Lately, it’s occurred to me that while I love my home, and often spend days not leaving it, I don’t have anything close to what feels like a mythical phrase: work/life balance. Since I became a full-time freelancer in 2011, and even more so since last year, when my income shifted drastically, I’ve been at a crossroads, trying to decide how to best pursue the kind of work that I both am good at and enjoy.
Whenever friends ask me, “What do you wish you were doing?” I tell them exactly what I’m doing now. I love that each day I get to do some variation of these tasks: edit other people’s writing, teach erotic writing, pen personal essays like this one, interview people for articles and sex columns and work on erotica anthologies, whether by reading submissions for them or promoting the ones that are already out.
The problem isn’t that I don’t love what I do for a living, but that I’ve built myself a career where I feel guilty when I’m not working, all the more so because I hope to become a mom in the not so distant future. I know that if I have a baby, my time will be much more limited, and “working from home” will also mean changing diapers and feeding a helpless infant. But I also feel lucky that I have the option to even consider that, rather than a small amount of time off from a job I’d have to rush back to.
Yet because my income is so precarious, I feel the need to turn everything I do into work. This has its pluses and minuses. I love that I’m sometimes able to get paid to review books by my favorite authors, cover creative people who are doing awesome things, and generally incorporate the things I’m passionate about into my work. But I have trouble drawing a line between personal and professional.
For instance, next week I’m going to visit a friend in Houston. I’ve been looking forward to attending the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo since I heard about it last year. I’m lucky that I had enough JetBlue frequent flyer miles for the flight not to cost me a dime. I should be happy that I can escape the chill of the tri-state area for a little while. I am, but I’m also restraining myself from pitching an article about the fair. Given that I’m trying to break into travel writing, it seems like a natural fit. But if I go there with a deadline, I won’t have as much time to relax and just hang out. It would be cool to get to cover it, but isn’t worth it if it will mean sacrificing time catching up with my friend and simply being off the clock. I face some variation of this dilemma every day.
I’m not the only freelancer who feels compelled to turn almost every aspect of their life into income-generating work. As Noah Berlatsky wrote last year at Salon, “I work every weekend, just about. For that matter, I work over holidays. I work evenings. I work mornings. When I’m not asleep I work, basically, all the time.” He continued: “I work all the time because the nature of what I do means that most of what I do is work. As a freelance writer, the movies I watch, or the books I read, or the links I click, are all potential story ideas to pitch and write and convert to dollars. In this context, what is free time and what is work quickly turns into an indistinguishable blur.” I’m in the exact same boat. The Catch-22 is that by pitching articles about topics I’m genuinely interested in, I not only make the work more enjoyable, I come to the task already somewhat prepared. If I tried to write about baseball or race cars or even my state’s governor, Chris Christie, I’d be out of my element.
One suggestion for freelancers I’ve read in many articles on the topic is outsourcing. I’m all for this in theory, and used to have a wonderful virtual assistant who performed a lot of essential tasks for me. She moved on to another business, just as I found I couldn’t afford to pay someone else. But not only does outsourcing something like transcribing interviews cost money, I also find there’s value in doing that myself. I get to re-listen to what my interviewees have said, and even though it still takes me a long time, despite typing 100 WPM, often this slow process helps me highlight which aspects of their statements I want to include in a final piece.
During the recent controversy over The Billfold’s treatment of Jessica Williams’ Tweets about her role at The Daily Show, one statement by Williams stood out for me: “My worth is not my job.” I read those six words over and over, asking myself if I could say the same, and I couldn’t. I don’t get up at six a.m. and dig right into work just for the money; all the tasks I put on my incessant to do lists are also how I’ve built up my sense of self-worth. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of what you do, but that sets me up for a fall when, say, a writing gig ends, or my book sales drop, or I don’t achieve a particular goal. I don’t want to keep living on such a roller coaster, and that’s not something I’d want to model for a child.
In order to truly love what I do, I have to be able to set it aside and be more present in my personal life. I don’t want to drag my partner down with me when I’m in a bad mood because I’m stressed out, and don’t want him to feel like he lives with someone who cares more about her work than her relationship. I veer heavily toward all or nothing thinking, so whenever I consider easing back just slightly on my death grip over my career, the immediate alternative seems to be lolling the day away and not getting anything accomplished. Rationally, I know there’s a healthy place in between the two, but putting that into practice will take a little more than simply resolving to do so. I have to figure out strategic ways to be more efficient with my time, to pursue the projects that will bring the most value to my life (and bank account), and to not get so emotionally invested in every minor or major work issue that it has the ability to derail my day. All of that I’m sure will make me a better person, and a better worker.