In my 20s, I discovered freelancing, and it was glorious. I was young and single and working in TV production; it was an exciting life. I didn’t have to worry about climbing up the company ladder or internal politics. My day-to-day was about the actual work I was doing and nothing else. Starting at the bottom gave me the freedom to poke my professional nose into all different areas of production to figure out what I wanted to do next, and the world felt full of possibilities. 

When I hit my 50s, after a couple of staff jobs (some great, some not so great) and more freelancing across the decades, I started to struggle with the question of sustainability: Was freelancing still viable? I’m not footloose and fancy-free anymore, I’m a mom and a wife and a mortgage payer. 

How can you plan your life properly if you don’t know where (or if) you’ll be working in a month? Financial planning? Forget that, I couldn’t even make dinner plans with any degree of certainty.

The excitement of uncertainty

I went through terrible dry spells as a freelancer, and each one fed into my deepest insecurities. Not only was I worrying about money, I was convinced that my career was over, multiple times. 

But in between my bouts of imposter syndrome, I loved the unpredictable variety that came my way. I copy edited books about Star Trek and James Cameron. I sold articles to websites, interviewed famous people, and was a contributing writer on a book. 

I worked on all kinds of TV shows.  In the past year alone, I worked on a Handmaid’s Tale aftershow, New York City’s Gay Pride parade, and produced Kelly Osbourne on New Year’s Eve in Times Square during a pandemic. I never knew what I’d be doing next, which meant that any email, phone call, or text could be bringing me the next Big Adventure. Life was full of possibilities! That’s the thought I’d hold on to as I watched my bank account balance dwindle. The open road was still ahead of me, enticing and rife with possibility.

…and the exhaustion

Even when you have a gig, the hustle never stops. I was always looking ahead to the next job, always on the prowl. It’s a lot, especially when you’re working long production hours, or juggling multiple jobs at the same time because you’ve taught yourself never to say no as long as the pay was acceptable. But in 2021, the jobs were coming in again, I was working my ass off, and I was wondering if this endless hamster wheel was my destiny.

And then my husband had a heart attack.

Catastrophe changed my whole MO

One day I will be able to look back on that terrible event with gratitude: It was the wakeup call my husband desperately needed. But the trauma of that weekend will take a long time to leave me… the late-night drive to the ER while I told my teenagers everything was “fine,” the long night I spent alone at the hospital waiting to see if my husband was going to pull through or not, the moment in the middle of that when they brought me his clothes.

Once we’d made it through that weekend, once I saw that my husband was feeling better post-stent than he had in months, I realized that I had changed, too. 

The frantic hustle, the uncertainty, the late nights of work and the unpredictable schedule all suddenly seemed more than I could bear. I didn’t have the energy to finish the job I was on, let alone pile on more stress with the 24/7 search for the next one.

A life raft

As if it had heard my cry for help, the universe handed me a gift through a good friend of mine, who recommended me for a copy editor job where he worked. A steady job with good pay at a well-established company that does creative projects. Seemed like a no-brainer, if I could fight off my demons.

For most of my life, I’d thought, “Who on EARTH would ever want a nine to five job?” Now my tune had changed completely. 

Predictable workdays and times, surely a panacea for someone feeling the need to be there for a family reeling from a traumatic event. And the work itself? Copy editing, which I find both satisfying and rewarding, since the job is to make everything better, clearer, and more accurate. I wouldn’t have to wrestle with my writer’s ego, either, and everything you learn as a copy editor makes you a better writer anyway.  

And then the doubts seeped in. Freelance life may be full of self-doubt, financial insecurity, blows to the ego, and shaky uncertainty, but it also offers something a “regular” job can’t: the open road. “I don’t know what I’m doing next” can be as exhilarating and hopeful as it is gloomy. Was I giving up on all of my dreams out of fear?

Surrendering for all the right reasons

The answer is simple. No.

I gave up nothing except instability. If I want to keep writing as a freelancer, I can do that on weekends, evenings and days off. But I HAVE weekends, evenings, and days off now. The release of pressure on my psyche when I stopped spending every day searching for more work was palpable. I have plenty of personal side projects going to keep me from feeling stuck.

It’s not about slowing down, it’s about doing what’s right for me and for my family, even if it goes against everything I thought was true 25 years ago. Life changes, and we can change along with it. 

The thing I once scoffed at became my salvation, and I am both surprised and grateful. And you know what? If that dream job comes along, I can still take it. But while I wait, I can do something I rarely got a chance to do before: live the life I’ve worked so hard for.  

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About Laurie Ulster

A transplanted Canadian living in New York, Laurie Ulster is a freelance writer and a TV producer who somehow survived her very confusing adolescence as the lone female Star Trek fan in middle school. She writes about pop culture, lifestyle topics, feminism, food, and other topics for print, digital, podcasts, and TV.

View all posts by Laurie Ulster