I was still six years away from having kids when I left my job as the assistant director of a social service agency in 2003. In fact, kids weren't on my mind at all. "If I have them, I have them. If I don't, I don't," was my mantra.
Three kids later, it’s an attitude that I find astonishing — the mother part of my identity now irrevocable.
Back then, my 403(b) was meager. I had no savings. I had no plan B. I just knew that my job was soul strangling and I had to get out. I landed a job as a tour director in Puerto Rico and set up a new life on the island. I realized I'd need to supplement my income during the off-season, and what better way than to parlay my island knowledge into travel writing? Twelve years in and back in New York City, I'm a full-time freelancer, as is my husband.
Before we had children, our friends often said that they envied us. They said they’d love a lifestyle like ours with such freedom and flexibility.
But after we had children, a lot of them pitied us. How could we ever get work done? Weren't we dying for "adult time"? Didn't we lament the fact that our freelance careers didn't provide basic benefits like parental leave? They were surprised to hear that we were perfectly happy, even though we both worked right up to — and immediately following — each birth.
Unsolicited advice soon followed: "You should really take some time off to enjoy the kids," one friend said. "They won't be babies forever."
What she didn't realize is that we were enjoying our babies. While our 9-to-5 friends were required to squeeze their parenting, relationships, and other interests into a couple of exhausted hours each evening or on over-scheduled weekends, my husband and I were a triple threat: full-time parents, full-time partners, and full-time freelancers.
Making this arrangement work requires a dual juggling act. Here’s how we do it.
1. Constant communication
My husband and I are in conversation all day, every day, briefing each other on our respective workloads and what we need from one another in order to get our work done.
Because we both cover breaking news and are quick to pick up unexpected opportunities for last-minute work, the schedule we set in the morning may look very different by midday. And with three kids thrown in the mix, there’s always the chance of best-laid plans going awry.
3. A high tolerance for uncertainty
The uncertainty about the shape of the day — and the need for both of us to be flexible about changing plans — is coupled with uncertainty around finances. Because work might be paid anywhere from the same day to months after it is delivered, budgeting can be a challenge. We find ourselves dipping into savings more often than we’d like while waiting for invoices to be paid. My advice: Build up a reserve before you take the leap to full-time freelancing. You’ll find finances much less stressful.
4. Taking (almost) every assignment
Some freelancing couples might decide it’s better to accept only assignments that meet certain pay criteria, but we think it’s more important to always have a ball in the game. There’s a fair amount of guesswork and intuition involved here, assessing the opportunities that, while lower-paying than your ideal rate, are likely to have a high “conversion rate” (i.e., they’ll bring you more prestigious or better-paying opportunities — or move you into a market sector where you didn’t have bylines before). Consider the example of a gig my husband took last year, photographing a fundraising gala for our daughter’s school. He did the job at a cut rate, suspecting board members and other parents, many of whom are wealthy, would likely hire him for assignments. His intuition was spot-on: Several high-paying and high-profile assignments followed.
5. Tons of support
Freelancing is both exhilarating and exhausting, with success and rejection alternating frequently. It takes a resilient character to weather these extremes, and having a partner who will buoy you during the troughs and celebrate your peaks is invaluable. Admiration in each other’s work has a hidden benefit: We’ve found that we’ve sold each other’s services to clients just because we’re so enthusiastic about each other’s abilities.
6. Letting go of certain ideals
The idea of working for long, uninterrupted stretches and finishing an assignment in a single sitting is a dream, not a reality. Rather than fantasize about what it would be like to write a paragraph or edit a batch of photos without a single interruption, we choose the path of least resistance: We accept circumstances as they are and have become masters of what we call “the stolen moment,” finishing work burst by burst literally whenever we can.
7. The fact that our kids are still so young
As our kids grow, their ages and needs will demand changes in the way we work. It’s our job as parents to make sure we adjust alongside them — not only in our personal life, but in our professional and financial ones, too. To date, we’ve indulged in the fact that our kids can travel with us (two of them are under the age of two and can thus fly for free). But as they get older (and more expensive), we’ll likely need to take turns with who stays home and who travels for work, as well as who comes along on assignment, especially since few employers pay family expenses.
8. Our kids’ amazing temperaments
We know we’re lucky. Our kids have the kind of easygoing, even-keeled temperaments that make our lifestyle possible. They’ve never had a meltdown on a plane (so far!) and they’re low maintenance, able to entertain themselves and each other while I do an interview or their dad does a photo shoot. They’re charmers, too, typically drawing the attention of interview and photo subjects, restaurant servers, and flight attendants. Many of them even end up offering unique experiences to our kids, from cockpit selfies to behind-the-scenes tours of Broadway shows.
Our lifestyle has incredible perks. We adjust our schedules to attend school events, and we've never had to depend on a child care provider. Often, our kids come along on exciting assignments (yet another perk of freelance work), and this has made them more engaged with the world, as well as more empathetic, self-assured, and sociable.
Plus, we never have to wear suits.
This isn't to say that life is one long idyll, or that our lifestyle would work for everyone. In many ways, we work harder than we ever did before, as our earnings depend entirely on our hustle. There are no real days off. For us, this is thrilling, but for others, it might be exhausting or anxiety provoking, especially with young children.
Still, for us, it's a sweet life.