When I first started telling people about my pregnancy, a lot of people told me to take it easy.
Now, I may be on the record as unenthused about advice generally, but this was advice that I was willing to take. I love napping, for example, but I never have time for it. Ditto taking a walk every day, eating warm meals, meditating, yoga, and all the stuff we’re supposed to do but never find time for.
Pregnant, I found it much easier to fit these things in. Whenever I’d be tempted to power through lunch or work late, I’d remember that Beano needed a rested mom, and take myself off for a light snooze.
This worked for a while. Then, for various reasons (OK, panic about saving money for maternity leave) I started working too much and resting too little, and now I’m right back where I was before I got pregnant, albeit with slightly better nutrition.
It’s not a permanent state of affairs. I took on a bunch of extra work, and now I’m crunched for time — a familiar situation for any freelancer, and as they say, a nice problem to have. But it’s still disconcerting whenever I realize that I’ve put in a 10-hour day.
My current situation reminds me of something my friend Ilisa said to me early on in my pregnancy. At the time, my big problem was that I couldn’t stop reading the news — or worrying about how my constant news-reading was flooding my body with cortisol and adrenaline and screwing up my baby for life.
“You’re not an incubator,” she said. “And also if fetuses were so fragile the human race would never have survived this long.”
Of course, just hearing that made me feel calmer. Eventually, I started breathing again. I even backed off the news. (A little.)
Now, my problem is that I have too much to do and not enough time to do it in, which if you think about it, is just good practice for being a working mom.
I still sort of wish that we lived in Sweden, and that I could take a year-long leave starting five weeks ago, but I also love what I do and feel grateful to be able to do it from home, where my bed is, if I ever have time for a nap again.
And, full disclosure, I did take a break and go for a walk today, because it was a balmy 34 degrees here, and that’s swimsuit weather compared to the highs of 5 degrees we’ve had for the past week-plus.
For the past few days, Con Ed has been tearing up our street to fix something, or else just to see if they can finally break our spirit, and on my walk, I saw that my neighbor had put out coffee for the workers, complete with a little pitcher of cream and a tiny bowl full of sugar cubes. And for some reason, this made me think that things would be all right, deadlines or no.
The past year has been stressful, even for folks who aren’t contemplating a big life change like a new baby, but we still live in a world where nice people put out coffee for Con Ed workers. Probably things will be OK.
Over 45 million Americans lived in poverty as of 2013, according to the Census Bureau, and I have never been one of them. There’s a big difference between poverty and what I’ll call, for want of a better term, sort of poor, which is essentially temporary financial embarrassment. The former means that you live with food insecurity, exploitation, chronic fear and danger; the latter means short-term anxiety and, hopefully, long-term empathy. I’m trying my hardest never to forget what it was like to not be absolutely sure that the rent money would be there when I needed it. In the meantime, I’m writing down a few things a learned while I was less well off than I am now.
First, a little background. For three years, my husband and I were sort of poor. How did that happen? Well, I got laid off, like many of us did over the past few years, and then I decided to go freelance. It took a while to build things up to the point where I made as much money as I did working full-time for an employer. Just prior to that, Adam went back to school. I’ll always be grateful that he didn’t look at me like I was nuts when, a few short months after he embarked on the education phase of a new career, I told him I wanted to start my own business.
Without getting into numbers, being sort of poor meant that we were living, in New York, on what amounted to one salary — and that salary was a normal salary, not a normal-for-the-city salary. (I make that distinction, because The New York Times often runs pieces featuring “middle class” folks who moan about not being able to pay private school tuition on a quarter of a million dollars a year. Those were not our circumstances. We survived on what would have been a nice middle-class salary for, say, Pittsburgh, not Brooklyn.)
In practical terms, it meant that we could pay the rent and the grocery bill and our health insurance and our other expenses, as long as nothing ever went wrong. We couldn’t go on vacations or out to dinner or buy a lot of stuff, which didn’t bother us much — neither of us is what you’d call spendy under the best of financial circumstances. The problem, of course, was that something always went wrong.
Which is the first lesson I learned, while we were sort of poor:
1. Something always goes wrong.
For example, about two years ago, my back went out. After several specialists and X-rays, it was determined that physical therapy was the best course of treatment. Fortunately, I was still on COBRA at the time, so I had physical therapy appointments included in my coverage. Unfortunately, I need two of those per week, to the tune of $30 in copays each time, and my PT office was an hour away and took an hour to complete. That meant that each session cost me around $150-$200, between the copay and the lost wages. Good times.
