On being an artist and a mother – a conversation

Posted in Age, Female Photographers, Flotsam by LBM on February 24th, 2012

Carrie ThompsonWhen I was pregnant I had a studio visit with Lorna Simpson. She is a mother, so I asked her for advice. I wanted to know what I should do before I have my baby. What would be the challenges for me when I become a mother? She said that since I had been working on two projects dealing with family history, including a trip to Japan that directly preceded my son’s birth, I should write down the narratives of those photos. She said I had to do this before my child was born. She repeated the advice a few times. I didn’t listen. I didn’t write the stories. I should have. When my son was born everything changed. My extra time disappeared. Making work slowed way down. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the challenges of balancing motherhood with a career as an artist.  I decided to get some other photographers/mothers engaged in a conversation on the subject.There are a few things that I want to address. I want us to talk about being women, mothers and artists and how we find balance. How do we continue to make work, raise children and continue/find success? Alec is obsessed with age on this blog (see here). I think something important was missing from that discussion. No one seemed to address the fact that many people over 35 have children, families and other responsibilities. Do you as mothers think that having children makes it harder to be successful?
Greta PrattTo the first question I have to say that it completely depends on how you define success. If success is defined as a mad dash to the top of the ladder and whoever gets there first is successful then yes having children definitely interferes. But if success is defined as quality of life as in being loved and showing love and having deep, long term relationships that cause you to question the meaning of life and love and art and help you to look at the world through different eyes well then I would say that having children helps you to be successful.





Beth DowI can’t lay claim on the word “successful” but I can substitute “productive”. I envy people who can switch on their focused mind in an instant. Focus for me comes much more inconsistently, and if I’m really engrossed in something, the worst thing that can happen is real life getting in the way. If I suddenly need to get someone from school, for example, it’s like a million little bubbles popping. It’s difficult for me to regain that focus later. This is especially true when I’m writing. When the kids were little and I had a tight deadline, I warned the kids they could only interrupt me if they were bleeding especially badly. Black humor fuels our household. Now to address the “harder” part of “harder to be successful”. I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.

Paula McCartneyI just read Beth’s comment after listening to my two and a half year old yell from his bedroom in both in joy and despair for two hours in an attempt to not got to sleep while I sat in the living room trying to prepare tomorrow’s photo history lecture.  I can definitely relate to finding it difficult to focus.  When Oliver is talking-whether in the same room or not-I find it extremely hard to concentrate on anything else. Having a child and an art career, and teaching is a lot to juggle.  I always wonder and ask other women how they do it. The most helpful response was from a photographer that I greatly admire who said “sometimes you are a not-so-great artist, sometimes a not-so-great mother, and sometimes a not-so-great teacher.”  Hearing that made me feel not so bad about being not so great all the time at everything I was trying to do. Since grad school I made the decision to define success as continuously moving forward in some way, even if very slowly.  And while I continue to ask artists with children how they do it, always hoping for some bit of wisdom that will make doing it easier, I realize that I am doing it too.  For me, finding some balance (though that word makes life seem a little more stress-free than it is) happened when my son started going to day care two days a week and I had those days as studio days.  I could focus on my work those days, teach a few mornings and be genuinely present when I was with him.  The thing that I have seemed to sacrifice in being an artist and a mother of a young child and teaching is having a social life.   In the whirlwind of the first two years I didn’t pay that much attention but have recently made much more of an attempt to make dates with my friends (mostly other women artists, many with children). When I think of all the women I am friends with who are artists, the ones that would be considered as more successful are the ones with children.  So, I guess that no, having a child doesn’t make you less successful, only more tired.  And while for me, life is definitely more difficult with a child, it is also definitely more amazing.

Danielle MericleI (like everyone) am so busy most the time I forget how useful camaraderie can be.  That said, I’ve been surprised at the positive impact motherhood has had on me, both in a general sense and artistically.  I was one of those who had little or no interest in having kids, so when I found myself pregnant I was pretty terrified at what it might mean to me.  Much to my relief, I’ve found that it has made me less anxious about “career,” more genuinely invested in the process of creating, and happier in general.  I think this is for a few reasons- first, I simply don’t have the time to be anxious anymore- after the full-time job and Charley (and house, food, exercise, etc) I get on average half day per week to focus on my work, so when I’m in my studio, I’m working. And it feels so nice (and necessary) to have that space to work, however little the time.  I also have experienced (a cliche, I know) a major shift in my priorities- I’m not sure that I can entirely articulate the change, but I know that my definition of success is different- and has much less to do with the notion you have in art school of art-stardom, but rather is a better match for what I really want to do in life (which, fundamentally speaking, is to have an interesting and fulfilling life). This is not to say that it’s been totally rosy and without issues. My darker moments have come over battles for time. My husband is a working artist too, and the struggles for an hour here or there have been throughout our tenure as parents (almost three years now). For whatever reason, I’ve had a tendency to relinquish my time more than I would like, which has been a really terrible habit that I’ve had to consciously break.  If I had any advice to a new mother/artist, it would be to guard what little time you have- it may not feel like much to give up an afternoon, but from a sanity perspective it’s huge. Other things- I too have little or no social life, which is fine for now.  I’ve worried that we’ve alienated a few people around here, but there’s not much to do about it (and fundamentally I don’t know that we really have). And I don’t read anymore- this drives me crazy- and I’m really looking forward to that coming back.

