The Freelance Creative

How I Survived the Lowest Point of My Freelance Career During the Pandemic

Freelance Career

In March 2020, all of a sudden, my clients started dropping.

After years of building up a healthy roster of regulars for my writing business, one by one, they either stopped contacting me or tapered our relationship because of budget cuts and pandemic uncertainty. Some clients shuttered their businesses entirely. In a flash, I lost about 70 percent of my income. As a mom living in the oh-so expensive borough of Brooklyn, this was unsettling, to say the least.

I contemplated my next moves. I needed to pitch around more. I needed to polish my brand. I needed to hit up old contacts. I wondered if I should move. With my 2-year-old suddenly home around the clock, I flailed. I had absolutely no idea how things were going to turn out.

All the while, the panic-button questions that many freelancers ask themselves in difficult times loomed large: Is this the end of my freelancing honeymoon? Is now the time to apply to full-time jobs? Is this a sign from the universe that I need to find some stability?

It’s important to note that other people had it so much worse than I did. Nobody in my family or friend circle died or got severely ill from COVID-19, nor did we have to endure the trauma of working on the frontlines. I still had some income, and my husband still had a salary coming in. We survived, but we didn’t make enough money to cover our rent and daily expenses. We didn’t qualify for federal help, since income eligibility applied to the previous year. We burned through savings and went into debt, all while eroding our physical and mental health.

But for me, the story goes deeper than unpaid bills and ballooning credit card interest—which we are still dealing with. The pandemic solidified my identity as a freelancer. Thanks to the crisis, after flirting with that “panic button” for so many years, my answer became a resounding, permanent “no way.”

A strong start to my freelance career

I became a freelancer when I had a kid. To make a very long story short, I’d worked in several full-time media jobs over the course of 13 years, and nothing gelled. Going freelance allowed me to be a present mother and fulfill a classic pipe dream: to work whenever I wanted, wherever I wanted, with whomever I wanted.

The pandemic solidified my identity as a freelancer.

In the beginning, my freelance career went pretty darned swell. My previous industry contacts gave me a strong springboard. I pitched around successfully to outlets that seemed to have large freelancer budgets, and I accumulated steady gigs. Even better, nobody was going to guilt me when I had to stop working to pick up my kid.

Still, the lure of benefits quietly hovered over my head. Marketplace insurance is a notorious hellscape for New York families, and I didn’t allow myself to take a day off in those early years for fear of going broke. I was burning out. Though I was a very outspoken freelancer advocate, I privately maintained active job alerts for full-time staff writer and editor positions—because why not?

The 2020 test

The pandemic put everything to the test.

After losing most of my work, I had to brush up on old skills, like how to pitch stories properly and tailor my resume. I was dealing with cold clients in a much more competitive environment. A lot of freelancers went through the same thing: rejection on a mass scale, or taking on clients who paid terribly, but at least said “yes.” At times it felt like I was 22 again, career-wise. (For the record, I’m a million years old.)

But I learned a few things about myself throughout all of this—things I hope are relatable and encouraging for my freelancer comrades.

I learned to be nimble. I could pick myself up and keep going. I wasn’t particularly afraid of the avalanche of rejection, nor even of losing work. Instead of wallowing, I pitched. I networked. I polished my website. I refocused my energy on the next thing.

I had primarily worked as a journalist before, but the pandemic forced me to open up to other great paths, including video scriptwriting, editing, and content marketing. My decade-plus of experience made me a hot ticket on Upwork. When one thing fell away, another popped up, like Whac-A-Mole. Very slowly, over the course of several months, I started to get my income back. My clients improved in quality. Some of my old regulars even returned, and my freelance career was suddenly much more interesting and varied.

If the pandemic couldn’t kill my freelance hustle, nothing can.

The only reason why I was so resilient during that tough time is because I had been a freelancer for years. I’d lost full-time jobs in the past, and those experiences completely flattened my career and destroyed my confidence. Back then, I would wallow. I’d stay unemployed for months as I navigated interviews and onboarding. As it turns out, flailing around, not knowing what is going to happen next is kind of my specialty now. If the pandemic couldn’t kill my freelance hustle, nothing can.

The future is about staying sane

The torture of COVID-19 taught me what was most important: my kid, my family, and my health. Even though I was grateful and beyond privileged to be working again, I was determined to prioritize these things above all else.

This year, I started taking time off, even if it meant our debt would last longer. I committed to a healthy diet and working out (I gained 25 pounds in the beginning of the pandemic, and then lost 30). I secured consistent psychiatric care in addition to regular therapy. It’s because I am a freelancer that I can schedule these things into my life so seamlessly, yet I had taken little advantage of this flexibility in the past. Not anymore.

Earlier this year, I tested my freelance career one last time. I took on a part-time journalism job—10 hours per week—just to dip my toe ever so slightly back into the world of staff positions. My bosses and colleagues were good, hard-working people. But frankly, the job cut into time with my kid. I woke up full of dread at the thought of being on-call, even for a limited number of hours. I had to stop. My well-being was reason enough. It was the first time I had ever quit a job for such “impractical” reasons—and I have no regrets.

I still have a long way to go. We’re consolidating our debt into low-interest payments, which will help. (Most of us freelancers need to learn how to budget and save better, especially before the next crisis hits.) I also need to find a way to not cry whenever I interact with the New York State Health Department or unemployment office.

There are definitely people out there who survived the pandemic in craftier ways than I did. But still, I survived. I got out with my health, my family, and my beloved—if at times infuriating—freelance career. I won’t give up on any of them.

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