Over the past week I've had a bit of what I suppose could best be described as an existential crisis. In retrospect though, I'm not entirely sure that's the best way to describe the whole process. It was perhaps more of a battle between a fully justified knee-jerk panicking session and a reasonable, deep, introspective analysis.
Last minute cancellations (for non emergencies) throw me into a bit of a tizzy. Besides being incredibly frustrating (that slot could have gone to someone else), they are a logistical and budgetary nightmare for me. I intentionally schedule only 1-2 shoots a week in order to give my clients my FULL attention and guarantee my ridiculously speedy turnaround in addition to the immense volume of quality, fully edited images they will receive. My system, when not thwarted, runs as efficiently as the snazziest well oiled machine. I have very happy and appreciative clients, I can manage my workload, I am able to blog sneak peeks of each shoot within days and give my clients their package within the week AND I don't get burned out so I stay inspired and excited for every shoot. The cancellations throw a wrench in everything. Mostly they result in my weekly budget, the one I depend upon to support my two children as a single working mom, being completely decimated. It's scary being self employed and running your own business. I think most folks only see, or want to see, the glamorous side of photography. They want to perceive it as this fun and easy "hobby" that brings in money while you get to have fun doing something you're passionate about. No one really understands the behind-the-scenes work and expense of running your own full time photography business. They don't want to hear about the equipment insurance fees, the constant (and expensive) software updates, the maintenance of all that equipment, the PPA dues and membership fees, the lack of health insurance, retirement or any other kind of benefit, the lack of a consistent and reliable salary.... I imagine that if this were just a hobby and I wasn't wholly reliant on my photography business to support my kids then I'd be more inclined to just focus on the "fun" aspects too. But, I've got far more at stake here. I never know from month to month what the bottom line is going to be. I'm at the whim of last minute cancellations, some due to uncontrollable factors such as weather or client emergencies/health issues, and others far less justifiable. This sometimes leaves me, as a single mother and business owner, in a precarious place. Yes, I try to collect a small deposit from new clients but I would feel like a douchebag collecting deposits from long time clients whom I've photographed every year over the past 8 years and MOST of my clients are return clients who come to me year after year. And trying to collect a cancellation fee is like pulling teeth and rarely works out. Trust me on this.
Naturally, I realize that everyone who is self employed and working in a service oriented field suffers the same way when someone cancels. I'm sure my friends who are hairdressers, masseuses, estheticians (etc...) experience this as well. I suppose my side note plea in this message is to remind everyone to please have more regard for all of us who are self employed and running a business. Especially those of us who are single mamas out there doing it on our own.
But I digress. This latest last minute (less than 24 hrs) cancellation was problematic for me. This, in turn, made me question my decision to keep pursuing photography as a career, after doing it for the past 8 years. Especially now that I've been a single mom for just over a year. I am a proud member of the Stability Fan Club. I've always sought out careers and living situations that provided me with a stable and secure environment. In my younger days, I balanced that need for financial security with a career in a job that was ALL about unpredictability and excitement. It was how I could have my cake and eat it too. I was a big adrenaline junkie back then but still deeply rooted in a desire for personal and financial stability/independence. Things have changed over the past 20 years. I now worry that by choosing to stay in this photography career, one that is fraught with uncertainty, during a depressed economy, in an overly saturated market, with no reliable or predictable income, no benefits/retirement of any sort, that I am making a very selfish and irresponsible decision with regard to my children. Yes, I have managed to have a relatively successful and sustainable business the past 8 years, due almost exclusively to amazing client loyalty since marketing and "selling" myself is not my forte, but I've never "made it big." Before, my income was merely supplemental to allow for "extras" in our family. Now, I am wholly dependent on it. And that completely changes the dynamic. It certainly adds more pressure. Mostly, it makes me really question my decision to keep plugging away doing what I love. Because love and passion do not put food on the table. And when you're a mom, that's the bottom line.