2. Being poor is expensive.
I did not bounce a check during our temporary poorness, a fact of which I’m inordinately proud, but I did go into cash reserve a few times, and I had to charge some things, like the aforementioned PT and occasionally, groceries. I could add up what all that cost me, but it’s too depressing and I don’t wanna. Let’s just say this: I spent a lot more than a rich person would have on the same services, and not through lack of planning or the inability to save. There was just no way to avoid it, at times. We’re lucky that we lived in a place where we didn’t have to have a car, or we might have found ourselves in an even worse situation.
3. No one wants to hear about it.
Listening to people complain about money is like listening to them talk about their weight or the dream they had last night. It’s just not very interesting to anyone but the person who’s speaking. Not to mention, in the last couple of years, everyone’s had their own problems. Still, it’s hard not to talk about it. When you don’t have money, it’s hard to think about anything else. Every thought, every brain cell, is focused on how to scrounge up what you need to survive and avoid running up bills you can’t pay.
4. Being poor is bad for your health.
During the past three years, I’ve had insomnia, weight fluctuations, heart palpitations, panic attacks, depression, and anxiety. I also wore the enamel off my teeth by grinding them while I was sleeping, and at various times, I probably drank too much. I put away massive pots of coffee, trying to stay awake after nights of not sleeping. I quit my gym membership, and tried exercising at home, with limited success. Not to mention, when you’re on a budget, you’re not eating the finest organic produce and sprouted grain bread. And, of course, being poor is stressful; stress is bad for your health.
5. It’s hard to get by without luxuries … or vices.
How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t want to give that homeless guy money. He’ll just drink it away.”? After three years of fake poverty, I can tell you that I will never say that again. I would prefer that the homeless have access to services that will enable them and every person on earth to have a warm, clean home, a healthy lifestyle, and whatever therapy they might need so as to avoid behaviors that harm them. In the meantime, if that guy wants to drink up my dollar, he can go ahead. Look that one up under “Business, Nunya.”
By the same token, people love to pick on anyone who says they’re broke, but is wearing lipstick or clothing without huge cartoon hobo patches. I went a long time without buying anything when we were skint, and then every so often I’d have a sort of consumerist breakdown and drop $50 at Sephora and feel like the worst person on earth. I’m sure there are folks who are perpetually responsible in our position, but I don’t think they’d be much fun at parties.
6. Appreciate your friends and family.
One of the things that separates the temporarily financially embarrassed from the truly poor is a personal social safety net. Adam and I were lucky, in that we had family members who would send us larger-than-normal birthday checks or float us loans when we needed them, and we were also fortunate enough to have friends who did things like give us furniture and recommend us for apartments when we found out that we were getting kicked out of our place. (Not for anything we did, I hasten to add. See earlier re: something always goes wrong.)
Without our people, I don’t know how we could have made things work. Certainly, the whole experience was humbling and awe-inspiring in equal measure. Adam and I are not people who enjoy asking for help, and we were continually amazed at how many folks came forward to offer help before we could even ask.
7. Ask for help.
This was perhaps the best personal lesson. It was hard for us. It’s hard for almost everyone. But there are no people on the earth who can do everything by themselves 100 percent of the time.
8. Remember that everyone needs help.
Along the lines of the empathy I mentioned earlier, I’ll never look down on anyone who needs assistance, financial or otherwise, whether it comes from family or the government. Whenever a politician starts talking about the takers and the givers, remember that most of us are both at one point or another in our lives — if we’re lucky.
9. Dream big, but don’t get bummed out if you can’t do your dream job right now.
The whole Do What You Love dealie is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is the fact that it’s pretty much geared solely toward privileged middle-class people with access to education and leisure time. If you’re not Doing What You Love right now, don’t let it drag you down. It took 10 years of work for me to get to a point where I could freelance, which is what I always wanted to do, and then maybe two years of that to figure out what I was good at and what I wanted to spend the bulk of my time working on. And then I had to figure out how to earn enough money at it. DWYL is a fine goal, but it ignores not only whole groups of less-privileged people, but also a fundamental fact about work: namely, that sometimes, it’s going to suck, even if you love nearly everything about your job. There will always be paperwork to do and meetings to endure, no matter how successful you become.
