Faced with the reality that I couldn’t afford to have a job, I have spent the last 16 years trying to find meaningful work that allowed me to take care of my family without destroying myself. I still haven’t found it, but at 42 with 4 kids, here is what I have learned.
Technology and the online world have consistently lured me in with the promise of finding a magical place they call "work-life balance". A place where I can use my talents and skills, and get paid for my value while working within a flexible schedule. I have started my own wellness company, had a full-time job, was a contractor/consultant, and at times was just a SAHM making things like zucchini hummus and listening to Laurie Berkner on repeat. I had some great experiences, but often I ended up feeling like the joke was on me. The reality of these options still leaves women choosing between themselves and their families. Plus, we are often financially penalized for trying to do both.
After trying several different avenues, I experienced the pros and cons of each. If you are thinking about getting a remote job, going freelance or starting your own business or going from freelance to a full-time job I hope you find some of these insights helpful!
A full-time Job (in the office)
I was so excited to land my first real job after grad school. It took me so long to be in a place to be able to do it in a way that made financial sense. Previously, putting two children in daycare full-time ($2400/mo) plus other expenses related to working (tolls, taxes, clothes, gas, etc.) on an entry-level salary left me with around $10,000 a year. The amount I would save by not working exceeded what I would earn, so it wasn't worth it for me to work at that point. However, this time I had more education and experience so I was able to get a higher-paying role. Also, I only had one child that needed full-time daycare.
Pros: A steady source of income that provides benefits like a 401k and insurance. You are on a career track. Ideally, if you stay the course there will be promotions and opportunities to grow. Getting out of the house and working closely with a team on projects and being a part of the day-to-day culture have their plus points.
Cons: The commute and routine will wear you down. I had to put my mental and physical health last to make it work. I gained 10-15 pounds, aged 3 years in 1 due to stress, was constantly burned out, and was depressed. Also, if any kid was sick, I still had to be the one to stay home or go pick them up because my husband’s job paid significantly more and was more demanding. I also still was handling all medical appointments, school activities, and homework. Not fair, but it was a reality for me. I got to a point where it was just no longer working. Maybe it was the day I picked everyone up and they all just cried and screamed at me the entire way home because we were all utterly exhausted. There is a reason why so many parents are resistant to going back to the office post-pandemic.
Consulting / Contract Work (remote)
I remember sitting at home on my first day of remote work after having been in the office for almost a year. This was 2017 and the remote revolution hadn’t started yet. I felt a little defeated. How could I realize my CMO dreams from this weird computer set up in my kitchen? Someone had already taken over my desk at work. I was back in the house and back in my mom clothes. The full sink of dishes was staring at me. Then once my new routine started I realized that working from home in general works better for parenting as long as you don’t sacrifice pay for flexibility and create personal boundaries between work and home life.
Pros: Flexibility. Less time commuting means more time in the morning and afternoon to be there for kids going and coming back from school. It also means more time to prepare healthier meals for yourself and your family and squeeze in some exercise and mental health practices. I was able to cut back on after-school care costs for my older children and cut down 3 hours from my toddler's daycare schedule. I was also able to work with a 1099 which has its benefits in the sense that it is more like having your own business, but it is complicated. I highly recommend getting an accountant to help you figure out the best way to strategize and save with 1099.
Cons: No insurance or 401k benefits. You pay your payroll taxes, internet, and other tools or subscriptions you may need. Which is why you need to charge more! Hourly rates for contract work are different than if you were an employee. Do the research and do the math and find out what contractors at your skill level and experience are charging. I didn’t do this at first and I ended up with less than I would have to work full-time as an employee my first year. I short-changed myself because I was afraid to ask for what I was worth.
Remote work can feel isolating. I missed the small talk with co-workers and seeing the impact of my work in real life. I slowly became disassociated from the team and was seen as an outsider. Since I was working from home I was constantly doing housework. Have a few minutes in between meetings? Let’s unload the dishwasher… do some laundry…and take out the trash. Creating dedicated time spread out over the week for household work helps you not feel like you need to be doing everything all the time. It’s all about boundaries!
Starting a business
I woke up at 4 am one morning and made a rough draft of a logo and Noble Therapies was born. I read a ton of books on natural healing, Ayurveda, and Tibetan sleep rituals. I pulled all-nighters pouring hot wax and essential oils into little containers, putting on labels with make-shift templates, and stamping cardboard mailers because we couldn’t afford professional printing. I learned all about digital marketing, attended local events, and had pop-up shops. When my youngest was asleep in the car I would run into random stores and introduce myself and leave samples. I got invited to be a guest vendor at the Daytime Emmy’s, had one product featured in Yoga Journal, and collaborated with a bunch of amazing leaders in the space on my blog and newsletter. I loved that the brand reflected my values, that I was helping women rethink what it meant to take care of themselves, and that I was building something I was proud of. Noble felt like my fourth baby and I was determined to be the next Jessica Alba. Until we did the math. Whomp, whomp, whomp.
After almost two years my sales were modest- okay they sucked. I needed money to add more products and change my packaging. It was the digital landscape of 2015 and I had no idea how to scale or what a pitch deck was. There are so many more resources for women business owners now!
Pros: Creating something unique that aligns with your values. Greater income potential if you are successful. You can build on it over time and possibly leave it for future generations. Some flexibility, but too much can lead to a hobby dressed up like a business.
Cons: Starting a business is a long game and no matter how much you make you have to pay quarterly taxes and other fees. You might not make any money for years and you have to be willing to deal with that. Also, you can’t even think about doing that with kids unless your spouse is paying for things like the mortgage and health insurance. Unless you already had money from a successful acting career like Jessica Alba (btw she paid someone else to do a lot of her start-up work like writing her business plan).
To start a successful business you need more than just a great idea and brand. You need to understand your industry and create a profitable model. You need access to capital. You need A LOT of time. Maybe that means you work on it for 10 years while you focus on your kids or maybe you hustle like crazy for 10 months and get there a little faster. Either way, if you are looking to make fast consistent money a business is not it! I know a lot of ads and socials are pushing the get-rich-quick vibe, but any valid business takes time to grow. Even scaling a freelancing gig takes time and the reality is the average freelancer makes less than $100k and that is before taxes and expenses.
I still don’t have the answer as I am currently starting a brand marketing agency. I thought a consulting business was going to be a bit like optimized freelancing. Even though there is no physical product, it still takes time to develop a brand and audience for yourself as well as the business, in addition to doing the actual work for clients! However, I know now that whatever I choose to do needs to be worth sacrificing the energy I could be spending on my family or my personal growth and health. It needs to align with my values and be something that I can build on over time. I often feel that I am playing too small and staying safe to prioritize the well-being of my family.
I strongly feel that a key to women being able to achieve financial independence (and creating wealth) while raising a family lies in community and collaboration. Many of us no longer live close to our families and are missing a huge amount of support that comes with having consistent help that doesn’t break the bank. I think I can safely say that if Elon Musk was a woman with those 10 kids, SpaceX might not exist. I would love to see a mom founding the next Tesla-scale enterprise or becoming the next Jeff Bezos. We need the time, space, and support to be able to think bigger and work on more meaningful, longer-term projects.
What do you think? What have you learned while trying to navigate a career and family? If you have an idea or a business that is helping working women I would love to hear about it.