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Can a Freelancer and the Nine-to-Fiver Stay in Love?

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

By Lorraine Duffy Merkl

Mario Perez/HBO

“She shouldn’t take that freelance job. I mean, they’re on their honeymoon,” said Neil, my husband of thirty-three years. He was referring to the young newlywed Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) on the HBO mini-series The White Lotus, a modern take on ensemble shows from my youth — Fantasy Island, Love Boat, and Hotel — set in Hawaii.

“I agree, of course, but…”

“Lorraine, they’re on their honeymoon.”

I acquiesced, yet secretly couldn’t help but understand why Rachel was entertaining the opportunity. In fact, she explained it perfectly to her real-estate scion groom Shane (Jake Lacy) over their all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast: “If I keep saying ‘no’ then they’re not gonna come to me anymore. If I want assignments, then I need to stay in the mix. I spent years of my life building these relationships.” Shane just rolled his eyes and shook his head, as someone with a full-time job would do because they don’t get the nature of contract work.

As I watched this interaction, I gave Neil the side-eye because I’d seen Shane’s reaction from him IRL.

I’ve been a freelancer for twenty-six years. Although I’ve had two novels published with a third coming out in 2022, most of my writing over two and a half decades has been essays, book reviews, listicles, interviews, as well as a smattering of reported pieces. Although Neil never called anything I’d penned “garbage” as Shane referred to Rachel’s work, he has on occasion informed me that some of my lighter (re: fluff) items were “beneath me.” He has also from time to time called my pretty hefty body of first-person writing, the “It’s all about me” collection, as he prefers my reported, factual articles.

At least he no longer tells people I don’t work, as he did when I first started doing assignments from home. I’d have to chime in purse-lipped with, “Well, I freelance. I’m a writer,” and then glower in his direction.

Although Shane and Rachel are nearly dead ringers for Neil and myself back when hair was brown and skin was dewy, our dynamic was different when we started out. (For what it’s worth, so are our personalities. I was never as passive/aggressive as Daddario’s character and Neil was never the neurotic douche that is Lacy’s Shane.)

When we met, Neil was still in law school and I was a newly graduated junior assistant writer in the advertising department of then-prestigious Lord & Taylor, which paid so little it was like I was working simply to pay for the express bus from the Bronx. By the time Neil was an associate at a Manhattan law firm, I had transitioned to copywriting at an ad agency. After we got married, we lived on his salary and banked mine, hoping to buy an Upper East Side apartment.

Even though he earned more than I did, we were both contributing consistently to the household.

Then, in 1995, our first of two children was born. We had agreed that when this time came, I would be a stay-at-home mother. However, the idea of not working outside the home freaked me out. I come from a long line of hardworking, mostly blue-collar types. My grandparents were immigrants and my parents, as well as aunts and uncles, were members of The Greatest Generation. My people earned their keep. As Rachel put it: “I haven’t spent a day in my life when I wasn’t hustling.”

Hence, when my son Luke was three weeks old, I got my first freelance copywriting gig and just kept going until right before the crash of 2008. Contract workers are always first to know when the economy is turning. Suddenly, my clients were keeping more assignments in-house, then calling me to ask where the freelance was because they’d lost their jobs. With the phone not ringing, I had plenty of time to figure out what my next move would be.

I always say I owe my essay writing career to Lindsay Lohan. The movie Mean Girls came out on the heels of some brouhaha at my kids’ school and I wrote a piece about how mean girls learn their behavior from their mean moms. I sold it to a local newspaper in under two hours.

I had found my new career, but selling subsequent work was not as easy as my first piece. I took a couple of essay writing classes and learned the ethics of the publishing business. I continued to do copywriting as well when a contact would call with an assignment, but when the ad industry switched its media buys to the internet as well as social media, well, I realized that since I didn’t use Snapchat, I wasn’t really equipped to do promo writing for it. I let go of my original career and concentrated on long-form articles and novels.

When you freelance, a lot of time is dedicated to tracking down those who owe you money.

Neil supported the transition into my second act, but I always believed he saw taking care of Luke and his younger sister Meg as my real job and considered my freelance an extracurricular — like the volunteering I did at the children’s school — as my assignments were often intermittent, as was my pay. When you freelance, a lot of time is dedicated to tracking down those who owe you money.

Neil’s attitude was common among those with a steady income. If I had a dollar for every person who has patronizingly asked me if I work in my PJs all day, I’d never have to work again. Perhaps this attitude will change in the wake of the pandemic. According to the Pew Research Center, 20 percent of employed adults worked from home before March of 2020. Today, that figure has risen to 71 percent, and 54 percent hope to continue in the long term.

By the end of the second episode of The White Lotus, when Rachel tells Shane in a “happy now?” tone that she has turned down the opportunity that would interfere with their vacation, her pouting — an expression to which I am no stranger — made me ashamed of how ungrateful I was feeling.

There was indeed inequity in Neil’s steady salary and my erratic one, but because of his financial stability, the “free” in freelance meant I had been able to stay home with my children, avoiding caregiver horror stories that I’d hear from other mothers on the playground.

By putting in the regimented hours of a nine-to-five (that never ended at five), Neil was saying in his own way what well-meaning Shane awkwardly told Rachel: “Now you just do what you want to do.” And I did, which was raising my children, and writing every day.


Lorraine Duffy Merkl’s third novel The Last Single Woman in New York will be published by Heliotrope Books.