When I was still in school, I remember a professional illustrator coming to give us a special presentation. The entire lecture was filled with experience and wisdom and I soaked up every single minute of it.
One of the points this illustrator emphasized was that illustration is NOT a part-time effort. It’s a full-time job. I wrote this down in my sketchbook and silently agreed whole-heartedly, promising to myself to commit every spare minute I had to this career so that I could be successful someday.
Fast forward a few years later. I was a brand new mom to a little baby girl. I still hadn’t finished school yet, so I ended up making the choice to get a BA instead of a BFA (fewer credits required), even though I had already applied to the BFA program and been accepted.
Becoming a new mother completely changed my entire world.
I knew it would be difficult. I knew we wouldn’t get much sleep. I had a supportive partner who helped the entire time with anything and everything, without me even needing to ask.
I still had no idea what was coming!
One night, during the first week of her life, I remember waking up, yet again, to tiny, shrill cries after too-little “sleep”, then groggily trying to nurse our baby (which had been a struggle for me since day one). As I was struggling through the physical pain and mental exhaustion, the tears came, and my partner soon woke up to his silently crying wife holding a not-so-silently crying baby, sitting there in the dark.
Of course, he immediately jumped in and took care of us both, as always, and that moment eventually passed. I have always struggled with asking for help, even from my loved ones, and that’s something I’m still learning. But I will always remember how desperate and lonely and exhausted I felt at that moment, despite everything. I remember feeling that my life, from that point on, was permanent and unchanging and inevitable, that my life would forever be consumed by caretaking and sleep deprivation and all the “unappealing” tasks of being a new mother, now and forever.
A few months later, things had gotten a little better. Her sleep had gotten somewhat more predictable, she could sit up on her own, so I could put her down for a few minutes to do something – anything. There were glimmers of joy that were exhilarating; being able to see her personality come to life and finding joy in those little moments.
But it was still so much harder than I had ever anticipated. I was constantly exhausted and feeling guilty for every little thing. I longed to be an artist again, as if my whole identity had been taken away from me and I was only good for keeping this little person alive.
Despite this, I was also still balancing freelance work, maybe from months 2-3 and on, which (for me) was a mistake. I thought I could handle it, but it wasn’t something I should not have expected of myself at the time.
I remember these days of exhaustion and, basically, waiting for each day to be over, only for it to start again early (a little too early) the next morning. I remember getting comments from strangers like “Aww she’s so little, enjoy it while it lasts!” while I was secretly counting down the days till she got older, then feeling guilty that I wasn’t enjoying every single moment like they said.
It was during this first year that I kept thinking about the advice I had heard from that professional illustrator, that illustration was a full-time job, and that you couldn’t do it part-time. I remember reading comments on social media from other artists, about how they could only devote 6+ hours a day to art and they still felt like it wasn’t enough (I do completely understand this feeling, like it’s never enough, no matter what you do), when I was lucky if I got one hour a day of painting, nevermind the emails and posting to social media and everything else involved with running a freelance business.
You can forget about time to do anything like personal work.
Honestly, I’m not sure what kept me going and why I continued to freelance during those first years. I guess it was just a cycle of accepting work when it was offered, then needing to finish projects and not let clients down, then rinse and repeat. I also had a ton of support at home, both from my husband and from my parents, who would offer to watch the kids frequently.
Now that the fog of early motherhood has passed and my (now two!) kids are school-aged, things have gotten SO much better. Like, actually really good. It’s an incredible privilege to watch them grow up, to see what type of people they become, and to appreciate them for their uniqueness and the amazing humans they are. They are now gone during the weekdays between school and daycare, and I have a mostly-predictable schedule for art and work in general.
There is true and real joy, and while I still unabashedly revel in any alone time I get (we have family nearby that can take them overnight at times; a true privilege!), I soon find myself looking through my phone at pictures of them and missing them all over again.
