While the "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone" cliche may come in most handily and frequently in discussions of romantic relationships, rest assured that it works for health insurance, too.
Other things you might miss once they're not there anymore include sick leave, paid time off, and a chunk of a bi-weekly paycheck I took for granted for a very long time.
Like many idealistic people who dare to dream of occupational change at mid-life, I let these things go on purpose, because I did not feel that there was an alternative other than staying in my job, where I was increasingly unhappy, to keep them.
Two degrees and 20 years after I left a path of what was then print journalism behind, I came back with new media bells on into the field as an entrepreneurial journalist. This was better known before the fancy-job-name days of the Internet as a freelance writer, editor, and occasional photographer, which is still what I consider myself more than anything else. I just do all of this stuff on the Internet now.)
So I could pursue these activities that were taking up more and more of my time and brain space than teaching, last year I left my job as a full-time college faculty member. I had a plan in place for a solid year of financial survival -- or at least I thought I did. (First lesson: Read ALL of the fine print of ALL of your plans. No skimming allowed.) It wasn't the wisest possible choice financially according to a few of my good friends, and it certainly wasn't as far as my parents were concerned.
But at 41, with a relatively new journalism master's degree in my hand, a handful of dedicated writing and social media clients, and the ability to waitress if I had to (I told myself), I walked out of my classroom. I also, in no particular order, left my health insurance, retirement plan, paid time off, other ancillary benefits, and oh, yes, my full-time paycheck, to give my media business the shot that I believed it deserved.
So let's cut to the chase:
- I have had an amazing year in many ways. I learned so much more than I had imagined about myself and about other people. I traveled. I loved not having to commute or wear what I call "grown-up" clothes to my desk in my home office.
- I worked consistently, to no one's greater surprise than my own. I hustled more because I had to, and it paid off.
- I got new clients and worked with old ones. Networking became a way of life instead of a necessary evil for the hobbyist writer, editor, and blogger I'd been for seven years. It turned out that I'd really been networking all along -- whether I knew it or not -- because once media colleagues I'd worked with for years knew I was free for assignments? Some of them actually hired me.
- This winter, I hit a rough patch, and I did have to wait tables again.
- When I accepted that restaurant work was not working for my body or my mind at this age, a part-time position in education was there for me again, so I went back behind a desk and in front of a dry-erase board to work with students.
I've been an adjunct teacher and counselor before, so I knew the drill in my distant memory. I knew what came true: that this time I don't even have my own computer, much less a dedicated office. Time off is entirely unpaid, and I don't really even have it to take. I work when I'm scheduled, and I teach when I'm scheduled. The functions of my job are similar to what they were before, and certainly no easier, but suffice to say that the compensation is not, and neither are the benefits, not by a long shot.
When I first lived a pretty typical part-time academic life of cobbling together a few jobs at a time, a couple of campuses and one other totally unrelated gig in a newsroom, I didn't have insurance, either, and I swore it was the last time.
This is why you really shouldn't swear, I guess.
I consider myself very lucky to be having the experiences I've had since I left full-time academic work, because even though it was flexible and had many perks, it was exactly that: a full-time commitment that prevented me from doing much of anything else.
Since I quit my traditional job, I have actually worked harder than I have in my life. It takes initiative, creativity, and constant intellectual and interpersonal effort to build a business, not only the actual work that you do but the building of the infrastructure so that it can serve you financially as well.
The work? That's been the joy. My new assignments have involved things like being quite close to a fire eater and building vibrant communities of writers and creative thinkers online. I've had the time and flexibility -- if not the previous disposable income -- to travel. I've learned a lot about my ability to pursue tough goals and what I'm willing to give up to make that happen. (Short answer: more than I thought.)
I still have some really tough decisions to make this year. I've navigated the initial stages of applying for health insurance, for instance, a priority at the top of my list. I've learned that it's not easy to do privately, it is expensive, and I understand better the looks on people's faces when I said I was leaving my plan behind. I stalk the Federal Government's insurance marketplace portal for a sign, any sign, that better days are ahead. I'm also learning to cope with the other stuff, the lack of sick days in the nonexistent piggy bank, for instance, and the need to budget freelance income for the times when it's not flowing in for one reason or another.
But it's difficult. I know that a full-time job, with the (possible) safety nets of leave, insurance, and retirement vesting that I'd come to count on beyond what I was aware, is a possibility -- if I can find one, that is. I also know that some people believe that as a single woman of a certain age with no trust fund or secret to sell for millions of dollars, I'm an idiot for walking away, and I'm an idiot for not racing immediately back to something, anything, that will replace what I had that was really, in some ways, still just getting me from paycheck to paycheck in this economy.
Hardest for me is the concept that I should race back to a compromise of creativity and ambition, because in middle age, with too many years in, that is what it's my lot to do.
I'm not ready to admit that yet, I guess, not while I can still squeak out my rent and my car payment, things that I guess shouldn't be concerns for me this many years in, but here we are. Check back with me next quarter, I guess. I'm figuring this one out absolutely one day at a time.
This post is part of BlogHer's Women at Work editorial series, made possible by AFL-CIO.