On Being an Artist and a Mother

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 LouisaNom Kinnear KingStella Im Hultberg, Sylvia JiWendy OrtizLindsey CarrNatalia Fabia, and Linnea Strid.