Is working for free ever justified, even for your spouse?

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I came across this NY times column, which gave rise to all sorts of thoughts.

My husband is beginning to fund-raise for his new start-up. I’m a professional brand strategist. He and his co-founder want my help naming their company, crafting messaging and creating their website and pitch materials. When I asked how formal the arrangement would be and whether there would be any compensation involved, he was incredibly hurt and now believes I don’t support his business. Am I completely wrong here? Should I work for him for free on the principle of being his wife?

So let’s try to break this one down.

Many people would have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “OF COURSE spouses should share skills. Marriage is all about mutual contribution, and everyone’s the gainer. It’s called supporting each other.”

True enough. But there’s also this: if the wife is a professional and if she does any work of serious extent for her husband’s business, she almost inevitably passes over other (paid) opportunities.

Her contribution could range from a short-term consultancy to actually laying aside her own business entirely and supporting her husband’s startup. And here, if she gets no official recognition, position, or salary, is the fly in the ointment.

If the marriage stays stable, equitable and loving for the rest of these two people’s lives, that’s fine. No problem may ever arise and it may not matter in whose name the income is. But what if it’s not?

What if things go south, and 20 years down the road, the wife needs to strike out on her own after being a prop for her husband’s business for two decades? Yes, as many will point out, in case of a divorce, she gets a share of the business. He may buy out her part during property division, or he may sell the business and split the profit with her.

This, however, leads to two issues:

  1. In a family court, depending on the state in question, the wife may need to prove the extent of her contribution to the business, and this may be difficult if she never had an official role.
  2. If the husband is in sole control of company finances, he may prepare for divorce and siphon off funds to offshore funds and trusts (I’m aware of these strategies because I write a lot of web content for divorce lawyers).

Furthermore, if her role in the business was completely behind the scenes, the wife may have a 20-year blank on her resume. She may include her experience in the family business, of course, but then what happens if she applies for another position? Who will give her recommendations, the ex-husband/boss?

This gets even more problematic if she ever needs a mortgage or a car loan. Not (officially) working for 20 years doesn’t present a good picture for potential lenders.

If the split-up happens closer to retirement age, the wife may find herself in even deeper financial trenches.

But this isn’t even the worse scenario. In the worst case, the wife may actually stay stuck in an unhealthy, possibly abusive, marriage because she is so deeply mired financially. I’m not saying this will definitely happen. But it might.

So, my bottom line: if a person expects their spouse to play any long-term significant part in their business, at minimum, the contributing spouse should get an official recognition of their role and company stocks. Anything else may put their partner in a very, very precarious position down the road.

The dictionary of an overworked freelancer mom, part 1

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One of these days, I’m going to write a more serious post. Like what it’s like to live in a country that was so proud of being a vaccine pioneer and now appears to be in total shambles. Or how to save on electricity during a massive killer heat wave.

But today, it’s time for something just for laughs.

A: Advancing. Something you’re supposed to do on projects instead of browsing the biography of Elvis Presley.

B: Break. Something you should never feel guilty for taking. In fact, I guarantee that you need it.

C: Client. Someone who bombards you with emails while they need you and disappears for a month when it’s time to pay.

D: Deadline. Wait, how can it be tomorrow?! I thought I had a week.

E: Entertainment. Watching your kids chase chickens around the yard.

F: Food. Something you’re somehow supposed to come up with three times a day. You try to convince your kids leftover soup does too count.

G: Getaway. Something you daydream about nonstop.

H: Hunger. Something you feel around noon when your stomach rumbles and you recall you’ve gotten breakfast for everyone except yourself.

I: Internet. Something you rely on for your work, which tends to flop just when you’re having an important discussion over Skype.

J: Jig. Something you do when you finish a big project.

K: Kill. Something you want to do when your computer crashes.

L: Lucky. The way you feel when you open the refrigerator and see there’s still some milk left for your morning cuppa.

To be continued…

Is working from home really better for the family?

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Some days, honestly, I doubt the answer.

As a mom to a bunch of young kids, working from home gives me the benefits of no commute, a flexible schedule, and the ability to work in my pyjamas at the kitchen table.

It also means, however, that I often find myself working a whacko schedule of late nights followed by early mornings and the occasional hour in the afternoon.

Whenever someone is awake, forget about productivity: distractions can propel me into making ridiculous mistakes like using info for Orange County, NC, instead of Orange County, California (true story!).

I’m always there, but I’m also not really “there”, because my eyes are glued to my laptop screen. And when the time comes to close the laptop for the day, I find it hard to disengage.

Here’s a dirty secret: when you work from home, many people consider it not working at all, even if you make pretty good money (Covid and the lockdowns changed this cultural assumption somewhat). As such, family members expect you to be always available for a phone call or a quick errand during the day and don’t understand what you mean by “busy”.

There are days when the lure of walking out of the door for a set number of hours, then coming back home to really BE at home, is almost overwhelming. Then a kid gets sick or I make a trip somewhere and see the traffic, and think that my choice of being a home-based freelance writer makes sense after all.

The ideal solution for me would probably be a designated home office (and a whole lot of help with little ones!). Until that is in the making, I’ll make do with what I have.

