$75/hour and on food stamps?

Coming “out of the closet” about my financial situation’s dire state turned out to be a good move. People have flooded me with what feels like genuine hugs and applause.

After that post, a friend asked me how much I charge for my work. When I told her, I felt the smothering feeling of shame again. Yes. On the grantwinners.net website I note our typical fee is $75/hour. How can someone who charges that rate possibly require assistance from the government?

As I said earlier, I’m antsy about having gone public with my situation because I believe it could hurt my business. Because I’m not “hiding” here, I considered posting on doinggoodbetter.org (the blog for grantwinners.net) but I believe these thoughts belong here.

How can someone who charges $75/hour possibly require assistance from the government?

Working as a consultant means no benefits, no paid time off, nothing provided by someone else (office, computer, supplies, phone, website), and carries with it loads of expenses that many of us are terrible about tracking (marketing, admin). The fees we charge need to take these things into account. The client doesn’t pay all the overhead, of course, but the real costs of doing business need to be included when the fees are estimated. That said, with contracts or when we work using a “by the project” fee structure, the rates are typically lower than $75/hr.

No matter what rates are charged, however, I don’t see most of the money. This is how grantwinners.net works (clients know about this process): Initially, I work with new clients directly. Soon after the work begins, I find a good match from among the grantwinners.net team members (independent consultants) and I subcontract work to them. Thankfully the group I’ve got are very talented and dependable professionals. But, I don’t take much “off the top” of the fees the client pays. I learned in the last couple years that I usually don’t take enough. Finding people who do the job very well but will accept what is essentially a “below market” rate can be very challenging. A couple of my best subcontractors are executive directors of non-profit agencies doing work on the side (not depending on the work to survive). I have a few very bright women I’ve been training who have had very little experience winning grants. They are quick learners, but it takes more of my time to process their work because I need to be sure our clients are getting what they are paying for. People trying to make a living as grant writers generally need to be paid what I need to be paid, not less than that.

The time required to nurture relationships that might blossom into professional partnerships is time I haven’t had available based on my choice to focus on my children. I also tend to shoot myself in the foot (“don’t hire me”) because I believe so sincerely that most nonprofit organizations should be winning their own grants, not hiring consultants. Because I don’t think I offer (through the grantwinners.net team) some kind of magic potion that will get grants for organizations, I can’t in good conscience try to convince someone to hire us. I’m not a “direct sales” kind of person. I can discuss their needs and let them know what we can do, but I won’t say “if you hire us, you’ll get better results.” It doesn’t always work that way, though sometimes it does. (There are some very common mistakes people make in grant writing that I forget aren’t common knowledge. Just simple things, like, if the grant maker says a proposal should be no more than two pages, that means no more than two pages.)

Because of the work I have done, and the relationships I already have, grantwinners.net has had great clients in the last few years. Not many, but as this blog describes in more detail elsewhere, it’s been a Hell of a last few years. The post about being on food stamps and looking into additional support options describes where I am now.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking, “Who on earth will find this interesting?” The answer is, “These are things I need to say.”

I feel guilty, less-than-deserving of the support I’m getting from the government, when I discuss my business rates in the same breath as “government assistance.” My business has the potential to be a decent source of income, but it isn’t my top priority. That is probably one of the most difficult phrases I’ve written in all of this (“it isn’t my top priority”). Amazing how awful that feels. My children are my top priority. That shouldn’t feel bad to write or say.

I won’t take on work that I won’t be able to do well. This means I haven’t taken on much work (or, rather, I haven’t followed up on requests for more information). As my 3-year-old gets older, I will make more time for growing my business. For now, I need to keep it very basic and simple and know that putting my children first, for me, means being with them more than it means going to meetings to try to drum up new business. Time with my children comes first. I’m going to keep saying that until I don’t feel guilty when I say it.

the shame and gratitude of food stamps

“Why doesn’t she just get a job?” “I’ve seen her at Whole Foods, she can obviously afford to buy her food.” “All she does is hang out with her kids and play, she’s not even trying to make money.”

These are thoughts I’ve had about other women receiving financial assistance from the government. Since I have judged harshly people receiving food stamps, I know for sure some people will judge me harshly. The truth is, I am in a position to receive food stamps because of the decisions I made up until this point. I made a lot of mistakes over the years.

