Q&A: How do you make time to paint with four small kids?

By far, the question I get asked most often is "how do you make time to paint with four small kids?" I've answered this a few times before in blog posts, but they've been just snippets of the whole answer. Sometimes they (wrongly) make me seem like a super woman with twelve arms who is able to stroke my baby's heads while standing at the easel mastering my brushstrokes, as if I can do both jobs perfectly at the same time. That might be true 3% of the time, when no one's crying and I'm endlessly patient and we enjoy all that's good about mothering and art and working from home... But here is my answer for the other 97% of the time.

Teamwork

The secret, for me, to do art while having kids is to have a really good marriage. I didn't create my family alone, and I, thankfully, don't raise them alone now. (To all of you single parents who do, my humblest praise goes to you. What a challenging job that so many of you do so well.) Like most working mothers, I need help with child care while I'm at work… even though my work is five steps away in my studio.

We decided, as a team, that we value my husband's work. And we decided, as a team, that we value my work. We make sacrifices and decisions, as a team, so that we can both progress in our work. We value our individual happiness and growth, just as we value the individual happiness and growth of every member of our family. As a family, we work together so that everyone can develop their talents and grow and progress. As a family, we enjoy so many benefits of each individual family member's contributions and talents. One person's success=our success. We count success as a team. We work as a team. My husband, Adam, and I do what needs to be done regardless of who "should" do it or who has traditionally done it in the past. We, as a team, just do what needs to be done at any given moment. We have very little leisure time, we don't watch much tv or sit around in the evenings often (even though that sounds so nice!). We discipline our time to use in the ways we want to pursue. Which means Adam, gets up at 4:30 in the morning most days to exercise and do things before work, so that he can get them in. Which means, I often work into the night getting things done that I need to do, instead of just shutting down and relaxing. We sacrifice for each other. We communicate regularly. We make art shows into date nights. We've made it a hobby that we can enjoy together, not just for me. And we do the same things with his interests. We simplify playdates and social activities and outings and other things as a family. We've picked a couple things that we've focused on, and that's where we spend our energy. We don't try to do too much in too many directions.

We've been married eight years this year, which feels long to us, but is so short compared to seasoned, golden marriages. By no means, do we know it all. Let's be clear that we have not mastered this topic. But here are the lessons we've learned so far and how we're making them work today.  

Sacrifice

A few years ago Adam wanted to get a masters degree. It was a rigorous program that required most of his free time. He came home from work and went straight to studying/homework. I'd call him up for dinner, he'd eat with us, and then go straight back down to his schoolwork. It was a hard time, amplified by the fact that we had just added twin baby girls to our family. Most of the load of parenting and housework fell on my shoulders during that time.  I sacrificed a lot for him back then. He helped as much as he could and would always step in when I couldn't handle it anymore, but we understood that he needed the majority of his time for that season to be devoted to his degree. I missed having the freedom to go spend Saturdays roaming around town. If there was a three-day weekend, we watched friends head off on fun adventures while we stayed in town, at home, and he got ahead on his schoolwork. He was able to do great things academically and ended up finishing his thesis amazingly fast. I was so proud of him and was always impressed with his discipline to choose work instead of many other things that could've been more fun. We still had fun times during those years and went on a couple trips. But they were rare. The majority of our time was sacrificed for him to do what he needed to with school.

Thank goodness that we didn't have to live that way forever. Three years came and went and he graduated and suddenly it was all over. What was so hard, didn't seem so bad, in retrospect. And, I will be forever grateful for the lessons we learned during that season about sacrifice and teamwork in our marriage. It strengthened us in such good ways and we are applying those lessons daily as we pursue other things. We couldn't have done my art business and his masters at the same time, but because of what we learned then, we're able to do it now-- with two more kids to boot. Not everything is worth the sacrifice, but we've learned that some things are and we know how to sacrifice for each other and for a greater good for our family.

Consistency/Flexiblity

There's no one set answer for every family. Kids are different, marriages are different, and no system will work for everyone the same way. Also, needs are always changing. What worked for us six months ago doesn't necessarily still work now. Nap times change, school changes, kids' needs change and all of that effects how I work around my family. So we are in an always-changing solution about how I can do art in every different season my family goes through. Flexibility is a huge key.

Right now, Adam gets home from work at 3:30 and I paint from 3:30-6:00 pm most days. I try to give him at least ten minutes of down time when he gets home, and we check in with each other and talk about our days. I make sure he can change out of his suit and get a snack before I dump the kid responsibilities on him. And then, he takes over and I disappear. He enjoys playing with the kids and helping them with things. Even when he's tired, he changes diapers and puts out all the fights. He makes dinner most every night (sometimes, depending on what we’re having, I'll try to prep things for him during the day so it's easier when he has to put it all together). If the kids are fine and there's nothing he needs to be doing, he'll often come sit in my studio and talk to me while I paint (I love this). He'll play me new songs that he's found and help critique what I'm working on. He often lets me have a long chunk of time on Saturday while he takes the kids outside and works in the yard or over to the library or something. It's not nearly as much time as full-time painters are putting in, but, for our family in this season, it’s the best we can do and it's enough.