Amy Stein: Danielle’s comments really resonate for me. Many are spot on to my recent experiences as a mother. I too feel less anxious about career concerns than I did before Sam cam along. I used to be very consumed by my work and career and now I feel I’m much more relaxed about it and have more perspective on it’s trajectory as well as many other aspects of my life. The cliches we often hear are that motherhood is “transformative” and “puts things into perspective, are uttered so often because are true and still they don’t go far enough to describe the awesome, overwhelming changes that motherhood brings. In the past six months these changes have overwhelmed me and thrown everything I knew before out the window. I am still adjusting to the countless large and small impacts on my life. But as a 41 year old first time mom, I welcome those changes. I think I was getting used to the idea that the major positive changes of life were over for me. I switched careers at 32, built a new career in the arts that was satisfying and rewarding. Sure I still had a long way to go, but I was happy to plug away at it everyday. And grateful that I could spend my days making thinking and teaching photography. We tried for a long time to get pregnant. We went through a lot to have a child and just before I got the good news I had resigned myself to the fact that it just wasn’t going to happen for us. Then along came Sam. Of course there’s joy and the deep connection of having a child, which has made my life immeasurably fuller and more meaningful. As Danielle says there’s less time to worry about yourself, which for me is a good thing, because I was spending about 90% of my time before motherhood fretting over work, career and meaning in my life. And now there’s so much meaning that those demons are crowded out, swept away. I think we as artists and mothers struggle with the same issues most working moms struggle with: limited time, overwhelming demands on our time in and outside the home, wanting to do well with career and personal and home life and not being able to because often it’s just not possible to do it all well. And as Danielle mentions the constant negotiations with one’s partner about who will care for your child and when are wearing. Then there are the financial concerns: how to pay for childcare, etc. And finding that balance of how much childcare you need to do your work and for me fighting the guilt over watching someone else spend large amounts of time with my son as I answer emails and photoshop files at my desk ten feet away. But then feeling incredible relieved when the work gets done. But missing my son at the same time. It’s a cocktail of joy, resentment and guilt.

Linda Rossi: This is a wonderful opportunity to write about our adventures- as mothers and artists- I so appreciate these reflections. I have three sons who unfortunately due to crazy circumstances I had to raise from a young age on- by myself. My first son was born the day after my grad school exhibition. As I still had to finish the written part of my thesis- I was nursing and writing at the same time. I found it completely changed my interpretation of time and space- there was a blending and compression- I needed to accept quickly the chaos and the unexpected. As the years went on all 3 helped me make works of art- their skills and aesthetic knowledge grew and I was able to trust them (at a young age) for new insight into the work. It has continued to be a provocative and powerful exchange. During those years it was a matter of finding bits of time that I could create work,so a lot of the time I was dreaming about pieces -not actually making them- I would actually try to schedule time to make art in my head- for example while washing the dishes I would focus intensely on the work I would do in the future. At the same time one would find domestic and artistic tools  side by side on the kitchen counter- the loaf of bread and peanut butter were spread out with saws, wood, etc. Probably not the most sanitary- but it was a way to not separate our lives. I look back now on years that were filled with pain, beauty, terror, humor,profound baby -teenage boy smells, and yelling and and fear and laughing and it still continues. The intensity of the home fueled the work I created. During a certain time period I created an elaborate installation about Russian poets whose voices were suppressed by Stalin. I became interested in the power of art during a time of danger- the strongest work was less political and addressed freedom and beauty- often the wives of the poets would memorize the words- keep them in their minds for decades until it was safe to reveal. I suppose I was feeling my own small entrapment and as a result wandered into an area of study based on a mix of home emotion. It was the double edged sword- there were days I didn’t think I would survive and yet it was such a complex and rich environment to be within. I am profoundly grateful for what they continue to teach me- even though the lessons can be a tough reflection on myself.

Carrie Thompson: Like Linda, I am raising my son (Goma) in a non-traditional home. I don’t need to get into details but the descriptive word I would use is complicated.  And like Amy, I struggle with the amount of time that Goma spends in daycare. As you probably know, I am Alec Soth’s studio manager. My job is full-time and demanding. Since I work for an artist, most nights after Goma falls asleep the idea of working on my own art makes my head spin.  My issue is that I, like many of you, need time to create, think, and explore. I can’t just turn my ideas on and off. I am 31. Goma is 15 months old. Before Goma was born I got my job with Alec, won a few grants, made two bodies of work that I am proud of, had many shows, traveled, and applied for every grant and show for which I was eligible. Now since I have a child I do less than half of these things.  This is why I think younger artists without children rise to the top quicker. Artists with children continue to create yet not as quickly. As many of you have mentioned, the idea of success shifts when you become a mother. I would love to hear any other thoughts you might have on the discussion to this point, and I would like to add one more question: Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you had back?

Danielle Mericle: One quick observation, and then I will write more later.  I too work a full-time job, although I’ve managed to get it down to four days/week instead of five (it does help).  And while I don’t pursue many aspects of my work nearly like I used to, it’s definitely starting to come back, however slowly.  My sense, and others chime in here, is that it gets easier all the time.  The difference between 15 months and three (which is how old Charley is now) cannot be underestimated.  I’m guessing that three to six will be another huge leap, and so on and so on. That said, the challenges are very real.  I’m incredibly fortunate in that I convinced my mother to move to Ithaca to provide childcare for us (we pay her well, but still, my guilt is gone)- when I was sending him to daycare it was pretty agonizing… Anyway, more soon- and I will contemplate what I wish I had back (it’s finally happening, however, where I really can’t remember my old life much anymore-so I may have to ponder the question a while).

