Balancing family and freelance journalism

I type this on a gorgeous sunny day in the middle of a period when personal and family matters did their best to interfere with my freelance work, at a level even I – after a good 30 years of freelancing – have never experienced before. Not only lots of heavy deadlines to juggle between, but deaths of three friends with corresponding funerals and visitations to attend (as well as notifying my network of friends, family and classmates about them), prescription-service headaches to cope with, an unexpected visit from a childhood friend, my mom’s 88th birthday to celebrate, volunteer commitments to honor …  And here it is, Mother’s Day, when I should be hanging out with my mom, and I’m sitting in my home office writing a column about balancing work and family (an assignment I almost forgot about, in all honesty, thanks to everything else on my plate lately and to, um, not putting this deadline on my calendar).

These are good things to include in our lives, but they do conflict with getting work done, and freelancers have the added burden of friends and family not always understanding what we do and why we need time to do it – if we aren’t leaving home for the office at regular hours, how can it be an imposition to manage personal and family stuff whenever it crops up?

And it’s even more challenging for freelancers with children; one demand on my time and energy that I don’t have, but that is part of the life of almost every freelancer I know.

How do we do it all?

The first and most important aspect of balancing work and family is to acknowledge that we need to create that balance. It doesn’t just happen serendipitously.

We have to start by educating everyone we know and interact with on the validity of what we do and how we do it. We have to take our work seriously, or no one else will. Then we have to figure out what comes first and when, because that will fluctuate. And we have to be conscious of the fact that the best-organized to-do list is going to blow up when something unexpected happens, such as illness, equipment malfunctions, death. The occasional reminder that “life happens” can help head off panic when it does.

Don’t let family and friends talk you into being the neighborhood or family patsy – sorry; errand-runner, helper, do-gooder – just because you’re working from home and perhaps at unpredictable hours. If you don’t mind dog-watching, cat-sitting, picking up kids from school and taking them to extra-curricular activities, accepting packages, doing airport runs – fine; if doing all that for everyone interferes with finding freelance projects and getting your work done – not fine. Learn to say no: “Sorry, I’d be glad to help out, but I’m on deadline today and not available. Maybe next time.” “I’d love to chair that event, but I’m neck-deep in work, so I just can’t take on that much responsibility. Is there something else I can do instead that takes less time?” “I’ll play catch with you in an hour; I have to finish this interview first.”

Some freelance journalists set regular work hours – even posting signs on their office doors and websites, so family and friends know when not to disturb them and clients know when not to try to contact them.

It helps to have a separate work space and your own computer that no one else in the family is allowed to use, so you can’t be bounced off it while the kids do their homework or your partner takes care of his or her personal business. Having your own work space and equipment is not only one mark of the professional, but an invaluable way of marking the boundaries between work and family.

The best tool for balancing work and family is to put everything in writing. Treat family matters and volunteer projects in the same way as paid assignments: Put them on your calendar with their dates or deadlines and even the odd “tickler”: a calendar reminder that such-and-such a commitment, event or responsibility is coming up a week later. Once you see all these things on paper (or in an onscreen Word or Excel document; whatever works best for you), it’s a lot easier to organize the time to handle all of them without going bonkers – and to know when to turn something down or hand it off because it’s just not going to be possible to do everything.

Be prepared to delegate or refer. Build up a network of reliable colleagues to turn to when you’re overloaded and must choose between a family event and a new assignment, or a crisis occurs, or a new project is in the offing that your common sense says you really shouldn’t accept at that particular time, or a worthy charity event arises that you don’t want to turn down flat.

Try to stay ahead of deadlines – don’t just meet them, but sometimes beat them, so it’s easier to respond if a family matter comes up unexpectedly. It’s hard enough to cope with a personal emergency when the decks are clear, but ulcer-generating when you have to fit it in around work deadlines. Most clients will be sympathetic to what they see as genuine emergencies, but your and their definitions of “genuine” may be worlds apart, and even the most dire issue won’t compensate for leaving a client with empty column inches or pages to fill at the last second.

Expect to burn the occasional late-night oil. Sometimes the only way to meet work deadlines while fulfilling family commitments is to put in the occasional all-nighter.

Try to maintain a savings cushion. It’s a lot easier to turn down an assignment because a family event needs your time and attention when you aren’t desperate for every incoming penny.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t put family first, because we (usually) should. Family and family moments are irreplaceable. But we have to get our work done, and sometimes family and other non-work demands get in the way. Only the individual freelance journalist can know when one should trump the other. The best way to create an enjoyable balance between the two is to acknowledge that they might interfere with each other on occasion, be as prepared as possible, and cultivate enough flexibility and backbone to direct that traffic in the directions you need them to take to handle both.

Now I’m off to spend some quality time with my mom; I’ll be working into the wee hours of the night to meet a couple of urgent deadlines, but some things come first.

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  • Katharine Wiencke

    Great post, Ruth! I particularly like your phrase “cultivate enough flexibility and backbone.” Spot on! (And so difficult…)

  • Sam DAniel Stalin

    Very nicely put. Appropriate for full timers too. Thanx. Sam

  • An excellent piece! Thanks, Ruth. I’m sharin’ this one!

  • In case I didn’t make this clear enough: Yes, sometimes family has to give way to work – but sometimes work should give way to family.

  • Marcia Merryman-Means

    Well done, Ruth. I no longer freelance, but I telecommute from home to a very demanding job as managing editor. I face the same issues as when I freelanced, except that the workload is always large and steady. And now undergoing a renovation while I work around it. . . .

  • Judy L.

    I’m passing this on!

  • Ophelia Johnson

    Boy, I wish you’d write another blog on this topic. So timely!

  • I’ll see what I can do, Ophelia. Nothing like a request to get the old synapses snapping!

  • Great post, Ruth! The occasional all-nighter does help to reduce distractions and get a project back on schedule. I find myself pulling all-nighters simply because I am more productive that time of day.

  • As a follow-up to my original blog post, I just saw an article in a medical magazine that suggested we not worry about balancing work and family – that trying to do so was giving into “the tyranny of balance.” The author suggests that a balanced life is a myth and that, instead, we try to nourish our bodies and our souls; get moving toward specific goals and improvements in our lives; be realistic about what life expects/demands of us; and think in terms of blending the ingredients or demands of our lives together, rather than seeing them as balls in the air to be juggled.

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