In February this year, I had my second child. Having a baby is a wonderful time in a writer’s life – if you’re like me, you swear black and blue that you’ll capture the beauty of each new feeling and milestone with the written word. You’ll poignantly write long descriptive passages of your baby’s debut that one day your grown child will read and weep with joy over.

And if you’re like me, instead you spend a lot of time sitting on the couch, hands full of baby while breastfeeding, watching Parks and Recreation marathons and convincing yourself that eating Nutella on bread (with a high Nutella ratio to an increasingly low bread ratio) is just like those fancy chocolate croissants you had at that chic French café one time. Anyway, breastfeeding takes up a lot of energy or something, so more Nutella please.

Meanwhile, as I’ve been sitting on the couch eating my body weight in chocolate-related items, a debate about paid parental leave has been raging. For my first child, I received the baby bonus, which was standard at that time. Now, in 2013, I’ve been eligible for the Labor government’s current paid parental leave (PPL) payment, which is allocated at the minimum wage over eighteen weeks. After January 1, the government also introduced a two-week paternity leave scheme, paid at minimum wage, which my partner was able to take alongside his workplace leave.

Having paid leave while recovering from a difficult pregnancy and emergency caesarean birth allowed me the time and space to recover and bond with my new baby, without the financial stress of losing an income. However, as a contractor and freelance writer, the terms of PPL, as overseen by Centrelink for the Department of Human Services, can offer some unique challenges.

My PPL is almost up, and as the end of that comfortable income looms I’m faced with a precarious financial position – PPL terms stipulate that no income whatsoever can be earned while I’m receiving PPL payments from the government. However, Centrelink dictates that it’s the period that the work was performed, and not the period in which it is paid, that affects government payments.

For example, if I were to pitch and write an article now for a publication, while still receiving PPL, even if I didn’t receive payment until well after my PPL period ends, I’ve technically performed the work that earned that income during my PPL. That, according to Centrelink, is grounds for revocation of payment or even a debt established against me.

This puts me and any freelance writer in a dilemma – editorial procedures vary from publication to publication, so the process of pitching, writing, editing, publication and subsequent payment could take anywhere from a few days to weeks or months. If I don’t send out any pitches because I’m still in my PPL period, after it ends I could face a painful gap in income until pitches are accepted, the work is written, published and paid for.

New mothers face many difficulties when returning to work, and while I could rejoin the work force in a standard office job, most workplaces are not kind to breastfeeding mothers. Not deliberately unkind, just not kind. Expressing milk is uncomfortable and inefficient, and if I have a choice I simply don’t want to be separated from my baby when he is little more than four months old. The point is moot, however, as a quick phone around the daycare facilities in my area shows there’s no vacancies for two children of different ages on the same days. Which makes freelancing, at this point, my best option.

I’ve done as much preparation as I’m able to: I’ve made lists of publications I can submit pitches to, I’ve reviewed submission guidelines and publication cycles, I’ve brainstormed article, essay and short story ideas. I’ve updated my memberships, marked competition dates on the calendar and even tried to make my bio a little snappier. But I’m still left in a dilemma – if I submit a pitch now, could Centrelink consider that ‘work’?

Government guidelines in relation to PPL are a little fuzzy when it comes to those who are self-employed, such as a writer who doesn’t have a job waiting. While an employee on leave can have up to ten ‘keeping in touch days’ with the employment they’ll be returning to, those who are self-employed are only allowed to perform ‘business maintenance’ tasks such as administrative duties or keeping in touch with clients. Does sending a pitch out to a publication count as an administrative duty? Can we call it ‘keeping in touch’?

Government payments and Centrelink have traditionally not been kind in regards to the arts, such as the case of Koraly Dimitriadis, a writer and single mother who, after winning an Australia Council grant, had to deal with Centrelink cutting her parenting payment in half. I spoke with a former Centrelink employee over Twitter, who helpfully pointed me in the direction of the specific PPL legislation but couldn’t tell me much more about the possibility of what constitutes ‘work’ when it comes to a freelance writer. I would prefer not to find out after the fact via a Centrelink investigation for a potential debt.

So, in the absence of clear creative practice for freelance writers on paid parental leave, I’m taking the safest route possible – ready and waiting to send out my work the day my leave ends, knowing it might mean tightening my belt until a publication picks up my work.

Mandy Lee is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and playwright who blogs at AdHocMama and can be found on Twitter complaining about things.

Photo by Happy Worker