10. It’s important to care.
There were days when I was adding up numbers and trying to make my finances come out right and everywhere I turned, there was another article about how the U.S. is now an oligarchy and pensions are being cut and there’s no hope of having what our parents had at our age. The instinct was often to give up, lie down, roll over, and take a nap.
Instead, we have to keep fighting and voting and writing and working and trying. And while we do that, we have to remember that we’re all on this bus together, and that it’s a terminal route. Empathy, compassion, refusal to judge one another — those are the best weapons against a world that tries to make us believe that the people who have things, deserve them, and the people who don’t, don’t. I’ll try to remember. Will you?
When I first started freelancing, many of my friends predicted that I’d get tired of it sooner rather than later, and go back to looking for a full-time job. Anything is possible, I suppose, but after a year and a half of being a full-time freelancer, I feel safe in saying the experiment is a success, even if someone offers me a benefited 30 hour a week position as a cheese taster, and I decide to pack it in.
For this round of advice you didn’t ask for, but might need, I thought I’d concentrate on the stuff that I didn’t know until I’d been freelancing for a while. Such as…
1. You probably need to get up earlier than you think. I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: it’s easier to get stuff done in the morning, especially if your clients are in New York and aren’t rolling in til 10 a.m. I have mornings where the only real work I get done all day is before 11. The rest of the day gets eaten by meetings and impromptu phone discussions.
2. Speaking of meetings, charge for those. I still have one or two legacy clients who get freebie meetings, but they tend to be a) really good, steady clients who pay well, b) not folks who’ll try to get me to agree to a twice-weekly seminar with their whole marketing department. Everyone else gets an hourly rate, as much to discourage unnecessary, unpaid chitchat as to make actual moneys.
3. But don’t be afraid to do some things for free. I know, I said before that you shouldn’t ever work for free, and I still stick by that most of the time. However, for good clients, I do tend to do a little extra, and I would still write the occasional free piece for a small blog network or site that I really, really loved. But that’s something you should do sparingly. I still wouldn’t write for free for a big, money-making site. If they have money to pay the sales staff, they have money to pay you, my friend.
4. How much should you charge? More than you think. I low-balled myself when I was first starting out, and it was a big mistake. If you’re going from a full-time job to freelancing, use your old salary as a rough guide. Figure out what your hourly rate would have been if you worked 40 hours a week (I know, I know) and use that as a starting point. Don’t forget that you also had things like benefits that didn’t show up on your check, but were part of your compensation. Charge more for things that are more complicated. Straight proofreading, for example, might be the cheapest thing on your list, but copyediting with photo research and SEO work would cost more.
5. Make your contract as precise as possible. Spell out exactly what your duties are, as much as you can, so that you don’t have to have an argument about whether proofreading includes keyword research or whether phone meetings are free, etc. Build in notice for either party to back out of the deal, and specify when and how you’ll get paid.
6. Get business cards. To be totally honest with you, I haven’t exactly gotten around to doing that yet. I thought of it this morning, because I have networking event tonight, and I know I’ll wish I had them. Learn from my mistakes, people!
7. And speaking of networking, you don’t have to do stuff you hate. The thing I’m going to tonight is basically a bunch of old friends and coworkers talking over beer, which is one of my favorite things anyway. If you hate leaving your house, though, you totally don’t have to, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Buff up your LinkedIn account, and stay home. I got four gigs when I started out freelancing without ever leaving my desk.
8. Ask for help. The way I got those gigs, mentioned above, was by announcing to my Facebook network that I was looking for writing and editing work. If you’re the sort of person who would rather get gangrene that tell everyone else on a hiking trip that you seem to have injured your leg (a.k.a. No. 8 on my list of Ways I Might Actually Die) this will seem like begging. It’s not. (I promise.) You’re just letting people know you want to work. If they have stuff that needs doing, they’ll be happy to hear about it.
9. Take weekends. Another one I’m bad at. But in general, I’d advise people not to take so much work that they regularly work on the weekends. If you can’t afford to take less, look at your rates again or look at your time management. Sometimes, life intervenes, of course. Right now, I’ve got physical therapy twice a week, and because it’s in another borough, I lose about six hours of work time. So I often work weekends. One thing I don’t do, though, is accept gigs where I’m expected to work on the weekend. Unless you need an off shift, because of child care, for example, I’d really recommend not getting into the habit of working on Saturday and Sunday. You’ll be more productive if you get time off.
