It’s the age-old question of “having it all”: How do you straddle the responsibility of raising kids while making a living in a world that asks everything of us?
It’s challenging enough to maintain a career and be a present and engaged parent, but maintaining a regular creative practice can be even more difficult. Alice Proujansky, a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, has been exploring this question as part of her project “Working Mothers.”
How to have a creative career and raise kids is something that Proujansky has struggled with herself, as the mother of two small children. “I had kids when I had already established an identity as a working photographer,” she says. “Those identities bump up against each other in very conflicting ways.”
Having kids and maintaining a career is not without its challenges, but often when creative work is in the mix, it’s the first thing to go, crowded out by other more demanding immediate needs–dirty diapers, pink eye, swim lessons, math homework. Yet being a parent and having a rich and creative career need not be mutually exclusive.
Fast Company spoke with a handful of creative professionals across industries, each with young kids at home, about how they’ve managed to find that balance between parenting and maintaining a creative practice of their own.
Yes, spending time with your kids is important, but so too is finding space in your life for the people who help energize you about your creative work. For Proujansky, making sure she makes time to surround herself with other creative people is an important way to maintain that momentum.
Proujansky makes a point to meet with other artists and photographers on a regular basis, turning what might have easily been a phone conversation into an in-person meeting. It’s a welcome change to the time spent at home, in a room brimming with toddler toys. But it’s also a way to maintain accountability to the work and the professional choices she’s made over the years. “It’s a commitment device,” she says. “Shifting back and forth can be really complex. I need to have things compartmentalized.”
Idra Novey is a translator, teacher, poet, and author of the new novel Ways to Disappear. She’s also a mother of two kids, ages 3 and 5. Novey has a name for that balance between being a parent and making time for creative work–“productive schizophrenia.”
For Novey, that means creating pockets of time dedicated to being alone with her writing. “If you have a designated time–and you have to be realistic about it–you become addicted to it,” she says. At 5 a.m., before her kids are awake, Novey gets up and gives herself a half hour to write.
That also means developing a routine in order to maintain the energy necessary for that schedule. Novey’s biggest rule: No email before bed. Going to bed with a string of messages and demands from other people cluttering your mind will only make you wake up with the urge to jump right back on the email train. To avoid that temptation, says Novey, keep your phone away from your bedside. “I charge the monster in the living room,” she says.
Jennifer Welker, jewelry designer and founder of the Houston-based jewelry line Golden Thread, has three young children at home. Welker, who started her career working as a neonatal intensive-care unit (NICU) nurse, began making jewelry in the evenings after work to escape the emotional toll that working in the NICU was taking on her. That was five years ago. Now, Welker, whose kids are 4, 3, and 8 months old, runs Golden Thread full-time while raising her three kids.
For Welker, the only way to make time for creative work is to always be ready when an idea strikes. When her first child, now 4, was born, she started carrying around a notebook wherever she went. “It’s not usually in the office where genius ideas hit you,” she says. “I always carry a notepad. Either I’m writing down thoughts or sketching a quick picture. I’ll wake up in the middle of the night and write something down. If I’m at a red light, I will jot something down.”
Aaron Unger was all about theater before he had two kids–acting, dancing, doing experimental work. But when he became a dad nine years ago, he realized that while his creative energy needed a home, his home needed a more stable income. “In terms of my relationship to creative work, my story is both a success and a failure at the same time,” he says.
Unger began to work at restaurants to bring in a steady income and had a small catering business on the side. When his kids were 6 and 3, he left the restaurant world and went back to night school to sharpen his culinary skills and focus on building his own business as a chef and caterer. Now he runs his Brooklyn-based catering business, Night Kitchen, full time. “The catering allowed me to be more creative because it was my own project,” he says.
“When you have your first kid, it’s a total identity shift. You kind of get over yourself a bit,” he says. “For me, that involved realizing I really like this restaurant stuff and cooking, so let’s find some joy and fulfillment over there.”
Pum Lefebure, cofounder of D.C.-based graphic design firm Design Army, has an 11-year-old daughter. “I get asked about the balance of work and life all the time,” says Lefebure. “For me, it’s about blending them together and making them work for you. You just have to blur the lines and enjoy the chaos.”
Lefebure keeps her business intentionally small. She’s more selective about the projects she takes on, and since her daughter was a toddler, Lefebure has been bringing her along to photo shoots around the world, letting her see firsthand the kind of creative work she does. “I feel good that she’s right there. She’s 11 years old and she’s been to 80 photo shoots,” she says. “No one can teach your kids like you do. They can observe and be inspired. What a great opportunity to see what their parents do.”
While most creative careers don’t lend themselves to bringing the kids along, even for Lefebure, carving out time for herself daily to exercise and refocus is crucial to the creative work. “Spare 15 to 20 minutes to take time each day to get yourself together before helping others,” she says. “You have to take time to find time.”