Being on food stamps lends itself to keeping secrets. I own a business. If I talk about being so poor I need to be on food stamps, I risk a negative impact on my business. That grantwinners.net hasn’t provided me with the income to be financially comfortable means potential new clients will doubt I’m worth hiring. A consultant who is struggling to make ends meet—no matter how unfair or wrong this is—is perceived by most as lower quality, less valuable, less worthy.

So, it’s a risk to tell you I’m not making enough money through grantwinners.net to pay my bills. There are many reasons for that, but the most significant is limited flexibility and time. My priority has been keeping my children’s lives as stable as possible (being with them), so I haven’t made the time to nurture professional relationships, or, to follow up on the many requests for more information I’ve received over the last few years. The end result is I haven’t had enough work.

The struggle to be a freelance consultant aside, I think it’s accurate to say I have never made enough money to live on. Since college (class of ’91), I lived on credit cards, balance transfers, cash advances, several big bailouts from my parents, sporadic freelance income, and my former husband’s regular income. The shame I have felt about using government assistance is because, as I said, it’s my mistakes and poor judgment that brought me here. I need assistance because I screwed around and up for 20+ years. I’m not suggesting I was only irresponsible, but, regarding financial decisions I was foolish and clueless.

I have felt deep shame about declaring bankruptcy and receiving food stamps. Despite this, I’m investigating even more assistance options now, as I learned two relatively major clients are reorganizing and won’t need my help anymore. It’s a scary place. Knowing the nasty thoughts I had about people I knew peripherally being on assistance combined with a deep knowledge that “I did this to myself” has made it humiliating to talk about my real financial situation in any public venue.

However, as the woman who asked the final questions during my food stamps application review said (as I apologetically promised this would be temporary), “This is what it’s here for.”

Pretending I’m not as poor as I am is doing no one any good. It’s been making me feel dishonest and inauthentic. Shame is a feeling I refuse to live with.

As of January 2012, my daughters and I live in a safe, clean apartment in a great Portland location. My former husband and his partner/girlfriend live in the West End, only 5 minutes away (rather than a nearly 2 hour commute to be sure he stayed involved in our daughters’ lives). My billable work is not bringing in what I need it to, but, I have no debt and am living with a new awareness of the costs of living. The real costs of living. My girls and I have a new and sturdy foundation. I’m learning how to find significant cost savings (a friend who knows the social services systems has been a life saver) and to realize that a “big balance” in my bank account one day doesn’t mean anything because the numbers show I’m still not bringing in enough to pay all the bills. (This is despite my former husband being more than generous in his support of his daughters and their mother.)

When I went to the market last week and didn’t have to pay a penny for the food I purchased, I suddenly realized I want to not feel shame anymore. Using my EBT card (food stamps) makes me feel like I’ve won the lottery. It feels like this is a real chance I have to start over. Clear the slate and start fresh. Barring dental emergencies or my car breaking down (we’ll cope with the broken air conditioning this summer) in the very near future, we are starting to build our lives into a financially stable one. I can envision, for the first time in my life, the day when I will have savings. I plan to never take on debt again; it doesn’t work for me.

In writing this post, I know I’m discussing something people frequently find too personal for public discussions (money). But, I know I’m not the only one who has felt ashamed of being “cared for” by the government when it’s my own screw-ups, for the most part, that got me here. I’m almost to the point already, since last week at the market, that my shame is turning into gratitude. The fear that economic insecurity brings can be brutally overwhelming and paralyzing. But, gratitude for new beginnings and beautiful present moments is also a powerful force against the darkness of fear.

I will make good financial decisions today. Instead of “putting aside my pride” and applying for scholarships or more government assistance, I will recognize my real need and apply for those cost reductions and credits and money from a position of emotional strength. I will continue feeling grateful for the support I am receiving. I will not live in shame.

Talking about this with other people is how I will stop feeling ashamed and stay active in changing our lives, so, if you have any questions for me, please feel free to comment here or email me at heather at serenebabe dot net.

how’re things?

