10 Tips for balancing family life & a creative business

My name is Stephanie Hock and I'm a fine art painter and a mother of four small children under the age of six (twin six year old girls, a boy who's three and a boy who's two). I don't have any professional child-care help, which means I'm with my children all day, every day, except when my girls are at kindergarten. Motherhood is so much fun, and being an artist is so much fun, but sometimes they're not all fun at the same minute. It is really tricky to balance all of the high needs of kids along with a professional, growing creative business. Here are some tips that have helped me find balance through all the craziness. 

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1.     Embrace the 15 minutes.  I used to think I needed hours on end in order to be productive at all. While that definitely can be more ideal (there's a good rhythm from uninterrupted work time), it's not the only way to work. The fact is, it's probably gonna be another twenty years before I really have completely quiet hours to myself to work. I could wait and pursue my dreams then. Or I can find ways to embrace the interruptions and be productive in the meantime. If I need to work while my kids are around, then I try to break up tasks into 15 minute segments and alternate between mothering and work.  I'm amazed at how much 15 minutes of concentrated play in my kids’ world buys me as far as them feeling loved and valued. I go work for 15 minutes in my studio-- put some lights and darks on that underpainting, add a layer of actual colors, put in detail work, varnish finished paintings-- then I go back to the kids/home responsibilities (make guacamole for dinner, feed the baby, change diapers, throw the whites in the dryer). Embracing the 15 minutes windows of time I do have, has allowed me to stretch myself creatively in ways I never knew I could, and often enhances my creative work when I come back with fresh eyes. (For more on this idea, click here).

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2.     Get help. While it is possible to work with kids around, it’s often tricky to focus on both things well at the same time. Find at least some time to work when someone can help with the kids, whether that’s when a spouse is home and available, a grandparent can take them, a playdate can be arranged—it’ll probably look different for every person. I have artist friends who take turns trading kids. One will watch all of them while the other works and then another day they’ll switch. I know another artist who invests in a nanny/babysitter just one afternoon a week. Whatever it looks like in your situation, it’s wonderful to find a regular block of time that is all yours to focus and get work done (and it’s often fun for kids to change up their routine and spend time with other people). School time and nap times might also be great solutions for some working parents to get in hours while their kids are occupied.

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3.     Do the right things at the right time. I am always more motivated to paint when it’s light outside, and always more drained and tired when it’s dark at the end of the day. I’ve learned to use my high-motivation time to do the things that are hardest or will require most focus. I save things like updating the website or responding to emails to evening hours when I’m tired or while my kids are playing (since it’s easier to leave if I’m interrupted).

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4.     Be consistent. Along with the last point about time, pick a consistent time that you will always go work. It’s so easy with kids, to get pulled in several different directions. There’s so much that comes up and always more that needs to get done around the house. There have been times when I said, ‘I’ll just paint when I get to it.’ And an entire month will go by with nothing happening. I do much better when I know that from 3-6:00 every day (or whatever hours I choose) are my time to work. I force myself to leave dishes in the sink or toys on the floor or save errands until later and just get in the studio. I have to push all the other responsibilities out of my head and keep the appointment with myself to work. Here and there, I might let something adjust my work hours if needed. But I have learned to make these the rare, rare exception, not the norm. When I work consistently, my work is better and I stay motivated and in the zone. When something happens (like a vacation) to stop me from working, I always feel the difference and it is so much harder to get back in the flow. Consistency enhances regular, successful work.

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5.     Find a supportive network. It can be very isolating to work from home and only ever see your family and your creations. It’s fun to disappear in your space and work to create, but it’s important to come up for air and mingle with others in your field. I have found so much benefit to joining and creating groups of other artists that I can meet with regularly. We exchange ideas, discuss issues we’re facing, ask questions and relate in a way that others outside our field will never totally understand. I benefit from so many diverse opinions among my artist peers, but I’m fortunate to also know other artists who are mothers and I find their unique viewpoints so comforting and enlightening. I have learned so much from listening to other professionals around me.

