Lets flash back to 2009 when I first picked up my camera and pretty much dropped everything else in my life. I was on the track to being a ceramics art teacher. When I graduated high school in 2007 my parents built me a ceramics studio in their home to chase my dream. Well, that following Christmas 2008 they bought me my first dslr camera and the rest was history. Although I still had a huge passion for ceramics, photography took over. I enrolled in the 2 year Associate of Photography Degree at Columbus State, got a 2nd shooter/assistant position with a wedding photographer for 2010's season - and I was off. I officially started my photography business in March 2011, and graduated from college that June. I had been shooting two years prior to the official start of my business, but finally realized... wait, I have 60+ portrait sessions and 20+ weddings scheduled for this year -- I think its time to make this thing official. I felt young, insecure, a little "not ready" but dove into tons and tons of research, got an accountant and an LLC and made this thing happen.
When I was young I had no dreams of being an entrepreneur. I had just never really put thought into it at all. And even once I was officially a business owner I'm not sure it was my dream. Everyone's story to starting their business is different. Mine went like this -- casually photograph friends and family for fun, start charging a little, booking constantly, start charging a little more, whoa my business started over night -- I am so busy and actually making an income now I better make this thing legit. So I let go of my part time jobs one at a time and became a full time business owner. I was incredibly passionate about the photography aspect, but the business owner part was something I wasn't stoked on initially. Now, as time went on and I got more experience and confidence, I grew super proud of the business I had built. I now sometimes even feel that my business is so much of my identity, what would I be without it? (But we will touch more on that later).
My passion for the photography/wedding industry ran soooooo deep inside me. The drive I had to make this successful was larger than anything else I had ever experienced. So while a lot of my friends and roommates were in school working part time jobs, drinking Friday and Saturday nights, I was a full time student, full time business owner, and had two other part time jobs in the beginning to make it all work. Back then, I didn't care to miss out on those party nights. I had a few, and they were fun and some amazing memories... But I never felt like I was "missing out" because I just truly loved my job so much. Work was everything. I wanted to be a better photographer, editor, business owner - I was in school, working in the field, and doing constant research to be the best I could be. I remember back then thinking I will never be as good as "this" photographer. I will never be published in a magazine. I will never "make it." But I kept pushing and pushing to try and get there.
2011, 2012, and 2013 seasons went perfectly. I was still at a place in my life where I never felt like I was missing out. I was loving my job and still working all hours of the day and night but feeling great about it. Nick and I have been dating almost 10 years so he's been along for the ride. We got engaged in October 2013 and started planning our wedding right away. I of course had to choose a date I didn't already have a wedding on so we were limited. 2014 was the first year I questioned my intense priority to put my job first. I shot 30 weddings that year and 150+ portrait sessions while planning my wedding and buying our first home. The 6 months leading up to our wedding were some of the most stressful in my life. Didn't have a period, lost 15 pounds accidentally, and was in complete over-drive. I shot an out of town double header the weekend before my own wedding. WHAT WAS I THINKING??? Our wedding day came, I was such an exhausted version of myself -- It was an incredible day, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't so so tired and exhausted on another level. But we got through the rest of that year and I was already booking for 2015 and feeling fine with it.
2015 was the first year I started thinking--whoa--I'm tired and I'm missing a ton in my personal life. So many nights of Nick yelling down the hall at 11pm asking if I was going to come to bed. Or nights in bed I check my email, get a message from a bride that in my head felt urgent, hop out of bed and deal with it at all hours of the night. I was slowly realizing that I was absolutely never shutting off. Nick had season tickets to the Crew games that Summer and I will never forget one night after a wedding he said "I feel like I am literally single, I am with our friends without you every weekend and I miss you. I feel like we have such separate lives because our schedules are so opposite." That hit me like a truck. In 2015 I remember shooting 20 weekends straight, and some weekends two weddings. It was pretty intense. And just to let you in on a little something -- shooting a wedding isn't just on a Saturday. I won't go into detail... BUT the work leading up to a wedding is CRAY. The preparing gear and triple checking everything starts on Thursday, goes into Friday. Wedding days are SO long. And then forget Sundays! You're so exhausted and hung over you're lucky to get out of your PJ's. And don't forget I'm shooting 3-4 sessions weekly, trying to stay up on emails, oh and EDITING, and quickbooks, and taxes, and wedding timelines, meeting new brides, packaging USB's, ordering business materials, the list NEVER ENDS. Lets just say I was logging 60-70 hour weeks April thru December. I knew I wanted to make a change but knew I was also terrified to do so. I booked 3 less weddings for 2016 and only did 3 double headers (instead of the 10 I would have normally done) so it felt like I made a change. But it still wasn't enough.