Beth Dow: Our kids were born in London, and I was pregnant shortly after my first solo exhibition. I continued to shoot film but it was difficult to work in the darkroom, and this became basically impossible after our son Miles was born. Our daughter Maisie was born less than two years later, and then we moved to the USA not long after that. The film I shot back then was roll after roll of unfinished thoughts, and it was deeply frustrating to not be able to print. I also didn’t have my own darkroom, so I had to use my husband’s when he wasn’t in it, which was only nights or weekends. I wanted to apply for grad school at that time, too, which then became impossible. I was still able to get my work in some group shows, but I didn’t regain any kind of real focus for several years. I don’t know how much the international move had to do with that, though, but that could have played a big part. My London gallery completely changed its business model and became a picture library at the same time we moved, so I also no longer had representation. Looking back, I don’t know if I would have really changed anything, but I do wish I had had more bodies of work under my belt before I grew a baby there (ha). When you asked what was the one thing I gave up that I wish I had back, I really had to think about that. Life is all about giving things up and getting things in return. Sometimes we get things we don’t want, and other times we get things we didn’t know we wanted. I wish I could regain the freedom to completely throw my full attention into one thing at a time, and to do that without any guilt. When I’m doing family stuff, whatever that may be, part of my mind is on my photographs; when I’m working, part of my mind is on who needs to be where, what’s for supper, and what is that goddamned dog barking about now. I suspect this is a gender thing, whether it’s the divided focus or the guilt about that division. I do know, however, that it gets easier. After a huge gap in my resume, things picked up for me as the kids went to school and became more autonomous. When the kids were small I would fantasize about what it must have been like for Ward Cleaver to return home to a clean house and a cooked dinner. There were also a few dangerous occasions, after long and stressful days with toddlers, where a full tank of gas, some loud music, and a bit of cash in my bag were calling out all kinds of temptations to just keep on driving. I bet a lot of mothers of young children have felt like that, and I’m suspicious of those who would deny it. I wish I could regain the facility to easily compartmentalize my attention, and I wish I could do so without feeling any shred of guilt.

Greta Pratt: I have raised two children in a traditional/nontraditional home. Traditional because I am married. Non-traditional because my husband and I live in different states eight hours apart. I have a tenure track job in Virginia and he needs to be close to New York City. It is complicated. I always knew I wanted to have children but I don’t think I gave a whole lot of thought to all the practical issues of having children. I proceeded as I do with most things by just winging it. Sometimes is has worked out better than others. When the kids were little I was home with them and my work time always involved towing them with me unless I could find a mom to trade a few hours of kid- watching with. I didn’t have the money to hire a sitter. My husband, who is a freelance editorial photographer, travels non-stop and without much advance warning, so he was not available for any kind of consistent help. I learned to shed things so I could continue to photograph and take care of my kids. No time for a social life, reading the paper or books, watching TV, keeping up with current events or talking to friends. I did however manage to keep my focus and keep working towards a goal, however slowly. At that time I was working on what would turn into my second book of photographs, “Using History” It took me eight years to finish the project. Part of the reason it took so long was figuring out and understanding what I was trying to say; another part was the travel involved; and another huge part was the figuring out how to fit in the kids. I did a lot of driving in those days. When Axel was eight and Rose was six I went back to school and got my MFA and that led to my current full time job. I do feel like my life went completely out of control from that point on. The demands of graduate school and then a job in academia along with creating art and raising my kids have been intense. Also, I moved to a different state and my husband stayed behind. What was I thinking? As I stated earlier, sometimes it has worked out better than others.

Paula McCartney: There’s a lot I miss, actually (at 37, I was very used to my adult life and the freedom I had when he was born), but NOTHING enough to trade back!  I am certain that Oliver is the most amazing thing that has or ever will happen to me.  I guess the thing that I miss the most is the ability to go out in the evenings.  Lex and I used to always go to openings and lectures and I thought of that as my continuing education, as well as a way to stay connected in the community.  Without family in town, we honestly can very rarely afford a sitter, so we hardly ever go out at night, which feels isolating at times.  And going out to dinner together for a date and paying for a sitter is basically out of the question.  I am lucky that Oliver goes to –and loves– preschool several days a week, so I do have studio time (I didn’t for his first year, and didn’t make much work) and realize that I make as much work now as I did on average before he was born.  I love him more than anything, but my work is still very important to me.  I will admit I do still worry about my career. But, I am able to NOT worry about it when I am spending time with him and can be really present; I just worry while driving to work or at night when I should be sleeping!

Greta Pratt: My kids are now 17 and 19 so it is hard to remember my life without them and what I gave up. But in thinking about it, what I would like to have back is time with my partner where the conversation is not related to the kids. I also miss the freedom to pursue an artistic idea without having to think about what a houseful of teenagers is doing back at home. It is tough to find balance and as Paula pointed out before it is impossible to be the best at everything all the time. There are just not enough hours in the day. When I was first getting started a male museum curator counseled me not to have kids. He said I would never be successful if I had them. I was incensed. But if you define success as a race to the top he was right. Nurturing children, making a living, and being an artist comprises three fulltime jobs and that is impossible. However, life is richer when we look at it from many angles. If we want a world comprised of diversity of thought and ideas maybe we need to understand that the old path to success does not work for all types of people and we need to seek out and value the contributions of a variety of individuals.

Amy Stein: Well, sleep would be up there on a list if things I sorely miss. Also, freedom to plan my own day and unstructured time are distant memories. Now every moment and activity’s value is weighed against spending time with Sam or the cost of hiring a sitter. So a lot of things I used love to do I just can’t make time for: going to openings, attending talks, waking in the park, showering. Sometimes I feel like every moment of my day is consumed by mothering duties, and to break free for even a minute I need to negotiate with someone to take over and spell me (having said that I have an attentive and loving part time sitter and my husband is amazing and shares many duties, especially in the evenings). Carrie thanks so much for initiating this conversation and pushing it forward. I’ve come to really look forward to reading everyone’s responses. Especially because the other moms are more experienced and have a broader perspective to share. Sometimes I loose sight of the fact that Sam will not always be 7 months old, with the intense needs of an infant. He will of course grow and go through many stages of development and increasingly become more independent and need new and different things from me.

