#344: How to Navigate Maternity Leave (or an Extended Break) Without Missing a Beat: Satta Sarmah Hightower’s Success Story

For most freelancers, the concept of taking an extended break—be it for maternity leave, personal health, or a sabbatical—has been shrouded in trepidation. 

We love the idea of a long break, especially if we’re experiencing burnout. But we immediately dismiss it as unrealistic because we don’t think we can afford to lose the income. Or we fear losing momentum, falling behind and not being able to seamlessly re-enter the business on the other end of our break. 

This week, we’re challenging that narrative head-on, with a deep dive into how you can navigate maternity leave (or any extended break) without missing a beat. Not only is this possible, it’s an opportunity to strengthen your business and come back stronger. 

My guest is a very successful freelance writer and content marketing strategist, Satta Sarmah Hightower. Satta is a previous coaching client of mine. And while we were working together, we put together a plan for a successful maternity leave.  

Of course, not every plan works seamlessly. So I wanted to bring Satta into the show to tell us what she did, how it all went, what she learned from the experience — and what advice she has for other freelancers who are thinking about taking an extended break like this but aren’t sure how to make it work.  

Satta didn’t just manage her maternity leave; she mastered it. From planning and preparation to execution and the transition back into the business world, her journey is a blueprint for any solo professional contemplating a similar break. I’ve been particularly impressed with how she’s managed the work/life balance upon her return—especially with two little ones. 

We also spent quite a bit of time discussing her secrets to success. Satta has built a very impressive, high-six-figure business where she’s almost always fully booked. So I asked her to share the biggest factors that have made that possible.  

Even if you’re not contemplating a maternity leave or an extended break, I urge you to give this one a listen. You’ll get a glimpse into how a seasoned solo professional runs a very successful business that enabled her to truly exercise the freedom freelancing is supposed to give us.

The notes that follow are a very basic, unedited summary of the show. There’s a lot more detail in the audio version. You can listen to the show using the audio player below. Or you can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Key Topics and Bullets: 

  • Combatting isolation and loneliness during maternity leave by relying on the freelance community for support and connection
  • Reflecting on the fears and financial impact of taking leave and realizing the flexibility and adaptation capabilities
  • Financially financing her maternity leave through regular savings and making adjustments to her financial plan
  • Finding high-paying clients through modern websites, assessing company budgets, and negotiating rates early in client conversations
  • Using a freelance payment tracker to assess project profitability, internal hourly rates, and client income share
  • Building a healthy marketing pipeline and finding look-alike clients
  • Finding clients through working with agencies and visible publications
  • Slow start upon returning to work due to adjustment to increased responsibilities as a mother
  • Strategic planning for maternity leave, including preplanning and client communication
  • Reaching out to potential clients before and after returning to work to secure assignments
  • Treating freelancing as a business and focusing on client service
  • Providing high-value content that AI cannot replicate
  • Focusing on higher-paying vertical markets like fintech and healthcare
  • Knowing when to let go of clients who may hinder growth opportunities
  • Categorizing clients as passion, payer, or portfolio, not solely based on money

Timestamp Overview:

03:51 Ed– One thing that I was very curious about, and I know our listeners are too, you’ve done really well for yourself. And I am curious as to what you feel were the critical success factors to getting to this high 6 figure level that you have. Because, I mean, obviously, you’ve been doing it for 10 years. That’s one thing. But it’s not like it took you 10 years to get there, number 1. And 2, you’ve been you know, some people can hit really strong 5 figure months, you know, that add up to an annual 6 figure, but it’s very variable. Like, 1 year is bad. 1 year is amazing. The next year is really bad. You haven’t yo-yoed like that. So I’m curious. What do you feel has really worked for you and enabled you to get to this level and maintain it?

Satta– So since becoming a freelancer over the last 10 years, I probably averaged a 20% increase in income year over year, and I really credit that to a mindset shift. Like, I really started treating my business like a business. Not like, oh, I was just a writer doing freelance writing, which sometimes as freelance writers, we kind of box ourselves in that way. It was more about, I am a business owner. There’s a strategy to this. Like,I sort of treat it the same way a big enterprise company would treat their, you know, strategy and business planning, business continuity planning, risk assessment, all of that stuff. It’s like, okay. I can look at, you know, some of the spreadsheets that I use to track my client operations and say, oh, too much of my income is coming from that one client. I need to up my marketing and get more clients. And I really focus too, on client service. That I mean, that to me, that’s the best marketing there is. Like, if I turn in quality work on time, on or before deadline consistently, and I’m very responsive to my clients, For the most part, the rest takes care of itself. I get repeat work from clients, and then that helps me build a portfolio which I can use to attract new clients. Because new clients always need social proof, and so they’ll check me out on my website or my LinkedIn page. And because they’ve seen that, I’ve worked with other marquee brands, big content studios, that sort of gives them confidence that I can take on a project and do well for them.

