cycles and the proverbial wheel

March 27, 2012 |  Category:   life me rambling

Some days I have to remember that a lot of things in life revolve in cycles. Women deal with cycles with their bodies (man, do we ever). The business is somewhat cyclical through seasons – there are definitely slow months and busy months and after 4 years we can sort of predict now where they fall (but it doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t worry when sales slow down). Freelance work, well, that is sort of the wildcard.


When you’re in it though, when you’re down at the bottom of that cycle and you can’t seem to catch any momentum or when things slow down and make you nervous, it’s hard to remember that there’s an upswing at the next turn. But usually there always is. Currently, however, I feel like I’m on that proverbial hamster wheel. Running, running, running to keep money flowing in so that it can flow out as necessary to run the household smoothly without any hiccups, to maintain that middle class status quo we find ourselves in. Running makes you tired, but you can’t stop because then everything will stop. So you keep running.
I feel lucky that freelance work has been very steady over the years. While there are still a few moments where I start to feel uneasy if things suddenly lighten up, for the most part I haven’t dealt with any real panic attacks or month-long depressions in a long time like in the early years of freelance whenever there was a dry spell. Those were scary, especially because I was also a new parent. I would say that for the first 5 years I would obsessively run mental calculations in my head every other day trying to figure out how long our money would last if I couldn’t find work for a few months. Knowing our situation down to the penny was comforting. But as I near my 10th year of working for myself, I understand now that freelance is a constant moving cycle too. It’s pretty ridiculous to believe that you’ll never work again even though you may have been lying face down in self defeat on your bed thinking it was truth. If anything 10 years is a convincing track record that there is always something around the corner.
But back to that hamster wheel. Sometimes I want to get off. I’m grateful that the work keeps coming (for now) and it keeps the engine going, but sometimes I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere or that the business is going anywhere. We’re just running to maintain orders and deadlines, to pay bills, to pay for dance classes and soccer and summer camp. I think it’s good to stop once in awhile and reassess things because it’s all too easy to just keep going and then when you look back, a whole year has passed. What have you accomplished in a year that was different and new than the year before?
Sometimes I think, well, if you could do anything right now, what would it be? I’ve struggled with the question before, but I think I know now. I think I would like a year to just try things out and work on all these ideas I have and see where it could take us. This is a fantasy, so in this fantasy there are no money issues, no pressures to make the numbers every month, no risk of losing freelance contacts when the year is over. When you’re working, there is an expectation and pressure to make clients happy. There is no room for failure. You don’t go into a project expecting to fail. Neither does the client. So you churn out the work and hold your breath at each design review and repeat with the next. I’d like to just work on something without all that pressure to succeed. To be free to fail without affecting someone else’s budget or deadline. To fail so that I can confirm what I’m good at and what I’m not and to discover if there are any surprises. To have the time to create something so bad and ugly and awful and not have it matter. A year to fail. I suppose you could call that a sabbatical, but those don’t exist for most people.
I think my nightly ritual of staying up till 2am is an attempt at trying to carve out this time. It doesn’t really work all the time though. The logic is there, but I often just end up working more and if I’m not, I want nothing to do except zone out on the internet because I have no brain capacity left.
So, there really is no point to this post or a moral to this story except I can attest that getting 5-6 hours of sleep every night is stupid (don’t try this at home, kids!). Being 40 year old adults with school age children doesn’t automatically mean that you have everything figured out in your life, despite what your 20 year old self once thought. I know we all make our choices. To have children, to not have children; to live in an expensive city, to live in a rural town; to save money or to blow it all on a trip of a lifetime; to keep saying yes to keep everything running while you keep thinking no. Though sometimes it seems hard to imagine, I’d like to think that those choices that got you on the wheel in the first place don’t mean that you’re locked into your current way of life. I’d like to think that there is some way off this hamster wheel…

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  • Sandra March 27, 2012 at 12:50 pm

    And wouldn’t it be fine to have it all figured out? I thought that I would by now too. I try to keep reminding myself that there is an “and” rather than and “either this OR that”. With the latter, any decisions made already or to be made in the future seem permanent.

    Once you ARE 40, you do realise that some doors are closed, that there aren’t an infinite number of do-overs possible. And that there is an honour in that hamster wheel of keeping a home running and the paid work coming in.

    That being said, the hamster wheel continues but I think it’s fruitful to stop and imagine what my ideal day-to-day life would be like and where it would be. Some of it I can tweak now. Some of it I can change later. It’s never too late. Second and third acts are possible.

