The Truth About Being a Freelancer

*Cover photo taken by the producer of the radio show on Dubai Eye station, part of Arabian Radio Network during my on-air interview about modern motherhood and being an influencer.*  Click here to listen to the podcast.

The reason why I opened my entry with the above is because once you believe in yourself and the message you have to relate to the world, nothing can stop you!

The moment I decided to step out of the corporate world two and a half years ago and shift from a traditional work environment with rigid hours and no self fulfillment (click here to read) to a more flexible setup from home, I didn’t know what to expect. I took the leap, forgoing the security of a monthly salary and all the benefits to an unknown territory. At the time it was impossible to know if I had made the right decision, but the amount of personal growth I have gone through and the essential business material from entrepreneurs I have read and listened to, have made me more confident in my present lifestyle as each day passes. However external factors throughout these years in the form of unsolicited advice or opinions haven’t stopped, and some people choose to undermine my work and take a jab at freelancing and entrepreneurship to make themselves feel better at being stuck in a rut they don’t have the courage or ability to get out of. Others judge at face value and think that things come easily without hard work.

“You took a break, now it’s time to search for a job.”

“You’ll never make it in this unstable market, plus it is very competitive and there are thousands who are trying to.”

“I envy that you get to work from home with no traffic and fixed hours, how wonderful it is to work whenever you feel like it.”

“What do you do all day?”

“You’re lucky to be able to work around your kids’ schedule.”

The truth is, choosing the path of a freelancer or entrepreneur is no picnic. Sometimes it is glamorized and fails to reflect how much effort is put in every day and night, and today I am here to share with you the nitty gritty to help you understand this lifestyle more, and in case you are considering quitting your job, perhaps this can serve you as a reality check and advice from what I wish I knew and implemented and what I am still learning. As I sit here on a cloudy August Monday (proofreading in October, that’s how hectic mom life is) with the kids running around the house, thinking that there are days where I plan outings, exciting destinations or play games at home with them and I feel so blessed to be able to witness their childhood, but other days like today, I am reminded about the mental preoccupation with work mixed with the physical presence as a mother. This puts so much pressure and makes you question whether you should quit any sort of work altogether and label yourself as a stay-at-home mom and not swim in the entrepreneurial waters. I actually chose the former during the summer vacation because I wanted to dedicate myself fully to my kids, have fun and create memories until school season started where I could focus on reflecting and developing my business and network.

That being said, and despite my warning of the glamorous image of being a freelancer, the past couple of years have been the best in my life, and I say this since day 1 to whoever asks me, the day I stopped going to the office was the day my life began. I started enjoying the little things, such as not having to rush in the morning, starting my day with gratitude instead of road rage and panic to prep and drop off the kids before I drive like a maniac to punch in at work, enjoying my tea while watching morning TV, and spending quality time with my kids without that feeling of being drained at the end of the day. I spent days on end at the beach, reading a book or getting a tan, and if I had urgent work I could either do it remotely, or make sure it was done the day before and would stay past midnight to complete my tasks. I scheduled my meetings around my kids’ schedule and always had time to meet with close friends for coffee or lunch, join midweek family gatherings and network with new people and be inspired. Most of all I was able to travel spur of the moment and explore new cities and opportunities. Nothing restricted me. No filing for a leave of absence, no worrying that my kids’ pediatrician appointment was during the day where I had to make an excuse to take a long break, no gulping down a barely heated lunch. Despite the hard work and instability of freelancing, I chose to focus on the positive, and how happiness wasn’t tied to a stable job, and how self fulfillment came at unexpected moments.

For someone like me, who did obligatory trainings as part of the university program at engineering firms while studying to get a degree and who found a job one week after graduation, I never took a break to figure out what I want from life. I never even had the chance to think if office life suits me, although I am thankful that I actually stuck with it and that I had been working nonstop, because it built my strong work ethic and I realized by experience what I like and dislike, rather than making a rash decision while still so young. That aforementioned break came at the end of March 2017. An entire year after that, I was a stay at home mom. My daughter Tracy was in school, and my son Fares had just turned 1 and it made no sense to enroll him in daycare since I was home. I didn’t give any thought to my next professional move, but one thing I did know is that I didn’t want to seek employment in the traditional sense. After the first year of sheer panic whenever someone brought up the “why don’t you get a full time job” uncalled for advice, I noticed that my reaction and absolute rejection of my previous state was a gut sign that I shouldn’t consider going back, so I decided on my own that I want to be open to freelancing. I had been dedicated to my little boy one on one for over an entire year and it was time for him to settle into a routine of preschool and socialize which would get him ready for school. But I figured that if I were to enroll him, I needed to get my professional life on track and make use of the time I would have, meaning no trading time without Fares to being a couch potato or sleeping in, as tempting as that sounded. I made a promise to myself that I will be productive from 8 AM to 2 PM during the summer of 2018 while he was at daycare and Tracy was in summer camp.

