I’m self-employed alongside my husband, and together we are hands-on running a busy restaurant at the Quay. We have a two-bedroom B&B in our house, built in 1892, and in need of constant upgrades. Our daughter, born in that very home, is now four. People ask, “are you guys all right?”
It’s a good question. I’ve grappled with it for a while. Our business and lifestyle mean we go through prolonged periods of extreme stress, joy, guilt, doubt, regret, and physical hardship. A better question to ask us might be, “why are you guys ok?”
These days, it’s trendy to talk about ‘work-life balance’ and take a ‘work hard, play hard’ ethos, but I beg to differ. This catchphrase implies that work and life are a dichotomy—when work is done for the day, you can start living life.
This is a problem.
When you’re self-employed, the boundaries between work and life are blurred by working from home or being a master of your own schedule. One freeing realization that can come from being your own boss is that work is really just a part of life, not separate from it. My journey from having no life, always working and having too many unattended chores, into enjoying work as part of life, had three major turning points.
During the craziest and most stressful period in the last five years, my husband Michael and I decided that relationship counselling was probably a good idea. We were with each other 24/7 and not communicating at all about work. Most conversations were arguments. We blocked each other constantly with stubborn bickering.
Our counselor said one thing that really stuck. I paraphrase: “figure out who is in your tribe, find your goal, and unite in achieving it.”
Be ok with achieving your goal…and check in with your people about it
Our tribe ended up being pretty vanilla: myself, Michael, and our daughter. A tribe can be anyone: you and your three cats or 12 of your closest relatives—it doesn’t matter. Our team of three decided we wanted to be free from financial obligations to other people and organizations. Now we had a goal and, all of a sudden, things that I had seen as sacrifices and regrets suddenly became ok. They were now problems to solve, challenges—full-contact, augmented-reality Sudoku if you will. Just my cup of tea.
United, we went forward. I stopped beating myself up over our finances and life choices. I stopped punishing my husband for going to work at 7am and coming home at midnight. I took on home economics like I was balancing Canada’s national budget. Whatever I was doing at the time was fulfilling, because there was purpose.
It wasn’t a gendered division. Michael and I often switched roles at home and in the restaurant. We found that having a singular goal and regularly checking in on our progress meant we could get rid of what wasn’t working and ‘finesse’ our lives in the right direction. Every week, relieved of the anxieties and arguments over ‘not doing it right,’ we found more free time to exercise, be with friends, and go on family outings (you know, the ‘life’ part of the balance).
Do a full Marie Kondo on your monthly budget (if you don’t know who I’m talking about, Google her!)
So much of ‘life’ is a financial puzzle, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you just work harder and get that raise or promotion, you’ll make enough money to buy your way into doing life better. Not so. We found our balance by slashing our home expenses.
Another self-employment superpower manifests from being forced to live on zero income while building one’s business. So, we had the “advantage” of having to cut our monthly home budget by more than half. With some effort, we shaved $3000 per month from our cost of living, and stayed this lean for about 12 months. Our plan—if you can call it that—included not getting haircuts for 16 months, shopping exclusively at thrift stores, ditching cell phones, planting kale in the yard, and eating nothing but rice, leafy greens, and scraps from work for an entire winter. Seriously.
Once there was a hint of stability in the restaurant, we were able to make unified, thoughtful decisions about spending. A year in, we still spend far less than we used to, having removed the financial clutter.
Post clean-up, we made a few lifestyle decisions that cost some money. They sound an awful lot like the traditional fixes to work-life balance, except that we came to them from the ground up as a team.
We wanted to drink better coffee at home and at work, so we invested in a decent coffee grinder and two Chemex systems from Canteen and Supply at the River Market.
We decided to start going to the gym and took out memberships at The Strong Side Conditioning Gym.
We bought a picnic cooler and three day packs from MEC so we could go on hikes or picnics on weekends.
We love cooking and friends (who doesn’t?), so we spend some money every week on food and drink and have someone over for a meal.
That’s really all we have time for while each working more than 50 hours a week, putting a four year old to bed, and paying debt down fast, but unity in the decision-making process has made the little pleasures seem all the more sweet when paired with hard work.
Just to make sure we’re on the same page, I’ll let my husband conclude my train of thought. Here is Michael’s perspective:
‘Work-life balance’ is a poor phrase because it categorizes work as a pejorative term when, at its best, work can infuse life with interesting goals and strong discipline. ‘Life’ is euphemistic because it fails to account for emptying the dishwasher and toddler tantrums. American author and and mindfulness teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn says it best when he speaks about life as “the full catastrophe.” Joy and sorrow, work and play; we can’t have some of one without plenty of the other.
Can you do this too? Probably. The transition is difficult, and involves many long conversations, some which sound an awful lot like arguments. You have to decide what you want as a person and harmonize this with your tribe. Neither are easy. Once you have done this, the only essential step, as I see it, is to get to poverty and rebuild from there. Otherwise, your ‘things’ and accounts will own you—you will not feel ok with making changes. It is not equal unless you all give up everything and start fresh as a team