    What can you do today? What small change?

  • unha engels March 27, 2012 at 1:05 pm

    ha… going through something similar.. making some drastic plans for the next year or two.. we shall see.
    been too long, let’s have lunch soon?

  • Roos March 27, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Thank you for thinking out loud Jenna! I too am a freelancer for 10 years and know of the cycles you’re mentioning. However I never managed to stop worry about money – even though in the end enough was coming in. Then I took a planned 2 year break to care for my little boys (and my husband with cancer, but that’s a different story) and just this week I’ve returned to work.
    Actually that’s kind of a hollow phrase, since no clients have presented themselves yet. One part of me is trusting the cycles, the other part is willing to give up all together and start living the dream. Our financial situation is not very prosperous to put it mildly and the costs of living with cancer are high. On the other hand, life REALLY is short, and why not go for it while you have the chance? Perhaps we should all hold hands and jump out of the hamster wheel together 🙂

  • Avery March 27, 2012 at 1:59 pm

    Jenna, you are a beautiful person who has wonderful things to say. Your humanity comforts me.

  • Jen March 27, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    I am going through that slow period right now with freelance work and trying to take advantage of my free time to work on some things for myself. It can be nice but I definitely still worry about if and when it will pick back up and get back to the busy part of the cycle. It does always seem to come in waves though.

    I feel lucky that my husband currently has a regular 9-5 (more like 7-6) job with a guaranteed income, but also like I am a burden since he so desperately wants to quit and start his own business, but I don’t make enough alone to pay all the bills. I appreciate reading about how you and Mark make it work both being self-employed. I guess it will always be somewhat nerve-wracking. I really hope we can make it work too so my husband can get off the hamster wheel that is driving him crazy.

  • Uncle Beefy March 27, 2012 at 2:40 pm

    Jenna, to say I’m feelin’ what you’re feelin’ wouldn’t be entirely accurate because it’s not. But, the whole ‘hamster wheel’/’running, running, running’? Yeah, that I get. As well as being prone to the cycles and face down in the bed sessions. Big time.

    I love what you say about just wanting to do things without the pressure to succeed and to have that room for failure and surprise. I’m terrible about allowing that even without outside or financial pressure. But, it’s a wonderful reminder about the unnecessary pressures we can put on ourselves.

    Here’s to finding the time and place to getting off of ‘the wheel’. 🙂

  • Cecilia Madden March 27, 2012 at 2:42 pm

    sometimes this kind of sentiment scares the hell out of me for what’s to come (my family is younger than yours, but not by a ton). sometimes it just makes me feel reassured: this is what life is like. it’s not that bad. we all want “off” sometimes. it’ll be ok.

  • jen March 27, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    another great post jenna. from an outsider though, your life seems pretty great! and this blog seems to be one of those outside projects that you wish you could pursue. there’s so much here, and your voice and your audience, that’s a lot that’s been created by you! one person can only do so much 🙂

  • Abby March 27, 2012 at 2:45 pm

    I found this post beautiful, and both encouraging and discouraging. I’m in the PR industry and have been for the past 5 years and I’m very unhappy with my career and considering a massive change by attending pastry school of all things. I know your husband is a pastry chef and I’d be curious to hear the struggles and successes he’s had in the industry as I consider this big change.

  • Kelsey March 27, 2012 at 2:50 pm

    This post resonated with me so much! So in times of stress please do remember that you’re certainly not alone. I especially love the thinking that you’d have it all figured out by a certain age – that was definitely me! But as I get older I am more and more comfortable in my skin and I am so glad for that…and I think I’m getting closer to having a job that I enjoy. But it’s been more a process of finding out what I DON’T like rather than waking up and realizing my dream job.

    But I also love that as I get older I’m still “figuring it out”. During good times I’m glad everything is set and that I’m still “figuring it out”, that means there are possibilities and opportunities.

  • mette / ungt blod March 27, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    I feel so scared of that wheel – I know I am right at the brink of it; having a family, wanting a house for that family and so on. I am finishing school which means there is no way around some sort of choice about a path. And I think I know which ones brings me into the hamster wheel and still I am not sure whether I should do whats need to avoid it. It means changing a lot of things about the way I have always seen may future

  • Natalie March 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I empathise with you. Its all too familiar….but comforting nonetheless…knowing I am not alone in these struggles…perhaps its more common than we realize…. take care …

  • J March 27, 2012 at 4:22 pm

    Such an insightful entry. Thank you.

