I typed away at a makeshift standing desk in my living room, the baby bouncing in her carrier on my chest. I usually started work at 6 or 7 a.m. to ensure I could sign off when our nanny had to leave on the four days a week we had her. But some days I couldn’t stop early enough.
This is my career after having a kid. I work at least 35 hours a week, often more. I work around child care and holiday schedules. I work early mornings, and I work weekends. I work from home and hustle for clients because we can’t live on one income. Also, we would need at least 10 hours of daily child care if my husband and I both commuted to traditional office jobs.
There’s an argument for changing systems from within. Break the glass ceiling, extend a hand, pull others up behind you. But how do we find the energy to break the glass ceiling on four hours of sleep, with a sick kid, a working spouse, no family around, and a strained bank account? School hours and office hours don’t match, leaving parents scrambling for after care. Even if a parent has two weeks of vacation, summer break from school lasts five times that and day camps get expensive. For many, including me, the gig economy is the only way the math works. We can’t afford not to work, and we enjoy our careers. But we can’t afford enough child care to cover the work and commute hours of a traditional job—and also, we’d like to see our kids before bedtime.
Shannon Joyce Neal was 30 with a toddler at home when the major metro daily newspaper where she worked offered her a promotion to business editor.
Instead, she walked away.
“I tried to be the change from within,” Joyce Neal says of a job with 60-hour work weeks. She wouldn’t have seen her son during the week. All the evening child care would fall to her husband, who also worked full time. “I asked for the flexibility, and they said no. Do I keep pushing forward in a situation where I don’t feel it’s a good choice, or do I come up with another option?”
Her son won out. She quit and took occasional freelance work. For her and others, the gig economy offered what many workplace and government policies don’t: room to stay in the professional game and also meet the needs of a growing family.
My own career track involved newspaper reporting for a decade before moving online, juggling breaking news for an audience of millions.
And then I had a kid.
And then my full-time, work-from-home editing contract ended. I didn’t have a plan, really. A startup offered me work, and I landed some corporate writing assignments. A freelance career launched. I’ve yet to meet fellow parents in a two-income household who don’t suffer some permanent state of anxiety trying to figure out schedules and money. We do too, but at least I can keep editing, keep writing, and stick dinner in the oven while I work or clean dishes during conference calls.
Maybe this is is the new “having it all.”
Joyce Neal had a second child who developed a seizure disorder. Child care outside the home wasn’t an option. Returning to work full time remained impossible.
Continuing her occasional freelancing “was rewarding, to … do something that I felt I was good at and that I was contributing and that was wholly separate from that parenting identity,” she says.
In her sentiments I hear my own. Maybe this is the new “having it all,” balancing some form of my needs and my daughter’s without giving up one or the other.
Someday I may return to an office position. Life happens. But for now, with a young child and my skill set, I’m embracing freelance work. I drafted this essay on a weeknight while my husband handled bath time and bedtime, and I edited sections at our local YMCA while my now-preschool-age daughter took ballet.
Maybe it’s selfish, but right now I’m not worried about the glass ceiling. I’m more worried about what to do with a sick kid and a spouse out of town. If enough of us freelancer parents are that selfish, maybe we’ll create a new normal.