On Being an Artist and a Mother

Posted by on Dec 29, 2014 in Blog | 13 Comments

I’ve been asked many times in the last nine months what it’s like to be an artist and a new mother. It’s pretty tough to sum it up in a sentence or two on Instagram or Facebook, so here is a personal reflection on my own experience thus far for those who are curious.

Mom.

Mother.

That’s been my newest title as of 2pm on March 27th, 2014. My daughter Penelope Marceline Cavanah made her way into the world and everything permanently changed. I readied myself as best as possible, spending more time preparing for life with a newborn than worrying about the birth itself (a birth plan? pssh, like anything ever actually goes as planned!). I also spent a lot of time ruminating on how best to juggle my time with the little nugget and keeping my career moving along. I expected that the first three months would be wholly devoted to Penny and I would not pressure myself to do any work other than fulfill new orders from my shop.  However, when paid maternity leave isn’t in the cards for the self-employed, I knew that I’d probably have to return to work sooner than I had idealized.

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I had a lot of fears. I feared that I would never be as productive as I was before Penny. I feared that I would have to give up the dream I’d been living for the last two years as a full time career artist and that I’d have to return to full or part time work to support our little family better. I feared that I couldn’t keep up with the demands of a baby and that I wouldn’t have the energy to pick up a pencil. I feared postpartum depression. I feared that I couldn’t breastfeed. I feared the changes that Penny would force on what has been a very happy marriage with my husband, Reed. I especially feared that I would not be a sufficient mom, as my own mother was, well, not.

Most of those fears never came to fruition. Some did, but have been overcome. And some I struggle with very much.

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The first two weeks of Penny’s life were very difficult. I do not function well on little sleep and we had a lot of difficulty getting Penny to properly nurse. There were a lot of tears. I spent the first several days and nights home in a rocking chair hooked up to a breast pump, watching the time pass on my phone, catching any sleep that I could. But things got better, we got the hang of caring for a newborn, I discovered the magical nipple shield and no longer needed the pump every two hours, I was able to tuck Penny into a wrap and finding mobility was like stepping outside on the first warm day of Spring. After about three weeks, I began to feel that particular restlessness that comes from not creating for too long. I really wanted to draw or paint, but I just didn’t have the energy to attempt it. At about 4 or 5 weeks of Penny’s life, I was able to predict how long Penny would nap and I was finally getting a little more sleep myself. I nervously broke out the pencils and paints. I remember that her naps were about 2.5 hours long. That was just enough time to draft out a simple portrait and paint it monochromatically. I felt like I deserved a gold ribbon. Getting back to productivity felt utterly amazing. I can do it – I can be a mother to a newborn and paint.

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Eventually, Penny weaned off of the nipple shield and I was able to properly breastfeed. At around three months old, we bought our first home. That meant that I would get my own studio space back and I could truly return to work.

New challenges were always on the rise just as we would overcome previous ones. Something I have kept in mind is that everything is a phase, the good and the bad.  At about six months, I realized I had developed postpartum depression and sought help. Penny stopped sleeping well and was up every 2 hours at night to nurse. I stopped being as productive as I would’ve liked due to lack of sleep and this brought me down as well. It took several months for things to even out again.

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Meanwhile, I’ve had to continue being productive as an artist. It is, after all, my job.  Thankfully, as I work mostly with watercolor, I can usually step away from a piece mid-stroke to tend to Penny if she’s playing on my studio floor and needs attention and I won’t have any issue returning to the piece 30 seconds later or 3 hours later. Pretty often, I can work in several short bursts per day, usually ranging from 15-30 minutes at a time. These days, at nine months old, Penny takes two naps. Her morning nap is my opportunity to shower and dress for the day. Her afternoon nap is when I can get a longer stretch of work done, usually 45 minutes to an hour. I work at night sometimes, but I’m usually too tired and have difficulty focusing, so I try to save some of the easier tasks for the evening – updating my website, fulfilling orders, working on comps, etc. Also, my amazing mother-in-law takes Penny a couple times a week for a few hours so that I can have dedicated, distraction-free working time.