    I am currently preparing to enter the work force as I meanwhile make my preparations to graduate from university with a degree in architecture. It’s both sad and beautiful to have your insight, even though our circumstances differ due to a difference in age.
    I believe that I am in that slump phase right now as I am stressing out about getting hired and facing pressures from my parents to “take the easy route” and branch out of architecture, apply to graduate school, or else apply for jobs in China, where building projects abound. It has been so hard drowning out their voices and figuring out what I should do. Just keep on pushing forward, right? Don’t give up! : )

    And, amen to realizing that trying to get more work done by sleeping less is dumb. I am convinced that I have taken years off of my life and compromised my long-term health because of 4 semesters-worth of pulling all-nighters 3 times a week. Getting enough sleep is such an important life lesson.

  • Kimi March 27, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    Shouldn’t it be a rule that we could take a mental wanderjahr to experiment and think and navel-gaze and make? I don’t mean ideas that are clear enough to seek grants for, I mean the kind that are mostly “I have this vague fuzzy dream that’s kind of important to me”.

  • Melissa@Julia's Bookbag March 27, 2012 at 5:36 pm

    ah jenna. sometimes it’s hard to read what you write. because they are the words in my head. reading the words in my head written down by someone else in such an eloquent way is surreal, you know?

    I struggle struggle with these thoughts. I thought at 42 I’d have it Figured Out. I’m so bewildered by the fact that I don’t.

    hang in there. we’re hanging with you.

  • oilandgarlic March 27, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Have you read Your Money Or Your Life? I’m reading it now and preaching it to everyone I know (it’s annoying , I know) but I really think everyone can get something out of it and it addresses the hamster feeling.

  • Jenna March 27, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone. @oilandgarlic. Yes, I have read that book…but awhile ago.

  • rachel March 27, 2012 at 7:12 pm

    great post. i am new to your blog, and i love your posts. i’m 28 and starting to realize that life is seriously hard, made up of choices, and it’s difficult trying to make decisions without regret, or without constantly wondering if you’ve made the right decision. also, there is a balance between being satisfied with your lot and being motivated to expand and try new/scary things that i haven’t quite figured out yet.

  • lee March 27, 2012 at 8:10 pm

    one word : ditto.

  • tamera March 27, 2012 at 9:13 pm

    No kids. Rural house. Same hamster wheel. Somehow, it always seems to find you.

    I just have to stop thinking “as soon as I get over this hurdle, it’ll be better” and just deal with this being LIFE and go with the cycles. Maybe they’ll flow more smoothly.

  • kc March 27, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    I struggle with this too. I’m turning 35 this year, have been at the same job for over 10 years and sometimes I wonder how I got here. And it’s not even that I don’t like my job, but I wonder, sometimes, about the things I’m missing by being stuck in the grind and if all the trappings I surround myself with is worth punching in every day. And of course, my husband and I would like to have kids and that will be a whole other set of responsibilities. Still, I, too, like to think there has to be a way off this wheel.

  • Rachelle March 27, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    On a horrible, horrible day when I wanted to quit my job and give up on everything, thank you. For this post and for the simple reminder that bad days always circle around to something better if you give yourself some time. Thank you.

  • Michelle March 27, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    When I ask myself ‘where do I want to be?’, New York, living a creative life with a pastry chef partner and beautiful children, is what I think of! Maybe because I love your blog.

  • melanie March 28, 2012 at 12:23 am

    i stay up until 2a.m. too! my friends think i’m crazy. on the weekends, i totally crash. i feel mostly happy, for now anyways. But dang that hamster wheel sometimes …

    thank YOU for thinking out loud. not all of us are willing to do so but know that you have company. xo

  • tiffmino March 28, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Thank you for this honest post. I have been enjoying your blog for a couple of years now, since just around the time when you turned 40 – I was about to as well. I am also a freelance designer, with a 3 yr old boy, and I find myself having similar conversations inside my head (at midnight, as I try to find some quiet, alone time). I think we are constantly evolving, making it almost impossible to have life all figured out. In our early 20s, we pick a course of study for a possible career we think we will enjoy and be successful at. But really, how can we possibly know in our 20s what we will want to do the rest of our lives, when we barely know ourselves? We change with each life experience, which has to follow through in our work. I am constantly asking myself, is this it? Is this what I will do for the rest of my working life? I am sure this will be a question I will come back to into my 60s… I think the key is to never get too comfortable. On the other hand, comfortable sometimes feels good when you are 40+ 🙂 With a kid + a mortgage. Anyway, thank you for sharing Jenna.