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6.     Understand the value of negative space. Sometimes I make the mistake of classifying every tiny thing as Priority A1. I add things to my plate and they all jump up to the same importance. I say yes to everything not because I'm afraid to hurt feelings, but because everything and everyone sounds like so much fun. I have a naive optimism that surely we can fit it all in and be part of everything. In art, we have the subject and then we have the negative space, or in other words, all the empty space around the subject. Without negative space in a painting, the composition is too busy. There's no place for your eye to rest. You miss what could be a powerful visual because there's too much chaos. You need negative space to define boundaries. My husband and I used to have a problem that any time anything came up, if the calendar was blank we thought that meant automatic yes's. Our lives were overflowing with too much busyness. We learned the value of adding negative space to life-- leaving white spaces of nothing to give your soul a rest and keep the focus on the subjects that are most important. 

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7.     Involve your kids where you can. It’s not realistic for kids to participate in every part of a creative business, but usually there is something they can be part of. Allowing them to participate in some of the work, helps them to invest in it and feel less resentful about the time it’s taking you away from them. Having something they’re in charge of, not only teaches them work ethic, but it makes it a team effort. Plus, it’s fun. For example, my kids love to help gesso my boards. It’s something they can’t really mess up and it helps me out to have someone else do it. I like encouraging their creativity and they feel like “real” artists using my stuff. I also like to invite them to do art next to me when it fits. They work on their thing and I work on mine, but it’s nice for us to be together and I can answer their questions and teach them what I know. And they make me laugh really hard.

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8.     Don’t compare.  I was at a lecture recently where the artist talked about how he goes and disappears in his studio for hours and hours and hours when he has a deadline and only comes out for meals. As a mom artist, I don’t have that luxury, and I left feeling a little deflated (“no wonder all these artists are so much better than me when they can give that kind of attention to their work..”). Here’s the truth—you will ALWAYS find someone who’s doing something better than you. ALWAYS. But focusing on that does nothing but inhibit your creativity and energy. We’ve all got to get it out of our heads and quit comparing. If the Instagram feed is making you feel worthless, quit checking it! If we’re focused more on our jealousy of those around us, than our own work, it’s like we’re trying to create with a blindfold on. Life is full of seasons, and I’m so happy that this season of my life involves raising my children. If I get any work done on top of that, great. There will be another season when I have time to myself to work without interruption. But it’s okay to be exactly where I’m at. I am better than I was a few years ago, and that is the only comparison I need to be concerned about.

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9.     Be flexible. Every time I think I have it all figured out, the rules seem to change. My child that was napping, stops napping. There is now a different school schedule. We have to adjust for t-ball or dance lessons. My husband is working later hours for a couple months. Such is the nature of a growing family and the changes will constantly come. Anticipate it and roll with the punches. I try not to get too married to any one strict way of doing things, but keep adjusting as our needs change. It’s kind of amazing to see all the creative ways I can find time to keep working, even when life doesn’t seem ideal. When I started my business, I was pregnant with my fourth baby and we were living in my parents’ basement. It was hardly the perfect scenario to launch an art career. But I put a drop cloth down in the corner of the family room, put my baby in a swing and set up shop. It’s not like every day has been perfect, but somehow I’ve painted hundreds of paintings, sold artwork, been in shows, won awards, got gallery representation and have been able to have this side career that really excites me. I would’ve lived the last few years either way, but it’s so fun that I have been able to grow so much personally and professionally along with my growing kids. Great things can happen even in inconvenient seasons.

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10.   Make your own rules. I often get asked how exactly we make it all work. I can get into the specific ways our family adjusts around me working, but the truth is, every family and every creative professional is different. There are going to be different rules for each individual and that’s a good thing. One of the great appeals to this line of work, is how much flexibility there is. There is hardly a road map for exactly how to have a successful, creative career making things, and it doesn’t look the same for any two artists. You get to invent it as you go, be your own boss, custom pick the methods that will work for you a la carte. I may not ever be the artist who sets up tents at summer art fests across the country and takes my work on the road, since it may not be the best fit for my family. But there are hundreds of ways I can still be a successful artist that feel comfortable to ME. Every creator gets the joy of custom fitting their work to their own needs and wants and there’s something really beautiful about that, that will hopefully inspire them to keep creating. Make it up as you go, and make it your own.

 

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