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I’ve learned to do a few things differently to become more productive with less time. First, I make sure I have all of my smaller tasks complete before I sit down to work on a piece. Example: I use the short bursts during the day to draft out a new piece, work on color mixing, and prepping my piece. Then when I have a longer stretch of time to work, such as a long nap or when my mother-in-law takes Penny, I spend that time painting. Second, I try to have more than one piece going at a time. This has been a tough adjustment, since I prefer to get one piece done in a short amount of time and with extreme focus, and then move onto the next. Switching between pieces isn’t easy for me, so I preferred not to do that in the past. I reconcile that now by having multiple pieces going with different purposes. One might be a commission, another is for a gallery show, and one more is being prepped in between. That way, whenever I have time to dedicate to working, I always have something to do. I also try to keep any social networking to when I can’t do any other work, such as while breastfeeding (though even that has proven difficult – she’s gotten into the habit of punching me in the throat while nursing. She thinks it’s hilarious.).

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Of course, none of this is done perfectly and I’m only really doing my best with what each day offers, and none of them are the same or predictable. Some days are very productive and I get as much as 5 or 6 hours of solid work done. Other days, I don’t even enter my studio. My family comes first, and I don’t intend for that to ever change. I am constantly adjusting to everyone’s needs, including my own in response. I try to remain inspired, alert, and determined to grow as an artist, and most of all, disciplined. The time I’m given to dedicate to my work is more precious than ever, and I appreciate it that much more as I’m really living the life I’ve always worked towards: I’m an artist, a mother, and have an amazing and supportive husband.

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Thank you for reading, and I’ve appreciated all of the incredibly encouraging comments these last nine months from my friends and fans of my work on my journey as a new mom. Are you also an artist and a mother? How have you been able to balance it?

For some of my favorite fellow hard-working mom artists, please visit: Alex Louisa, Nom Kinnear King, Stella Im Hultberg, Sylvia Ji, Wendy Ortiz, Lindsey Carr, Natalia Fabia, and Linnea Strid.

Click here to read “On Being an Artist and a Mother – Year Two”

13 Comments

  1. Jessica
    December 30, 2014

    Thank you for sharing this, Kelly! I’m not a mother yet, but I hope it will happen soon. I’ve worried that I would have no time for art after having children, so watching you create such beautiful pieces after having Penny has been inspiring!

    Reply
    • admin
      December 30, 2014

      Thanks Jessica! I really felt the same, but it’ll work out for you!

      Reply
  2. AmyC
    December 30, 2014

    Wow! You’re amazing! Thank you for this, it’s really inspiring to know it can be done! Both the caring for a baby, and being a productive, awesome artist! I hope things continue to go well for you and your family!

    Reply
    • admin
      December 30, 2014

      Thanks Amy!

      Reply
  3. Melinda Walker
    December 30, 2014

    Thank you for sharing your story! I can relate in do many ways! It’s amazing how porductive you can be when your little one sleeps! I also work in watercolor & mixed media which makes it so easy to walk away from with a little one.

    I too remember the first painting I did after baby was born. He was 2mo and it was a commission for an acrylic dog portrait. I remember painting and thinking “wow I can do this! I can be a mom and an artist!” It felt so good!

    Our son is 19mo now and walking and talking so we’ve had to come up with creative ways to entertain him. When I have a lot of work to do hubby will take him for a few hours. They will go on a drive while he naps, or go to the park, or to the grocery store. Those hours are so precious.

    Keep up the amazing work! I have followed your work for years and I have enjoyed watching your journey into motherhood.

    Reply
    • admin
      December 30, 2014

      I remember that moment so clearly too – “I can actually, really do this!” Keep it up, lady! 😀

      Reply
  4. Adam Baker
    December 30, 2014

    Hi Kelly, I know we’ve never met in person but I really appreciate following this journey with you. I don’t remember how I stumbled across your path but I think it was somewhere. On facebook… Something posted about being ian artist here in the Nashville area.

    Anyways. Last December I took custody of my 3 year old nephew. Me being a very outgoing and social 30 year old man with no children to becoming a father for a toddler overnight had some pretty epic life changing situations.