Linda Rossi: In response to Amy’s mention of the need for sleep, it has been an enormous issue for me over the years as my boys were not good sleepers and then I waited up all night once they were teenagers. One evening I remember in particular was when my oldest son, Skye, who was two at the time would never stay in his bed; around midnight my husband and I pretended to be asleep ( while waiting for him to go to bed –he apparently was in charge).  I remember him coming into our room and standing next to me. I could sense his closed fist holding a toy right above my face. He wanted me to read what it said on the bottom of the toy car. With great delight he said, “Oh, they are sleeping and they are dreaming about me!” As I was so sleep deprived, the concept that when I did get a wink I would be dreaming about him was both funny and excruciating. If I could change one thing it would actually be to get more sleep. I would encourage younger mothers to get as much rest as possible. I would often use the late evening hours to “make art” and as a result it has actually compromised my health. I now try to get more sleep and dream about new work when I go to bed, as the often random connections in a dream state lead to new ideas.

Carrie Thompson: Like Beth, I was thinking a lot about freedom when I wrote the question, “Since becoming a mother what is the one thing you gave up that you wish you had back?” I would love to have the freedom to really plunge into a project without guilt. I dream of taking off and exploring the world slowly and completely. I think this is a dream for many artists, not just women. I think there are probably a lot of women –and mothers– who share the escape fantasies of Lester B. Morrison, and one of Beth’s observations has stuck with me, and almost perfectly sums up my own conflicts: “I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.”

40 Responses to “On being an artist and a mother – a conversation”

  1. Great read. Thanks for organizing and posting this, Alec. Three cheers for all the moms.

  2. Lee Grant says:

    I agree, what a wonderful post to read on a Saturday morning…. I really related to all the responses and the various ways that as parents, we juggle different aspects of our lives. Thankyou for sharing, it’s nice to know you’re not alone.

  3. Suzanne says:

    Whatever you do… make your art before doing the dishes (or any house work), they will still be there, but if you attend to them first, your art won’t be! Great post, thanks for organizing it.

  4. Thanks for posting, Carrie.

    Although I am a male, I would like to think that I can relate to the opinions and experiences expressed above. From witnessing other family members, mothers and fathers, do an incredible job of raising children, I can certainly see similarities in the joys and frustrations expressed above.

    I look forward to the day I have my own children but like you I perhaps am also fearful that some things that are currently high priorities, i.e. career and creative output, will suffer. When I really stop to contemplate this though, I’m not so scared of my career suffering due to loss of time as I am fearful of a perceived loss in freedom to take creative risks and follow artistic whims.

    What I mean to say is that when I was just starting out in the world I thought that by the time I had children I’d have everything sorted. I’d own a house, have a well paid and stable career and obviously a loving wife. In reality, now that I am 31 and “all grown up”, I have a beautiful and loving soon to be wife, but the other two perceived cornerstones of a stable adulthood and parenthood are still only real in my head. I don’t think my beaten up Linhof Technika qualifies as a parenthood necessity!

    I guess it’s natural to worry that because the stakes are higher, because when you’re a parent you have to make sure you can provide for your family – and I’m talking in terms of being able to give and show love as well as be financially responsible – you will be more risk adverse and shy away from creative deviations that might lead to frustrating dead ends. And here I guess we start to think about wasting precious time and money… It’s all to easy to forget that it’s usually the process of making work that is the most rewarding, not necessarily the end result…

    Maybe there is a broader life lesson in that thought?

    I don’t know. I suppose I’m just thinking (writing?) out loud here, but it’s certainly an important and interesting discussion you have started.

    Thanks again,

    Tim

  5. I was so surprised and so pleased when I saw the title of this post, but going through it I felt so depressed…
    My name is Giulia, at 32 years old I changed my career (like Amy!), went back to school, and now, 1 year later, I’m figuring out my “art”, slowly. My boyfriend and my family live on the other side of the ocean in Europe, and I’m here alone working in NY.
    I’m planning to build a family in the next years, and I’m pushing my boyfriend to move to an “art-friendly” city like Berlin or Paris because I don’t wanna give up my dreams.
    Now: I spend all my time studying and producing scribbles (and photos) of work. I don’t go back home because I can’t waste time and money. Tomorrow: I’ll have a baby, not a doll, a real baby. Fuck.

    I am scared. I tell you honestly, I am scared and this post is going to be FULL of MY FEARS.

    I honestly hoped I was going to read how these mother-artists were inspired and now producing the most deep and insightful work they never did before (a little bit like Elinor Carucci would state). Despite my unrealistic hopes, I’m really glad I read such HONEST and personal answers from all the amazing artists that have been involved in the conversation. I can’t thank you enough for that.
    This post is really important to me and I would love to ask a few questions in order to understand better, because as I said before, I’m scared:

    - We are talking here about un-traditional families, but I can’t believe that the high priority is still the husband’s work: “He’s living in New york.” “He’s using the darkroom.”
    I read very often that for women artists is quite usual to sacrifice their own career for the husband’s one. I would love to understand if this is the case, and which are the reason for this choice. Is because this man provide economic sustain to the family? Is a give and take? Is because he is the Man? Does he consider you an housewife? Why are not these guys spending 50% of the time with the children? Is your free decision?

    - The word “guilt” has been used 7 times in this post.
    “I often feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.”
    How is this career different from other careers? There are probably mothers working as flight attendant or in the emergency room, there are mothers cleaning bathrooms at 5 AM every morning. How “our career” is different? Is it different because we wanna create personal work and most of the time we do no get paid for this? Time-wise (only time-wise) our art is going to be executed in the same amount of time that other people would spend for an hobby? As a paradox, is like somebody trying to become a professional tennis player but playing tennis only few hours per week as an hobby? But, how is this different from a father that has a job and wants to produce personal work as well?
    Does your husband feel guilty as well?
    Full-time art is still something especially for rich people, unfortunately, and I am afraid, is still something especially for men. Why?