Up until that moment, my work experience was in my field, architecture. A complex paradox of science and art, physics and aesthetics, construction and design. I had dabbled in writing for a UK publication in articles relating to interior design but never wrote about anything other than my expertise, and of course my blog where I share personal experiences pertaining to travel, motherhood and society. I’m not one who pushes herself onto others or cares for nepotism so I refused to ask for a writing job, and as chance would have it, my blog entries attracted a well known digital platform and I became the sole creative writer for their newly launched sub-website. After that, it was like the universe was making up for the year I spent at home and showered me with work, even more than I could handle. I got a copywriting gig at a reputable agency that handles several clients, and an initiation to a managing editor position at an elite diaspora oriented magazine that led to me being the online editor and community manager, in addition to handling the PR of a local and regional public figure and this person’s community manager as well. All these were on a freelancing basis which is what I wanted, but those first few months during the summer and autumn of 2018 were exhausting. I was able to be present at their respective locations for frequent meetings with the team, I had a bit of time to work before the kids came back home, and I caught up on work at night. The afternoons were always hectic with emails, conference calls and phone calls and it was no picnic managing them with two active small children who followed me around into every room when they see I’m on a call. Things didn’t get easier, but at some point I figured out I had to set a different pace in order not to burn out, because I did get quite sick a couple of times from the exhaustion. On top of that I had my work as an architect with due dates set in stone and construction in operation. Add to that being a blogger, creating content, attending events, heading to meet with potential clients and agencies, negotiating campaigns, that was all in a day’s work. Yes it is relieving that in the hard winter’s rain I needn’t get up and drive to an office where I would most likely be resenting the four walls for the dreams they were making me forget, but freelance means there are no hours to the day. That’s the reality I want to relate to you, because a lot of hard work goes into being able to live a freeing and fun lifestyle. The unfortunate thing is that clients think they own you and your time, I wouldn’t stop working even on the weekends, until the stress got to me, and I had to let go of one of the clients that I had. And you know what is challenging? The fact that you will never know if you made the right decision by letting something go. I am the queen of efficiency, punctuality, time management and perfection, and still I think to myself maybe I could have managed better. Looking back on that winter, I believe that if I were more assertive and didn’t shy away from pinpointing how inefficient I thought the work process was, or how I was being asked to do tedious tasks that weren’t even part of the agreement, I could have continued but under my terms. The moment when freelancing and consulting to that client felt like the shackles of employment was the moment they lost me. To think that I had to miss out on a few trips outside the country still gets to me and I wonder if they were worth refusing. Simultaneously one of my other clients wasn’t able to consistently pay my fees due to the economy and we took a short break but kept working on and off when needed. I was happy to have free time to write for one of my clients as well as follow through with my regional campaigns with brands and businesses on my online platforms, and felt like that balance was what I needed to be generating an income and be an independent woman while progressing as a digital content creator.

When I wasn’t on the road heading to meetings, I was on my laptop. I carried my tablet with me everywhere I went and was never disconnected. At that moment, a year after I started freelancing, I had a burning desire to go back to me, to myself. There was a client who was overworking me, and what started as a freelancing job became me working remotely 5 days a week all day and even into the night on last minute requests, even on holidays, and even when what was asked didn’t fit my qualifications. I struggled internally with telling them that I wanted to end things, but was worried that they wouldn’t find a replacement on short notice and didn’t want to leave them hanging. I was too kind. The thing is, when you are kind, they will take advantage. I regret every single moment when I told them “it’s OK, I’ll handle it”, they didn’t deserve it, and they didn’t deserve the elegance of the words I had provided them with. The lesson here is, I shouldn’t have been nice, and I should have said what I felt instead of letting it build up. I eventually stopped, and this job in particular is what made me shift my mindset to steer away even from freelancing.

For those of you who would like to give freelancing a try, please listen to my 2 main pieces of advice and act accordingly before you waste years of frustration. Time management is essential to be a successful freelancer, but also being limiting with your time is of utmost importance, don’t let the client own you. Ask for a retainer to be paid in advance, or if it isn’t possible, be firm with the deadline of your payments. Trust me, nothing is more demeaning than having to email, call, message and practically beg for what’s rightfully yours, every month the same story, when all you do is submit your work on time but when it comes to payments the client suddenly forgets you or makes you wait months on end. Keep these golden rules with you and you will be a happy freelancer, stay assertive and happy working!

I analyze life a lot and I’m frequently on a journey of reflection and my existential crisis moments creep up on me. And after these sessions with myself I come up with conclusions based on viewing things from a bird’s eye. I decided that when you have talent, whether for numbers or words, you shouldn’t undervalue yourself and give it out for a cheap price, because what you are selling for experience and exposure is raking in the big bucks for the receiving end. You are giving away your most precious asset, your mind. This revelation, coupled with the desire to be a dedicated full time mommy to my kids during summer and more so for the school year made the decision a no brainer. I dropped everything that was remaining, and without any distractions lived my life. Now that October is upon us and everything is settled into a routine that is like clockwork, I have the entire morning to myself to work and do whatever I need to do and noon onwards for the kids, their studies and afternoon routines. I have finally found the balance that will keep me productive with work and dedicated to my family as well. But this time around I won’t be freelancing, I will be investing in myself, believing in myself, pushing myself to create and share, create art and words, because after these wonderful, happy, stressful, fast paced 13 years of employment and freelancing, I know now that I am destined to be a self sufficient, self employed woman. Whether that title is an entrepreneur or a creative individual, I know that I am on the path to enlightenment and doing what is good for my happiness, a happiness which isn’t to be compared to glossy online images or constructed realities but one that comes from within.

Invest in yourself.

XOXO

Maria

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