by Meagan Gillmore
I pursued a writing career hoping it would allow me a more flexible home life, perhaps the possibility of staying home to raise any future children. Freelancing was, I believed, a buffer against the financial instabilities that seemed guaranteed for those who entered adulthood during the Great Recession of the mid-2000s.
But for much of 2017, some of the most-productive months of my young freelancing career coincided with a period of near-constant change and relational instability. I quickly learned that working from home, at times, seems more of an invitation to chaos than an inoculation against it.
A part-time contract job allowed me to report on national labour affairs while continuing with previous freelance gigs. But with the increasing number of bylines came growing chaos in the workplace: my home.
In eight months, the two women with whom I had shared a two-bedroom apartment for the better part of four years both got engaged – and married. It was a busy time that meant neither was readily available for household chores and companionship. After the second wedding, I spent nearly two months crashing on friends’ couches before securing a place to live with two other women. One married a few months later, and the search for another housemate began. The changes continued. So did the deadlines.
The struggle to maintain a proper balance when working from home and dealing with life transitions is a “normal, expected conundrum,” says Sharon Ramsay, a registered psychotherapist and registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto.
Change isn’t “necessarily bad or good,” she says. “What allows us to transition successfully is our ability to be flexible in the face of that change.”
So how can you keep your freelance career on track during times of change? Here are some ways to cope when the boundaries between your professional workspace and personal life become blurred.
Focus on relationships that matter beyond your professional and personal life
Working from home often means you don’t have colleagues who understand your work. For freelancers with experience working in traditional newsroom environments, adjusting to this new reality can be difficult. Working from home can save you from office politics and drama – but it can also leave you without anyone you can vent to or ask for advice.
Human interaction provides more than opportunities to bounce off story ideas. These relationships can also protect our mental health.
“It’s really important to take stock of who’s your core inner circle, that provides you with emotional support throughout the day, and be able to really strengthen those relationships,” says Christina Crowe, a registered psychotherapist in Bolton, Ontario. “Strong, social relationships are what buffer us all against depression.”
Freelancers need to ensure they have the proper supports.
“When you’re at home and you’re in the middle of it, you don’t get the chance to get away from it at all,” says Alisa Gordaneer, a freelance writer in Victoria, B.C. whose decade of working from home has included raising children as a single parent and being the live-in caregiver for aging family members.
“It’s important to have friends who will stop by or encourage you to go out,” she says. “That’s important because you don’t have an HR department to help you out with those things. You have to become your own HR department.”
To keep my own life in balance, I regularly attended professional development sessions and networking events during my transitions – both for the opportunity to discuss work with like-minded individuals, and to get away from my chaotic home life. Book club meetings allowed me to meet new people and enjoy good writing for pleasure’s sake. A weekly fitness class kept my body active and gave me an excuse to leave work and home.
Set some boundaries
It’s impossible to fully divide your life into separate compartments. “The idea of a split between personal life and work life is really a bit of a myth,” says Crowe. “You are who you are, whether you’re at home or at work.”
But some boundaries are possible. Work in a separate room or section of your home. If you’re working in an open-concept area or living out of boxes, take advantage of co-working spaces, coffee shops or libraries. For the last few weeks before I settled into my new place, I went to a co-working space so I wouldn’t have to do interviews from the living room in my friends’ condo. That’s how I managed to meet my deadlines.
“If home is stressing you out, there’s lots of alternatives. Laptops are portable,” says Karen Durrie, a freelance writer in Calgary, Alta., who has worked from home for more than two decades.
Setting boundaries is particularly important when you’re also caring for others. Gordaneer says working from home has allowed her to care for her children and parents, which is a good thing. But this can also cause stress. “I’ve been able to be here for everybody,” she says, “but the drawback is I’m also expected to be.”
Working from home means clarifying with the people you live with that their home is also your workspace. You all need to work together to make the space serve everyone’s needs.
Make the effort to feel better
Transitions become even more distressing when they’re unexpected. Sometimes people respond in a reactive way, says Crowe. And trying to control things we can’t only increases the discomfort.
“A lot of our pain comes from existentially thinking that we need to control the things that are really out of our control, which is very frustrating,” says Crowe.
“When you’re a writer, everything’s coming out of your brain. And when your brain is scrambled, it takes so much longer to write something that normally you can knock off in an hour,” says Durrie.
A few years ago, Durrie was caring for her teenage son while he was dealing with some health concerns. For more than a year, “the whole feel of the household was just chaos and emergency and alarm. It was not easy to work in that environment at all.”
Durrie sought help from a professional counsellor, something she recommends others consider.
An outside opinion can help you gain some needed perspective. If you don’t want to speak to a professional counsellor, talking to a trusted friend or spiritual advisor may also help, says Ramsay. And if you’re concerned you don’t have enough time to see a counsellor, Crowe suggests opting for online sessions.
Give yourself time
Durrie says she had to turn down some assignments, and take on some that were less intensive, so that she had energy to care for her family. But big changes can also offer opportunities for professional and personal growth. Gordaneer says her experiences have made her excellent at meeting deadlines and keeping schedules.
In my own experience, I found the chaos in my personal life increased my empathy. Since then, I’ve made my couch available to people who are between homes.
And I’ve learned to give myself a break – and the occasional ice cream treat – to get through difficult times. Learning to adjust to any “new normal” always takes time.
“You’re going to have ups and downs,” says Crowe. “Being able to tolerate that discomfort and that uncertainty is where growth comes from.”
Meagan Gillmore is a freelance journalist in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter at @meagangillmore.