The mass email. The holiday greeting letter. The personal update. Is it possible to share a personal update without it feeling disconnected and generic? I’m going to try. I want to let folks know how things are since I’ve shared some pretty tough stuff in the last few years…

The girls are doing great. My 8.5 year old has had some health concerns but they are mostly all resolving without any serious long-term effect. She excels at school academically and socially. She is courageous and sensitive and intuitive and brilliant. Her frame is small (still about 10-15% on the height/weight chart) but her heart and mind are expansive. Her school continues to be amazing. I’ve started teaching a weekly writing class there which has been really fun. More than just fun, teaching has reminded me how much I love (and am good at) working with children.

It’s hard to believe my toddler will be three next week. She is exploring some of what I thought of as normal toddler behavior until 8.5 didn’t explore them (throwing food on the floor, insisting on doing things ALL BY HER SELF, for example). She is also one of the most consistently joyful children I’ve ever known. Full of laughter and… really, “joyful” is the perfect word for her most of the time.

Our new home is perfect. I couldn’t’ve dreamed a better place for us. The physical location is ideal, just a few minutes to downtown, a few minutes to the supermarket, and only a few more minutes to 8.5’s school in Falmouth. We’re also only a few minutes from the Portland Friends Meeting where the girls and I enjoy a great community of good people. I’m working up to the point where I’ll be able to attend meeting even on non-First Day School Sundays, though that might take a bit more time as it will require both girls feeling comfortable being “left downstairs” with the childcare helpers. Most importantly, don’t ever underestimate the impact that a dishwasher and an in-apartment washer and dryer can have on the mental health of a single mother. Our life has improved dramatically in the last couple months simply because of those FANTASTIC new additions.

Work is picking up after a few years of very limited activity. You can read more about that here. I have several meetings lined up in the next two weeks and all of them might lead to new work. If they don’t become new clients, the conversations will definitely be informative and useful for me.

I’ll be showing my pictures (here’s a link to some older ones) at three different places in the next four months. I sold one of my paintings, which has no comparable feeling in my life’s experience. (It feels good!) I bartered with a friend so I have an easel. I have one painting still in progress (it has been since December), another forming in my mind, and now have the space set up so I can get back to work on them.

My former husband (MFH) and his partner are moving this weekend into an apartment that’s about 5 minutes from here. The girls will spend some time over there each week and we will have a more typical “custody” arrangement. MFH’s partner has gone above and beyond the “girlfriend” status in my book as she will be commuting the 1.5+ drive each week to continue her work, in great part so MFH will be closer to his children. She’s good people.

I hope to join the Portland Food Co-op in the next month or so, ever expanding our commitment to sustainably grown foods. I’ll write more about my experience at the pig kill in January, too. I’m also about to post some thoughts I had about this blog space. I know I miss writing. I’m just not sure how or where I’ll be able to meet my writing needs.

Life is just going well. We’re stable. Our foundation is growing and solid. We’re putting in roots. Life is rich and wondrous and ridiculously exhausting and challenging. That’s how things are for us. :-)

irresponsibility

If I won the lottery, I’d “just” take care of my children and our home.

I am that irresponsible. I want to be my children’s mother. I want to have the time and energy to do parenting very, very well in the way that feels right to me. I want to be the mother I am. I want to live a rich life as an individual, as a woman, full of variety and color and creativity, so learning from my example strengthens my daughters.

I’m furious that our country’s values make me feel selfish, self-centered, spoiled, and irresponsible because I want to care for my children and create a beautiful, loving, clean, and safe home for them.

Bills must be paid. My former husband is very generous in his support, but it isn’t enough to live on.

Typically, I’m not a fan of complaining without offering solutions. Right now, however, I am just too tired to figure out how this messed up system can be fixed. Somehow, somewhere, someone needs to find a way to make people see that allowing a mother to be at home with her children and be fully present as a parent is an investment in our country’s future.

Until then, I’ll do the work I have to do to make money. I won’t sleep much. I won’t have much patience or energy to just be with my children as there will always be dishes and laundry and errands and follow-up phone calls with insurance companies and just a quick email check to see if a client got back to me and and and…

Last week I put aside all of my to-do items and set the stage for finger painting with my toddler. It was extraordinary. In these photos she is looking at herself in the mirror. I grabbed the mirror after the first time she touched her hair so she would know what she was doing.

This is what beautiful, powerful, enriching, inspiring irresponsibility looks like: