When Freelancers are Breadwinners

The tricky dichotomy of being a high-earning freelancer.

When I first began freelancing, I never imagined I could build a real career on my own. That I might someday out-earn my engineer husband during busy months was unfathomable. But that’s exactly where I find myself today. I put a tremendous amount of focused work into my freelance career, and it has paid off both literally and figuratively. I earn a steady income. I work great, flexible hours. I’ve seen my name printed in the glossy print magazines that seemed so out of reach at the beginning of my career.

Yet despite my success and the fact that I earn as much as my husband (while also being the stay-at-home parent), my career flies largely under the radar. While my husband is asked how his job is going, I’m asked if I’m writing about anything fun – or not asked about my professional life at all. While I would never dream of dropping into his workplace with the kids unannounced, I’ll often have kids whining at the door to my office (if I’ve been wise enough to lock it) even when my husband is home to care for them.

I’ve considered hiring childcare during the day to allow me more working hours, but the thought automatically feels preposterous. My primary job is still seen as a stay-at-home mother, no matter my hourly rate. I suppose the comments that downplay my career have settled into a place where they are hard to reject.

It’s a situation many freelancers know all too well. Freelancing is a job that can feel unnoticed, unappreciated, and undervalued. From romantic partners to friends and family to complete strangers, freelancers get loads of unsolicited advice and cutting comments about their job (or lack thereof) no matter how successful they’ve become.

Early on in Melissa Petro’s freelancing career, she found herself in a relationship where her job as a writer was constantly under attack. The 37-year-old says her ex viewed her writing as a character defect and a way to get attention instead of an actual career path. Those comments changed the way she viewed herself.

“Ultimately I think he held me back by warping my thinking,” Petro says. “I didn’t think of it as a viable career then, either, and I made significantly less money.”

When that toxic relationship ended, Petro decided to get serious about her work, setting and reaching monthly financial goals to further her career. Now she is in a supportive marriage, and her freelance career is flourishing. She earns equal to her partner and has his support and encouragement. Still, she says, the attitude that freelancing is lesser work remains.

“In the beginning of our marriage he would ask me if I ‘had to work’ that day — meaning did I have to teach or was I just freelancing from home (or ‘not working’),” says Petro. “After calling him on this once or twice, he corrected his language to ‘What are your plans for today?’ His emotional support has meant everything. He [now] encourages me to take creative risks and aim higher professionally.”

But that type of support isn’t a given. Africa Jackson, 32, a freelancer in Oakland, Calif., works a full-time job and puts in equal hours as a freelancer to support her son. Yet, she is often met with the assumption that her writing is “for fun” and finds herself on the receiving end of passive-aggressive jabs. One of the most irksome comments: “When are you going to get a real job?”

Instead of taking the criticism to heart, she tries to distance herself from those who think that way. Instead, she’s focused on building a community of fellow freelancers. “I try to surround myself with other writers,” Jackson says. “It has made such a huge difference!”

Having a tribe of other freelancers to talk to is invaluable as a successful freelancer. Not only do you get the validation you may not receive from your partner or family and friends, you also get the motivation to push yourself to the next level. Knowing other successful freelancers gives you the courage to be a successful freelancer yourself. (And making serious cash is a great way to stick it to those who think of your job as a recreational pursuit.)

Dawn Alcott, a 43-year-old freelance writer from Long Island, New York, tells of her first home-buying experience. An insurance agent was pressuring her and her husband to buy life insurance: “‘What if something happens to your husband?’ he said. ‘Are you going to be able to support yourself and your daughter on your freelance writing money?’”

His tone, Alcott explains, was obviously condescending. “[The agent] shut up fast when I said, ‘Actually, my take-home pay is more than my husband’s, and I’m also the primary caregiver. So he would be in a lot more trouble without me since he’d need to replace my salary and find childcare.’”

In the end, it’s important not to let other people’s perceptions determine your sense of self-worth. Focus on your professional and personal goals, and surround yourself with people who understand the struggles and rewards of freelancing. Rest assured that it can be as lucrative and legitimate as any other career path.