10. Don’t threaten to sue, especially if you’re not going to follow through. I know a few freelancers who’ve gotten stiffed on a job, and have immediately gone to lawyer land. Avoid this as much as possible. Although getting actual, legal advice is never a bad idea, you want to avoid escalating things by threatening legal action, at least until you have no other choice. This is partly because it annoys people, and sometimes slows things down further, and partly because, in reality, you’re probably not going to sue unless someone owes you a ton (like, an actual metric ton) of money. Big companies know that they have a legal department and you, at best, have a lawyer. Try everything you can to resolve the issue without letting it get to that point. It’ll feel like the cold war, but it’s worth it, just to keep your profits from getting eaten up by legal fees. So far, fingers crossed, I’ve managed to get paid for every gig. (Albeit, sometimes very, very late.)
I’ve spent the past two weeks at my folks’ house, and it’s been super relaxing, despite the fact that I worked most of the time. I get more done at my parents’ place, in part because of all the appliances: at home, I have to wash dishes by hand, take clothes to the laundromat*, order food from our local delivery service or haul bags up the four flights of stairs myself. In the suburbs, all you have to do is get into your car, throw the laundry in your washing machine, put the dishes in the dishwasher.
Even so, the big thing that my semi-vacation made me realize is how much I need a real vacation. I’ve been pretty bad about that since I went freelance. Last year, I took two weeks off, but I still worked two days during the break. I have freelancer friends who haven’t taken more than a few days off in years. One of my friends hasn’t had more than a long weekend since she started freelancing eight years ago.
This makes perfect sense, because trying to take real time off when you’re a freelancer is a pain in the ass. It literally costs you money, and many clients don’t expect you to take vacation, so they get irritated if you’re not available. The emotional stress of managing expectations and finances can make it seem like taking time off isn’t worth it.
That’s not true, of course. We all need time off. This time of year, every other article in your news feed is probably about how taking vacation improves your health, attitude, and productivity. We need vacations.
I’m starting by trying to really take my weekends off, and I’m going to try to take at least a week later in the summer. Maybe it’ll help with my ongoing quest to have a lower stress life.
* Note: I never do this. If Adam didn’t do the laundry, I would regularly be arrested for nudity.
At some point during the past few days, I reached my one-year anniversary as a freelancer. Predictably, I was too busy to notice. I also nearly forgot that my wedding anniversary is coming up (sorry, bebeh!) so you can see where my brain is at.
Still, busy or not, I think anniversaries, like birthdays, are important markers. They’re not inherently more significant than the days around them, but they’re a good time to stop and think about what we’ve learned. I’m declaring today, October 3, the official one-year anniversary, and here’s what I’ve learned so far.
1. I don’t know about getting the worm, but the early bird might not have to work at 10 p.m. This is not to be undervalued. When I get to work at 9 a.m. or earlier, I tend to be a lot more productive and happier.
2. The future belongs to those who keep receipts. (I think I stole this from someone. If it was you, let me know, and I’ll credit you.)
3. You cannot edit your own stuff, even if you walk away from it. If it’s really important (i.e., if you’re getting paid for it, or making your name from it) you need someone else to give it a look.
4. People will try to get you to do all manner of stuff for free. Do not. Professionals get paid for their work. If you want to start a blog with a couple of friends, you can do that for free. Otherwise, charge money.
5. Get a contract. It’ll save legal wrangling later on, but almost more importantly, it’ll save emotional energy trying to figure out what everyone intended in the first place.
6. Be courteous. It’s free, and there’s no reason to make life tougher by being mean. It’s also more professional, but I don’t think that’s the most important reason. There’s not enough nice in the world. You can make someone’s day better by being civil, for real.
7. Have boundaries. “Nice” does not equal “doormat.” Don’t put yourself in a situation where people will expect you to put yourself out when it’s not reasonable, fair, or part of the deal.
8. Do what you say you’re going to do.
9. Plan ahead, and give notice when there’s a change. I’ve got both editing and writing gigs right now, so I’m on both sides of the equation, but I promise you, editors are always happier when you give them a heads up that something isn’t going to happen.
10. Admit when you’ve made a mistake, but don’t say “I’m sorry” more than you have to. This goes double for women. Unfortunately, when you say you’re sorry, some people hear, “I’m weak and wrong. Also, I would like to do more stuff for free for you, under terrible conditions.” Don’t let this happen to you. Just take responsibility and fix the problem as soon as you can.
And that’s it. That’s all the things I know. I’ll go back to complaining about diets and the weather.