A year ago today, I walked out of my beloved office for the last time, switching from a 17 year career in financial services to the unknown world of freelance writing from home. I say ‘beloved’ without a hint of sarcasm – I loved my office very much. It was a slightly odd shape, but the view out over the Liffey was stunning on a sunny morning. And it was my space – the one place in the world that was just mine. Until it wasn’t anymore.
It was strange and surreal, staring into the unknown, with no idea whether or not freelancing would work out. And for the first few weeks, I did miss work from time to time, especially with never-ending school runs to contend with. (Note: if you are one of the many people who dreams of giving up your full-time job to run a business around your kids, remember this – you have to do the school run forever. Not just for a few weeks or months – forever. I still remember the moment that realisation kicked in. Not pretty.)
Being off all summer had its ups and downs – lazy mornings at home with the kids were wonderful, but working every night was tough. From September, I had three in school and preschool, and finally mornings were mine all mine for work.
And like everything else, work had its ups and downs. I learned a lot about freelance writing and a lot about myself. Like that I can come up with ideas in the morning or late at night in bed, but not sitting at my kitchen table at 10pm. And that I can’t relax until I have all the contributors I need for an article, even if the deadline is a month away. And that a first commission from a new editor is good, but a second commission is great – that’s the one that tells you, at least momentarily, that you’re not terrible at what you do.
On the parenting front, in theory, I have the perfect balance. In practice, the lines are more blurred than ever before. In the morning, I’m 100% focused on work – I don’t even put the breakfast dishes in the dishwasher. In the afternoons, I’m supposed to be 100% focused on the kids, but in reality, I’m not. There are always emails and phone-calls and laptop distractions. And we’re mostly doing homework and dinner and tripping over toys. There are moments of idyll but most are mundane. Good mundane, not bad mundane.
As for the guilt – unsurprisingly, it’s not gone, it’s just changed shape. I had always heard, and was reasonably certain, that when it comes to spending time with kids, quality trumps quantity every time. When I was away from the kids for 11 hours a day, I used to try to stop counting hours, and focus instead on making the most of my time spent with them. And it turns out, it’s absolutely true. Now I’m with them every afternoon, and the quality is hit and miss. Some rare days are perfect – everything just flows. Some days are awful – all of us fight. And most days are just normal. Good bits and bad bits. Feeling guilty for being away from the kids all day is one thing; feeling guilty for being with them but still not fully present is a whole different level.
Becoming self-employed and working around the kids means tradeoffs, so the daily cappuccino habit is gone, and my house isn’t quite as clean as it used to be. I have less time than ever before – I’ve even stopped putting milk in my coffee, because it’s quicker to go without. Paid writing has necessarily taken over fiction writing, so my attempt at a novel has been filed away for now – something that makes me occasionally sad. I did have lovely news recently – I was long-listed for the Colm Tóibín International Short Story Award as part of the Wexford Literary Festival, and then last week I found out I was short-listed. I’m taking it as a sign that there’s still purpose in trying fiction again when there’s more room in the day. And it was lovely timing, marking one year since I finished my old job.
I think I’d sum up freelancing like this: I went to the hairdressers recently, and brought my lap top. While my hair was being cut and coloured, I used the time to finish an article I’d been working on. Isn’t freelancing great, I thought. I can get work done anywhere.
Then I went up to pay the astronomical bill. And thought about how much additional work I’d have to do to earn the cash to pay for my hair. That, in a nutshell, is freelancing.
But that’s not a happy ending is it. Perhaps what sums it up is that despite the lack of pension, sick leave, healthcare, time off, or even lunch breaks, and even knowing I’ll never be rich from writing, one year in, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
This is what I’ve been doing all year – (almost) every single article is here