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Resilience and reinvention: a designer's journey of freelancing and motherhood

Re-entering the workforce after taking time off can be terrifying, there’s no doubt about it. This is the reality for countless women with professional careers, who face the daunting prospect of coming back to work after maternity leave.

Photo of Sara-Jane Austen, Director and Creative at Designerbloom Graphic Design standing in a forest.

Sara-Jane Austen, Director and Creative at Designerbloom Graphic Design, knows this feeling all too well. She went from working as a Designer and Studio Manager for a large book publishing company in the United Kingdom, to beginning a new life in New Zealand. 

Two years after her move, Sara-Jane took 6 years out of her career to focus on raising her children. When the time came for Sara-Jane to reenter the workforce, she realised the design world had rapidly changed. Initially, she felt she was swimming upstream against a river of change, yet through perseverance, some entrepreneurial thinking and concentrated brand building, Sara-Jane forged her place in the industry as a respected designer again. 

First, let’s turn back the clock to understand Sara-Jane’s journey. In 2007, she was employed at a large book publishing company, designing over 300 book covers a year, working on book layout and CD package design all whilst managing the studio. Sara-Jane was given a work opportunity to move to New Zealand, an opportunity which Sara-Jane and her husband at the time decided to seize, excited by the opportunity of adventure. Sara-Jane accepted an offer of employment for four months which enabled her to have a successful Visa application, on the basis that she would freelance for them after the contract ended. 

Illustration of aeroplane going to New Zealand

Essentially Sara-Jane found herself in another hemisphere, with few connections and no choice but to eventually set herself up a small business and embrace life as a contractor. “Before that, I had no intention of setting up my own business,” she says, “I thought I would go to school, then college, and then work my way up a job and have four weeks off every year. That’s what my parents did, and what everyone around me did, so I presumed that was pretty much how the working world went for the average person.” She was initially fearful but soon found her feet contracting and begun to ponder expanding her clientele. 

A couple years after establishing her business, Sara-Jane chose to start a family. She was soon immersed in being a mum, and when her first child was born she decided to focus on parenting. “It was just my husband and I, living on the other side of the world with no family who could help us. My husband was at work all day and I was home with a baby,” she explains. Full-time mothering was her chosen option, and of course, it allowed her to spend cherished time with her baby, and two years on another baby was added to the mix.

Once the kids were in school, the time was right for Sara-Jane to return to design. It was then that she realised just how much had changed. She reflects that “social media suddenly dominated businesses. When I first left work to have a baby, Facebook was simply a tool for staying in touch with friends, now it was a business tool.” Sara-Jane quickly realised she needed a new approach to gain clients and build up credibility. 

Sara-Jane Austen outside with her children

Sara-Jane took a leap of faith and harnessed social media to her needs. “I joined business Facebook groups and began offering logo design for $50, which makes me cringe now when I think about it, but you have to start somewhere don’t you,” she laughs. Sara-Jane’s tactic worked and she began to grow recognition and credibility on social media and through word-of-mouth, which allowed her to increase her fees. Still, she wanted to expand her skillset, so she ventured into the web-design space which has been very fruitful for her.

Being self-employed isn’t always rosy, however. Sara-Jane notes it can be especially trying during school holidays and so therefore made the decision not to take on work during those periods, that way she doesn’t end up feeling guilty for not spending time with her children (any parent who works from home will relate to this). The lack of security or forecasting of future income can also be scary, “but you have to just keep a positive mindset and trust that the work will come,” she says. There have been times when she has considered taking a corporate design role but ultimately she realised “I’m not willing to compromise on my life that much.” Now separated from her British Husband, Sara-Jane needs to be home for her kids – working 8am till 6pm away from home wouldn’t allow that to happen. 

Sara-Jane’s advice to anyone seeking to establish themselves as a freelance designer is to be patient and don’t be afraid to market yourself. “Don’t expect growth too quickly,” she says. Networks develop organically, and reputations aren’t made overnight.   

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