor describes the workday of a self-employed mother in terms of an ebb and flow, rather than working in static time blocks.

Leaving their children to attend to certain aspects of the business can be a cause of stress for self-employed mothers. Patricia Millar was a self-employed lawyer when her oldest children were little. Though she usually worked evenings and weekends when her husband could care for the children, she did not like leaving her babies with sitters on the rare occasions that she had daytime commitments. Sometimes her babies were unhappy with the caregiver; sometimes she had to wake them from sleep, or had to cut nursing sessions short to get out the door. Patricia also believes that it is very difficult for most self-employed women to be able to afford to take a significant amount of time off after a child's birth. "If you are self-employed it is very unlikely that you will be able to take an entire year away from your business."

Pam Martin, the owner of a pet boarding facility, offers the following wisdom for mothers who are wondering if self-employment is a viable option: "First of all ask yourself why you need to work; the answer is usually for the money. Try to think of ways to not work at all for as long as possible. Make a list of ways to identify actual 'needs' as opposed to 'wants' and analyze the results. If being self-employed seems doable, try to let the work have as minimal effect on the children and yourself as possible."

A Shoulder to Lean On

Working from home can be an isolating experience, and a woman in this situation may not know many other self-employed breastfeeding mothers. Family and friends may not recognize a self-employed mother's need to work, or the added pressures of her day. Former colleagues and business contacts may wonder why a woman now schedules her work around a baby's routine, or how she can get any work done at all with a nursing baby.

Patricia says that she found support at La Leche League meetings every month. "This support helped me to affirm my mothering choices, such as extended breastfeeding and cosleeping, which were considered very bizarre in the work environment."

Niki Leslie, who owns a nursing fashions business, says a lot of people "just don't get it" when it comes to understanding a mother's need to be there for her nursing baby. Luckily, Niki was able to find support for her parenting and employment choices through her work. Since she displayed her clothing line at trade shows alongside midwives and lactation experts, she was in good company!

Without a doubt, the strongest source of support for a mother is her husband or partner, whether he takes on the majority of the child care, helps with the business, or offers encouragement and companionship after an isolating day of working from home. The decision to run a business from home impacts the children, finances, how a home is used, and schedules, so having a spouse or partner on board is crucial.

If there is ambiguity or animosity about the business, the stress may affect all aspects of family life. Heather sums it up well when she says: "My husband is always there to remind me that the children are a priority, and he will happily take over with them when he gets home if I need to finish something up, despite his chronic long days at work."

Impacting Society

When a mother takes charge of her earning power and finds a way to incorporate work into her parenting style, she influences her family as well as society.

Niki had clients trying on nursing clothes in her home, so they would often visit and talk about parenting. Clients observed Niki's older children, and they watched as she breastfed and responded to the needs of her younger children. Since many of her clients were pregnant, they had early exposure to Niki's style of responsive parenting.

Pam lets it be known that breastfeeding mothers are welcome in her business. She displays "Breastfeeding Anywhere/Anytime" and international breastfeeding signs. She also makes sure that breastfeeding clients feel welcome to nurse on the business premises or in the privacy of Pam's adjacent home.

Self-employment leaves a lot of room for flexibility and time with your child. It also has the potential to influence family, friends, and people you come into contact with on a daily basis. As time goes on, perhaps mothers won't be asked, "Are you a stay-at-home-parent, or are you employed full-time?" in such a way as to leave room for only one option. What better way to challenge perceptions about motherhood than to be a great example of a responsive woman who can meet her child's needs and coordinate a business at the same time?


Hicks, J. Hirkani's Daughters. Schaumburg, IL: LLLI, 2005.
Pryor, G. Nursing Mother, Working Mother. Boston, MA: Harvard Common Press, 2007.

Tips for making self-employment work for you!

Master breastfeeding. "Make sure that breastfeeding is going well before taking anything else on." Shirley Broback, baby fair organizer, mother of two children, ages two and four

Realize that you will be busy. "Being a self-employed mother is like trying to do multiple full-time jobs simultaneously." Heather Drewett, technical writer, mother of three, ages six, four, and one

Love what you do. "If it's something you love and feel passionate about, find a way to do it! Money is not nearly as important as your happiness." Samantha, organic farmer, mother of two, ages two and four

Look at both sides of the situation. "Being self-employed offers so many fantastic benefits such as choosing your own hours and taking baby to work, but you usually have to give up something in its place, such as early return to work." Shannon Lerner, chiropractor, mother of one, age 19 months

Realize it will be a balancing act. "Sometimes you will have to put off work to give your child undivided attention for a few minutes, and sometimes you will need to ask your child to wait a few minutes while you attend to something related to your business." Kristyn Hiemstra, home child care provider, mother of one, age 22 months

Invest wisely. "[Children] are only this young for a short amount of time…we are investing in them now rather than our retirement." Shirley Broback, baby fair organizer, mother of two children, ages four and two

Keep work separate. "Remember that if you are self-employed, particularly at home, you will probably have various items connected to work that you won't want disturbed. A separate room or area may be needed." Pam Martin, pet boarding facility owner, mother of two, ages 18 and 16

Delegate. "The two things that are most important to me are my child and my business. I'm not very good at scrubbing toilets, so I hire someone else to do it. I can't be supermom and superwife all the time, because then other things in my life start to suffer. I choose what makes me happy." Vanessa Roman, property developer, mother of one, age 10 months

