On 3 October 2019, my life changed forever when my son, Francisco, was born at 2:43 am. On that very same day, I had spent the morning working on an urgent translation for an important client that I could not afford to lose. In fact, I was working on that translation when my water broke at 1pm. As I lay on a hospital bed and a nurse was placing a catheter in my hand, I was using my other hand to call my sister, who is also a freelance translator, and ask her if she could finish the translation for me. That’s the life of a freelancer for you.
That was also the first lesson I learnt during this epic motherhood journey: plan your schedule WAY ahead. If you have to say no to a client, by all means, do. You will need that rest once the baby comes out. TRUST me. And, worst case scenario, if you actually lose that client, it’s alright. Better things will come your way.
The fourth trimester and going back to work
When I was pregnant, I always feared delivery. It always looked like something terrifying to me: blood, sweat, pain, tears and maybe a little poop (I was oddly terrified of pooping while delivering my son). However, it all went much better than I expected (thanks, epidural!) and, in no time, I had the most beautiful little human being next to me. And it was my job to keep him alive, fed and clean from then on.
All this to say that the worst part of it all is not the delivery, although you do feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. No. The worst part comes next, when you don’t even have time to recover because you need to feed your baby every three hours and, most of the time, at least in my case, the baby really didn’t feel like eating.
So, here you are, sleeping maybe 1-2 hours in a row (if you’re lucky), with a baby that doesn’t stop crying, no matter what you do. You feel tired, you feel useless, you feel like you’ve lost yourself somewhere along the way and that life will never go back to normal again. My son suffered terribly from cholics and the only times when I felt a glimpse of joy was when he pooped and was so relieved that he slept for two straight hours after that. Poop becomes a very important part of your life once you’re a mother. Not to put anyone off or anything.
But, anyway, in the middle of all this chaos, I was still a freelance translator, which meant I couldn’t take a standard maternity leave of four months. In late November, when my son was not even two months old, I had to get back to work. And, let me tell you, it wasn’t easy.
I had made a decision early on that I would try to raise my son while working from home at least until he turned one. It was my decision and so I can’t really blame anyone for the strain it caused me, but it was hard. How can anyone with a two-month son work and be productive? The answer is a mixture of extreme planning, outsourcing, imagination and the will to accept that you cannot control everything (which was and still is the most difficult part for me).
SURPRISE: a pandemic!
For the first three months after my son was born, it rained incessantly, so I couldn’t leave the house except to go to other people’s houses. Before my son was born, I was pretty active. I jogged 3-4 times a week and took a walk on days I wouldn’t jogg. So this change really took its toll on me.
My day always started early. My son woke up at 6am (sometimes earlier, after walking up 3-4 times during the night). I would feed him, he would go to sleep again for about 40 minutes and, instead of sleeping again, I basically took that time to take care of house chores. When he woke up again, I would lay him on my lap and get some work done for about 30 minutes before he became fussy. This would repeat in an endless pattern throughout the day: baby sleeps, I work, baby wakes up, I take care of him, more work, more baby time, more feeding, more work.
Finally, in January, the rain stopped and I was able to go back to my walks. Getting out of the house, getting some fresh air, showing new things to the baby: things seemed to be getting better!
And then, on 2 March 2020, just one day before my son turned 5 months old, the news came that the first case of Coronavirus had been detected in Portugal. We had been hearing about the pandemic in other countries, there was already some talk about lockdowns, but it all seemed distant until that moment. Truth be told, even after the first case was diagnosed, most of us still didn’t understand what all the fuss was about.
But then, on March 15th, the government announced that all schools would be closing. For me, this was the real wake up call that something serious was going on. A few days later, the first lockdown began. We could not leave the house, my husband and all employees from our company started working from home and a new chapter of this odyssey began.
In addition to balancing my work and a 5-month-old son, I also had my husband at home all day. Which was great, don’t get me wrong, but spending 24-hours a day with the same person, during a pandemic in which you could not go out anywhere except to get food, was, let’s say, a challenging experience, especially because my mental health was already suffering from five months of being a full-time worker and a full-time mom.
What did I lose?
First and foremost, my sanity. I’m not joking. Looking back at those first two months of lockdown, I’m not even sure how I got out of bed. (Obvious answer: there was a baby crying next to me and work to be done). I was basically going through the motions, like a clog on a barely functioning machine. Everyday looked the same: waking up, taking care of the house, taking care of the baby, working, cooking, taking care of the baby, working, going to sleep, waking up every 2-3 hours to feed the baby.
I would scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook and look at all these people who were staying at home, with nothing to do, baking bread, learning new languages, playing board games and I would have literally sold a kidney to the highest bidder to spend a day like that. There were people who would actually complain that they didn’t have anything to do, that they were bored! REALLY? Well, do you want to come over? I have 2000 words to translate, a crying baby and a pile of clothing that needs washing, would that suit you? (This was, of course, unfair. Lockdowns are not easy on anyone).
I lost some of my health for not moving as much as I should and I also lost knowledge, which has always been essential to me. I barely had any time to do my work, let alone take a course on Desktop Publishing, read a book or find out more about Neural Machine Translation. I feel like in the year that I spent at home, I got behind everyone else in the industry and I still haven’t been able to catch up.
What did I gain?
But the truth is that not everything has been like going through the seven gates of hell. There have actually been a few positive things that I was able to get out of this pandemic-motherhood hiatus.
First of all, and this is of course a cliché, but also true: being able to watch my son grow up. It was hard, I felt like hiding him inside a box until he stopped crying, he took away all of my sanity, but, my goodness, it was wonderful beyond any words to be there at every single stage of his development. I was able to breastfeed him until he was 11-months-old, I was the one who gave him his first solid food, I was the one who helped him sit for the first time, I saw him crawling for the first time, I saw his first steps. Nothing beats that.
Another, and perhaps not so obvious, thing that I learnt during these months was multitasking. I think this is a talent that most mothers acquire. I was not good at it before. I always needed to focus on one single task in order to do it correctly, but now, after translating an entire document while breastfeeding and thinking about what I am going to cook for lunch, multitasking comes naturally.
Another thing I was really able to improve was my focus. I was easily distracted before. One Facebook alert, one noise outside and I would lose my focus immediately, which meant less words translated and more time proofreading. While I was working and raising a child at the same time, focus was essencial. The baby is asleep and you have 40 minutes, maybe an hour to finish that task, so you are going to take every single second. There’s no time for distractions. I thought I would lose this once I had more time, but it actually stood with me after I went back to work full-time. It actually helps me finish my work early and so I’m able to pick up my son from daycare at a decent time and spend the rest of the afternoon with him.
Finally, it really helped me to look at outsourcing with a new perspective. I never really liked outsourcing my work before, I was the type of person who thought that nobody could do my job better than me, but when it became my only choice, I actually discovered that it’s a win-win situation. It took an enormous load out of me, it helped other freelancers who needed those projects and I still gained from it. In fact, it enabled me to find other customers and focus on the type of translations that appeal most to me.