This is a special COVID-19 installment of an ongoing freelancing-while-parenting series. You can also read part I, part II, and part III for more advice on juggling raising children with a freelance career.
The rules of the pandemic thus far have been simple. Stay home. Wash your hands. Listen to scientists and the politicians who don’t use their platforms to zing the press or tout anecdotal evidence as hope.
Everything else is impossible.
We are in quarantine with a 3-year-old. My wife and I have absorbed the role daycare played while completing full-time jobs. In half-days. At home. The days resemble coffee grounds spilled on a kitchen floor. For parents, everything is everywhere every day.
The goal of the freelance writer parent remains the same: Be the best version of yourself, so your child can focus on being a child. The difference is its critical importance in this new, indefinite abnormal. School is canceled. Extra-curricular activities and get-togethers are fantasies. The uncertainty feels interminable. We can endure by carving out normalcy however and whenever we can.
Get creative with your schedule.
Flexibility is your best asset. My wife, a college professor, has more rigid hours. I don’t. My first shift runs from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. My second shift starts about 10 p.m. and lasts until fatigue triumphs. That allows me to take care of our daughter and complete pressing, thought-intensive items, such as deadline work or interviews. The late hours are devoted to answering emails, polishing drafts, and pitching – tasks that don’t leave another person hanging. Any project that is not on the pathway to payday gets furloughed.
Britni de la Cretaz, a veteran freelance writer, has joint custody of her two kids. When they are around, and she has a timely assignment, the TV is on more. On Wednesday and Thursday, while her children are with dad, she writes 12 hours straight, including her steady gig at Refinery 29. It’s draining, but it’s an uninterrupted block of time to work.
“Now that my 10-year-old daughter is home with us, I have explained to her that I just need to write with minimal interruptions from 9 in the morning until 1 p.m.,” says essayist and journalist Jancee Dunn, the author of How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. “I find I can sort of turbo-write during that time, break for lunch, and then answer emails in the afternoon. I’m not one of those writers who can write at any time of day or night – even before the pandemic, I’m only sharp for a few hours, and then my brain gets fuzzy. Now I must be very focused and do what needs to be done during those four hours.”
You can make the adjustment.
My hours would have changed when Olivia went to preschool or started playing organized sports. When my wife’s schedule changes, so does mine. Another appliance would have stopped working. Freelancers are defined by our ability to adapt.
Before the pandemic dynamited the concept of work-life balance, de la Cretaz wrote a lot of longform. Now she’s writing more timely pieces with a fraction of the turnaround time. “It’s just a different way of writing,” she says. “There’s a lot more adrenaline and rush and scramble and hustle involved in this way of working, so my body is adjusting to that.” On the kids-free weekends, her body recharges. The weekend before we spoke, de la Cretaz slept until 2 p.m. on Saturday. She returned to bed at 10 p.m. and slept for another 12 hours.
Communicate with your partner if you have one.
It was important before. Now, it is crucial. Both sides must create a plan to get their work done. Bradford Pearson, a writer based in Philadelphia, has worked out an arrangement with his wife, a federal employee also working from home. Each week, one is the primary caregiver; the other concentrates on their job.
I refuse to feel shame for letting my daughter watch 30 more minutes of Peppa Pig so I can edit a story due that afternoon or take a break from playing perpetually peppy social director. If The Shining has taught me anything, is that it’s pretty hard to parent when you’re consumed with cabin fever.
The same realities apply to our work. I can’t imagine anyone is writing King Ralph, forget about King Lear. For countless freelancers, relentless days have led to sleepless nights. Work is sparse. The checking account is dwindling. The kids have exhausted every entertainment option, and are eyeing you. Some days you just don’t have it, and that’s OK.
None of us needs another enemy right now—especially the one greeting us in the mirror.
Touch the bottom.
I’ve broken down twice. (So far.) First, when I thought I had no chance to finish the Robert A. Caro-ish endnotes for my book. A week later, I lost it with my daughter; my wife made me aware of my shortcomings. This shit is hard. There is no pandemic playbook for parenthood. Sometimes you have to touch bottom to propel yourself to the surface.
Sports Illustrated lost more staff. The Outline closed. The Cleveland Plain-Dealer became a faint memory of a once-great newspaper. Two airline magazines folded. As many writers head into a reboot of the Great Depression, we know how to scrap. We know how to live with less. We can handle uncertainty.
An opportunity to be a better, more present parent exists.
My wife says this a lot. I’ve seen it through the fatigue and endless games of “car wash.” Olivia gives more hugs and kisses. She says “I love you” a lot. The emergence of a caring, thoughtful child is a salve for the chaos, and a reminder that light exists in whatever this darkness is.
—Ithaca-based Pete Croatto is a veteran freelance writer who has written for The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Publishers Weekly, Columbia Journalism Review, and many other publications. He is also working on his first book. Twitter: @PeteCroatto