“Don’t you think you’re being irresponsible?”
“Think about your kids’ future.”
“You’ve worked so hard to get here, and now you’re just going to throw it all away?”
In spite of my conviction that the life-changing choice I had just made was the right one, the comments from well-meaning co-workers, friends, and family still sent a hot flash of fear through me.
Was I being selfish? Did my children really need my time more than the income my Fortune 100 marketing provided? Would I be able to return if my plan failed?
On the outside, my life seemed close to perfect. I had worked hard and sacrificed for over fifteen years to get where I was. I had a wonderful husband, and two beautiful daughters in prestigious daycares. I went on expensive vacations, visited the spa every other week, and bought my children most of the toys and gadgets they asked for. We frequented live-theater events, galas, and art exhibits, and donated generously to charities.
On the inside, though, I was miserable. The nature of my position meant I was never fully off-duty. Business trips, overtime, and constant interruptions grew in frequency as the economy worsened and my employer consolidated the ranks. Even without the added responsibility, the nature of my high-pressure position left me with little emotional energy to focus on my family at the end of the day. My duty of reviewing and approving the work of others in my company without the authority to back up my decisions resulted in regular conflict. The last year of my time there was spent defending the choices of others to hundreds of stakeholders. The constant tension began to affect my health. I developed neck pain so severe I had to wear heat wraps under my clothes just so that I could move. I felt trapped.
I began to resent the fact that others were raising my children. My eldest daughter took her first step and uttered her first words in my absence. My lunch breaks were spent in my cubicle watching her daycare’s webcam, and feeling a stab of pain when she cried or ran into her teacher’s arms. I felt the moments I had anticipated enjoying as a parent were stolen from me, and handed over to a daycare worker who would never cherish them as a mother would.
Together, my husband and I searched for a solution that would allow me to stay home, or at least reduce the number of hours I put in each day. Unfortunately, I had served as the primary breadwinner for most of our marriage, and it just didn’t seem doable. I asked my manager if he would be willing to let me go part-time or come in early so that I could spend a couple of hours with my daughters in the afternoon. He declined.
Then Labor Day weekend, 2009, came. It had been an especially difficult week at work, and I couldn’t wait to spend three days with my children and husband. But, instead of enjoying a weekend filled with the end-of-summer fun, I experienced what I can only describe as an epic meltdown.
Watching the girls play and interact, the reality of how just how much I had missed hit me like a freight train. I couldn’t believe how much they had developed in the past year, and all of the little accomplishments I had been too busy to notice. On top of that, my six-year-old had begun struggling behaviorally in school. We had been taking her to speech and occupational therapy weekly with little success. Her teachers were not willing to work with her, and her confidence level plummeted. My baby was spending most of her day with guardians who resented her. It was more than I could bear.
It was then I realized that things had to change. My family was more important than the size of my paycheck, but I wasn’t sure how we could survive on anything less. Part-time jobs in my field were virtually non-existent. Starting my own business seemed like the best option. Having worked in e-commerce for several years, I decided to give that a try. I set the goal of quitting my job by the end of January and dove into how to make a simpler life possible for my family.
First, my husband and I hashed out the possibilities. We discussed all the opportunities and challenges we would face with me working for myself. To be honest, it was more than a little terrifying. I hadn’t been without a job since the age of sixteen. The fear of living in poverty had contributed in large part to my drive for success. We agreed, though, that a change had to be made. My husband’s support throughout the last few years has been invaluable. Without it, transitioning out of the workforce would have been nearly impossible.
Next, we took a good, long look at our finances. We listed all of our bills and expenditures against my monthly income. We decided to cut what expenses we could and subtract the total savings from my monthly income. I would then write a check to our family account for the balance. To make things easier, my husband assumed management of the family finances, while I managed accounting for my business.
The biggest and most obvious savings in our case was childcare. With monthly tuition for our two small children at nearly $1,500 per month, it was a significant expense. The spa trips were an easy (and expensive) item to cut, especially knowing that my mani/pedis were a reward I gave myself to cope with the stress of my job. Now that I would have more time to manage my own home, I canceled our cleaning service and lawn care.
At this point, we really started getting creative. We estimated that if I no longer had to commute the 40 miles to my office and daughters’ daycares, we could save another $100-200 in fuel. I agreed to drop the professional hair color in favor of the DIY variety. Gone were the subscriptions to magazines we never read and expensive lunches out.
We set modest grocery and entertainment budgets. I took up making cleaning products from scratch, re-taught myself how to sew and crochet, and expanded my cooking routine to include more homemade sauces, dressings, and other ingredients. Cable was out, Netflix was in. The more we brainstormed, the more opportunities we found to whittle our budget down to a manageable size.
When we finished, the total savings added up to nearly half of my take-home pay! The sense of relief was incredible. The more we realized how few of our indulgences were “necessary”, the more realistic the idea of staying home became. With some savings I had accumulated over the years, I knew I could supplement my income as needed until my business was more established.