Since then, I’ve learned a few things that I would like to share with you, whether you are a mom yourself, thinking of maybe becoming a parent someday, a soon-to-be-mom or parent, or you would just like some more perspective on how to understand and help the people in your life who are parents.
Don’t expect to freelance for at least 5-6 months after birth, and plan accordingly.
This advice comes from a place of privilege, of being able to save enough money that you wouldn’t have to work for 5-6 months, which I know is a very long time. My husband was working full-time when our babies were born, and I wasn’t contributing as much to our income back then as I am now. If I could go back, I would have waited longer to pick up freelancing again, and not put so much pressure on myself. When I finally did have the energy and the desire to create, I could have used that time to paint personal projects, which would have probably been more personally fulfilling anyway.
Prioritize seeking out help and support, when available.
Actively seek for support, whether from a partner, close family members, or even getting a babysitter/nanny/daycare if possible for your situation. If you don’t have the resources to pay for childcare, you can try offering another mom to trade babysitting. That way, you have somewhat dedicated time, even if once a week, where you have a few hours to yourself.
It’s hard to ask for help in any form, believe me, I know. It does get easier the more you do it, and rarely will you regret asking after the fact.
Separate your work and family life (as much as is realistic for your situation).
At one point, I received advice that I could always just draw on my iPad when I was home with my baby; moms are supposed to be good at multi-tasking, right?
Turns out, that was NOT great advice. I found myself anxious and stressed about having to go back and forth constantly, about being regularly interrupted, and not being able to feel any kind of “flow state” or even finish a thought.
What I needed, and what I’ve since learned, is that intentionally separating your work life from your family life is key to feeling any semblance of “balance.” When the kids are out of the house, whether under the care of a family member, childcare, etc., that time is devoted to working and you don’t have to stress about neglecting them, because they’re playing with other kids and learning new independent skills and so on, so you can focus on working without feeling so guilty. Then, when work is over and the kids are back home, you switch your mindset again, so that you can focus on being present for them. It allows you to be an even better mother/parent to them, because you can give them your undivided attention.
Things absolutely DO get better, and easier.
I was once venting to a mom about how difficult babies are. She then agreed but also said that as they get older, it doesn’t really get easier, just harder in different ways.
Now that I have a little more experience, I disagree with that sentiment. Yes, motherhood is never easy, no matter what age they are. But being a parent to school-aged children, at least for me, is absolutely less work than being a parent to a young baby. It’s ok to look forward to that as well. You aren’t a bad mom for not enjoying the baby and toddler ages. Everyone is different and everyone has different preferences. I find myself enjoying the school-aged season in general much more than the babies and toddlers seasons!
Enjoying certain phases of life over others does NOT affect or change how much love you feel for your children either. Those things aren’t correlated in any way. Being able to understand and accept this will go a long way for your mental health and emotional well-being.
You will have days where you do zero work. A lot of them. You will also have days (and weeks, and months) when you only have 1-2 hours of work every day. That’s ok too.
I used to hear that you would have to draw every single day to have a successful career. I’m here to tell you that that isn’t true. Life isn’t that black-and-white.
Sure, it’s preferable to practice any skill every single day. Just like it’s preferable to exercise every day for 20 minutes. But any real professional will tell you that some exercise occasionally is better than none at all. No professional will say that if you can’t exercise every single day, then you shouldn’t exercise at all. That if you stop exercising for a long period of time, you shouldn’t bother trying it again, because you’ll be so far behind. At the end of the day, if it’s been months since you last exercised, and you decide to go for a walk around the block one day, that simple walk will have been more beneficial to you and your health than harboring the idea that if you can’t spend two hours doing HITT then it isn’t worth the effort at all.
Does that mean you can go run a marathon after months of zero training? Of course not. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be a successful athlete someday either, whatever that might look like for you.
I believe the same thing applies to drawing, and to a career in general. An all-or-nothing mindset does nothing to serve you, and it can hinder any progress you might make. Focus on progress over perfection (perfection isn’t real anyway!).
