A portfolio career

a portfolio career


Freelance Harriet Swain talks about how she balances several jobs and children.

Harriet Swain chose to go freelance after battling with the stresses of rushing home to meet the after school club deadline. She recalls one occasion when her bus was late and she ran to school to pick up her daughter only to find that it was closed and everyone was gone. “I started panicking. There seemed no way of getting in. I ran around the school and eventually found a back door and my daughter was in there, the last one to be picked up.”

She had been working for many years as a journalist and was deputy features editor of the Times Higher Education Supplement when she had her first child in 2000. She returned to work three days a week afterwards then less than two years later she had her second daughter. Once again she returned to work part time after taking maternity leave. Her younger daughter was at nursery and the older one started at preschool. She was able to work one afternoon from home. The other afternoons were covered by after-school club which closed at 6pm.

She describes the whole childcare issue as a bit of a nightmare. “I got into work before 10 and should have left by 6pm, but I had to pick up from after-school club by 6. I felt guilty leaving work early when everyone else was there so I would push it to the last minute and then end up rushing,” she says.

She says the decision to go freelance was not a sudden one. “I had been thinking about it for a while. In addition to the stress of rushing, I had stepped down in my job by going part time and I had been doing it for a long time. I could not see any progress career-wise for me from working part time. The prospect of freelancing seemed exciting and different,” she says.

When she went freelance she had already secured some regular work with the Times Higher Education Supplement which gave her some security, plus her partner, also a journalist, was the main earner of the family.

She says she had a lot of energy when she first started and was very enthusiastic. She got a good news story onto the news pages of The Guardian over her first Christmas as a freelance and that made a bit of a splash. “It was stressful at the time as I had to do the interviews at my sister’s house with screaming kids all around, but it got quite a lot of interest,” she says. Her name was already known by the paper’s education journalists and she lobbied them with ideas for articles and for a regular column on higher education.

Within a year she had a weekly column on the paper’s education pages. “It meant my name was there every week and they knew I could produce copy on time and to length,” she says. This was vital as she says freelance journalism is all about contacts and who you know. “Editors get masses of emails and only really reply if they know you and your work,” she states, adding that it helps to have a specialism like education. “It means you know what is news in your sector and have some authority,” says Harriet.

From the weekly column, she began diversifying her writing for other outlets, although she admits she isn’t fond of pitching. “A lot of it is about hitting the right person at the right time,” she says.

Doing journalism while juggling children and childcare is not totally straightforward, she admits. Sometimes, people aren’t around to be interviewed except at times when the children are in the house.

She recalls, for example, when she was doing one interview and her daughter came in and said loudly that she had just done “a huge poo”. “Most people, particularly men, seem to be quite understanding, though,” she says. “Sometimes you are speaking to someone and the kids come in and you are gesticulating wildly for them to go or to be quiet. I have conducted interviews locked in the toilet too,” she laughs.

It’s better now as the children are seven and nine and she can explain to them about the need to be quiet at times and they can entertain themselves if she can’t rearrange an interview for earlier in the day. “It means I really focus when they are at school – in fact, I think five hours is the optimum time for working in a concentrated way. People who are full time in an office probably don’t do more than five hours of concentrated work in a day,” she says.

She thinks it is good for her children to see their mum working. “They take it for granted that women work,” she says, “and it encourages them to be more independent.”

In the last year she has taken on freelance work as a journalism lecturer at City University. Partly this was because she wanted more job security for the family as journalism jobs have become increasingly insecure – not only because of the economic climate, but also due to the advent of free online news services. She also wanted to add another string to her bow. “The teaching works because it is very flexible,” she says. “I go in one day a week and do some work from home marking and preparing plus I usually only have to work in school term time.”

She says she used to work a lot at the weekends and in the evening, but she has cut back on this.”It might be because I am more efficient,” she says. However, she sometimes has to work in the holidays because this is when freelances are most needed.

She says she doesn’t think she could work full time in an office any more, but she would like to go back into an office environment for a few days a week so she feels “more in the loop” and up to speed on technological changes.

“It’s good to get a little taste of the office and it can be quite stimulating,” she says, “but I think it is really difficult to have children if both parents work full time unless one person is able to drop everything if there is a problem or unless you have your own mum to hand.”

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