If you’ve followed this blog for a long time or if you know me reasonably well, you’ll know I love the freelance life.
This week, I’m taking a look at some of the hazards of freelancing. The first post in the series was “The Hidden Costs of Freelancing.”
Today? A look at how freelancing takes a toll on our closest relationships.
“I’m not waving, I’m drowning.”
He didn’t say this, but he didn’t need to. It’s not as if I didn’t know the signs. It’s not as if I didn’t even see them.
The problem is, I did.
But I kept telling myself that I just had to get through this day, this project, or this whatever and then I’d take a break, decline new work briefly, and spend some quality time with him. We’d bank that time like money. He’d be better. And then I’d get back to work.
That never happened though because freelancing rarely affords a break, and I mean that literally: it’s nearly impossible to build up a financial cushion that lets you even entertain the idea of time off (at least this is true when you’re the main breadwinner in a family of four in New York City). So I’d finish that one project that needed to be finished and find myself picking up another one because what if I came back from a break to find that there was no work to be had? “I just need to finish this,” I said to myself, said to him. He never complained or called me out. He just started to get pulled out by the undertow. I could still see him, so he was ok, right? In fact, he was struggling to pull back to shore. From a distance, he looked so good, so strong, his clean stroke cutting capably through the water. We both looked good, which is what made everything more difficult. But then, he was just beyond my peripheral vision. And when I turned to check on him, he wasn’t waving.
He was drowning.
He wasn’t beyond saving, but we were both worse for the wear and worried about the long-term effects. And all the while, horribly, I still couldn’t stop thinking about all the work I still needed to get done… nor the fact that all that work probably wouldn’t buy us the time or space we needed just to lie on the beach together and breathe.
When Orion was born five weeks ago, I couldn’t help but stop.
Here, not unexpectedly but not without uncertainty, either, was a second child. Here was a chance to experience the miracle of birth and infancy all over again, and the particular gift this time was that of knowing what, exactly, to look for and to drink in deep before it went away forever.
“Estás enamorada de ese niño,” Francisco told me, suggesting gently that maybe I was expressing more love for Orion that I had for Mariel when she was a baby. “I am in love with him,” I said, “but not more than with Mariel. I just know what to pay attention to this time so I don’t miss it before it’s gone.” The most clichéd advice passed from one parent to another goes through one ear and out the other with the first child, especially when you’re sleep deprived and unsure that anything you’re doing is right. “Spend as much time with them as you can. Enjoy every moment. It goes so fast.” I happened to be in a pause between projects and so I could enjoy those sweet early days and weeks. But I also knew that soon enough my attention would be divided. Until it was, I told Francisco, I would dedicate myself to the full-time project of immersing myself in the deep, transcendent, almost wordless joy of raising our kids with him.
If it’s not obvious to you already, this post isn’t building up to some big reveal. I haven’t got all this figured out. It absolutely sucks–sorry, the only other way to say it is more crass–that the work I love and the work that, in so many other ways, frees me to be able to (theoretically at least) be the master of my own domain, also traps me on its own kind of hamster wheel. While other people are spinning on their wheels in offices without natural light or fresh air, during specific hours they can’t control, I’m spinning on my own wheel, treading at all sorts of hours and often frantically. And my reward–my cheese, I guess–is usually smaller than theirs.
The only difference–and it’s an important enough one to me–is that I can hop off my wheel for a few minutes or hours and do something different. I can spend the kind of time with my family that other folks envy. But it’s not always quality time. I’ve got one hand on the keyboard and the other bouncing a kid on my knee. Meanwhile, someone might be drowning. And it feels much harder than it should to blow the whistle and tell the powers that be that this system doesn’t function quite as it should.