    Before this though, I was scared to death that I was going to become what I always feared…. Living a life doing production art for a sign company. Which I had done for the past 8 years of my life. I was always waiting I guess, for that “one big freelance job” that was going to allow me to become full time freelance and never look back at the days of “working for the man”. The thing there is… You get comfy in a position.. If you don’t shake things up… Nothing will ever change.

    Well, having a 3 year old in the house was a HUGE change in my lifestyle and my Priorities. No more blowing money on comics and records and going out to the movies just cause there was nothing else to do on a Wednesday night.
    On top of that. I knew going into this situation that I was not going to be able to raise a child here in hendersonville and work the 40, sometimes 50+ hours at the shop downtown. So it was a “shit or get off the pot” situation.

    I quit my day job one month into my new parenting endeavor on dec. 31st 2013. And I have been working from home doing what I’ve always dreamed doing… Working for myself. At home. Drawing children’s books. I’m not making anywhere near the money I made at my comfy desk design job with great health benifits and paid vacations and weekends off…. But I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that having Kayson here with me has been the absolute BEST thing to have ever happened in my life. Even though him coming into my home was the results of shitty situations with my family. Having him here has helped me be far more diciplined in my daily routines and my art. I thank him everyday for this.

    I guess the reason I felt compelled to say all of this was because like you I was freaking out about how or IF I could manage having a child AND attempt this thing called a career. And having him here has helped me take major leaps that I NEVER would have attempted on my own because I was too selfish at the time to make the changes in my life that I wanted to change. He kind of forced me into taking that next leap and jumping into the deep end. And I’m loving every minute of it. And following you this past year has been kind of comforting to watch pan out as well. I mean, I know I can’t speak on the power of birthing your own child and motherhood. but I feel we have a lot in common when it comes to that never ending question… And answer… “Can I do this?” And the answer. “I HAVE to do this. This will all work out”

    Kids are awesome and they bring out the best in us all.

    Keep up the awesome work.

    You got this. 🙂

    -adam baker

    Reply
    • admin
      December 30, 2014

      Thanks Adam! That’s a really inspiring story and really awesome of you to take on custody of Kayson!

      Reply
    • Courtney
      January 10, 2015

      Hi Adam,

      I know you had just intended to speak to Kelly, but I found your story really wonderful and encouraging to read as well. I just had to let you know!

      Reply
  5. Cai Vail
    December 30, 2014

    Hi Kelly,
    I just wanted to thank you for writing this post. I’ve been following your work on IG for a while now, but was particularly excited to see that you had written on the topic of motherhood as a working artist today. I’m about to be in a very similar boat (freelance illustration, expecting my first child in just over a month) and it’s heartening to hear from someone that’s already dealing with those particularly unique and not oft-discussed challenges already, with honesty and grace. I’m over the moon to meet my son in February and more than a little overwhelmed by the new difficulties I’ll face working from home with a newborn. And because the type of work that we do is in a genre that’s still somewhat ‘male-dominated’, I feel like motherhood as a freelancer is very rarely talked about, perhaps because we want to show our professional side and hide what might be deemed as weaknesses. Clearly it takes a lot of strength and dedication to be a fantastic artist and a fantastic mother and always be balancing the two. Really appreciated reading about your journey over the past year, and glad to see some other artist-mamas (that I didn’t know were mamas) linked too.
    Best wishes to you and your family in 2015!
    -Cai V

    Reply
    • admin
      December 30, 2014

      Thanks so much, Cai! Best wishes for a smooth delivery and transition into mom-hood! <3

      Reply
  6. Courtney
    January 10, 2015

    Hi Kelly,

    Thank you for sharing your story!

    Reply
  7. Danielle Morgan
    July 27, 2015

    Thank you for sharing this story, Kelly. As a mother, Art student in college, and also part-time worker, reading this post has left me feeling a lot less alone having to take on multiple hats. My daughter is older now (4, going on 5), so it’s easier to devote time to creating since she also likes to create herself. However, there have definitely been rough times, and knowing that it’s possible to raise a child and be productive despite all that is very inspiring to me. Thank you again!

    Reply

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