For almost 15 years, I’ve inspired the admiration and respect normally reserved for popes, royalty and people who can down a pitcher of beer in one gulp. And I do it with four simple words — “I work at home.”
Green-eyed 9-to-5ers picture me sleeping until 10, banging out a few bon mots, meeting friends for lunch, then calling it a day at 4. It’s an image I’ve worked hard to preserve.
Then my editor comes along and blows it. He asks me to write a column about what it’s really like for a woman working at home. So much for my reputation. But what the heck, I need the money more than the rep. Which brings me to…
Myth 1 — People who work at home make lots of money.
I know, you’ve seen the signs on the telephone poles: “Make $100,000 a year working in your spare time at home.” Trust me, the only home-based jobs that pay $100,000 a year involve sex or drugs. Because no matter how talented a freelancer may be, no one pays you just to work. You’re paid for what you produce. So while you 9-to-5ers feel free to hang around the water cooler discussing Hillary Clinton’s cleavage, we freelancers are compelled to make every minute of the day count.
Our so-called work hours are just a part of our work day. We’ll sneak in few minutes of work when our kid is taking a nap, while our spouse is brushing his teeth, when we’re waiting for a human to pick up a company phone. I have a friend whose father moved his architectural business from a downtown office into a cottage in his backyard. He and his mother didn’t see him for the next three years.
So how much does a female freelance writer make at home? Unless you’re Sue Grafton or Mary Higgins Clark, you make about enough to cover child care, during a good week. One of my first stories as a freelance writer involved walking through several buildings filled with squawking, stinking chickens on a 90-degree day. That one paid $25. It could have been worse. I have two friends who turned in stories to magazines that closed shop a couple weeks later, without paying them a dime.
After several years of freelance writing, I graduated from 10 cents a word to $1.50 from my most generous editors, which, of course, is why I always try so very hard to make the best possible use of an inordinately large number of words.
Myth 2 — People who work at home save on child care.
Fifteen years ago, when I was a naive, new mother, I too, thought I could work and take care of my baby at the same time. It took just a few weeks for reality to hit. I was about 45 minutes into a face-to-face interview with Palm Beach lawyer Paul Rampell, when the baby loudly reminded me that I had not come alone. I tried to pretend I’d gone deaf. Paul didn’t, and politely asked if the baby had to be breast-fed. He then offered me a private room to nurse in before finishing the interview. I looked closely to be sure I hadn’t made any mistake about Paul’s sex. When I got home, I dashed off a letter to the pope nominating him for sainthood.
I realized I’d probably never find such an understanding source again, so I decided to get a sitter. I dreamed of finding a sweet, older woman who would be like a grandmother to my son for years to come. My mother had done it back when stamps cost 3 cents. Why couldn’t I?
My sweet grandmother type turned out to be a college freshman who quit seven months later when she learned she had a baby of her own on the way. My second sitter was the answer to my dreams. She was sweet and a grandmother. But after a year on a freelance writer’s sitter’s wages, she was headed for the poorhouse. She left to care for the children of a woman who worked outside the home.
When the third sitter left after just a month, I enrolled my son in preschool. Compared to the $4 an hour I paid the sitters, it was a bargain. There were a few hidden costs beyond the tuition, like the costumes for the Halloween party, Thanksgiving play and Christmas musical, Christmas gifts for the teacher and teacher’s aide, appreciation-day gifts for the teacher and aide, and birthday gifts for all 16 of my son’s classmates. Deduct those expenses and I still came out ahead with preschool, by about 39 cents a week.
Myth 3 — Computers make working at home easy.
This may be true for those of you who were born after the breakup of the Beatles. But for boomers like me, they’re a never-ending source of confusion.
Just last week, I sent a perfectly good story by e-mail to an editor in Maryland. This editor and I had been exchanging friendly e-mail notes for several months with no problems. But when I sent him an e-mail that really mattered, it came out his end as gibberish. So I saved the story as MS-DOS text, instead of just text, and sent it again. Still no good. I resent it as a Word document. Then as text-only with line breaks. Then MS-DOS text with line breaks. He finally got a legible version of my story, an hour sooner than he would have had I delivered it by hand.
So now you know the truth. There goes my admiration. There goes my respect. But hey, it would be nice, just once in a while, if you could remember to curtsy.