08:29 Ed– One of the things that a lot of writers have trouble with is letting go of clients who no longer are fit for them. And the reason they it’s not a money thing. My experience has been I mean, that can be part of it, but it’s an emotional thing. It’s like, I hate saying no. I hate letting go of somebody. It’s fear. How do you get around that? How do you know when you know, okay, this is no longer a fit, but it’s not like something blew up. Because if something blows up, it’s a lot easier. Right? It’s just no longer a fit. How do you get over that emotional element?

Satta– Admittedly, it’s still something that I have to work on, but having a safety net makes it a lot easier, and having multiple clients makes it a lot easier. You know? Okay. If I let this one go, I have other work to back me up. And sometimes I have to look at it from a purely mathematical point of view. There was a client I stopped working with a couple years ago, and I looked at it first. I was like, oh, I don’t wanna do it because it’s a new line of business. You know, I know I can get steady work from them all the time, but it just wasn’t a fit. Even though I liked them personally, the work just was not a fit for me.

09:52 Ed– Tell me more about what you track. You were someone who I was always impressed with, you know, the Google Sheets and documents that you would share with me. You you keep you know, going back to this idea of treat it as a business. Yeah. You do a really good job of tracking different metrics and really thinking through your business operations. So what are some of the other things you track?

Satta– So I have this Google spreadsheet that I call the freelance payment tracker, and it’s by year, but then it breaks down by month. And it has cells with formulas that I use to track not only how much I’m making per project, but my internal hourly rate for each project on each row. That’s Okay. So I know for a given project if I’m working on a white paper for a given client, I know, okay, it took me 20 hours to do that. I ended up making $250 an hour on that project, let’s say. So I can easily see at a glance how much I’m making per client, what clients are, accounting for the largest share of my income in a given month or even in a given quarter or a given year, and what clients I’m netting a lower internally hourly rate for. And do I need to either replace them, or do I need to keep on working with them because there’s some other value I’m getting from them? Like Karen, I think her name is Karen Reynolds. She’s a freelancer, and she appeared on another freelance podcast. And she’s like, you have to group clients into 3 groups, passion, payer, portfolio. So I try to look at my relationship with clients and the projects I take on from them in that lens. So it’s not purely a money decision for me. It’s like, oh, am I growing my skills in other ways? Or do I really enjoy working with this company? I’m working on these types of projects? Because then I can treat it as, to use another business term, a loss leader. Yeah. I’m not making as much money on this project, but I can make up for it with other projects with other clients. So it all balances out in the end.

13:25 Ed– I would also say, however, that there’s a lot we can do individually, you know, just to at least build some sort of financial cushion. And not just a financial cushion, but to the marketing machine. Make sure that that marketing machine is always running. So that’s another way to build a buffer is if you have a healthy pipeline, then makes decisions a lot easier. You know, you’ve done a really good job of landing high paying clients over the years. I’m often asked, how do we find high paying clients? How do you find and land high paying clients? What do you feel are the secrets to doing that?

Satta– I think once you have a good client, find look-alike clients. So if you’re working with a certain content studio that’s part of a media organization, It’s likely their competitors also have a content studio and that the pay is pretty similar. So, I think what helps me too with high paying clients is I like working with agencies and content studios because they take care of the business development end of things. I’m not constantly having to find new clients in that respect because they already have a pipeline. I do have some private clients, but I really like working with agencies in that respect.

17:52 Ed– When does the budget fit into the conversation with a new prospect? Because I got to imagine that you want to know as early as possible if this is someone who can afford you.

Satta– So in the initial conversation and that’s…this week, I had another call with a prospective client. And, you know, after we got through the nitty gritty about, like, their process, how they work with freelancers, I just asked straight out what are your typical freelance rates for the projects we’ve talked about, and they usually share. And I feel like that puts you in a position of power to ask the question first rather than you state what your rates are because I realized this several months ago or last year. There was a client who I asked this question first to, and I wasn’t expecting the response that I got. Because if I would have said my rate first, it would have been half of what they paid.