2016 -- If you are a follower of this blog you know how 2016 went for us. It was the absolute hardest year of my life. But lets focus on business for a second. I really started getting the "missing out" feeling the end of 2015 and it trickled into the following year. I cannot tell you how many family events, family vacations, birthday parties, cookouts, and personal life fun times I missed out on over the years. But like I said in the beginning I was so 100% career driven I didn't even notice. As time went on this slowly started to wear on me. And years and years of my Type A/anxious personality running this business gave me feelings of burn out and total exhaustion. I tried to make a few changes for 2016, but overall I was still working just about the same hours, devoting my entire life to my job, skipping life events because even if I didn't have a shoot scheduled, there were a million other tasks I had to do so I better not go to happy hour with my girlfriends. I have a slight obsession with checking things off my to-do list. NEWS FLASH: when you are a business owner your to-do list is NEVER done. Literally never. Because there is ALWAYS something else you could be doing to be better for your clients and for your biz overall. Lets just say work/life balance was just not even a thing in my life... and when anyone ever asked me what I was doing my response was ALWAYS "I'm busy, so busy."
More on 2016 - This was the year Nick and I decided to try and start a family. We had plans to start trying in Fall 2015 -- So I was of course so worried about booking weddings because of "possible due dates." So I was turning things down, or booking them but then being worried. (If I had only known then we would go through 15 months of trying and 2 miscarriages and that I had absolutely no control over when this would happen for us.) But I was naive and thought I could control it so I based so much off of that when initially booking my 2016 season. We found out our 1st baby was not developing properly in February 2016, and after three agonizing weeks of "do I miscarry naturally or not?" I finally decided to have the surgical procedure in mid-March. If you've read past posts you know how much loosing our baby affected my emotional and mental health. Crushed is an understatement. I remember being so thankful that I didn't have a wedding in that few weeks because I'm not sure how I would have done it. But - life went on as it did and my clients were waiting for me that Spring. I shot maternity sessions, and newborn sessions, and 3 births, and happy family sessions, leaving every one feeling empty inside. And wedding work picked back up and it was back to the grind. So, I had no time to take for myself for healing and processing this grief, I just had to go to work. And some days this was a good thing. I LOVE my clients and getting out of the house always helped. But the busyness crept back in and I never felt like I did things for ME to heal. April through September I was super focused on getting pregnant again. And crying every month I didn't. I was working a ton, not taking care of myself, experiencing depression for the first time in my life, mean-while putting on a happy face for clients and friends so I could try and have some sense of "normalcy" when in reality I felt the opposite of normal. We got pregnant again in September. THRILLED. I was like THIS IS IT!! Rainbow baby we love you here we come! When I woke up a Saturday in October to prepare for a wedding that day I started bleeding... I was hysterical. Didn't know if I was miscarrying or if it was just implantation bleeding... But -- I had a wedding. What was I supposed to do!? At the time I felt there was truly no other option than for me to shoot this wedding. I called my best photo friend sobbing, and her and my second shooter showed up and helped me all day. They were angels. I was sick and drained and bleeding and scared but I stayed at that wedding all day. We found out that week that the pregnancy was gone and we had lost our 2nd. Absolute darkest time of my life. But, its October in a photographers world so back to work. Let me reiterate once more how much I completely adore my work and clients. All of what I am describing to you is a classic case of feeling rock bottom in your personal life, tied up with being a work-a-holic, and an obsessive people pleaser - I put way too much pressure on myself to maintain my normal caliber of life in work when I felt everything but normal.