On that same note, remember to give yourself grace (as hard as it may be).
It’s very easy to feel guilty as a mom, over any number of things. It’s very hard to feel like a good artist when you are watching the kids, and it’s very hard to feel like a good mom when you’ve been staying up late trying to finish a project after the kids are asleep, or when you have to pay someone to watch them so you can work, or even putting on yet another movie so you can try to get some work done because you can’t afford to pay someone else to watch them.
Imagine you have a good friend who is going through the same thing you are and struggling in the same ways you are. Would you tell her that she’s being a bad mom or a bad artist? Absolutely not! You would show her compassion and empathy in any way you could, and you would believe it full-heartedly and want her to feel that for herself.
If that advice applies to your friend, why would it not apply to you? Why would you be an exception? Why would you so easily give this grace to your friend but not to yourself? Replace this friend with yourself, and extend towards yourself that same compassion and grace. You are deserving of all the same love and understanding.
If you even slightly suspect post-partum anxiety or depression, seek out help from a medical professional.
Don’t wait for things to get bad first. It’s much more common than we think, and sometimes, the right treatment could be life-changing. It’s one of those things you can’t know for yourself until you ask your doctor and at least get checked out.
So, the question still stands: are you only going to be a successful illustrator if you work at it full-time instead of part-time?
I think the essence of this statement is true, and I appreciate the advice for what it is and the good intent behind it; that any career takes drive and passion and you can’t put half of your heart into it and expect amazing results.
I also feel this advice isn’t necessarily practical or realistic, or even applicable to a lot of people. It comes from a place of privilege, of being able to have a choice of committing to a career full-time and having the expenses and position in life to do so.
I think to a lot of men, not ALL, of course, but probably the majority of men, fatherhood isn’t an either-or situation: society acknowledges and accepts that you can be a father AND have a career. For women, it often is an either-or situation: you can choose to be a mother or you can choose a career, but choosing both simultaneously also means failing in both.
I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be such a black-and-white scenario. You can have both! Being honest and realistic, it’s just hard. Really hard. Be prepared to adjust your expectations significantly.
I’m also not sure if it’s realistic if you are the sole caretaker, to expect to be a mother full-time and also support your new family single-handedly. You need support, one way or other, in whatever form that may take.
“Balancing” motherhood with a career is an illusion because nothing about it feels balanced. It feels chaotic, like a constant battle, prioritizing one over the other, then reversing it another day, often for stretches at a time.
For some people, their mental health will improve significantly if they focus on being a mother first, and postpone a career until their children are older and more independent. I’d be lying if I said I’ve never fantasized about this option. Not that it is the easier choice of course; motherhood by itself is still a ton of work, and nothing changes that. I have complete admiration and the utmost respect for women who choose this path for themselves and their families, as it has its own difficulties and challenges.
What I’m trying to say is this: whatever option you choose, however you want to balance motherhood with an art career, is the right choice for you. There is no one way to be successful. Do what works for YOU and YOUR family, and ignore any unhelpful advice along the way.
Again, I do understand the idea behind what that illustrator told us undergraduates: that a successful illustration career can’t take part-time effort. That it takes work and struggle and showing up. I believe this was actually the original intent behind the message, and my young mind interpreted it more literally than it was meant.
That being said, I no longer believe in anything so black-and-white. I don’t believe you need full 100% commitment in order to be successful.
I believe in breaks, both short-term and long-term, whether out of necessity or desire.
I believe in rest.
I believe you can commit to motherhood AND have an art career.
Some days, one will be prioritized over another, and that’s both normal and ok. Some days you might not feel like a good mom. Some days you might not feel like a good artist. Both feelings are normal. Remember to get help whenever you can.
Being a mom is overwhelming in all the best ways and the less-than-best ways. I wouldn’t change any of it for the world, and I’m thankful for the growth and experience that have come along with parenthood.
