At vcita, we’ve seen close up just how hard the pandemic hit freelancing mothers. Many of us are working mothers ourselves, so we’ve lived the same struggle of trying to keep up with work while working from home, with our kids, in and out of lockdown.

COVID-19 saw a lot of women join the ranks of freelancers, largely in search of a better work-life balance. Many lost their jobs, since women were in more vulnerable professions. Others quit and switched to freelance because they couldn’t cope with a demanding boss as well as homecare and childcare.

At the same time, most women saw their non-work obligations rise, facing more housework, more childcare, and often a new burden of caring for family members with COVID-19 infections and/or longhaul COVID-19 – and that’s leaving aside those who struggled with the illness themselves.

Pre-COVID, women spent an average of six more hours than men on unpaid childcare each week, but during the pandemic that rose to 7.7 hours more, or over 31 hours/week – nearly the equivalent of another full-time job.

At this point, the vaccines have rolled out, the business world is reopening, and people are returning to their beloved services and shops. More importantly, children are returning to school, hallelujah.

We’re seeing freelancing mothers emerge blinking from the tunnel of coronavirus and trying to pull everything back together. For some of them, business fell away during the pandemic, while others were busier than ever managing a digital transformation and pivoting to offer services online.

Either way, female freelancers are making changes for 2021.

Finding a better work-life balance

With so much business optimism in the air, will we see more women turning (and returning) to the gig economy to transform their passions into their livelihoods? It may be too soon to tell, but it will definitely be interesting to see how this all develops as we settle into the new realities of post-pandemic life.

Looking back at the experiences of 2020, though, it was a time when many women realized they could no longer “have it all,” and many responded by quitting entirely. Upwork reports that 34% of freelancers polled started their businesses in March 2020. However, 28% of 2020’s freelancers paused working when lockdowns started.

For many, dealing with so much unsureness in pressure-cooker environments over the past year-plus put a major damper on motivation and amplified questions about their professional identities. “The pandemic didn’t cause my professional angst, it just prompted me to question it,” writes Lance Media’s Anna Codrea-Rado. “Similarly, it didn’t steal my ambition, rather it was put under a microscope. Amplified and magnified to the point where it couldn’t be ignored any longer.”

It’s hard to know how many of those who paused freelancing were women, but a different study found that between February 2020 and February 2021, 2.3 million women left the labor force, compared with just 1.8 million men.

The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed (IPSE) reports that the vast majority of new freelancers said that the switch was good for their mental health, because they now had more control over their work-life balance. Women freelancers are discovering how to balance work, home, relationships, and parenting successfully, learning how to draw new boundaries and ask for help more often.

They’re sharing advice about carving out working time and compelling their partners to take on more of the “second shift,” while men found that it was easier to pause work and help with children when working remotely.

Building a community

The primary way that women freelancers have dealt with the changes was through the traditional female response to any challenge: banding together as a community to share knowledge and experience.

COVID-19 saw acceleration in women joining female freelancing communities like Freelancing Females, which rose to 52,000 members by the end of 2020. It was partly out of need, because no one was able to chat in person in workplaces, cafes, or work hubs.

But women also expressed their relief at escaping office politics and finding a safe space to connect with other freelancing women.

They’ve used these online spaces as a place to swap horror stories, give and receive mental health support, share advice and job opportunities, and feel accepted no matter what their lifestyles. When IPSE asked what helped raise their mental health when they became freelancers, the top answer was getting out of office politics.

Female freelancers discovered they could actively choose and build their own communities, and that’s been a big help when it comes to surviving all the other difficulties of the last 15 or so months.

Increased attention around mental health

Unsurprisingly, female freelancers also reported a jump in job-related stress. Far more women than men told IPSE that they struggled significantly with job-related stress, but once again, the supportive community of female freelancers helped them to cope.

Others say they exercise, try to eat better, get more sleep, and continue hobbies that they enjoy.

Some 42% of women said that sharing their thoughts and feelings with others is a primary way to deal with stress, but only 24% of men said the same. New freelancer Carey Jordan advises all female freelancers to “find the right community to support them through their new work experience.“

Pay is still a concern

Pay is a huge issue in the freelancing world, with female freelancers averaging 84% of men’s earnings across all fields. IPSE found that women charge £65 (the equivalent of $90) less than men and face more late payments, with the gap widening from 49% vs. 40% to 40% vs. 23% during the pandemic.

“Because of the wage gap that women face, they often settle on lower rates in order to land business. Knowing how to negotiate your worth can help offset pay gaps experienced by women,” writes Nahla Davies, a seasoned tech freelancer based in New York. “Although you may need the job, being willing to say no and walk away confidently if a deal isn’t good enough shows clients that your time is more valuable than others’.”

Here too, having a community of peers can make all the difference. Women encourage each other to negotiate for better pay, crowdsource how much is reasonable to charge, share templates for late payment letters, and swap tactics getting clients to pay up.

As part of a community, female freelancers feel empowered to hold their ground over pay rates and payment schedules.

Freelancing mothers are helping each other make it through

More women are freelancing than ever before, and despite its challenges, they’re finding ways to make it work. Pay, mental health, and work-life balance are challenges that still loom large for female freelancers, but by banding together to form a supportive community, women are charting their own path to financial autonomy and a freer working life.