It was time to get down to the business of my business. Since I had worked in e-commerce for the better part of a decade (and marketing for over fifteen years), opening an online store was the obvious choice. All I needed was a business plan, a website (which I could build), a business license, and enough products in stock to get me started. I just had to decide what to sell. After some consideration, I remembered that a couple of kitchen aprons I had given recently as gifts had been met with rather enthusiastic responses. A little market researched confirmed that vintage-style aprons were a hot commodity. With my vision in place, I dove into the task of setting everything up.
To be honest, it was a difficult phase. What little time I had left over after work was spent working on the new business. I knew that the most important time of the year for retail (both online and in stores) was Thanksgiving to Christmas, so I believed it was crucial to launch the first of November. My expectations had been pretty low for the first few months, so I was pleasantly surprised by the initial burst of sales I received.
With my business in place, the moment of truth arrived. Nervously, I submitted my resignation. I tried to push the doubts to the back of my mind and imagine the freedom my new life would bring.
The first few weeks at home were amazing. I established a work schedule which began in the early morning, with an hour or two set aside in the afternoon to spend time with my daughters. I will never forget one evening when we were all four sitting and playing on the kitchen floor. My husband studied me thoughtfully for a moment and said, “You know, I’ve seen you smile more in the last six weeks than in the last six years, combined.”
He seemed happier too. I think that, because I had taken on more responsibility around the house and with the kids, some of the stress of our previously hectic schedule was lifted from him.
It wasn’t long before we began seeing changes in the children, as well. My eldest daughter’s behavior improved, her confidence increased, and both children grew less focused on material things. Even now, both often remark on how they enjoy spending time with their family.
Within a month or two, requests for freelance work started to trickle in. Word-of-mouth spread, and what began as an occasional project grew into a full-time workload. Eventually, I phased out the retail portion to devote more time to my freelance business, which requires less overhead.
One day, while conducting research for one of my clients, I came across a website dedicated to urban homesteading. I had dreamed of living on a farm for most of my life, but assumed the investment would be more than we could afford. It had never occurred to me that we could create a farm right in our backyard in the city.
What appealed to me most was the fact that an urban homestead could be established slowly, without the financial risk of establishing a traditional farm. We could maintain our current employment while working toward a more sustainable, healthy lifestyle; and possibly save more money and create an additional revenue stream in the process.
But there was a problem: the only thing I could reliably grow was mildew. My black thumbs were so well known that my friends had an ongoing bet as to who could buy me the plant I couldn’t kill.
I knew gardening would present me with a sizeable learning curve, so I began reading anything and everything I could find on the subject. I watched YouTube videos by experts and amateurs, joined Facebook groups and discussion websites, and attended gardening club meetings and classes. As my understanding grew, so did my confidence.
We eventually decided to try planting a small garden for a season or two, to see if vegetables could actually survive my care long enough to produce a harvest.
I have to admit to being a little over-eager that first season. We started more seedlings than would ever fit in our two 4’ X 4’ raised beds. Some seedlings were started far too early and had to live in pots inside the house until the last frost date finally passed.
As time went on, the list of mistakes grew pretty long. The beefsteak-tomato cages were too big for their pots; we lost a dozen cilantro plants to over-watering; the kiwi plants never really thrived; and we were plagued with furry, long-eared pests until we figured out that we needed to surround the beds with rabbit wire. Cabbage moths and a (yet unidentified) tomato-eating bird added to the frustration.
In spite of our setbacks, I was pleasantly surprised by how well the ground cherries flourished; the lettuce supplied enough for our salads all summer; the abundance of green beans made up for what we had lost. The Muscovy hens we had purchased rewarded us with fresh delicious eggs, pest control, and endless hours of entertainment.
By far the greatest harvest, though, was largely intangible. My children developed a love of gardening and caring for the animals that far exceeded my expectations. The four of us enjoyed working outside, getting dirty and breathing the fresh air. The girls developed a sense of pride in “our farm” and began doing chores without being asked (even grudgingly admitting to enjoying the work). It became routine to check on the garden as a family after work and school each day. When weather permitted, we lingered outside, talking and playing together far into the evening.
Through this whole experience, I’ve come to understand that urban homesteading is a process, and a process in which I draw joy. In my previous life, mistakes were something to be feared, minimized, and prevented at all costs. Now they are an expected and often welcomed opportunity to grow, learn, and experience another facet of living as much as we can from this earth. My journey towards urban farming has made me a more patient, understanding mother as well. I encourage my children to make mistakes and learn from them along with me. I no longer care if they come in covered with dirt, because I’ve learned to appreciate the almost spiritual experience of spending time in tune with nature.
Best of all, we’ve become an experience-oriented family, as opposed to a materialistic one. This Christmas the girls had a difficult time coming up with a wish list for Santa, but were quick with a dozen requests for traditions they wanted to relive and people they wanted to see. Even though they received fewer gifts than in previous years, this Christmas they both told us they received everything they wanted and more.
It’s funny that, from the outside, we appear to have less than we did before. Yet from the inside, I feel like the richest woman in the world.