Consistency is a huge part of my success. There were some months where I took the attitude "I'll just paint when I can". Guess how many days I worked those months? Probably five. It's so easy to get lazy or let other things take your time (moms get pulled so many directions constantly). The best thing I did was plan consistent work time at the same hours every day. I pretend like I'm actually showing up for a job, because, hey, I am. We've worked out when I can disappear and "be at work" and we protect that time. The nice thing about working from home and being your own boss is that you can be flexible and schedule a dentist appointment whenever you want, and there are times when my work time has to be rearranged around other life events. But we try as hard as we can to make these the rare exception, not the norm. If they're happening too often, we reevaluate. Maybe that time slot isn't working as well as we thought. Maybe we need to do a better job of saying no to other things. Maybe we need to reprioritize our goals. But work is a high value for us and we prioritize it accordingly. 

Choosing to make work a consistent part of my day, means that more often than not, it happens. It means I expect it and I'm less likely to let other things distract me or talk myself out of it. It means that even on some days when my husband has to work late (or take one of our kids to an appointment and I'm still in charge of the other three), I make work happen. I don't use that time to pick up all the toys all over the floor or get on the computer to pay that bill or reorganize the junk drawer. I try to forget about all the other "mom" things or "house" things and just focus on the "art" things. Sometimes (like this afternoon, when my husband had a rare day of working late), I brought my art up to the dining room table and sketched new panels. I still progressed with my work, but I was more central to where my kids were (running back and forth between the backyard and playroom, while the baby napped) and I could be aware of what they might need. But I make it clear to them that I'm working and this isn't the right time for me to help them with other things. When my daughter asked if we could do her shrinky-dinks right then (I know! How about that flashblack? My sweet sister sent them to us and I was so thrilled) I said this wasn't the right time while I was working, but we planned a different time that worked better. And, like I'll talk about in a minute, when I'm the only parent home during my work time, we coordinate that with a movie sometimes.

I have a friend who is an artist, but her husband travels a lot right now for work, so it makes it really hard for her to pursue her talents, because she's a single parent most of the time. I have another friend who's an artist, but she's pregnant right now and has really hard, sick, lay-in-bed-all-day pregnancies. It's not the right moment for her to make art a big priority, since it's all she can do to make it through the day with her ailing body and the two other kids she has to take care of. Motherhood and family life go through so many different seasons, and I feel like we have to keep reinventing our rhythms with every change that comes along.  But anticipating that, makes it much less stressful every time another transition comes up. We just find the new balance and keep going. Sometimes family needs more from me, sometimes art needs more from me. It will probably continue to ebb and flow all of my life.

Know Your Limits

Part of a good marriage partnership is taking each other's temperature and knowing when the stress level is too high. When you go from zero to angry faster than usual, that's a good clue. We give each other breaks and take turns. He sends me to go take a ten minute nap. I send him to go play a video game. We return much happier partners and parents. There are days here and there when he takes a look at me and says, "why don't you take today off?" He's right. I need to play hooky, because my art is no good when I'm too burned out. Again, this is the exception, not the norm.

Here's another truth about working together in our marriage. Adam and I are both very passionate, opinionated people. Neither of us are ruffled by confrontation, so in our marriage there have been plenty of confrontations. But even in those disagreements, we try to treat each other with the same level of respect and love that is true and characteristic of our marriage in general. As crazy as it sounds, in our calmer moments we've set several rules about how we will disagree (we never name call, we don't use ultimatums, no one sleeps on the couch, divorce is never brought up because it's not an option for us, we don’t include others in our disagreements, we give each other space to cool down, we listen to the other side, we both apologize, etc.). Having those things already decided and agreed on helps us both disagree in respectful ways, even when we feel strongly about something. And sometimes those strong feelings take a while to get over. We know when we're not quite right with each other and we keep apologizing and trying to work through it until we reach a place we can agree on.  This is pretty personal to share any of this, but I hope it helps someone to hear the truth about how we work through hard moments. Because they come in every marriage and they're not the part people talk about as much. They're painful and difficult. The person you love the most is also the person you end up dumping on the most, usually because they're the one you can and they'll still love you. It's a hard place to be, and it breaks weak relationships. But there are ways to work through them and continue to show the love and respect you have in the good moments of marriage. The trick is to both keep trying. With both of us juggling work, family, church, social, and many other responsibilities the stress can add up. We watch each other and (like I said) take each other's temperature and try to gauge when it's worse than normal. Those are the times one of us steps up even more and tries to ease the burden for the other until the overwhelming stress has passed. It is a constant ebb and flow. Thank goodness we can manage it together as a team.

