Leah O'Connell

for photographers, motherhood, personal

Planning maternity leave as a family photographer

I'm Leah!

I’m obsessed with stories of family, creativity, and simple joys.  A nostalgia nerd, educator, wife, and mom of 3, I believe life’s most fun when you’re dreaming big and having kitchen dance parties. 

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Planning maternity leave as a family photographer – even as an entrepreneur or small business owner in general – can feel overwhelming and exciting at the same time.

You are in complete control and… oh, shoot, you’re in complete control.

There’s no paid time off. There are no set-in-stone dates for your leave or return.

A huge level of both preparation and trust is required, but the fruits of that effort are a freedom that many women in America don’t have the luxury to experience.

planning maternity leave as a family photographer

Third time’s a charm – planning my third maternity leave as a family photographer

This will be my third maternity leave over the course of my 10 years as a family photographer, and each break has been wildly different.

For my first child, I had to call a client from my hospital bed when our daughter was born 2 weeks early to tell her I couldn’t photograph her maternity session that weekend.

Lesson learned: don’t cut it too close. Give yourself margin for the unpredictability of pregnancy.

tips for planning for maternity leave as a family photographer

Before we got pregnant with our son, I experienced a miscarriage which left me with some unexpected emotional wounds.

It also gave me an intimate awareness of the gaps in my business sustainability, values, and model.

Lesson learn: it’s important to create a business that can bear the ebb and flow of life, seasons, trauma, and the life you want to build. (I share about that story on The Mothers Embrace Podcast here if you’re interested in more of that journey and how it fueled my new approach to work and life.)

After that experience, I shifted my approach to grow an in-person team for support, beginning with a studio manager and the ultimate goal of training associate shooters under the Firefly brand.

I began to think more strategically about my business, get organized, and think with a longer-term vision.

We had our son in January of 2020 and my studio manager was able to handle emails, bookings, and content creation while I was away. It was so helpful and life-giving to have that support.

Because it was an off-season as a family photographer, I also charged her with streamlining my CRM workflows, client contact info, templates etc.

Then, in March, just as I was getting ready to ease back into shooting again, the world shut down from the pandemic.

My business was able to survive and return strong, even after months without sessions and paying a part-time employee. This was a game-changing revelation.

Lesson learned: when you are purposeful about investing ahead of time to lay a firm foundation, you can take time off when it matters and know that everything won’t crumble.

family photographer planning maternity leave

3 years later, I’ve since restructured my business back to a solo model after reorienting my goals, pricing structure, and business vision (again) to align with my continually changing life.

I’ve gained the most valuable gifts of perspective from my other pregnancies and maternity leave experiences, and want to pass some of that on to you!

Here are a few tips that I’ve gained from that perspective, time in the industry, and how I’m planning maternity leave as a family photographer this time around.

1. Evaluate passive income + savings

(and establish some if reserves are low or non-existent.)

Whether planning maternity leave, a sabbatical, summer vacation, a surprise life event, anything…you have to know that you can still get paid for at least a small buffer of time if you step away if you ever envision taking time off or delegating as a small business owner.

This is why pricing your photography services isn’t just about meeting your cost of goods.

It’s what experts mean when they say “profit that goes back into the business.” Yes, you need funds for investing in your education, gear, software, etc. BUT ALSO a back-fund of savings.

Start building this up immediately, even if babies are nowhere in your current conversation – it’s just smart business.

You will not be able to work paycheck to paycheck, without any business savings or reserve funds for emergencies, forever. That approach is stressful, limiting, and unfair to yourself and the valuable work you do.

Think bigger and allow your prices to reflect your long-term goals.

2. Decide your hard deadlines for leave and return

“I’ll work until the baby comes!” isn’t exactly a reasonable strategy (see above: calling my clients from the delivery room.)

Our daughter came 2 weeks early and our son was 4 weeks early. As long as you’re having a healthy pregnancy and feel relatively good, it’s totally fine to shoot and work as long as you want to. But because of my history, I’ve decided to make a hard cut-off for shooting this time at 36 weeks. I plan to complete all deliverables and client-facing requirements like mentoring calls by that deadline so I don’t have to worry about anything hanging over or clients waiting on me while I’m in newborn-land.

Return dates may be more flexible. I was shooting again at 6 weeks post-partum with my first (not recommended.) Then the pandemic gifted me with the opposite experience with our son – a solid half-year of maternity leave.

When you’re planning for maternity leave as a family photographer and have such a variable schedule, allow yourself a minimum of 6-8 weeks for personal recovery, bonding, and care. Then, honestly consider what your desires are and what you can financially support. Work backward from there to determine a return window you and your family feel good about.

3. Plan slow return options

Allow yourself to ease back in, even after you’re comfortable returning to shooting/working.

For the timeline of this babe, I’m looking at opening up my availability again over the summer in a limited capacity (2-3 shoots a month max). I’m also aware that these are historically slower booking months for my business, so I’ll focus more on the education offerings that I can do from home, like mentoring and a new launch of my Trello for Photographers mini-course. We’re also opting to pass on formal childcare or summer camps for our older kids over this summer, too, so I have realistic expectations that “returning to work” will be very limited – and that’s okay!

Knowing this, I can prep ahead by scheduling my annual petite sessions in the early summer that will only require me to be gone for 30-45 minutes at a time and have minimal post-work to do afterward. All the marketing materials, prep emails, etc can be automated ahead of time and I will send out booking links for clients to reserve them during my first month of leave (ensuring revenue still comes in, even while I’m on baby watch).

