At 7:23 P.M. on the night before my kids start the new school year, I’m on the couch, trying to write, fending off asks by my 9-year-old son to watch him play Splatoon 2 on the Nintendo Switch, firing off a last-minute email based on a tweet I saw that relates to this very story. Then…oops, I just remembered I don’t have a smock for my younger son, who’s starting kindergarten tomorrow. Where does one get a smock at 7:26 P.M.? Does Target sell smocks? They must sell smocks. Unless they’re all out of smocks because I’m THE ONLY MOTHER WHO FORGOT TO GET A SMOCK.
“Mumsy, let’s go in the sunroom,” the older one says.
I ignore him. He starts shooting a nerf gun. “Stop that,” I say.
“Are we going in the sunroom? Let’s go.”
This poor kid. He is so much more patient than I.
“You have to close your laptop to watch me,” he says, knowingly. To which I respond, clearly competing for Mom of the Year, “No, I’ll watch while I’m working.”
Now it’s 9 P.M. We’ve inhaled a Vampirina episode and I’ve read Pete The Cat Is Too Cool For School. The kids are asleep and I’m in my bed, listening to Rachel Maddow talk about The New York Times op-ed about the coup inside the White House. “It’s coming from inside the house!” she says. I tweet that out. Then…back to this story, this story about work/life balance. How fitting. I go through my interviews and start cobbling pieces together.
Four days later, I’m still cobbling. My due date has long passed. I’ve got some kind of mental block. I’m too distracted. I’m also working on social media makeovers for a beauty PR firm. I’ve launched my own Instagram brand, @club_mental (lifestyle through a mental health lens)—gotta keep that updated!—and I’m creating a podcast with an online therapy company and the audio needs editing.
Then it hits me like a ton of MacBooks.
This story is not about basic work/life balance, but work/life balance in the gig economy…and I can’t write this story BECAUSE I’m part of the gig economy.
About 11 months ago, I left my full-time staff position—our company was acquired and many layoffs ensued—and have been my own freelance boss since. My SELF editors were curious what the change in work/life balance has been. Oh, the freedom…right?
In full disclosure, I know how privileged I am. First of all, I'm white, and I made a hefty salary for a number of years. I have severance, savings, and many marketable skills. But I've been the main breadwinner as my husband was in startup mode for his business (Grady’s Cold Brew, an iced coffee company), and now I'm scrambling to maintain the life (and the bills) we've created based on that former salary.
A bit more transparency: I’ve never really believed in work/life balance. I don’t do much of anything “in balance.” I tend to go full-force toward something I like/love/want, and if I’m in a slug-like mood, prepare for full-on slug. So I’ve always thought of work/life balance as more of a fluctuating percentage, tipping far one way or the other depending on the current situation.
Who’s with me? Plenty of people. Google “work/life balance is a sham,” and tons of articles come up. Many of them focus on entrepreneurs, and I can see why: Being in the gig economy—which a 2016 McKinsey report found to be 20 to 30 percent of the U.S. workforce—is essentially being an entrepreneur. Of You, Inc.
Here’s the issue with that: According to a survey by The Alternative Board, 97 percent of small business owners work weekends; 40 percent work “always” or “often”—with a big ol’ side effect of impatience. That’s me to a tee. I am always on, always meeting, always pitching. I find it hard to be fully present, rudely checking emails while chatting with friends, or telling my kids to wait a minute because I don’t want to forget that biz idea that just popped into my head. Whatever balance I did have in a full-time job, I have less of it now.
This lack of a clear workday can be particularly hard to deal with when you have a family.
“In order to make high-aspiration families work, you need time, patience,” Stephanie Coontz, professor of history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap, tells SELF. (Yes, I’m in one of those families, as both my and my husband’s aspirations are high.)
“A lot of family life depends on negotiation. People who are facing scarcity of time or money do not have those skills,” Coontz says. “So you forget to express the gratitude that is a tremendous lubricant to good relationships and are much more likely to express the irritation that isn’t good for relationships.” (See: me, at the start of this article, with my eldest son.)
Is this my fault? Society’s? The gig economy’s? I don’t know. But I’m hustling, and I’m exhausted. So why wouldn’t I be irritated? If money isn’t a concern and you can take or leave an assignment, sure, self-employment is the bastion of flexibility: Do what you want! When you want!
But if you aren’t independently wealthy or haven’t socked away a ton of savings, “it’s flexibility not for your family, but for the employer,” says Coontz. “There’s a limit to how much you can do this. When somebody else is in charge of whether you get work, and you turn it down for your family or your sanity, they may not come back.”
Feeling this lack of control can lead to something bad bad bad: In a 2016 study published in the journal Personnel Psychology, alarmingly titled “Worked to Death,” the researchers found that those with little control over their jobs—including such things as not being able to make decisions on their own or determine the order in which they do tasks—have a higher mortality rate.
Could this “little control over your job” apply to the gig economy? When you can “choose” to turn down an assignment but don’t out of financial necessity or fear you won’t get asked again? “The key thing with work stress and control is one’s perception—in other words, if one feels that one has high stress at work while also feeling that they have little control over the work, then work stress will be harmful to health,” study co-author Erik Gonzalez-Mulé, Ph.D., assistant professor of organizational behavior and human resources in the department of management and entrepreneurship at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, tells SELF via email. “Given that context, I believe that you are absolutely right—that one can have control over one’s work in a technical sense, as in the gig economy, but still perceive low levels of control if you don’t have a choice but to take the jobs.” He also points out that gig economy gigs may come with strict deadlines or goals that are set by the client, which can make you feel like you have even less oversight.