All of 2016 I worried - will we ever have a successful pregnancy? Will we ever get our baby? I was so so sick and drained emotionally, but still attending friends baby showers and photographing their perfect families when that's all I dreamt of having for Nick and I. 2016 was the year I realized busy is NOT necessarily a good thing. People pleasing to the point of no boundaries at all will wear you down. Never shutting off your job so you can enjoy moments with friends and family will slowly but surely break your heart. Again I was obsessing over booking weddings for 2017. What if we finally get pregnant? What if there are complications? What if I can't attend a wedding? But this is my job and I need an income, what choice do I have? I started making small changes. I purposely booked only 16 weddings for 2017 because I was desperate to be pregnant and thought maybe if I took a leap and tried to lessen my work load, things would fall into place. (As you know, they did! I'm 30 weeks pregnant with our miracle and thanking my lucky stars every single day). But - I will tell you, 16 weddings pregnant is a little like 30 not pregnant! Although I have felt better and definitely learned the word "no," I still struggle constantly with work life balance. I promised myself last year that if we were lucky enough to get pregnant absolutely nothing would come before the health of my baby and myself. I am doing OK with this! Not as good as I want to (and not 100% listening to my endocrinologist) but I feel I am doing my best to take care of myself, keep him safe on the inside, and keep my business functioning to the absolute best of my ability. But the guilt has made my sick. I started having some complications in June where I was collapsing, total and complete loss of energy, blood sugar drops, and fatigue so extreme I could barely walk. This was mainly happening at and after weddings. It was more terrifying than I can describe to you. I was so paranoid our babe wasn't okay. I was so mad at myself for working that hard that I would put his potential life in danger. I was frustrated with my body for not keeping up. Lets just say this Summer has been hard! My weeks consist of rest and work. Those are my two obligations. Because I am struggling so much with feeling healthy I feel I need to rest as much as possible. And work is a MUST and personal life is a MAYBE so I haven't done much for myself at all this Summer. Lightbulbs started going off.
I think a lot of people imagine entrepreneurship as this free and happy and easy and flexible lifestyle. There are so many things about this dream I was chasing that I didn't know anything about. That you never "get days off." And most likely you will work more just to keep your dream alive and your business thriving. Emails will run your life. If you want a lunch date completely uninterrupted, don't even open your phone! Don't look. An urgent message from a bride could derail you and make you so not present in your moment. Working for yourself can be isolating. In a wedding photographers world, we work out of our home nights and weekends, and seeing loved ones can be wildly challenging and start to get depressing over time. The work and ideas never end! There is no "clocking out" or "finishing work." You have to always be available and ON. And that your answer to "How are you?" will always always always be "BUSY!" In these times I have been anxious/stressed/not sleeping and feeling like I was barely hanging on. I've spent the last year soul searching -- could I really be considering leaving the industry I fought tooth and nail to break into? Could I really be walking away from MY DREAM? But I realized as you grow older, your dreams change. Like our dreams for our country life, our home renovation, our big family and kids growing up outside and on tractors on our property. Dreams of having the same days off as my husband so we can bond and truly relax together. Dreams of things bigger than my career. Dreams of a child and a family and a "simple life." Up until last year, nothing was bigger than my career. And after loosing two babies, a switch went off in me. I cannot live like this. I cannot survive this frantic way of living, being constantly overwhelmed, not present in any of my moments and devoting all of my energy towards my job. My job is incredible, I LOVE IT. But every one reaches a burn out point. Too much of a good thing can still be too much. So after some long and heartfelt talks with Nick, we came to the conclusion that I am going to scale back majorly on weddings. When we looked at our future and saw us each living the single parent life it scared and depressed us both. We want family time together. We want bonding time with all 3 of us in the future. We want to both be relaxed the same days of the week. And I want to say YES to more things that make me happy and NO to the things that drain and wear me down. This decision does not come without its struggles... Obvious worries of how will this look financially? Emotional worries of how this will affect me and my confidence. For so long I've been "Ashley West the Wedding Photographer" -- what am I without this? Have I based so much of my self worth on my career? Worries if my business will still prosper shooting more families and exploring other avenues of photography. It's hard for me to come to terms with the fact that I am scaling back on a dream I literally put my entire life on hold to attain for 7 years. Its scary and certainly uncharted waters... But I want my message to be clear. If you are unhappy in any avenue in your life, repeating history will not change it. I am putting my money where my mouth is and making big changes for my life and my family and our happiness. Because at the end of the day I want to be remembered as a hard and faithful worker, absolutely. But mainly a good mother, a good friend, someone who lived fully and was present in her moments and didn't take an ounce of life for granted. So that is the direction I am headed, friends! We have some big plans for another adventure in the future and I am so excited to see that come to life. But for now, in this last 10 weeks of my pregnancy I am focusing on my family and trying something I've never tried, putting us first.
As always, your support means the world! Navigating through all of these avenues in life can be so incredibly hard, but support from friends and family makes it so much more manageable. We love you all <3