    Thank you so much
    Giulia

  6. katiepeach says:

    Reblogged this on Katie's Photography and commented:
    Having looked in to this topic as part of my degree, I found this post really interesting. Very honest and explains how different artists cope with having children whilst trying to build a career.

  7. Fantastic advice! I am not a mother myself, but it has been very insightful to have read about other artist women and their lives.

  8. Amy says:

    Several years ago there was a great documentary titled “Who Does She Think She Is” that examined the struggles and joys of being an artist and a mom. Watch the trailer: http://j.mp/yXeZYY

  9. Thank you for this conversation- it’s an important one to read as an artist also unsure of how children to fit into the picture of a “successful” art career. You all seem to be redefining success beautifully and thoughtfully and those of us coming up after you thank you for it! I also wanted to share when Alec Soth visited UNL (where I go to graduate school) he encouraged me to think about having children. I thought it was odd at the time, but I now appreciate him trying to change the (tiring) advice to leave family behind when you pursue art.

    -Victoria

  10. I deal with this everyday being a mother of two little boys, a professor, and working artist. Needless to say, my house is a mess. My work has changed a great deal since the birth of my kids..for the better I think. My last two major projects have dealt with pregnancy and life/death. The work seems to me to be the most authentic and sincere of my career to this point.

  11. I am an artist and writer whose children are now grown. But when they were little, I struggled to find the balance.

    One man gave me a perspective that changed my whole way of looking at this situation. I was participating in an art fair, and a wonderfully philosophical Chinese man asked me how it was for me…this balance of parenting and creating my art. I confessed that I often felt torn and as if I wasn’t bringing my whole self to either…longing to be painting when I was parenting and guilty about working and not devoting myself more to my children. He smiled and said that actually I was bringing the fulfillment and example of my work to my children and the joy and love of parenting into my art.

    As an artist, I know how important it is how we view things. Of course, frustrations still occurred (and still do!)…I did not become either the perfect parent or a completely successful artist. But in truth, those were never the goals anyway. It is much more about the love and presence that we bring to all the experiences of our lives.

    • Gail, I think the gentleman was right. I didn’t think of it until I read what he said. Both of my children are creative and I introduced them to the arts through my painting and instill in them the idea that they could follow their hearts and do what they loved doing. Carrie is a photographer and my son Nathan is a writer. There is still time for me to become the ‘famous’ artist I dreamed of becoming when I was young.

    • Dear Gail,
      your comment was truly inspiring. I love what you said!

  12. This is a great conversation! I am Carrie Thompson’s mom and also an artist. I got divorced right before Carrie turned 5 so I had two children to raise by myself and my art career. I had to choose between paying bills and eating and making art. Unfortunately that meant “getting a real job”, as though art is not a real job. I squeezed art making in between parenting and school and working two other jobs for a number of years. I gave up on art for a long time because it was too hard to find the time. I also make some of my best paintings on my bed in my bedroom so I was home for the kids ( the Goddess Deck, Carrie). I had a studio at the time but it was easier to bring all my supplies home and sit on my bed and paint. I went on to become a therapist, first and art therapist and then a general therapist and when I wasn’t working I was painting for many years. I am just coming out of a period of 5 years where I just couldn’t switch gears from working to painting so I didn’t paint at all.

    I think the challenge for balance is an important one and one worth trying to do, yet it is not easy. Choose from your heart and follow that.

  13. Leigh Webb says:

    You had me at the title of your blog post. Becoming a mother is the most transformative moment in my life thus far. The intensity and breadth of my emotions exploded when my little guy arrived into the world 18 months ago. And he totally has changed my perspective both on how I see myself and what I want out of life.

    In an effort to encapsulate the experience, I created a projects called the “First 52 Weeks”. My goal was simple… to write a short journal entry each week that could later be paired with one of the hundreds of images I was already taking of him on a weekly basis.

    I have finally culminated them all into a book, which I am just starting to debut week-by-week on my new bolt, http://www.First52Weeks.com 3x/week I post a new update, so you can follow along.

    The title of your blog post caught me as the first line in my artist statement for this series, which I just entered into Center’s project competitions was, “There’s what I’m trying to do as an artist and what I’m trying to do as a mother….”.

    The flip side of doing a photographic project on my child however is that I am more sensitive to negative criticism. Constructive, loving, helpful criticism is one thing, but I am more protective of this project as involves my child.

    I love this conversation and am glad you posted the interview!

  14. Thanks Ladies! I’ve enjoyed reading this conversation between mother artists. My son is only 1.5 years old so I’m a fairly new mom but everything you’ve said echoes the worries and thoughts I’ve had since I decided to go back to school.

    Currently I’m in my first year of an MFA program. It has been a unique experience so far because there are 2 other mothers in the program with me and we’ve been able to share our frustrations and encourage each other.

    Between readings, writings, classes and making art – nevermind the mommy work at home – it’s been a beautiful struggle. Sleep is definitely lacking. I just don’t see how I can get more without losing the time I have to create. Also suffering is my ability to exercise every day. But I’m trying to keep my health first… trying.

    What I really find frustrating is having a dedicated studio space (given to us by the school) but not having time to actually work in there! I find myself working at night after everyone’s gone to bed. And to think that I have a husband who helps a lot and my mother who babysits while I’m in school.

    This May, us 3 grad school Moms will be speaking at the MIRCI conference in Toronto on being mother artists http://www.motherhoodinitiative.org/MothersandHistory.html

    Have any of you read Moyra Davies’ “Mother Reader”? There’s also a new anthology called “The M Word: Real Mothers in Contemporary Art” published by Demeter Press.

