Freelancer-Father / J-School Reunion

newspaperBoy, is it a challenge to juggle being a freelance writer and an at-home dad. And do both jobs consistently and well. This month in Urbanite magazine, I have my first freelance article since 2008, when I wrote in Baltimore magazine about Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, now the city’s mayor. This, a month before my journalism school 10th reunion. Boy, has it been a long, slow climb back into the business.

When I’m working on an article, the family and the household suffer. The dishes stack up, laundry grows, library books earn late fees and little house jobs wait. I cobble together babysitter time and extra hours at preschool, tiptoeing around naps and school pickup time. I try not to reveal to story sources that I can’t plan for an interview at 5:30, because that’s when I’m fixing supper.

Since moving from New York to Baltimore in 2004, I’ve approached freelancing in fits and starts. I spent the first year getting my sea legs as an at-home dad (after working through the denial) and finding my way around town. Then I worked a journalism school connection at The Baltimore Sun to score an informational interview, which led to occasional freelance work for the real estate section. At lunch one day, my editor asked me what my long-term plans were. I told her I had spent my 20s making career plans. (Plan A: start at a small paper, move to a larger one, become ace reporter at top-tier newspaper. Plan B: edit wire copy, transition to wire service reporter, land job at flagship newspaper.) None of it worked out. I want to write what interests me. And what pays.

It was freeing to tell her I don’t know.

Our second child’s birth in 2006 quashed freelancing for another year as I learned to juggle an infant and a preschooler. Then I gave myself a year off to turn our basement from grody grotto into beachy getaway. (Or supervise it, at least.)

I know I’m good at making excuses and procrastinating. Need to put up crown molding in the living room. Need to weed the flower border. Rearrange the guest room. Fix that stool. Make that birthday cake. Clean the bathroom. But I know that being an at-home dad gives my children that unscheduled outdoor playtime that lets them learn to deal with other kids. To explore and get dirty. And have a hot supper every night and get to bed on time. It fuels my wife’s success at work by eliminating the worry about who gets the kids when we’re stuck at the office, who takes a sick day to care for a barfing child, or how we’ll manage simultaneous business trips.

I also know, as my Lovely Bride gently pointed out, that if I do intend to return to full-time work, I need to have a steady string of clips. Not lots of big holes in my resume. Once my 4-year-old starts kindergarten, I’ll have nearly six hours of unobstructed time to make phone calls and write. Writing six articles a month instead of six a year could actually make a modest salary, though we’ll still depend on my wife as breadwinner.

This all weighs on me as I prepare to face my 10-year reunion at Columbia Journalism School next month. In 2000, I wanted to be an international correspondent and see the world. Early 90s college study in France and train travel around Europe had slaked my thirst. As one of few married students, I felt like I was the only one asking how to juggle journalism and family. I realized I didn’t want to go to some remote corner of the world and get shot at. I wasn’t willing to ask the smart and successful woman I love to quash her career success in favor of mine. And we decided together that having a family and having roots was important, especially after my wife grew up moving every three years (her dad worked for the Federal Reserve Bank).

Ten years later, I have former classmates who reported from Africa for The New York Times and authored multiple books. These people are Pulitzer material. But I’ll bet a lot of them haven’t got what I have: a family. I get to walk my children to school every day. I eat lunch with my daughter every afternoon. I do not suffer from Working Parent Guilt. And my children usually have good manners, use their imaginations and play well with others (more often than not).

But how do I convey to my former classmates that I measure success by a different yardstick?

How will I answer when they ask what kind of work I do? Will I say I write a blog? I’m a freelancer? Really, my job is raising my children and being a good husband to my wife.

Oh, and I do some writing on the side.

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3 responses to “Freelancer-Father / J-School Reunion

  1. Hi Will, very touching article. Did you and Kim ever see the Wellesley documentary that followed various graduates in Hillary Clinton’s class (’69?) It’s been a long-time (like over 10 years), but I’m pretty sure one of the women profiled was a journalist (television). She explained that with the constant job-related moves, she wasn’t able to develop a long-term relationship, let alone get to the point of thinking about children. Then at one point, I think she had to make some sort of relationship or career sacrifice to return to the US to care for an elderly PARENT!

    My parents still aren’t what I would call well-behaved yet. Congratulations on that!

  2. Correction: My kids still aren’t well-behaved! My parents are lovely.

  3. Thanks for the great, realistic glimpse into the life of a freelancer/full-time parent. I can never understand why it is looked upon so negatively to have taken time to raise your children. It’s an admirable thing to do. Shows you’ve got your priorities straight!

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