Thursday, January 12, 2012

What I'm Worth

I'm experiencing a business conundrum that has become a metaphor for my life. I agreed to do a freelance project for much less (read: more than half) of my usual fee. The agreement was that the project was quite easy (mostly website research), the hours were light but regular, and that it would transition within a month or two to a higher-paying writing project. I happily agreed to this and am glad I did. But now, as I skip movie-watching with my husband or shower time during the currently brief toddler naps, it's got me really wondering: is that minimal (but still nice) amount of pay per hour worth it? What is my time worth?

In the past few years I've been freelancing, the matter of my fee has been a tricky one. When I first started, I charged fees based on how things were in D.C., where I had just moved from. That changed quickly: turns out small-town SC companies don't expect to pay that. My largest freelancing client just tells me what I'll make per project, without discussion. I can take it or leave it, and am usually happy to take it. Other clients have vacillated within a rather standard range, with fee variations based on whether I'm proofing, editing or writing original material, and how much time it will actually take.

On the other hand, my most time-consuming job pays absolutely zero dollars an hour. As a mother, I work long, tiring hours that require 100% brain function, can't be done while watching TV (excluding Nick Jr. breaks), and will get me put in jail - or her in the hospital - if done poorly or against the rules. I have become accustomed to the idea that I make no money, most of the time.

So when an offer comes up for a little money, it's hard not to say: "Yes! I'll do it! Your small offering is more than I would otherwise make (i.e. zero)." But...but I've come to realize that my free time, while earning me nothing, is actually worth a heck of a lot. Free time equals sanity, a good marriage, a clean(ish) house. That's worth a lot, right? Last night, I watched a movie curled up on the couch with my husband, and I did not have my computer in my lap: it was glorious. Over Christmas holidays, I spent most of Sylvia's naptimes napping myself (with her, which is decadent), which kept me from being so sleepy in the evenings when friends came over. I even splurged on brunch with friends and shopping trips while she was at preschool.

As many stay-at-home moms likely know - especially those of us who left well-paying jobs for mothering gigs - I often feel guilty about not contributing much to the family income. So I feel like money, any amount of money, should be acceptable to earn during my few toddler-free hours. My husband would be unhappy if he never saw me, or only saw me as a stressed-out lunatic (harkening back to some of those grad school days), but he's willing to give up a few nights of couple-time a week for me to earn some bucks. And beyond the money, I like using my brain, feeling a part of the world, and just, well, working. I enjoy it. I feel valuable beyond my ability to mother and cook. But to what end is this money, and this feeling of work, worth the stress on myself and my family?

As a product of all this self-reflection, I'm proud of myself for recently negotiating a fee to consult on a new class. I stood up for what I thought I should make per hour, and how many hours I really thought this would take, and after some discussion, I was given what I asked. Women are notoriously bad at this kind of negotation, thus we tend to make less money than men. I myself have been part of the wanting-to-please types who don't negotiate well. But I feel that all the interal conflicts I spoke about above came to play in my firm belief that I Am Worth This: I know now what my time is worth. I know what people have paid and will pay me. I also know how great it feels to stay at home with my daugther, to watch her learn and grow, and to spend relaxing hours with my husband and our family and friends. And I know these hours are worth a lot more than working hours, in the grand scheme of things.

So if you want me to work, you need to pay me for it. I may make zero dollars for most of my day's work, but it's the most valuable job in the world. Future employers better be able to negotiate against that.

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