21:34 Ed– I wanna point out something you haven’t mentioned that I think factors into the high fees you’re able to command. Everything else you’ve mentioned, completely agree. You’re also working in vertical markets that tend to be higher paying, right? Fintech, certain sectors within health care, certain sectors within tech. So you have done a really good job. I just wanna commend you. Done a really good job of kinda staying in these vertical markets and really building a nice portfolio and track record, which only attracts more of that. Right? I mean, is that a fair statement?

Satta– And that was deliberate or that was intentional at a certain point. You know, I would say maybe around the 6 year mark. Because I think when you’re first starting out as a freelancer, you will take, for the most part, whatever work you can get. You don’t really have a niche. You’re like, my niche is whatever client will pay me to do this project. So after a while, you figure out the things you enjoy doing and the things you’re good at or the things that really pique your interest, I think, is really important to say, and then you pursue those things. Like, I like, you know, enterprise tech and Fintech and financial services, because I’m actually really interested in those things.

24:59 Ed– You know, I think your experience just tells me and confirms the suspicion that I’ve had is that, look, the market might be slowing down, but it’s not a 100% slowdown. It’s slow for a lot of people right now. But, you know, there’s still plenty of work out there. I’m seeing and I’m hearing from people like you and others who are really, really busy. But, you know, it becomes one of those things. And I think we all got used to a time, especially, like, 2020 to 2023 where it was, like, beyond full capacity for everybody. And that’s not reality. This is my take. That’s not reality. And now it’s definitely below that. So, you know, not everyone like, before, you could just if you sneezed, you’d land work.

Satta– And I think a lot of people a lot of freelancers are seeing online on LinkedIn are worried about AI. There’s a lot like, if you fall down that rabbit hole, it can make you feel like my business is going to disintegrate. So I try not to focus too much on macro trends. I try to focus on what I can do. And I feel like AI can’t replace me if I’m doing long form white papers and all this other stuff in the b to b space, creating very high value content that you can’t really have a machine create. So I feel like it’s important to just focus on what you can do, keep on marketing, and growing your business, and let the rest take care of itself.

27:45 Ed– So let’s talk about your maternity leave. Why don’t you set the stage for us a little bit? Right? Because you have a young son. Right? And now you call me up one day. Says, oh, guess what? I’m pregnant, and I’m thinking about taking maternity leave. So walk us through what happened, what you planned…

Satta– So I have a 5 year old and an almost 5 month old. So I will say my first time taking maternity leave was very different than this time. So that was in 2018. So I was 4 years into my business, and I think I more so operated from a place of fear. Like, I intended to take a 3 month maturing leave. I took 2 and a half months because I had a client come to me with a project, and I was like you know? And they were a retainer client beforehand, so I was worried about losing that retainer contract. So I’m like, you know what? Let me just hop on it. But this time, I was very deliberate, intentional, and prepared, and you really helped me with that. So just preparing to go on maternity leave from a business perspective. Like, I created a post maternity leave, like, marketing plan or, you know, during, maternity leave. I checked in here and there. Like, just I did stuff on LinkedIn, posted things on LinkedIn, you know, engaged with folks on LinkedIn. But I just created a plan for how I would go on returning leave, like, letting my clients know in advance. Probably a month or so in advance, I let my clients know. Mhmm. With certain clients where I was on retainer with, I let them know even earlier because we have, you know, ongoing projects.

31:44 Ed– I wanna come back to that, but let’s rewind a little bit because I wanna hear about your experience. So last time, you felt really bad because you didn’t take the time with your first son that, you know, in hindsight, you should have taken it. Yeah. How did it go? 4 months now with your baby and with your family. Overall, how was that experience? And, you know, what things came up for you that maybe surprised you?

SattaWell, I really enjoyed the time. It was nice to focus on one part of my life. You know, we talk about work life balance all the time, but there’s, like, no such thing. You’re always juggling multiple things at multiple times. So it was nice to just wake up in the morning and not have anything to do aside from take care of this little baby. So that was nice in a respect. On the other end of the spectrum, I did miss work. I missed being creative.

32:32 EdHow did you, how did you manage that? Were there some things that you did that ended up working to help lower that isolation factor?

