Archive for July, 2008

For the last couple of years, Rain Dog has talked increasingly about quitting his job to stay home full-time. At first it was just him blowing off steam. But recently, and especially since the possibility of moving south became more distinct, he has talked about it more seriously.

Obviously the bills need to get paid. So if we move out of state, and we don’t know anyone and we’re not familiar with the area, what would I do for work? Well, obviously: freelance full-time!

The boys are at tough ages. Ultra-needy for lots of attention, they bombard us with demands to play with them, read to them, sit with them. I love the idea of being able to spend hours per day exercising my brain, so that I have the energy to be a mother at other times. This was a large part of the reason why I committed to four contracts all due August 1: trial run, to get a feel for what we might face.

I have not liked what we’ve experienced.

The work is going great. Two articles involve my regular source, so I’ve been having a lot of fun. One other article got deferred (the source decided the prototypical project wasn’t ready for media coverage), and the other… well, the other may be late. (The media contact listed in the press release is no longer working for the company I’m to contact. Heaven forfend she should have called me back and told me, instead of allowing me to waste two weeks trying to reach her.)

So I’ve been a busy girl. Last week, in particular, I burned through about a dozen interviews. And the boys burned through Rain Dog.

I knew exactly how he felt, and as he spiraled down into a summer flu of some sort, I felt worse about leaving him to their mercy. But my articles were growing rapidly, way past their word limits, and I knew I’d need this upcoming week to edit (savagely) and do last-minute follow-ups with my sources.

When I’m done, I’m taking the month of August off. I have no contracts through fall, although my source has more articles he wants me to work on with him. I’d love to keep going. We’re working towards what would appear to be a long-term collaboration, which has always been a dream of mine as a freelancer.

But the way this summer has gone–lack of home sale, stay-at-home-dad frustration, and my own guilt–I’m not a hundred percent convinced it really would be best for our family. And I won’t know for quite awhile yet, a month or two at least. It’s really rather depressing. Despite the guilt, I’ve really enjoyed this month. I’ve felt alive again. And the thought of going through yet another northern New England winter as “just” Mama… well. I don’t really have to describe what I think about that, do I?

Uncertainty is part of every freelancer’s life. That’s what keeps it interesting. But sometimes I would really just love to have something nailed down. I know, I know. The most important things already are: the love of my family and friends, the faith that I’m doing what I’m meant to be doing. The question over whether I should be doing it full-time or not, though… well, that can throw everything else out of whack. Weeks like this, it sure would be nice to have a real job!

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Knowing when to quit

I recently made the decision to give up my RaisingMaine.com blog. It was a hard decision. Deep down I knew it was best, but I didn’t want to admit it. I am extremely stubborn, and if I think there’s even a chance that something could have life left in it, I’m reluctant to let it go.

That said, though, I had to take an objective look at factors other than my own bullheadedness. The biggest one–maybe the only one–was that the other bloggers were consistently providing strong, well-thought-out entries. I, on the other hand, had lost almost complete interest in blogging about my family life.

I can trace that directly to the return of articles to my professional world. Family blogging was fine when I was not focused on other pursuits, but the opportunity to think objectively about issues totally unrelated to time-outs and teething made me wonder, Why do I want to relive this through blogging? Articles had reminded me that I was someone other than Mama, gave me a purpose beyond responding to endless streams of requests for drinks and clothes and food and playtime.

At this point, with two family blogs in my professional past–the one I gave up and the one that gave me up–I would have to say I probably wouldn’t accept another offer to blog on the same subject. Blog readers deserve a blogger who has passion for her subject matter, and while mothering is my job (even one I enjoy at times), it isn’t my passion.

I’ll continue to write parenting articles for Raising Maine the magazine; the pay is decent and the articles aren’t hard to write. Meanwhile, this blog stays. It’s mine, not someone else’s, and I do enjoy it. So not to worry, my two faithful readers: I’m here to stay!

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One of the key points of advice given to both freelance writers and mothers is this: understand how lonely it really is. You don’t have built-in work friends; you have to balance your work with the work of making, and maintaining, social contacts if you want to be happy.

Now, for an introvert like me, that never mattered so much. I was perfectly happy making contacts with other adults solely for the articles I was writing. My favorite interviews, granted, were the ones where I developed a strong enough rapport with the source to trade humor and personal anecdotes; I often wished I could work with them again. (I don’t have a “beat” like a newspaper reporter, so I never had the opportunity to forge relationships–however professional–with regular sources.)

When I became a mother, however, was when the full understanding of “loneliness” sank in. Because it wasn’t just that I didn’t have as much time to work with sources anymore. It was also meeting other mothers at playdates and parks, and realizing how much more “into” mothering they were than I was. Getting on the floor and playing with their kids wasn’t just enough; it was what they lived for. I really started to think something was wrong with me because I didn’t feel that way, because I had this elephant in the room telling me I had to keep writing.

Even after I found other freelancing mothers–what a precious few we are!–let’s face it, we’re all busy. Many of us don’t have time to come online and chat with each other, and of those who make the time, you don’t always “click.” So as a freelancing mother, the temptation is there to get to be friends with anyone you can get your hands (or keyboard) on. Including your sources.

Becoming friends with a source when you freelance is a bit grayer than when you’re a “real” reporter in a newsroom. Prevailing wisdom is that it’s unethical, because you lose the ability to be fair and impartial. Beat reporters are advised to get off the beat if that happens, to tell their editors–and not to write any more stories with friend-source as focal point.

But when you’re a freelancer, even though fairness and impartiality are still important, again–you’re not working a beat; you can afford to stay in touch. You might, as I often do, work with PR professionals whose only job is to set up interviews with their corporate contacts. Not much to deal with as far as impartiality there, so it’s easy to trade talk about your kids and jobs and life.

But what if you click with a source so well that not only do you stay in touch about kids and jobs and life, but they keep coming up with great story ideas, which they’re more than qualified to provide interviews for? Such was the position I found myself in this past spring, with an investigator I’d worked with before on articles. And, honestly, we’re still hashing out the ethical stuff.

It’s moot to argue that your friend doesn’t mind, in fact welcomes, if you ask tough questions (as mine does). What matters is when readers (especially if they overlap among magazines you work for, as they do in certain trade markets like mine–public safety) notice the same name popping up in your articles. Even the question about whether you can really be impartial is enough to undermine your credibility, and your source’s, too. No writer needs that, not if you want to make a serious career out of it.

I think it’s important always to keep your editors apprised of the situation, and to think of ways your friend-source can still work with you without compromising either of your reputations. That may mean that friend provides only background information, and either sends a different source your way or lets you pick your own. You may also co-author articles (though most editors don’t like having to split pay.) If you know another freelancer you trust, send your friend to that person with her article ideas. And if you decide you’ll no longer work together on articles, but still want to work together, think of a different project: a classroom course, or a book.

Above all, though, don’t compromise your humanity for your career. If you really mesh well with a source, even if you agree never to work together again, it’s not worth your happiness to walk away from a great friendship just because you’re afraid of ethical quicksand. Freelancing while you mother is one of the loneliest jobs out there, and the neverending work doesn’t get it. Think of it this way: would you rather your kid sees you working and miserable, or surrounded by friends and happy? So keep your friend–the career will fall into place.

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