The day I decided there MUST be an easier way was the day I found myself sitting in my car sobbing. My 12-month-old baby was adding to the chorus. Emma Heuston chronicles her inspiring journey from overwhelmed commuter to home-based happiness.
The Tracksuit Economy is that sub culture of worker who works from home, in shared spaces or anywhere they please! In her ebook of the same name, Flying Solo writer Emma Heuston reveals how a wake up call triggered her journey from Sydney based commercial lawyer to remote worker ensconced in a comfortable home office near Byron Bay.
There is an easier way
The day I decided there MUST be an easier way was the day I found myself sitting in my car sobbing. I wasn’t the only one letting loose with the ugly crying either. My 12-month-old baby was strapped into his car seat behind me adding to the chorus of heartbreaking sobs. We were stuck in a line of never-ending traffic snaking from the Sydney CBD to the outer suburbs. My son was crying as a result of hunger, teething, and long day care. I was crying because this was my grim reality three days a week and it was hard. Unbearably bloody hard.
Now I have proof that there is an easier way. I am living it. This morning I woke up, looked out over the lush green hills to the coast towards Ballina and Lennox Head before having a leisurely breakfast with my husband and son. I put my son on the school bus and walked down the stairs, logged on and was speaking to a colleague by 8.30am. I have had a busy day filled with meetings and work, in between which I prepared dinner and set out my son’s school uniform for the following day. I will log off at 3pm to collect my son from school and then do a little more work between 4pm and 5.15pm until we head off for Little Athletics.
What is your trigger?
The episode in my car was a trigger event. Most people will experience at least one trigger event during their life – an event so life changing that it causes you to re-assess your life. I had two trigger events within close succession. The first trigger event was a near death experience. The second was parenthood.
Pre-pregnancy, I naively thought life would be the same after having a baby. Fantasies played out in my head, like the idea I would be back at work as normal within six months and effortlessly juggling parenthood with my established legal career, looking like a Country Road catalogue model to boot! What I didn’t realise was how difficult (and expensive) childcare in Sydney was. Not to mention the added complication of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a generalised anxiety I couldn’t shake following the near death experience.
I was 13 weeks pregnant in October 2011 when I woke up in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of Royal North Shore Hospital hooked up to a cardiac monitor repeating the words, “Where am I? Is the baby okay?” My husband explained to me (repeatedly, because I had short term memory loss and asked the same thing over and over again) that he had taken me to the Emergency Department (ED) of the hospital a couple of days earlier because I couldn’t stop vomiting with severe morning sickness. Apparently, I had been given an anti-nausea injection in the ED and, as a nurse was attempting to insert a drip into my hand, I suffered a sudden and violent cardiac arrest – collapsing on the floor. My husband was rushed from the room and I was defibrillated and resuscitate until my heart started beating again.
After a week in the ICU and cardiac ward both my unborn baby and I were given a clean bill of health and sent home. Despite returning home, a battery of tests and a global feeling of anxiety stalked me after my release from the hospital. That feeling stayed with me during the remainder of my pregnancy.
The sudden cardiac arrest was a mystery. Every test and examination I endured after the incident came back clear. There was no explanation why it had occurred, or if would happen again. The inexplicable nature of the event clung to me like a vice, tightening my chest and shortening my breath when I thought about it. Anxiety about what the birth of my son might bring after a pregnancy saw me develop a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Simple things like being a passenger in a car filled me with dread.
Despite a relatively trouble free birth and being instantly smitten with my son, I had complications post birth, pushing me to breaking point. My caesarean wound required repair, necessitating re-admission to hospital (without my 10-day old son being able to stay overnight with me) for a further five days plus two additional wound repair surgeries. I was just getting on my feet again (finally!) when my mother in law arrived, suitcase in hand, for a 4-week stay from the UK. She had promised to help but caused mayhem, almost setting fire to our house and whirling through each room and my good graces like a cyclone. We didn’t realise it at the time but she had the early stages of early-onset dementia during that stay.
