I gave notice of my departure from The Sacramento Bee in July after being employed there for nearly 14 years. When I started in 2005, we had a staff of 27 in the visuals department, hand-built by our leader, Mark Morris. It was an honor to join a world-class staff of visual professionals. After my departure, only three of those 27 staffers remain. As at newsrooms throughout the country, photographers, picture editors and lab techs left through layoffs, buyouts or early retirement packages. I rolled with the punches and adapted to many changes during that time, but when Mark was laid off in April 2018, the job changed so drastically that I had to re-evaluate my position.
Central to any decision involving my career is my family. After the birth of my daughter, I had voluntarily shifted to part-time to avoid sending her to daycare. With that, I lost all benefits. No vacation, no paid holidays, no insurance or any other perks that make up a total compensation package. For years, I took a direct financial hit any time I had to miss work due to illness, until California passed a law requiring a pro-rated level of sick pay be provided to part-time employees. The sacrifice for time with my child was worth it. Now 5, my daughter is bright, self-assured and creative. Most days I felt I was living the best of both worlds as a mother and a photojournalist.
But as the staff shrank, the pressure increased for me to work more hours. Having just wrapped up my first award-winning documentary film, I was fired up for storytelling. My daughter was getting more independent, so I created a proposal to return to full-time work.
Personally, work must have the right balance of inspiration, compensation and family-friendliness. In exchange for less time with my family, I asked for a pay increase and a revised job description that would help me grow. The Bee offered a portion of what I asked for, but it wasn’t enough.
I then began to look for another job. In my search, I only found two jobs that fit the bill, both of which I did not land.
But journalists are resourceful creatures and we know that if doors are closed to us, we just need to look for another. And if no other exists, you get out the tools and start building your own.
I realized that my best chance of fulfilling both my professional and personal goals was to enter the freelance world. Thus, I began preparing for my career transition, buying gear, redesigning my website and creating a high-level business plan.
Three months into preparations I found out I was pregnant. It wasn’t planned, but after the shock wore off, my husband and I embraced the news.
It was really bad timing for my career. Initially, I decided to stay at The Bee for the security of income and until I could emerge from the blurry-eyed stage of parenting an infant with enough energy to pound the pavement for business. I also did not want to give up the four months of income that the government would provide through disability and paid family leave.
A month later I was approached with an offer for an adjunct teaching position at a local college. It included high pay, high inspiration and low hours. I deliberated whether to reveal my pregnancy before accepting the job. Legally I didn’t have to, but morally I felt obligated to be transparent about the need to give birth midway through the semester. I waited on pins and needles for the reply and even had a good old-fashioned anxiety nightmare about it. Fortunately, the decision-maker at the college was a family man and saw no issues with my pregnancy. We would simply arrange for a substitute.
With my base level of income covered, I was free to give notice at The Bee and pursue freelance videography at a pace that worked for my changing family.
I hid my pregnancy at work until I was five months along, not wanting to draw attention to my family situation. But as a woman, one can only hide behind creative clothing for so long. Your body will soon outrun your desire for privacy.
Not long after disclosing my pregnancy I gave notice. The first conclusion anyone will draw when you leave a job while pregnant is that you are dropping out of your career to become a stay-at-home mom. And though I believe that homemaking is a wonderful profession, that assumption in my case is false and potentially damaging to my ability to secure work. In this economy, I must contribute to my family’s income. Furthermore, I have no desire to abandon the career I love. I am taking a deep dive into my career and parenting simultaneously.
On social media, I decided not to reveal my pregnancy so that I may continue nurturing business connections unencumbered. I want to celebrate my career transition, my past and my future work. I’m racing against my progressively unwieldy body to complete my first freelance story and submit it to an agency before I have to buckle down and give birth. I feel the need to keep the momentum of this transition high, yet I know that ahead of me there is a gap of time when I will be swept out into the sea of new parenthood.
And now this crosses my mind: Perhaps I should call this gap of time a sabbatical instead of maternity leave. Sabbatical is something that highly respected creative professionals take for inspiration in their work. Certainly, this qualifies and it doesn’t come with the setbacks that “time off for children” promise. In a recent conversation with another parenting journalist, the words “career suicide” were used to describe that phrase.
I refuse to accept that.
I must have faith that the door I’m creating for myself, my family and my career will work. And if it doesn’t, I’ll build another. ■
Autumn Payne is an independent visual journalist based in Sacramento, Calif. She can be reached at autumnpayne.com. She would like to hear your stories about work/life balance.