There are numerous things that freelancers can anticipate and even prepare for, but what happens when life throws you a curve ball?
Unfortunately, this question became real for me when my husband became gravely ill earlier this year. It was mid-way through the 2nd Quarter and things were going smoothly. My company’s projections were looking good; I had recently secured some new clients and I was working on my own book. And then, within a 24-hour period, everything changed. My husband was rushed to the ER where he had life-saving surgery.
As he recuperated, I lived in his hospital room with him for weeks, made medical decisions, signed forms, met with case workers and did as much research as possible about his diagnosis and long-term prognosis. On auto-pilot, my objective upon waking up every morning was making sure that his needs were met.
Life, as I knew it, ceased to exist. My full-time job became being a caregiver and helpmate. Professionally, emails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned, deadlines pushed back, and in one instance, a refund was given. I broke every rule and protocol that I had established for successfully running a freelance business. My freelancing career was on indefinite hold as I discovered, in the words of Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.”
When the worst happens
Honestly, I was not equipped to deal with the push/pull between wanting to support my husband and the need to fully function in a professional capacity. My confidence was replaced by anxiety and my overly positive and hopeful disposition was usurped by despair and fear. In the midst of it all, I thought about quitting. But it was my husband who helped me to focus on the positive things that were happening, to hold fast to our faith, and to keep doing the thing that I loved—freelance writing.
But, it wasn’t that simple. For the first time in my almost 10-year freelancing career, my life/work balance was drastically skewed. I felt torn and guilty when I spent time at home, instead of being in the hospital with him. Although I tried writing in both his room and in a designated lobby area, my laptop screen remained blank.
After the third week of his hospital stay, I finally gave myself permission to go visit him every other day. On days when the doctors did consultations or were sharing results, I asked to be placed on speaker phone so that I could both listen in and ask clarifying questions as needed. It was, to a certain extent, a win-win. I had my life back, so I thought.
But I didn’t. I had to do damage control. I contacted clients, rescheduled projects, offered discounts, and apologized profusely for my lack of professionalism. Without violating my husband’s privacy, I tried to explain the reason for my erratic behavior. Some clients were receptive and others, understandably, decided to take their business elsewhere.
For the past three months, this has been my life. Besides a few brief posts on social media, this is my first time (with my husband’s blessing) writing about this topic. Now, in the second month of the 3rd Quarter, things are still not back to normal. And that is why I wanted to share our journey with you.
Safety planning for freelancers
There was nothing in my freelancer’s toolbox that resembled a Plan B or a contingency plan for dealing with a major illness, mine or my husband’s. So, I floundered and I put an unnecessary amount of pressure on myself because I was unprepared. Perhaps it was self-imposed, but I felt as if I was forced to choose between being there for him and working. I opted not to work.
But, the reality is that opting not to work, if only temporarily, is not a choice that some freelancers have. Even in the midst of a health crisis or life-threatening illness, some freelancers are forced to continue working or they risk abandoning their source of income and jeopardizing their livelihood. Safety nets such as FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) and PTO (paid time off) were not designed for the gig economy and they do not apply to us.
Because of my husband’s insurance, I am privileged that I can opt to work sporadically throughout this chapter of our lives. But, what happens to family units that comprise two freelancers, neither of whom have short or long-term disability insurance? And what becomes of the sole freelancer who becomes ill?
I have heard horror stories of people who have exhausted their reserves, filed for bankruptcy, or ruined their credit worthiness because of unexpected medical expenses.
I wish I could tell you that I have eloquent and strategic answers to these problems, but I am still figuring all of this out. So, my purpose in writing this blog is not to provide answers, but to start a conversation and to, hopefully, inspire everyone who is reading this to give some serious thought to: What would I do if_______________________?
I am mindful that none of us know exactly how we will respond to the unknown, but at least thinking through your options and mapping out a contingency plan, including securing disability insurance, is a step in the right direction.
Thankfully, my husband is doing much better, but this entire episode has us rethinking our level of preparedness for when life happens because life will happen.
The question is: Will you be ready?