Be professional. "Never use 'lack of child care' as a reason for anything. I always said that I had a 'prior commitment,' 'another job,' or 'I would get back to them.' My children are not my [client's] problem in a freelance world, and they will be less inclined to work with me again if I make it so." Angela Athay-Hunt, theatre director, mother of one, age two

Find a balance. "There's a constant pull between issues of working and spending time with the children. It's important to be good to yourself -- don't beat yourself up about it. It's okay to take time off work to go to playgroup sometimes." Niki Leslie, owner of a nursing fashions business, mother of two children, ages seven and 14

Be with your children as they grow. "I've seen so many women focus on achieving a successful business, they lose touch with their children when they become teenagers." Judy Peterson, owner of a business that manufactures baby carriers, mother of three grown children


While self-employment is an exciting opportunity,
it is not for everyone.

So how does a woman who is employed outside of the home coordinate the roles of mother and primary caretaker at the same time? Some common arrangements are:

Take baby to work: Some women take their baby to work, with or without the help of an onsite care giver. It is not for every work place, but can be managed and welcomed in some settings.

Bring work to baby: Employers will often permit telecommuting and flex-time, especially on a short-term basis. This allows a woman to fulfill some of her work hours from a home office. Though not always advertised, work life balance is a growing trend in today's workforce. Don't be afraid to ask for it.

What if you get approval? Now it's time to figure out how to get the work done! Working with a small baby can be surprisingly easy. They sleep, nurse, and are contented to be held close. As babies grow, things can get trickier. Many mothers fare well, however, and find any effort it takes is worthwhile as it helps maintain the breastfeeding relationship, saves money on child care, and allows them to maintain a constant presence to their child. Whether you're self-employed or work for someone, other things to keep in mind are:

  • If possible, select work hours that coincide with your child's "happier" or "nappier" times.
  • Try to stick to a rough routine -- this way you and your child know what to expect. That said, be willing to break from your routine if necessary.
  • Make the most of your breaks -- sit with your child, listen, talk, and play if possible.
  • Be willing to allow an educational program for older children from time to time. Watching the occasional TV show can be an acceptable trade-off for affording you extra time with your baby.
  • Get together with another working parent whose children get along well with yours. Children can enjoy their own community while parents get some work done.
  • Consider regular "play dates" with grandparents or other family members while you work.
  • Know that some days will be better than others. Working with your children means you will not always accomplish everything you'd like. The trade-off is that you are with them more, they see and experience you working firsthand, and you have control of their child care.

Adapted from Hirkani's Daughters: Women Who Scale Modern Mountains to Combine Breastfeeding and Working, by Jennifer Hicks. A compilation of inspirational tales from women around the world, Hirkani's Daughters tells the stories of employed mothers who have overcome various obstacles to continue breastfeeding. Each woman shares how she evaluated her options, and took the path that worked best for her family.

To order, call 800-LALECHE or shop online at


Animal Care -- a Family Affair
One Employed Mom's Story

Ada Frias de Torres
Santiago, Dominican Republic

My husband and I are veterinarians. Since we were newly married, we have always worked together. We started out as employees together in an animal clinic. We worked long hours, from 8 am to 8 pm daily. I enjoy my work very much.

When I became pregnant with our first daughter, Ana Maite, I continued working and I did fine until the third trimester of pregnancy when I began to feel fatigue from the long work hours. My husband and I decided that I should quit my job for a time.

The joy of the arrival of my daughter and the pleasure of nursing her completely were sufficient to make me forget my career for a time. I was attached soul and body to my baby, focusing only on mothering her.

While Ana was still an infant, my husband quit his job and launched out on his own. He began to provide veterinarian home visits and soon his clientele increased to the point that he began to need my help.

I began to work part time, taking my daughter with me in a front pack and sometimes setting up a portable crib in a client's home while we checked or treated a pet. Our clients seemed to enjoy our visits, often asking to hold the baby. Ana thrived. She was always with me, nursed when hungry, slept when tired, and was continuously stimulated by the changing environments. She has been healthy throughout her whole childhood despite many people warning us that being around animals would be dangerous to her health.

Our veterinary practice continued to grow as did our family. Our second child, Anabel, arrived a few years later. Our lives became a bit more complicated. We needed to make some adjustments in our practice so that our children would continue to have their full share of our time. We set up a small clinic in our home for sick animals, which enabled me to stay at home and care for our daughters as well as continue serving our clients. We hired a housekeeper to help with washing and cleaning so that I could be free to care for our daughters and the animals in our home. Now and then things get really crazy and work piles up or I have a very ill animal that needs my focused attention. My mother helps during those extra busy times and cares for the girls for a few hours.

My husband recognizes the many benefits that breastfeeding brings to our children. He has always supported and protected that aspect of our lives. I am still breastfeeding my two-and-a-half-year-old, Anabel. She does not seem the least bit interested in weaning as yet.

I encourage other working mothers to be creative in looking for solutions to working and breastfeeding. Though it is not always easy, I have found that it is very worthwhile. I think my daughters will someday recognize that I always tried to give them the best of myself, something money could never buy.

Reprinted from the LLLI-published book Hirkani's Daughters, by Jennifer Hicks.

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