OK, so Jaws is heading my way if I keep swimming this way. But I can’t just climb out of the water.
So instead, I have to regain a feeling of control with tactics that help me carve out some semblance of uninterrupted “work” time, and also uninterrupted “life” time.
For a lot of people, one big aspect of this transition is reevaluating your finances now that your pay schedule (and possibly your take-home pay) has changed. Diane Mulcahey, author of The Gig Economy and a big proponent of it, tells SELF we’re all too tied to a “default American Dream lifestyle built on the foundation of a steady paycheck. If you took away the regular paycheck, what does the American Dream look like? It looks like a lot less stuff.” For six years, she’s been teaching an MBA course on the topic at Babson College in Boston and coaches people, mostly “knowledge workers” (I’d fit into this category), on making the transition into gig life and mapping out a budget based on what really matters to them.
“What people hear is ‘give up your lifestyle and get something smaller and cheaper,’” Mulcahey explains. “But when you put people through this in a more deliberate way, they can clearly see what’s worth buying in their life. A significant number of people figure out they’re buying a lifestyle they don’t actually want, And in most cases, the lifestyle they really want doesn’t cost as much. That changes the income they need to produce.”
She also talks about a new type of time-management, one unique to being a gig-er. “You have multiple stakeholders, different products, different expectations. Nobody’s telling you what to do, there’s no structure in place—it can be challenging and hectic.”
One of my tactics to deal with this is to keep an extremely detailed online calendar—with project deadlines, names of everyone in an upcoming meeting, addresses with cross streets. I also do this with kid stuff, like when school book fairs are planned (so I don’t forget to send in money), when enrichment programs start (so I make sure to pack lunch those days), and when playdates are happening. Having work and life dates in one place, rather than scattered, makes me much less apt to space on something.
On the business side, Mulcahey suggests figuring out when you’re most focused and productive. “When I was writing a book,” she says, “I blocked off all my mornings and did meetings in the afternoon. When doing client work, I need shorter chunks of time for concentrated work, so I can take some calls in the morning.” It’ll take experimentation, she says, but here’s a place to start: If you worked weekends for your FT job, examine how you did so. Did you get up early and finish by 11 A.M.? Feel more effective at the coffee shop? Knowing when to focus on what will help you feel more in control and less stressed.
And cutting your stress levels is important—not just for you. Coontz, also director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, says that the amount a woman works isn’t the problem, as that old misogynistic argument would have you believe. What is concerning? “I see in my interviews all the time: As kids get older, when you ask what bothers them, it’s not that their parents are working, it’s that their parents are so worried, and that worry creeps into them,” she explains. (There’s also a full book on this topic.)
While you can’t always curb your angst, you can drop the idea that being with your fam less than other moms is going to scar your kids. “Women are operating under two sets of expectations—one for work and one for parenthood—that cannot possibly both be met and are a setup for chronic stress and guilt,” Sherry Pagoto, Ph.D., director of the UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media and president of the Society of Behavior Medicine at the University of Connecticut, tells SELF. “The concept of work/life balance seems to center around how much time we spend in each activity. If we shifted our metric of success from quantity to quality, we might have an easier time achieving success.”
Right. Yes. Mindfulness over minutes: When you’re in the life part of your life, keep the spotlight there (if it requires putting your phone in another room, do it). When work thoughts creep in, push them away. They’ll get their turn!
I’ve also found that it simply takes time—even months—before you get comfortable with saying no to assignments or projects. You’ll eventually realize that, even if you pass on this one, there will be another one. But don’t beat yourself up for not being the perfect self-manager at first. Any big transition requires, well, a transition period.
As I’ve begun to just say no myself—and to focus on things in a more targeted manner—I’ve also started to appreciate my kids and husband in a way I’ve realized I’d let falter. I’m relishing the funny lingo my sons use (“that’s Gucci”), their adorableness in striped PJs and skinny jeans, their pride at subtracting four numbers from four numbers or at being the kindergarten line leader. As for my husband, I actually teared up the other night when he made me dinner. BECAUSE I HAVE A HUSBAND WHO COOKS FOR ME AND BRINGS ME SELTZERS WHEN I’M IN BED WATCHING NETFLIX.
I’ll say that for the gig economy: It puts into perspective the people who really matter in your life. Because they’re the steady amongst the mishmosh of invoices, clients, and deadlines.
Tomorrow is picture day at my sons’ schools. Earlier this afternoon, I went through their closets and laid out five shirt options on each of their beds. Now, I’m heading into their room to help them choose their favorite. Maybe, in the end, the gig economy is actually making me a better mother.
Amy Keller Laird is SELF’s wellness correspondent and the founder of @club_mental. She was previously the Editor-in-Chief of Women's Health and the Beauty Director of Allure, and has appeared on The Doctors, Today, and Good Morning America as a health, wellness, and beauty expert. Follow her on Instagram at @aklaird and on Twitter at @amykellerlaird.