Be reasonable with yourself and aware of your capacity. Jumping back in with a full calendar of clients at 2 months post-partum is a recipe for disaster. You may crave some creative juice by that point (I know I do!) but try not to overextend yourself too early.

4. Pre-plan and create content to roll out while you’re away

There are no rules for how much or how often when it comes to publishing content while you’re on maternity leave. Still, completely ghosting all your clients for several months isn’t likely to leave you top of mind when it’s time to return.

In planning for maternity leave as a family photographer, I’ve decided to write 2 blog posts per month from April through July so I maintain an active website in Google-world and I have relevant work being published for new potential clients who may stumble upon it while I’m “away.”

It’s also vital to me that I stay connected with my email list, so I’ve prepped 1 email a month throughout that same time frame. (I usually send 2x per month, but because preparation also takes time, that’s what I could handle making in advance.)

Lastly, I’m planning on publishing 1 post per week to my instagram account. Overall, I’m taking a stance of committing to quality vs obligation. The goal of prepping “content” is not to spew more stuff into the internet simply for the sake of posting, but to stay connected with my people.

Decide what ‘staying connected’ looks like for you and work ahead to your best ability so that it is as easy and authentic as possible for yourself and your business (both during maternity leave and in the early months after).

5. Announce and remind people about your leave

Start including a blurb about your leave window in every newsletter at least 3 months in advance.

(Don’t have a newsletter? START ONE. This is by far the best thing you can do to long-term-proof your business and goes hand in hand with tip #1. I have several chats about newsletter marketing in my private facebook group here for free if you need some help getting started!)

Talk about it on social media. Use it as an opportunity to invite people over the fence who may be waiting on booking with you!

Most importantly, be open and clear about your boundaries and your clients will both celebrate alongside you and respect your wishes by adjusting their timelines to work with you.

6. Organize and prioritize.

Refine your systems, workflows, and templates. I can’t emphasize this enough.

Nothing will kick you into organization overdrive like the deadline of a baby on the way! It’s like nesting in your business 🙂 My studio manager really helped me with the first phases of untangling my processes after years of doing IPS and then switching into a fully virtual sales workflow.

Even after we parted ways, I was able to keep refining and streamlining those processes to the point where I didn’t need to hire for that position again AND cut my own necessary work hours significantly.

I’ve also taken this to the extent of minimizing digital clutter on my phone (ie: culling, backing up, and deleting phone photos) and organizing anything that’s business-related into specific albums like “stock photos,” “evergreen graphics,” “reviews,” “educational content” etc.

This ensures that screenshots and graphics I’ve made to market my business for things like petite sessions and mentoring or educational offerings are easy to grab, share, and talk about. Even little steps like this help simplify work as a whole when you’re overtired and short on spare time!

If you’re not outsourcing your editing already, start working ahead to train an editing team, private editor, or even AI to offload some of that workload! Your future self will thank you!

Basically, think through all the tasks that you do regularly in your business and brainstorm how you can make them easier, outsource them, or cut them out completely.

7. Set an out-of-office response through your email provider and CRM

This is just another way to protect your time while also caring well for your clients.

People appreciate that you’ve thought ahead and can still answer questions/point them in the right direction. You can easily set up an auto-responder through gmail or any other service provider, but make sure you also add it as your automatic response through your CRM to any inquiries that may come from your website.

This way, even if a potential client is brand new and doesn’t know anything about your maternity leave yet, they can have a touchpoint with you and steps to stay engaged.

8. Make a plan of action for clients who want/need sessions over your leave window – and let the rest go in peace.

It’s hard, but also super empowering, to say ‘no.’

After all, every ‘no’ to a session over your leave window is a ‘yes’ to something you’ve predetermined as more valuable to you. IE: spending time recovering and with your newborn baby + family. After all, remember that for every 1-hour session, there’s at least several more required behind the computer.

Consider your options for how to convert these inquiries so they can move to a ‘yes’ later on.

Create a waitlist.

Direct them toward your earliest return window spots to reserve in advance.

Invite them to your email list so they will be updated first about fall session dates, ensuring that your calendar fills up faster when you are available.

Then, have a list of referrals ready for trusted peers who you can feel good about pointing them towards if their session can’t wait.

I’ve had to turn down several dear clients who are due with newborns or requesting fresh 48 sessions around the same time as me, trusting the flow of service and generosity will support those decisions in the long run.

Abundance over scarcity, always.

If the idea of planning your own maternity leave and working as a family photographer feels super overwhelming or impossible, above all, I want to encourage you to believe that it’s totally doable and an incredible gift.

Choose to approach this season with empowerment and gratitude.

Establish your foundations and trust that your business, passion, and creativity will not collapse on the other side of taking a break.

Allow the experience of connecting with your own pregnancy and postpartum journey to serve as another way to relate, inspire and connect with others both personally and in your work.

I promise you will be so glad you did.

You may also like:

A letter to my newborn daughter

Favorite books for creatives + small business owners

How I use trello for my photography business

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Hi, I'm Leah.
Family photographer, writer, educator.

I’m  one of the first to meet your newborn baby, the one who won't judge your clothes baskets and unmade beds, and the one who can capture the way your husband looks at you with a twinkle in his eye after 12 years of marriage. I believe in honoring people and telling stories.

I believe art has the power to light up the world in dark places, starting at home.