    Let’s keep the conversation going!

  15. Paulette Myers-Rich says:

    Making one’s art doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition. I think early on, as a mother, you leave behind the “Art World” for a while, but keep making your work, nonetheless. Because, it’s not an option for many of us. It’s who we are in the world and how we process things, and it can make you a bit crazy if you are denied your practice. You’ll get out of sorts. No one likes a crabby Mom. But, if you feel fine about setting it aside for a time, it’s not like you’ll never go back to it at some time. No one makes art full-time. Not even people with a lot of resources from what I’ve observed. Rather, it’s about incorporating it into your life in the same way cleaning and cooking and child care gets done. There will be periods in your life as a mother where it will be impossible, but the work will be there waiting for you to come back to it. It will probably be different, and it may take time to get back up to speed, but it’s possible. Meanwhile, write everything down in a dedicated notebook. Take photographs when you can with an easy digital camera just to keep your eye tuned and edit/print later. The thing is to not lose your artist mind. If you continue to think of yourself and call yourself an artist, even if you’re not making work at the same scale as before, if you make the time to do the bit’s and pieces, it will surprise you by adding up. And for goodness sake, take even a few hours a week for your studio practice. If you can make one piece a month even, in a year you’ll have made enough work for a show. And please, please please, don’t feel guilty. This is life. It’s always going to get in the way. If it’s not mothering, it’s taking care of your aging parents, or yourself or working a job, or contributing to your community and so on. Guilt combined with the cultural notions of what a successful artist’s career should look like and what a good mother is can inflict psychic wounds on a woman. We look to the outside world for approval and to measure our progress and our worth. But even accomplished, hardworking artists who are child-free don’t get everything they try for either, such as grants, or exhibitions or gallery representation, or teach for a range of reasons, including personal choice. And many of you are already doing that, or have returned to it, even as mothers. It’s important that you’re having this conversation because you’re giving each other good insight and support, which is a part of keeping going. It’s just hard to deal with the inevitable exhaustion. Sometimes, going into the studio is the answer to that. It lifts you up and gives you the energy to keep going. Hang in there- it will get better.

  16. This is such a great post; thank you! I am a freelance editorial shooter based in Montana with 3 kids under age 5–for a few months I had three under 2…ugh!…& I never stopped working. (I did my first assignment 5 days after my singleton was born.)

    I was adamant when pregnant with my first about NOT telling photo editors I was pregnant for fear they’d stop calling me with assignments. The last time I promoted myself (sent out promos, touched my website, spent 2 weeks pounding the pavement with my portfolio in NYC) was when I was pregnant with my first in the fall of 2005. I was just beginning to “show” and looked like I had a beer belly, but I could hide it with a sweater, so no one suspected. Somehow–even while completely dropping the ball on marketing & self-promotion–I still get calls. However, when I had my twins in 2008, word somehow got out that I had babies, and I’d get calls from apologetic photo editors saying, “I know you had twins recently, and I am so sorry to bother you…but I have a shoot near you. You probably don’t want to do it…” At least the calls still came in, but it drove me NUTS that people assumed I wouldn’t be interested. I’d spent 13 years working my a** off building a freelance career. I wasn’t going to roll over and give up. (One local editor with children sympathetically advised, when she heard I was expecting twins, “You should just take a year off.”) You can’t really do that when you freelance–editors start calling other photographers, and if that shooter does a good job…that’s who’ll get the next call.

    Now that my twins are about to turn 4, it’s so much easier. But I could seriously write a book called, “Adventures in Breast Pumping”…while on assignment I had to get pretty creative about eking time out /odd places for that. But I did it by working twice as hard, and I’m proud to say never missed a deadline or let a caption slide by. Before I had kids, I used to be able to waste time like nobody’s business & wasn’t as efficient with my time as I have been forced to become with children. Now I can seriously work faster and get twice the work done in half the time, because I have to. I don’t have as much free time to goof off &, and that’s not a bad thing.

    I think some people just assume that when you have kids you’re going to be preoccupied and distracted and not on top or your game for awhile. But that’s super unfair to generalize like that. I was extremely blessed to have a supportive husband, two sets of grandparents nearby, and–for 8 months–a live-in nanny, who went to full-time once we didn’t need her living in. I wish people wouldn’t assume you’re going to be overwhelmed with a baby or cooing over it so much that you don’t want to leave.

    I think freelancing is the perfect career for a mom. When I’m not on a shoot, I’m working in my home studio, which is 50 steps from our house. When I go on a shoot, I’m “LYNN DONALDSON, PHOTOGRAHER” the person I always was…not LYNN DONALDSON, MOM OF 3 with cheerios stuck to the bottoms of my feet. (I am busiest May through October doing back-to-back assignments, but November through April I have it pretty chill & can pretty much have dinner on the table ever night.) I feel super lucky to be able to get to step back into my “former”/adventurous life. It makes me a much better mom. And being a mom makes me a much more efficient shooter.

    Now I just need to get on the horse and finish editing my new website and print a portfolio and start showing it. I guess when you become a mom–especially of 3; 1 didn’t slow me down much–you have to let SOMETHING slide…and since I was still miraculously getting calls (no doubt due to the years & years I spent living in or traveling to NYC to show work & build relationships) I let go of marketing & self-promotion . Now that my youngest are nearing 4, I’m finally ready to think about that aspect of my business.

  17. Beth Dow says:

    It didn’t come into the original conversation, but being an artist has brought some wonderful things to my children. When our son was small, often gave him spare prints to play with. I was shocked (and, of course, proud) to find him “developing” a print in the sink of his tiny plastic kitchen when he wasn’t even yet 2! And when he was in 4th grade, he called me from the bus stop a few mornings to tell me to look out the window quickly because the light was beautiful. It certainly was.