How I improved my income as a freelance writer

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When I first began seriously freelancing as an editor and content writer (as opposed to an occasional gig here and there), I was earning roughly $200-300 for editing a 100K-word novel, and about 1 cent per word of original content. If this sounds like total exploitation, it was. But I had been out of the workforce for 10 years, I had no confidence and no references, and I was desperate for money.

At times, I questioned whether it wasn’t crazy to give up so much of my time and energy for such low compensation. But I earned valuable experience and was soon able to move on to better things. It’s an ongoing process, and I would like to share a few things that have helped me along the way.

I keep looking for opportunities. Even though today I have as much work as I can handle, I give job listings a quick look-through every day. When I see something interesting, I apply, even if I don’t feel 100% confident. I’d rather risk hearing “no” than missing out on a potential opportunity.

I value my time. When I started doing this, I knew I wasn’t looking for a full-time position. I wanted to keep staying home for my children. I wanted to keep home educating. I wanted some spare time for creative writing, art, backyard homesteading, reading, and just breathing.

This means that I had to pay close attention to my hourly rate. I have about 3-4 hours of work split throughout my day (1 hour early in the morning, 1 during midday downtime, 1-2 hours after the kids are in bed), and I must make them count. I was never after pocket money. I need a real income for bills and groceries, so I can’t allow my time to go down the drain.

I play to my strengths. While I’ve written about topics like insurance and cryptocurrency on occasion, these aren’t my strong points. On the other hand, I have a degree in nutrition, which gives me a big leverage in projects that focus on diets, supplements, and wellness. Having expertise also means I need to spend less time on research.

I’m not quite making a full-time income yet, but I’m getting close. I know people who are doing this without breaking a sweat. Writing (whether you write fantasy novels or service pages for roof contractors in Michigan) isn’t a get rich quick scheme, but it can provide solid income, and there’s plenty of room to grow if you’re willing to put in the effort.

“This should be your time”

A kind commenter told me this (I can’t find the exact quote right now): I’m sorry you have to work, even from home. this should be your time with your children.

Let me tell you…. There are days when I miss the simplicity of getting up and not having to juggle work projects with taking care of children and endless household chores.

Theoretically, yeah, I’d probably say that all mothers should live peacefully, free from all financial constraints until their children are at least in their teens. However, as we all know, there is a big difference between should, can, and is.

  • I feel more financially secure working. After several periods of extreme financial duress and my inability to do anything about it as I virtually cut myself off from all paid employment options, I know that the stress of juggling work and home is nothing compared to the anguish of having no income for extended periods of time.
  • My self-esteem is higher as I make my own money. I have always said that this is a misleading term: when you are married, all money goes into the family pool. Theoretically, who earns the money shouldn’t make any difference. “Just” mothers shouldn’t feel in any way inferior. But this is another instance of should vs is – as we live in the money economy, those who generate value but not money are often invisible. In a marriage, one of the spouses being responsible for 100% of the income often leads to an imbalance – and misuse – of power.
  • Getting into the workforce is tough after an extended break. I had been out of paid employment for a decade, and finding paid work involved scrambling for ground-level, low-paying jobs, plus losing much of the advantages my degree and clinical training would have given me otherwise. For a woman who had been out of employment for two decades or more, the process would doubtless be more difficult.

I don’t work full-time, nor is it my goal. But I am doing something I can easily upscale as my children grow older and I am able to put in more hours.

Always looking for balance, I certainly wish I had more of “my time” but thankful for the opportunities that have allowed me to swim rather than sink.

Building a financial safety net

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When I was younger, I argued that maintaining a full-time career while what you would really like is to stay home with your children – not out of immediate necessity, but out of concern for possible future happenings such as illness, death, or divorce – is akin to living your life out in a bunker instead of being out in the fresh air and smelling the flowers.

In the meantime, I was doing something that was more like walking the tightrope without a safety net underneath. I had moved to a remote, inaccessible area without reliable transportation means, counting on my husband to always provide for our family and effectively making sure that, in the foreseeable future, I would not be able to contribute to the family income. Having no car and no driver’s license, I depended on my husband entirely for every errand and every little grocery store purchase (there being no facilities within walking distance at all).

I didn’t realize it back then, but I was setting myself up for some pretty unpleasant consequences should something go wrong.

Those who have been following my blog know what happened next: over the course of a few years, unemployment, underemployment and unwise financial choices had brought us to a full-blown crisis, while I couldn’t do much more than wring my hands and try to cope with anxiety and panic attacks. I did do some remote work, but even that was extremely difficult with patchy network access.

While I’m still a big proponent of making decisions out of love, not fear, and while I don’t regret for a second being a stay at home mom to my children (which in fact I still am), I would give my younger self one piece of sound advice:

Make sure you have a safety net. Don’t travel down a road that gives you no possibility to do a U-turn in case the you-know-what hits the fan. This doesn’t mean you are a wimp or lack faith. It’s simply common sense.

