There are so many people (I mean women artists) asking me this. “How do you do it?” "How do you combine your art with taking care of the children?" Many of them are at their wits end and fearing they will never see a paint brush again. I don’t know why they think I I’ve got it all covered, but I can and do share how I organise things. Being a mum and having a job is challenging enough, being a mum and being an artist is, well, a bit different I suppose. But it is by no means harder than having any other job - just different.
When we had our children (the boys are now13 and 15) I soon realised that we could not combine my husband’s job with a career for me (potentially on the other side of the country) as well as taking care of the children and my less-than-perfect health. Choices choices. I know. So my career went. Simple. Thankfully we could afford this choice. I am very aware that not everyone is in that enviable situation.
My husband is incredibly supportive and proud of what I do. Without that support my love of painting would have stayed an hobby, I have no doubt. I have never regretted my decision to stay at home with my children. Being at home with my kids gives me shedloads of joy, the opportunity to see them grow up, help them develop and learn, and it gave me the opportunity to pick up my love of painting. Yes, you read that right, having kids made me pick up my paint brushes, NOT put them down.
After my children were born I realised that being an artist is the most flexible work-from-home job I could ever imagine. And flexibility is what you need as a stay-at-home parent with health problems. Just like anyone else who works from home, you can set your own hours, you can choose where your working space is, and you can built your home and your life around your jobs as an artist and a parent. It requires some organisational skills and discipline but it is very doable!
Don’t wait for Inspiration
I had to keep a seriously realistic eye on things however; having a small baby at home at all times takes an awful lot out of you and your day. There is no way you can expect to paint or draw every day, let alone get close to a 20 or 40-hour working week unless you call in help. If you need time to get ‘into the zone’ as an artist, or you require absolute concentration for hours on end, you will struggle to get painting.
I read somewhere that a professional artist does not sit around and wait for inspiration to hit them. They just get to work. Showing up is what matters. This is even more true if your working time is limited and you WANT to work. There is no time to wait for inspiration to come knocking on your door. You have to make use of every minute you can get. So it is a matter of take it or leave it. I took it. Every - spare - minute.
Over time you will get more experienced in making use of every hour, every minute, and focussing your attention so well that you will get stuff done. Simply because you have no other choice. Babies sleep a lot, and when they get older they might go to pre-school or kindergarten; there is another hour or two gained. Young children are in bed in the early evening - perhaps there is another hour (when you’re not too exhausted) there when you can work. Often I would be too tired to do anything, and that is fine too. Sometimes a week would pass with no painting or drawing whatsoever. Sometimes your kids are ill or you just spend (holi-)days playing games and baking cupcakes. But thinking, reading, and browsing counts as work too. So give yourself time and flexibility. A break from painting can do wonders to your work. You are your own boss. Bit by bit I gathered painting time. It was scattered but it was there.
Choose practical Materials
Ten years ago I worked mainly in pastel. I soon realised however, that pastel is not very practical when you have small babies in the house. I tried to paint in every spare minute but with pastel on your fingers it meant I had to clean my hands every time my children needed me, the doorbell rang or the phone rang. Pastel also creates pastel dust, which normally falls down onto your easel edge but somehow it manages to get onto everything anyway. So in order to give myself a break I moved onto working in oils.
Oils don’t dry up if you have to leave. You can just put your brush down and go and do something else, returning later finding everything exactly as it was. I am not a messy painter so I can move around the house easily without having to worry about smearing paint on my children. I taught my children (when they started walking) to never-ever touch mama’s paints or brushes to keep them safe (the kids and my materials that is). I also made sure any toxic paints were either put away or were replaced with safe alternatives. In short, some materials are more practical as a stay-at-home parent than others. Oils and pencils are good. Acrylics and watercolour dry up when you are needed elsewhere, pastels are messy.
Fold Art into your Life
As long as you incorporate your work into your life and involve your children in what you do, I do believe it is possible to be an artist and a stay-at-home-parent at the same time. The parenting always comes first and children will of course enrich your life and give your plenty of inspiration, but raising kids does not have to be the only thing you do in life. My children are now used to seeing me paint while they do their own thing. My corner has evolved into a studio, in the middle of the home where my kids wander in and out and sometimes they spend time in my studio as well.
My desk has art books and school notices lying around it. My child tells me about his day at school while I fix an eye on a portrait I am working on. I do most of my work during the school hours and keep the after-school hours free to spend time with them, do the chores and drive them around to their various clubs.
I use the quieter times (I wrote a first draft of this blog post at 12.30 at night) for inspiration, thinking, reading and writing. I gained a lot of working time when both my kids started primary school. So my working day was from 9 till 2 and sometimes from 9pm to midnight now and then. But it is mixed up with daily chores, play dates and sport clubs, rest days to keep my health up and what not. I have no idea how many hours a week I work on my art as no week is the same, but at the end of the day I do as much as I can and want to. Having children does not need to stop you painting or working as an artist, it just means you have to fold your life into slightly different ways to make it work for you and your family. For you that might mean getting daycare or babysitters, for me it worked as a stay at home mum.
My kids are teenagers now and in some ways need less of my time, but in other ways they need just as much as before. Things are different for sure but my days are still chopped up into a bit of time painting, a bit of time for the family, time for chores, time for chatting with the kids about their things. There are times they need more support and times they need/want less. I still paint in the evenings, I still paint while they do their own thing. I stop and start and leave my brushes to do other things, only to get back to it later and pick up where I left off.
I would love to hear your experiences and I am sure others would find it helpful to read as well. I am sure that things will be different for someone who has been working as an artist before children came along, and who needs to amend life and work to be able to be a parent as well as continue as an artist. The way I balance family and work is just my way and something different might work for you. I still struggle sometimes as I simply want to do too much and realise I am not a cat with 7 lives. Choices choice. But I am happy with the ones I made so far. And if you would see my kids you would know it is so worth it. But I suppose you would say that about your own kids!