  18. A great conversation –thank you!

    I had an “aha” moment two weeks ago when I was reading an obituary of the artist William Theophilus Brown who died at 92 –painting until the end. My daughter is almost 8 and I realized, wow, in about 10 years she’ll be off to college and think about all the time I will have to work on my art, maybe 40 years! In made me relax a little more especially when she was on Winter break last week from school and I wasn’t getting much work done, and realize that I should feel lucky to be able to spend this time with her now.

    Additionally, my work is all about girls, and she is entering the age of the girls I typically work with (8-13 years) so I am really looking forward to being able to involve her and her friends in my work the next few years.

    If you are interested in reading more stories about being an artist and being a mother –there’s a book I very much enjoyed by an Australian writer interviewing Australian artists (fine artists, writers, actors, dancers etc). It’s called: “The Divided Heart — Art and Motherhood” by Rachel Power.

  19. Mickey Smith says:

    Thank you so much for the post Carrie. Now might not be the best time to write having stormed a 90 minute tantrum courtesy of my stubborn two-year old…Catharsis?

    When Maximilian was born I had just had signed on with my New York gallery and received my first major public art commission. (Which I have never seen, the installation was moved out my due date.) Although I’ve been able to keep my head above water, and I often go under. 200 emails in my inbox consistently unanswered. Quietly working part time, in some situations, not readily admitting I’ve decided to stay home part time to raise our son. In New York City we had child care 15-20 hours a week. I managed to run to the studio, get my head down and go for it… A month ago we moved to New Zealand, a big transition for our whole family. With a book in the works, another public art project in its final stages, shows opening in Cologne and NYC in the coming months, I’m home full time since mid December and am struggling. It’s short term, we’ll get back on our feet soon. At the moment I’m leaving the emails unanswered, instead applying for kindy (preschool) programs so I eventually get a few hours a day in at home and can work up to a routine. New Zealand is incredible. Fresh air, a lovely home, our own bedrooms (!), an amazing lifestyle near the beach, family only a few minutes away. What the move means for my career remains to be seen, all I know is patience is required and my next step should really be to enroll in a yoga class so I stay focused on striking the balance between home, family and my career! Thanks again for the post, a wonderful reminder so many of us are in the same boat.

  20. Sandra says:

    Great topic, but I would like to read also a conversation On being an artist and a father :-)

  21. donkyhoy says:

    Nice.

    I imagine there are a number of ‘Dummy’s'* or ‘Mad’s'* out here in the same situation.

    Be interesting here heir stories.

    *Dummy’s – Daddy+Mummy = Dummy or Maddy

    *Mad’s – Mum+Dad =Mad or Dum

  22. william says:

    thank you for all the insights.

  23. snhamlett says:

    As a writer and mom of three, this discussion was very interesting to me. I’ve just about always had to work a full-time job, care for the kids, and write (or whatever other thing I was doing to satiate my creative instincts) on the side. There were times over the last 15 years where I didn’t create because I felt responsible and obligated to relegate that part of myself to the backburner to focus more on my family… and, I will admit, those were probably some of the most miserable times in my life.

    Coming off of a period like that recently, I finally realized that I have to stop waiting for some other person to give me permission to make my creative life a priority. My children are 15, 12, and 7… and they are old enough to understand that certain periods of time are mommy work time… or just “mommy” time. At other times (and I did this much more often when they were younger), I have included them in my creative times by giving them tools to create in conjunction with me… I can remember writing college essays while my oldest “wrote” on a yellow legal pad next to me (scribbling at four years old)… and now I often challenge my 12 and 7 year olds to write their own stories or sketch during our regular creativity times. I feel like this imparts so many lessons to them… first, it teaches them that creating for no other purpose but to create IS worthwhile and important… it also teaches them lessons about making mistakes and moving past them, working through your frustration when a piece isn’t going the way you want, and experimenting.

    Honestly, there are times when working around (and with) my children is less of a struggle than managing around my husband. For us, this is partially a social issue… although our life in general is rather nontraditional (I work outside the home, he manages more of the child care while working in the home), we are still kind of traditional in mindset… so his creating needs can feel more important than mine… and I’m also more affected by emotions… so when we are struggling with things that happen in life, it seems harder for me to emotionally disconnect from whatever the issue is and focus on working. It seems to me my husband can shut down that part of himself and focus on his work at the drop of a hat! So if the kids are having a bad day or I’m worried about a bill or we’ve had a disagreement, I can’t turn off the relationship tender part of me enough to work…

    Still, I think those things go back to ME making my work a priority and seeing it as valuable… the times when I hold my work as important, I’m able to just do it without any sense that I’m “supposed” to be doing something else or that I’m “taking away” from others… it’s just my work (the same as the day job)… but when I devalue my creating, then all those guilt feelings and the sense that I’m supposed to be doing something else come crashing down on me… so that’s what I’ve been working hard on lately, reminding myself that creating is an integral part of me being a healthy person who has the ability to parent or be a good partner in my relationship… and it’s very true, because whenever I can’t create (or don’t stand up for my right to create) I find that the depression I fall into makes me less of a mother and a wife.

  24. Mary Trunk says:

    It makes me so happy to see this conversation and to read all the comments. I have been working on a documentary film about this very subject for more than seven years. Following four different women. I hope I can add something to what has already been done here. We are in post-production right now and hope to have a finished film this Summer. I’m attaching my trailer as part of the conversation as well as the website link. I’d love to hear your comments. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=twTqT54qmjA&feature=email and http://www.maandpafilms.com/lostinliving/ Thanks for taking a look and thank you for bringing this conversation out into the open. -Mary

  25. Sheila Dickinson says:

    I am also a writer and a mother of three and an adjunct professor. I’ve been really wanting to participate in this discussion, but with a mother’s time being so scarce, can’t find the time to sit down and type a response. Just tonight I have pulled away from this reply three times by my crying 14 month old.

