Halfway through our second year of self-employment, I find myself facing one of my biggest fears: not having the second half of the year packed with as much work as the past 18 months. It’s not that Best Husband and I don’t have any work, we just have less. Quite a bit less.
I have dreaded this day since the moment we walked away from our jobs. And yet…
I feel relieved. I need a break. I am burnt out, grateful that my calendar is not packed from now into next year. I am proud of completed, long-term projects. (I am not at all exhausted by our work or clients. We work with wonderful people at excellent, ethical businesses on important, rewarding projects. That is a relief in itself.)
But I am exhausted with grief. I’ve lost six people — dear hearts, every one — since January: two to suicide, one at age 42 to cancer found at age 32. Nothing makes sense, after that.
I am exhausted with driving, too. One self-employment goal was to devote more time to what had become a successful side gig: sheep shearing. Though I am hopelessly devoted to this vocation, it means I spend a lot of time driving to farms. I’ve put thousands of miles on the car this spring. Fortunately, shearing has an off season and it is underway.
I am also exhausted with perennial healthcare drama from our ostensible “leaders,” an unwelcome adventure for our business: Will we still have health care?! For how long? Who knows?! I have emailed and called and sent postcards and tweeted about the same issue since November, which feels exactly as frustrating as it sounds. Though I cannot control the outcome, I must devote mental space to this prolonged emergency and at least attempt to find a Plan B and Plan C, for our sakes.
My relief is only possible because, logically and financially, we are fine. My husband and I have done exactly as we should: living well below our means (as ever), socking money away for lean times. This is easier for us because we don’t have children, serious illnesses (for now), or debt. Our overhead costs are lower than many of our peers’.
Even so, I am not acting like a relieved person. I catch myself scanning Craigslist and paying attention to daily emails from FlexJobs even as my heart says “Oh, no. Not that. Not yet.” What’s that about, that sporadic online job ratholing? A sign that I apparently have a lot of work to do, because I am not fully and proudly owning the life we deliberately created during the past two years.
Why not? And what would it look like if I did?
First, I need to remember that we wanted more time with family and friends, not more money. We meant it when we said it. Time was the measure that mattered. And yet, here I am, counting money earned and money ahead. Tsk tsk, self.
Owning it should include an admission that corporate, industrial goals were never my own, so much as something I absorbed from our culture of Productivity Over All. I would also have to acknowledge the shame I feel that it took me 20 years to notice my brainwashed industrial mindset, 20 years to ask “What kind of life do I want?” and not “What kind of job do I want?” (Don’t make this mistake, whippersnappers.)
It would mean letting go of the idea that I should (still) be more ambitious, as traditionally defined, especially as a woman with multiple degrees I nearly killed myself getting, every one of them while working full time and more.
I would also tell you that, so far, the naysayers have been wrong. Self-employment has not felt more precarious than a typical job with at-will employment, in which anyone can be fired “for any reason or no reason at all.”
In addition, I would confess — without fear of accused laziness — that the entire PTO thing never really worked for me, not four weeks (20 days) and certainly not two (10 days), especially when you spend the first year accruing them. If you don’t live within a brief driving distance of all your nearest and dearest, I don’t know how PTO is supposed to work. Two to four weeks for all of your sick days, and those of any partners and/or kids, and taking care of grandma, grandpa, mom, and/or dad (x 4 + more if you’re married and/or have parents who divorced and remarried), and weddings and funerals, and the births of nieces and nephews, and supporting a friend who’s a single parent and having her child, and helping a neighbor who got called about that long-awaited adoption and has an insta-baby, but hasn’t had months to find a nanny or get on those nursery school lists? And there’s supposed to be an actual vacation in there…. how, exactly?
And another thing: I have never liked working nonstop between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. That time of year feels, palpably, like it should be one massive, national hiatus in which we can all just snug in and acclimate to shorter days and colder temperatures, and sleep, and eat stews and cocoa. We can be like Europeans during “August, the vacation month,” as my French colleagues used to say, but from late November to January 1.
I would admit that the financial concept of “enough” is not a moving target, for me. It hasn’t changed even as everything around me (Teslas) says it should. Here’s the thing: I remember the very first day that I could buy whatever I wanted at the grocery store. It was so momentous that I remember what I was wearing (navy suit), what store I was in (Treasure Island in Chicago), and exactly where I was standing (beside the Chock full o’Nuts coffee cans) when the realization hit me. It’s been diminishing returns ever since. Sure, there have been good moments (giving friends money when in need; having down payments for houses), but none have resonated quite like “I can buy any food I want” did.
I cannot bring myself to want things I don’t need. We have more than enough. We live in 900 square feet of in-need-of-updates luxury. I feel like some 1950s Wife Of The Future when I hear my dishwasher and washing machine chugging along in unison. Thanks to Costco, we have organic coffee, cheese, and wine. (See, there I go with the groceries again. Well, since I’m owning it, I guess I’ll just stand by it.)
More time looks like a less full pipeline. That’s what more time is. Success looks like freedom and independence, not just a pile of invoices. We can take a two-week vacation back east to visit friends and my husband’s family, without the worry that we’ll have to “pay” for it by not seeing my family at Christmas. We can babysit and toss the frisbee around, and finally have time to create a professional website, refine my freelance pitch hustle, and maybe even get some business cards printed.
The ability to fully own not just the uneven pace of work, but also my genuine relief at a temporary respite from work, is an unexpected step in the self-employment journey. I focused so heavily on financial goals that I lost sight of any non-financial goals. Fortunately, it’s halftime, and I have time to reflect on that.
Stephany Wilkes is a writer, sheep shearer, and regular contributor at Hobby Farms. Her work has been published in The Ag Mag, The New Stack, Midwestern Gothic, various academic publications, and on her blog, West by Midwest. She has recently completed a book about her sheep shearing adventures called Raw Material, and is currently at work on another about fabric.
This story is part of The Billfold’s Halfway Series.
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