Our marriage is not immune from the stresses of life, and, unfortunately, sometimes taking out that tired grumpiness on each other. But I think one of the greatest strengths in our marriage is the speed at which we both try to apologize and forgive. We recognize bad moments for what they are and try hard to let go of them quickly and bring our relationship back to a place of peace as soon as we can.

"To err is human, to forgive divine." --Alexander Pope

A Few More Tips

Every Sunday night we have a calendaring meeting. We bring our family calendar and the art calendar and talk through what's coming up that week and how we're going to manage it. If we see that our week is looking too full, we look for ways we can cut things out and simplify. We decide who's going to take our kids to their doctors appointments and which days we're going to need to help each other more with their load. If we see a busy day on Wednesday where I'm not going to get my paint time, we try to plan for that and give me extra time on Tuesday or Saturday or something. If there's a bunch of art events one week that are going to take me out in the evenings, we make a simple meal plan so that his work is easier while I'm gone. It's a lot of planning ahead, trying to anticipate needs and stresses and balance our family around it. If we see that we might not have a lot of time to connect during the week, then I probably sacrifice things like book club that weekend, that are fun, but not as important as my marriage. If there's a show opening we can go to together (and get a babysitter for) and grab dinner first, then it becomes a fun date night for us and something we can enjoy together, instead of just another night I'm leaving him with more work at home.

We use movies to our advantage. My kids are awake for about 14 hours every day. Two of my four kids have 7.5 hours of preschool a week, but the rest of all those hours are with me/us. It's a lot of work to keep steering them to engaging things during all that time.  I feel uncomfortable with my kids sitting in front of too much media during the day, but I've learned that it's okay sometimes. Our general rule is no more than one movie a day. Those two hours give me a break, and, an added bonus, is that it actually broadens my kids' creativity with new plot lines or locations that manifest themselves when they go back to playing. I try to be strategic about coordinating a show for them when the baby's napping and when I am free/motivated to work and then it's a win for all of us. Or we'll work it to Adam's advantage so they're occupied when he's doing stressful things like making dinner by himself. This doesn't happen every day, but sometimes it works out nicely and helps us both do the work we need to.

We live the law of the Sabbath. "Six days shalt thou labour and do all thy work… For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it" (Exodus 20:9-11). If God could get all his work done in six days, surely we can too. As much as possible, we try to stay away from our professional work on Sundays and use it as a day to rest, connect with each other, connect with our family and rejuvenate our souls. We find that we look forward to this day because we "can't" work. As workaholics we know we both have a tendency to keep pushing ourselves pretty hard. Sundays are a breath of fresh air where we don't need to feel guilty about what we're not doing because it's our day of rest. We attend church, have dinners with our extended families, play with our kids, read books, take walks… so many things that fill my heart up with joy and give my soul strength. I can face another week when I've filled my cup on Sunday.

When we were engaged, we met with one of our church leaders who gave us advice on how to have a strong marriage. One of the things he emphasized was to have a weekly date night. He said that even if we didn't spend a dime or leave our couch, it was important to set aside that time every week that was our time to connect with each other. We have followed that counsel consistently and it has strengthened our marriage so much--especially the busier we've gotten with more kids and two careers. Sometimes that promise of a Friday night with Adam is the thing that keeps me going the rest of the week. We try to get babysitters and get out of the house and away from the kids regularly. But even if we're out of money and have no child care, we have date nights at home and still focus on each other. We don't work, we don't do house stuff, we just connect and relax and enjoy each other. Like I said earlier, we've found that art shows are a fun, free date night (besides the babysitter) and sometimes we'll kill two birds with one stone that way. My husband is incredibly patient and has actually grown to enjoy the art scene ("I'd rather stand in front of a painting and talk to you than sit in front of some boring movie I don't care about"), but I try to make sure we go to sporting events or other things that he enjoys too to balance it out. But wherever we go, the truth is we just like being together and that makes everything fun. Keeping the friendship strong in our marriage allows us to work so hard in all the other ways.

In Conclusion

We all make time for the things that are important to us. For Adam and me, our work is our hobby. It's the fun thing we look forward to doing (most of the time) and we enjoy each other's work as well. We work as a team so that both of our work can fit in with our full family. I'm so grateful to be married to such a wonderful man who pushes me to be better and makes sacrifices to allow for that. Adam has made the two careers I wanted most in life--art and motherhood-- possible for me, and I couldn't be pursuing either one of them without him. I love him so much.  

So, in a nutshell, how do I pursue an art career while raising four small children? I'm married to Adam.