    I appreciate this forum. It’s good to hear from so many others who have been keeping one foot in their art career. Mostly I meet mothers and they are all in (at home) or all out (at work) and I realize that I cannot do either. I actually really want to work full-time – I love being a professor, talking and writing about art all the time and I worked so hard to get to this place in my career. But my attempts to be full-time have failed and I’ve come to see this as ok, primarily because I’ve come to trust the fluidity of time when mothering/parenting. You could also call it inconsistency, but I think of it as fluid movement of time that works in cycles of precedence – what needs attention most will float to the front and everything else gets pushed back. So, if baby’s sick that mean’s I’m exhausted and I pull back on cooking and laundry, cancel any extra art activities. Or, if I have a writing deadline, I pull in more support, I spend less time with the kids, run into my office to work whenever I can.

    It’s impossible to give equal weight to each part. This I tried to do when I had my first child, living away from my family in a foreign country, and I got very sick. What I forgot or hadn’t learned yet was that there was another part I needed to give equal weight to and that was taking care of myself. Many others commented on giving up their social life or art openings, which I sometimes have also had to miss out on, but the first thing I let slide is looking after my basic needs. I like the fullness of my life now, I don’t miss anything from my life before because my career obsessed, one track way of operating seems so tinny, flimsy. There is a richness in the variety of life as an artist, professor and mother and I’m getting used to it cause it is here to stay.

  26. Reblogged this on 20/20 and commented:
    lots of truths in these comments, for artists and others with kids

  27. rorua says:

    Hi ladies and the odd gent,

    I googled “mothers artists returning to work” or something, to see what was out there. There was virtually nothing except this blog (which is brilliant and I’m thrilled to have found it). So good, as someone said, to see I’m not alone.

    Now my youngest is seven, and as someone else said, it’s time to stop waiting for someone to give me permission to prioritise my art. In my case that means renting a studio far enough from home that I can forget about the dishes and the laundry and my husband’s lunch. My husband was in shock when I told him I was getting a studio, and there was a lot of shouting, but he got over it pretty quickly. Someone also said that her husband can be trickier than the kids when it comes to trying to make space for art. I second that!

    You spend so much time feeling guilty about the kids, and then feeling resentful that you are not honouring your creativity and giving yourself a chance…but I read somewhere once that people are going to make you feel guilty as a mother no matter what you do, so you may as well do what you think is best.

    That bit about the Chinese man’s words are really beautiful. I felt a tug in my heart as I read it. It is definitely true that the world of art which I inhabit has had a profound effect on my children. We discuss points of design all the time, and take it very seriously. All three of them draw continually to amuse themselves and each other (when they’re not fighting) and derive immense pleasure from creativity. That’s a beautiful thing (and much more pleasant than fighting).

    And as for their effect on my art, they are the reason I am able to channel the joy that informs my drawing. What can I say? I should stop complaining to myself and be so grateful for the happiness they have brought, and just ACCEPT that it comes at a price.

  28. kristina mar says:

    There is not a question of Balance.There is only infinite love,infinite power and hard work to embrace all, your children and your work and yourself.
    Thanks for this good post.
    All the best
    kristina mar

  29. Reblogged this on hannalie taute and commented:
    This is the first time I reblog something. This wonderful piece really resonated with me yesterday. I was so relieved to read that I am not the only art mom struggling to find time and balance (especially with pending orders, deadlines, opportunities to give attention to and 2 little boys who constantly wants mommy’s attention as well, {especially since it is school holidays and rainy weather}), and that my guilt trips and frustrations are shared by so many other art-moms out there. It can be done- I will just try harder. Luckily I stumbled upon this great words by John Cage today:
    ““Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of it’s own accord.” It made my ‘heavy boots’ feel lighter!

  30. Carl says:

    Great article! Thanks for posting, and to all of you for Sharing!

    I am a stay at home dad and Artist. Though it’s a challenge to find time, as many said.
    My daughter is almost 2 years old and I am just now finally getting back to some sort of work Groove.
    It’s been a long road to get to it.

  31. Mary Trunk says:

    Hello Everyone, Please pardon the self-promotion but I thought I’d share the Kickstarter campaign for my film about mothers who are artists. Contributions are certainly welcome but more than anything sharing the info, talking about it, writing about it and spreading the word are fantastic. If you feel the trailer resonates with you, please let me know. Here’s the link to the campaign and thanks so much for taking the time to take a look: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/27218549/lost-in-living

  32. I feel as if I have just stumbled on Gold! Thank you for this wonderful post, I am savoring it slowly (plus all the reactions), and also getting to know many new interesting artists and works. (I’ve been following the links to the art).

    Becoming a mother has made me painfully aware of the monopoly on what is considered “knowledge” -which dictates who succeeds, when where and how (a subject addressed above). Thanks to the freedom of the internet (hopefully here to stay), this is being challenged today.

    Therefore when I teach, I make it a point to expose art and artists that/who are less famous for two reasons: 1. they are more accessible to students, who are at the beginning of their careers, and 2. because as a feminist I am conscious of the power structures that dictate who has or has not access to resources; Be it time, space, money… resources that shrink considerably when becoming a mother/parent. These structures have “ignored” several forms of art the world needs by not allowing them legitimacy. The fact that your post is so rare proves the point.

    Shira Richter
    Here’s some info about my work which deals with a mother’s perspective:
    http://mama.imow.org/heroes/shira-richter

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