I hope some of this has been helpful to you, whether you are thinking of being a parent someday or not, whether you are a soon-to-be mom or a mother already, or you just want some insight into how to help the parents in your life.
Take care of yourself!
As a mom of a newborn I really needed to read this today. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences! I’ve been terrified my career is over because of what the baby requires.
Thank you for sharing your personal experience and wisdom. it’s appreciated and admired.
Thank you for this! Even forgetting the art career aspect of this post, I’m happy to hear someone else say that it’s okay to not be totally in love with the baby part of having children. Because it definitely gets better when they’re older! And I think our culture has an overly romantic picture of how we are supposed to love, and later yearn for, the baby years. Doubly so for mothers!
As a father of two I remember those days. They pass too quickly and not quickly enough. As the husband of an OB-Gyn I hear those same stories regularly from the care provider side as well. There are resources available to new mothers that extend well beyond childbirth, and they are absolutely essential.
Excellent article. Thank you for writing it!
I enjoy this article, thank you for your thoughts
This is a wonderful article. As a new mother, I totally felt like my identity had been taken up and there was no time for art or anything I loved. But about 6 months later, just like you said, I was finally able to take time for myself to draw and paint during my son’s naps. It really helped to have the support of my husband, who also dedicated one night a week to watching the baby in the evening so I could steal some time alone. It does get easier as the babies get older. Plus, drawing the baby makes for some great gesture studies of 5 seconds or less, before he grabs the pen or takes a different pose.
Thank you! I’m a stay at home dad and a writer. That gets neither countenance nor support where I live. This encouraged me greatly. I still remember my mom making the choice you made in CT and getting yelled at in the grocery store for daring to have 3 kids and not work full time. I wish she could have read this article back then. Thank you!
Great comments and advice Miranda, certainly having a partner who is there by your side makes a world of difference. I would add one more thing new parents could add in closing – don’t apologize for your art. You don’t have to state you ‘only’ made one painting these past 6 months, or that it is not what you ‘really’ wanted to do as a project. Be proud that you are a parent and will make art when you and how you can in the future. Period. You define yourself as an artist, not others.
As a mother of a toddler, I really needed to read this (and the wonderfully supportive comments)! I’ve been parenting for a little more than a year and only just scrimping an hour here or there, usually late at night, to make artwork again. The dual mom and artist guilt is real. I take a lot of photos and videos of my daughter to hold on to for when the mom fog lifts. I try to savor her laughter and moments when she’s a soft creature falling asleep in my arms. Yet I’ve been afraid that I’d lose my skills and that we won’t have enough money to support her as she grows if I’m not also working. It’s good to read that the school-age years can be a bit easier (if anything, maybe with more consistent sleep?) I think the main thing I’m talking from your article is to just be okay with wherever you are. Thank you.
This was a wholesome and celebratory article of motherhood and art. I also appreciated your thoughts on paintings with this theme.
Lovingly and thoughtfully written, thank you!
Very important article, thank you for sharing these insights. I remember talking to Tara McPherson about waiting to have her first child until she got her career to the point that she could “coast for a year” and while it’s unfortunate that women need to make these decisions, it’s a reality no matter how supportive your situation is. It makes it so much harder for those of us living in a country with little to no support for new parents. The most important thing is to go in knowing it’s going to be harder than you expect AND know that your goal is to get through it with as little guilt as possible for doing what you can and not everything you wish! (Good advice for all of us, non mothers too)
This right here is why I working myself to what seems like an early grave, I could not beer to have my wife in such a situation. I have to be able to support her role as a stay at home wife. I am not even married but it is very much an important goal of mine, to be a husband and a father.
I wish to congratulate you for seeing it through, your article is really a comfort for me and its sweet how you have these paintings of mothers with children too. I secretly stash the same subject matter (Rockwell is really great in this subject matter).
God bless you and your family.