When I was ready to go back to work two days a week in October 2012 we were living in Lane Cove and I was working in Mosman. 12 kilometres as the crow flies but 45 minutes in a car on average most days. My boss was agreeable to any part-time arrangement I proposed, but we could not get a childcare spot anywhere on Sydney’s north shore. Ultimately we employed a nanny for a few months until we eventually obtained childcare, albeit the days of the week no one else wanted! That hard-won childcare spot was in Crows Nest, in between work and home. Working with a baby was a juggle but fortunately, my employer remained very flexible about my days and was great about accommodating me as I moved up to three days a week at the beginning of 2013. While I appreciated that, it still bought me to that event that found me sobbing in the car.
Those three days a week during 2013 became a blur. Sleep deprived. Sitting in Sydney peak hour traffic with a crying hungry baby. Making sure I left work right on 5pm to get to the childcare centre before closing time. Spending a precious hour with my son before bed. And repeat, again and again. Not to mention the constant sickness that came with having a child in a childcare centre. Multiple vomiting bugs and other strange illnesses spread to our entire family that year.
I tried to cram my other tasks, like washing, preparing meals and giving myself a few minutes downtime into my non-work days. But the reality was my client’s did not stop having legal problems on Wednesday and Thursday, just because I didn’t have childcare. I experienced quite a few cases where opponent lawyers purposefully tried to take advantage of my part-time work schedule by endeavouring to schedule court events and mediations on my non-work days.
In particular, I recall a stand-up fight with a grumpy older male practitioner. My opponent wanted a hearing scheduled on a Wednesday, knowing full well I didn’t work that day. Happily, the Court was sympathetic to my situation and I was victorious that day. However, it was exhausting. Not only was the work/family juggle a strain, I was also fighting against an institutionalised system that is not friendly to part-time working mums. It wasn’t a matter of me being more flexible, the system had to meet me half way too.
To make matters worse I was lonely in Sydney. I felt isolated without family support once my son was born. Not to mention my Brisbane-based mother has a chronic pain condition, epilepsy and a rare form of multiple sclerosis. She is wheelchair bound and cannot travel long distances. After we had a child it was harder to catch a quick flight to Brisbane to see her regularly.
There was also the undeniable nesting urge new parents get with a new baby to buy a house and set down permanent roots. Easier said than done. Even in 2013 before my husband and I left Sydney with a toddler, an affordable house in a suburb close to the city was like a unicorn – a nice, but utterly mythical idea. A common refrain in our social scene in the years leading up to our departure from Sydney was, “How can this be? We are a professional couple with well paid jobs and we can’t afford a house in this city.”
It wouldn’t be true to say we couldn’t afford a house in Sydney. More accurately, what is true is that we wanted a house rather than an apartment. We desired short commutes and space, all with a manageable mortgage to keep our family stress levels low.
I still liked my job in Sydney, but it was time to leave Sydney and look for a better way with less stress. If the system wasn’t working for me, it was time to create my own system.
While these were my unique triggers, they are not the only triggers. A death in the family, care of an elderly parent, health issues or simply the desire for a slower lifestyle are all comparable triggering events that may cause you to re-assess your life and current work arrangements. My advice is to acknowledge triggers as and when they arise and sit quietly with them. Your employers are not mind readers, so if things aren’t working for you, tell somebody and take steps to change things. Whether that is a remote role or deciding to go it alone is entirely up to you!
Change doesn’t happen by keeping quiet or staying still. Change is the reason I became a member of the tracksuit economy, a way of doing my job without the trappings of corporate life in a way I choose to do it.
Work from anywhere
My current job description did not exist when I completed my law degree in 1999. Best of all, I can work from wherever I want. Let that sink in for a minute. I can work from home, the beach, overseas. Wherever I want.
For me, the ‘wherever’ is far northern New South Wales. It is close to my extended family and allows my husband and I the benefit of a quieter lifestyle. It also provides the flexibility to work around my son’s school hours (which are definitely not corporate friendly) and have my neurotic poodle Lulu and exuberant dachshund Barnaby running around my office during the day.
My aim in writing this book and sharing it with the wider community is to bring acceptance to remote and flexible work and show how adopting these work practices can benefit society as a whole. Working from home should be something we celebrate, not our dirty little secret.