  • tiffmino March 28, 2012 at 12:48 am

    oh, and I love the idea of a sabbatical year to just try things out, to fail with the possibility of surprises.

  • tooodayi March 28, 2012 at 2:04 am

    Hi Jenna,

    i thought i would take the opportunity to ask
    (I think you may have written something along these lines before, although i’m not certain)

    Why you don’t use your blog as a business, there are many “career
    bloggers on the internet” that seem to gain a profit and your blog is great so i was wondering if you think that its not profitable, too time consuming etc…

    im asking as i value your opion on blogging. Thanks for your time, Monika.

  • eva March 28, 2012 at 2:57 am

    May be I am naive, but just don’t think, just feel, then do what you feel.

  • Lauren March 28, 2012 at 6:03 am

    This post was so refreshingly honest. My partner and I were running on the same hamster wheel, except we have government jobs, which although secure, became soul-sucking. We started asking ourselves “what are we doing this for?” and devised an exit strategy. Plans are easy and the doing is hard, but we’re currently in the process of executing the plan… hard and scary, but hopefully worth it!

  • Pink Ronnie March 28, 2012 at 6:10 am

    Mmmm yes. I am still figuring out how to get to bed earlier.

    It’s crazy, we have three boys under three, and for some insane reason, I’m still unable to switch off before midnight and go to bed.

    But I totally get it: late at night is when there’s quiet. And peace. And the chance to actually think, and dream, and plan, and do stuff that’s beyond the day-to-day.

    Thanks for writing despite your heavy work load.

    Ronnie xo

  • Nerissa March 28, 2012 at 9:08 am

    This post (in addition to your recipes) is a great example of why I read your blog. There are so many blogs out there, but yours has a certain clarity/honesty that most don’t. I especially relate to the part about choices and the point you make about being middle aged with 2 school aged children doesn’t mean you have it all figured out. I have been struggling with this, as I thought I would be more grown up than I am now, Thank you.

  • Sophia March 28, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Reading your post made me stop and wonder… Is that all? A wheel or is it a series of wheels we jump on and off?

  • Dee March 28, 2012 at 11:38 am

    What a wonderful post! You made me realize that I actually have the freedom to fail (and am not taking advantage of it solely because I fear failure) and I should treasure that. Thank you.

  • hyzen March 28, 2012 at 7:33 pm

    On the wheel right now, taking an internet sanity break and certainly got that through your post here. I definitely know your feeling, and sometimes it’s just nice to know you’re not alone in this craziness. Do people with careers and kids and so on ever really find that balance or have that chance to pursue their passions without penalty? If so, I want to meet these people and ask them what their secret is. I’m at work now with more to do than I could possibly finish tonight (same as last night, and the night before…), feeling guilty and behind and tired, wishing I were home with the kids and family, wishing I could read them a book and put them to bed and then have a glass of wine with my husband and get more than 5 hours of sleep in any given night before starting all over again. But, as you say, these things go in cycles–I happen to be at a low point now, but it’s not always this way. It’s this way more than I’d like, though. That’s the thing I’d like to figure out how to change….

  • Jocy March 29, 2012 at 6:50 am

    I think it’s a series of wheels we jump on and off. I “jumped off the wheel” a few years ago when I left private practice and pursued my dream of living abroad and doing human rights law. But there’s a wheel there too and I am on it again. How? Because after the novelties of a dream, there are the nuts and bolts – and for me, those are hamster wheels. I’ve recently started taking on consultancies and i don’t know how people do it. It scares me- the financial insecurity, waiting for the next thing. I found comfort in your post because it reminded me that there will always be something around the corner. But on days that are tough, I remind myself that I can always get off this wheel. I have control over my choices in life. In the end, when I weigh the good (I love my work) with the bad (it could pay more, it could be more stable), I realize it’s not time to jump off this wheel just yet.

  • Jen Laceda @ Tartine and Apron Strings April 5, 2012 at 1:08 am

    I love that you’ve written a raw, honest post. It’s comforting and less scary to think that I’m not the only one who thinks and worries about the same things! I have a regular – albeit boring – job in healthcare admin. I often complain about how “tired” and “bored” and “burnt out” I am; and I always thought freelance work in art and design is so glamorous…but I guess the pasture is always greener on the other side. Now that I have 3 kids, I go to bed everyday (also at 2 am) and pray that I am able to provide for my kids tomorrow and the days to come. I hope I am able to give them what they need for a long time…

  • Marie Hansen April 25, 2012 at 4:47 pm