Is believing in myself and my art the "right" thing to do with regard to my children's well being. Should I turn my back on my art in exchange for finding a "normal" job with a "normal" schedule and a "reliable" paycheck every two weeks? Would the benefits of that paycheck outweigh the flexibility I now have to pick my kids up from school every day and attend their school functions all the while still putting in a solid 40 hr workweek, much of it accomplished during the wee hours of the night when they are happily ensconced in the sanctity of their bed oblivious to the fact that their mom puts in another 4 hrs of editing work every night after putting them to bed? Would losing that precious time with them and that flexibility of schedule be worth it? I have asked myself this question countless times over the past year as I've struggled off and on during slower times of the year. My work is very seasonal. I live in a town where 1 out of every 5 people seems to be a photographer. Not to mention during a time where disposable income for the service I provide is at an all time low and everyone wants a discount/Groupon deal (which I categorically refuse to do). I can believe in myself all I want, but facts are facts and these facts make me panicky. I know I'm *damn* good at what I do. I know that I have a very special talent, and that this talent has less to do with my well honed photography skills and far more to do with how I interact with my clients, how I engage the children I photograph and how I can make any woman feel and look like the amazing goddess that she is. I know this. I know what I am capable of, what kind of work I produce and the professionalism that I extend at all times while running and operating this business. And yet, self doubt surreptitiously weaves its way into my psyche. How can I compete with all these newbies during a time when the only thing most people care about is how much it's going to cost them? After all, I can certainly relate and completely understand, because as much as I value photography more than anyone else on this planet, I haven't hired a professional to shoot my own family because it's not in my budget. So, I get it. I understand this all too well.
Which, naturally, brings me right back to questioning the wisdom of staying on course with this passion of mine while also being responsible for two little beings, three if you count my very needy and equally expensive dog, which is only fair considering he outweighs my daughter two to one. Ultimately, I want to do right by my kids. But I also want to do right by me. I spent ten years in an unhappy marriage solely because I couldn't fathom putting my kids through a divorce. I sacrificed my personal happiness out of fear of damaging my kids, fear of the unknown, fear of what would happen to us, fear of the trauma/chaos that would ensue if I left. I did this until things became so unbearably bad that I realized I was causing them more harm by staying than leaving. As expected, the process of divorce has been utterly traumatic and horrid, but it has also been a beautiful awakening for all three of us. I have never felt more free to live authentically. I have never felt more courageous and strong and capable. I have never seen my kids more peaceful and joyful than when the three of us are together. Whatever I have been doing the past year has been working. We've emerged better, stronger, healthier. But finances have been shaky and that's just not something I'm used to. I was hired as a police officer at the tender age of 21 and was quickly making a good, solid living with excellent benefits. I've always made sound financial decisions and have been able to enjoy a very good life. Not extravagant but GOOD. Little setbacks like needing new tires would never be a source of stress or anxiety. I could always cover what I needed to cover and also have enough left over to "play/travel".
Things are very different now. We live quite frugally. Money now features very strongly in my decision making. In fact, it pretty much dictates ALL my decision making. Money fears were starting to convince me that it was time for me to re invent myself once more and leave behind my era of being a professional photographer. That I needed to once again be miserable and unhappy this time in some dead end job (rather than a dead end marriage) in order to be a responsible provider for my kids. I'm not a flighty person. I'm about as grounded as they come and a very long term thinker. I always like having a plan A, a plan B and even a plan C. I have often times felt that my sense of responsibility and my commitments to others has prevented me from fully spreading my wings. I've been held back by my intense sense of responsibility and my strict adherence to my motto of always "doing the right/safe thing". The thing is, I don't really KNOW what the right thing is right now. I've been conflicted about it for the past year as I've stumbled, rather clumsily at times, through a difficult (oxymoron?) divorce and the process of establishing a new life and new routine with my kiddos. We've managed fairly well, all things considered, and I'm so proud of us. But I have never quite been able to shut off that nagging and critical and fearful voice inside of me that keeps telling me I need to give up my photography and just "find stability" in a dependable career. The noise reached a fever pitch this past week and became distressing to the point that I was researching job options and feeling a very heavy heart as I imagined my happiness, which had just broken free and learned how to soar, shackled once more by my sense of obligation and fear.
It took some deep reflection and a certain video to snap me out of it. A friend of mine also shared with me a saying her grandma used to tell her about money. "Money is money. Either you have it, or you don't." And, it really is that simple. I may not have much money right now but I do have MUCH happiness. And that's priceless. And I don't want to go back to being held back by fear of the unknown. That ruled my life for far too long. I used to be fearless, many moons ago. I am rediscovering that side of me. I'm not about to put shackles on my happiness again. The kids and I are getting by and making due. It's working out and I'll continue to do everything I need to do to realize my dreams and pursue my passion. All the while being a responsible mother and provider. There's too much fire in me to blow out that candle quite yet. When it's all said and done, I think it's critically important for me to role model for my kids how important it is to do what you love and love what you do, to stay true to your heart's desires, to follow your passions whatever they may be and to value the happiness and joy you get from forging your own path and designing your own life. Money is just money. As long as I can keep a roof over our heads and food on the table, everything else will continue to fall into place. And we will continue to be happy and filled with the lightness of a family who appreciates what they have in life and, most of all, appreciates who they get to spend it with.