If I were to break it down into practical points, I would tell her:

1. Keep on building up your credentials even if you think you won’t be needing those. You never know.

2. Think twice (maybe more like ten times) before you move to an area where you would have extremely limited mobility and no services. Even if it’s your quintessential rural dream with rolling hills, olive groves, and herds of goats. If you purchase a house, take into consideration how easy or difficult it might be to sell it later on.

3. While role division in marriage makes perfect sense for many occasions, two heads are better than one. For a long time I used to think I’m displaying loyalty and trust towards my husband by leaving everything concerning the family finances entirely in his hands. In fact, I was doing none of us any favors. My husband was fallible, as was I. Neither of us was perfect in any regard, but it’s always so much worse when you feel pressure to do what is “right” rather than what works practically.

4. Build up your savings. That’s a tricky one with zero income, I know! But in case you come into some money, like after selling a house, stash some away right away and don’t allow it all to be frittered on stuff like food and rent (ask me how I know).

I guess it all boils down to this: don’t put yourself in a situation where you are disproportionately, entirely dependent on another person for all your basic needs. Even if that person is your spouse. Do not place yourself in a situation where you would be unable to help yourself if need be.

I have a friend whose husband, a really nice, hardworking man suffered an accident on the job and has lost his livelihood. Insurance doesn’t come up to scratch. He is undergoing a long and grueling process of physical rehabilitation. However, my friend is keeping afloat because she lives near supportive family and there’s every necessity readily available in the vicinity. The you-know-what has certainly hit the fan for them, but they had not placed themselves in a situation where they wouldn’t have the tools to cope.

I shudder to think what would have happened to me in a similar situation a couple of years ago. I would be left stranded in the boonies with a bunch of tots, unable to help my husband or my children or myself. I count myself lucky to have been able to move to a better, safer place.

Being safe doesn’t mean being a wimp. On the contrary, the wimpy choice is sticking one’s head in the sand and refusing to consider tomorrow.

Finding the balance: working from home with your kids around

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Stay-at-home moms are on call all the time. There’s always something to do at home – it’s more than a full time job! Between settling sibling fights and washing another never-ending stacks of dishes, it’s no wonder most moms of little ones are ready to collapse at the end of the day.

If you throw in home education and extracurricular activities, you get an even busier life.

And if you are also trying to set up a home business or establish yourself as a freelancer? While it may seem (and is often true) that working from home is a family friendly option, enabling parents to still be there to take care of their kids and save time and money on commute, it does come with challenges of its own.

Many work-at-home parents still have hired childcare, which basically makes it no different from any other job – they do have set office hours, it’s just that their office happens to be right where they live. But if you, like me, choose to work from home so that you don’t need to hand your children over to anyone else, your hours become very fluid. You may find yourself locked up in the upstairs bathroom having a video call with a client because that’s the only place where you can be sure of privacy and you really, desperately need those three minutes right NOW.

It may seem extremely difficult, next to impossible, to find time when you seemingly don’t have any, and I’ve had to become very disciplined. I don’t remember the last time I have watched a movie. I only read for pleasure on Shabbat (as a copyeditor, I basically read for a living during the week). My friends (the ones I have left) often complain that I don’t return calls. I often get up early and go to bed late, and I still have to struggle with guilt for having to do some things during the day when my children are awake and need me.

I have implemented early bedtime, even for Shira who will soon be 11, and have also gotten my kids used to the idea that I’m not always available for whatever it is. We have a home office, but I don’t use it because I can’t leave little ones unsupervised during the day. So if I do have work to complete during daytime hours, I settle with my laptop in the living room and my children know that I’m there for any emergency, but not for fixing sandwiches, reading stories or helping them make beaded bracelets – not for the next hour or two, anyway.

The older kids are encouraged to have quiet time while the baby is napping so that I can work. This includes both my own books and my paid job, though my books often find myself having to wait as I focus on a deadline for a paid project.

I still think I have got a pretty good deal. I am there when a child is sick and needs extra care. I choose my own hours and decide how much work I can take up (the more I do, the more I get paid, but one can only do so much). I run errands whenever it is convenient, I have no commute, and I can always take time off for family occasions.

A few insights:

1. Simplify. Opt for less stuff, less commitments, and simpler meals. Clutter is your enemy, especially when the whole family is home every day and all day long.

2. Avail yourself of any help with kids and/or housework you can get. If you live near family that is willing to help, so much the better for you. Don’t worry, no matter what you do, there will still be more than enough work left over for you.

3. Avoid the guilt loop. While my husband walks into our home office to take care of his stuff and make phone calls without interruption, I have often felt guilty for saying no to sitting on the carpet and coloring because I’m working to a deadline. At other times, I’ve felt guilty for neglecting the deadline and sitting down to color.

You can only do your best. If I find myself struggling with feeling I have not done enough, I look back at the end of the day on all the things I’ve done for my family – from cooking meals to giving baths, from wiping noses to paying bills, and earning the money to pay those bills, too – versus the “me time” (usually a stolen 20 minutes to work on a book, some crochet at the playground, and texting a friend for a bit) and I realize I have absolutely no reason to feel guilty. In fact, I even can and should become my own cheerleading team, applauding all my efforts and appreciating what has been achieved.