Satta– I mean, I think I can’t remember if I, you know, had lunch with the freelance friend or she and I traded emails back and forth, you know, to check-in. I think, actually, what was really helpful was being in touch with my freelance community. So there’s a community I’m part of called Freelance Success. So, you know, I would go in there from time to time. I think when I was on maternity leave, I did a webinar just before I went on maternity leave. I did a webinar, and I would just, you know, check-in. So it was nice to have that connection to people. And sometimes people post questions. I would answer questions there. So that helped me to maintain some sort of a connection as well.

36:36 Ed– We don’t have to get into numbers here, but I’m curious from a financial preparation standpoint. What was your model? Did you save up for a few months so that you can then use that, to help, you know, your living expenses? Or did you decide, no. I’m just gonna kind of you know, through my regular savings, I’ll just tap into that, or was it some other model?

SattaYeah. Through my regular, like, regular savings from my business account because I have enough of a margin given what I make each month and what our expenses are that there’s always, like, leftover in a buffer there. And then, obviously, before I went on maternity leave, I tried to take on a little bit more work. Obviously, it was hard being in my last trimester of pregnancy, but I really wanted to be cognizant of that. And there are certain adjustments I had to make. Like, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this. Focus on early retirement, so I really try to supercharge my retirement savings. Well, I had to pair that back a little bit to accommodate for the fact that I wouldn’t be working for 4 months.

41:21 EdFirst of all, how do I get my business to be really successful? And or I love the idea of being able to take a maternity leave, a sabbatical, some sort of leave. What advice would you give to each?

SattaI will say if you are not tracking your business metrics, that’s where you need to start. You need to know how much you make per client, who are your most profitable clients, who are your least profitable clients, what kind of projects are most profitable for you. So I will say that transparency at the outset is really important. You need the data and the information and the insights. This is a lot of business speak, but that’s what it is, to make an informed decision about when you can take time off and how long you can take and what, you know, when you need to come back. So I’ll say first, track your numbers. And then from there, come up with a plan. Like, you know, if there are clients that you’re on a retainer with, how will going on leave affect that? And if, you know, you can’t pick work back up, have a plan for how you can replace that income.

42:13 SattaLike, if you’re making $5,000 a month with what one client and the retainer will likely end when you go on leave, come up with some ideas for how you can fill that gap. And then communicate openly and transparently and proactively with your clients. So if you have once you decide how long you’re going to go on leave, explain that to them and put it in the context of how it’ll affect your work with them. Like, tell them, okay. I know we have this project that’s in progress, and I plan to wrap that up, before I go on leave. And if we can’t wrap that up, here’s what I think we can do from a handoff perspective. And then also have a plan for returning from leave. Like, don’t wait until the week you get back. Just tell your clients, hey. I’m here. You got any work for me? You need to do that, in advance. And at the same time, you need to prospect. Because that’s, you know, something that when I was talking to you about this, you’re like, okay. So what’s your plan for prospecting and getting new clients? I was like because I didn’t really think about that before. I’m like, I already have a solid roster of clients, but always be marketing. ABM. You have to always be marketing. And I’ll say I actually do have new clients. I have just been onboarded with them. I just haven’t started any projects with them. And, again, they’re actually 2 major content studios for major news organizations. So, I’ve been on board, but I haven’t started to work with them. So even just being back a month, I’ve already landed 2 new clients.

By the way… whenever you’re ready, here are 4 ways I can help you grow your freelance business: 

1. Grab a free copy of my book. 

It’s called Earn More in Less Time: The Proven Mindset, Strategies and Actions to Prosper as a Freelance Writer. The title says it all. 😉 — Click Here   

2. Get my Business-Building Toolkit.

Too many freelancers lack a critical set of business skills that would enable them to earn more in less time doing work they love for better clients. I’ve taught these skills to my coaching clients for years. And now I’ve packaged it in a way that will enable you to start getting results FAST. — Learn More   

3. Join my implementation program and be a case study.

I’m putting together a new implementation group this month. If you’re earning $5k+/month (or the part-time equivalent) from your freelance business … and you’d like to grow your income quickly with better clients … just hit reply and put “Case Study” in the subject line. 

4. Work with me privately.

If you’re a 6-figure writer who’s trying to earn more in less time, with less stress, I might be able to help you get there faster than you think. Just email me at [email protected] and put “Breakthrough” in the subject line, and I’ll get back to you with more details.