The Family Business: Artists on Work and Motherhood

The first of three installments in an exchange between acclaimed artists, all mothers with children of varying ages, talking about their experiences juggling parenthood and their careers, with all the guilt and epiphany, joy and fatigue that entails

1Photo courtesy of Carrie Thompson
2Photo courtesy of the artist
3Photo courtesy of the artist
4Photo courtesy of the artist
5Photo courtesy of the artist

In partnership with the Walker’s Education and Community Programs department, we’re launching a monthly series of personal essays, interviews and exchanges with and by local artists — “The Family Business.” We hope these dispatches from the intersection of art and real life will offer a window on the lived experience of Minnesota’s working artists, in their own voices, and on the day-by-day juggle of art-making with the rest of their responsibilities: kids & family, day-jobs and other everyday obligations. From grocery shopping to daycare, caring for older relatives to community activism, we aim to offer snapshots of what a life in the arts really looks like, as seen through the eyes of the creative people living it every day.

Our first installment in this series is an email exchange, led by artist Carrie Thompson, between a group of acclaimed photographers — all mothers with children of varying ages — about the struggles and hard-won insights that come with parenthood, from the unexpected epiphanies and self-discovery to the frustrations of watching one’s productivity take a back seat to the necessity of caring for small kids and the slow process of integrating family with a vibrant career. What follows is the first of three posts; the remaining two will appear next week.

This conversation originally appeared on Little Brown Mushroom, a blog published by photographer Alec Soth, and is reproduced here with permission. We hope you’ll join in and share your own experiences in the comments section located in the Walker blogs. (Speaking of which, the comments at the base of the original post on LBM make for a really wonderful conversation in their own right and are also well worth a read.)

carrie thompsonWhen I was pregnant, I had a studio visit with Lorna Simpson. She is a mother, so I asked her for advice. Specifically, I wanted to know: What should I be sure to do before having my baby? What might be some of the challenges I face when I become a mother? Her advice to me, since I had recently been working on two projects dealing with family history (including a trip to Japan that directly preceded my son’s birth), was that I should write down the narratives of all those photos. She said I had to do this before my child was born. She actually repeated that 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.  So, 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 in this exchange: I want us to talk about being women, mothers, and artists -how do we find balance among those roles? How do we continue to make work, raise children, and continue/find success with both?

For example, Alec Soth is obsessed with age on this blog (see here), but I think something important is missing from that discussion. No one seems to address the fact that many people over 35 have children, families, and other responsibilities.

So, here’s my first question: Do you, as mothers, think that having children makes it harder to be successful?

Greta PrattTo this 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 in terms of 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 that 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 to the word “successful,” but I’ll 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 having real life get in the way. If I suddenly need to get someone from school, for example, if I’m in the middle of a project, it’s like a million little bubbles popping, and 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 them that they could only interrupt me if they were bleeding especially badly (black humor fuels our household).

Now, to address the “harder” part of your question, “Is it 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, both in joy and in despair, for two hours in an attempt to not got to sleep. The whole time, I was sitting in the living room, trying to prepare tomorrow’s photo history lecture.  I can definitely relate to what Beth is saying about finding it difficult to focus.  When Oliver is talking — whether he’s in the same room with me or not — I find it extremely hard to concentrate on anything else.

I feel like I should apologize to my kids for having a career, and to my career for having a life.

Having a child and an art career, as well as teaching — it’s a lot to juggle.  I always wonder about how to manage it all and I’ve asked other women how they do it. The most helpful response I’ve gotten was from a photographer who I greatly admire; she 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 am trying to do.

Since grad school, I’ve made the decision to define “success” as continually 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 my own juggle easier, I realize that I already am doing it.  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. I had those days as studio days, which meant I could focus on my work during that time, teach a few mornings each week, and then be genuinely present when I was with him.

The thing that I have seemed to sacrifice to being an artist and the 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 to it, but I’ve 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 who would be considered the more “successful” are the ones with children.  So, I guess I’m saying: No, having a child doesn’t make you less successful – just 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 in my life.  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, a half-day per week to focus on my work. So, when I’m in my studio, I’m working, and it feels so nice, so necessary, to have that space to work, however little the time.

I also have experienced a major shift in my priorities (a cliché, I know); I’m not sure that I can entirely articulate the change, but I know that my definition of “success” is different, and that it has much less to do with the notion you have in art school — of art-stardom. Rather, the kind of “success” I think of now is a better match for what I really want to do in life – which, fundamentally speaking, is to have an interesting and fulfilling life

Having a child doesn’t make you less successful — just more tired. Life is definitely more difficult with a child, but it is also definitely more amazing.

Amy SteinDanielle’s comments really resonate for me — many of them are spot-on descriptions of my recent experiences as a mother. I, too, feel less anxious about career concerns than I did before Sam came along. I used to be very consumed by my work and career. Now, I feel I’m much more relaxed about it, like I have more perspective on my professional trajectory, as well as many other aspects of my life. The clichés we often hear — that motherhood is “transformative” and “puts things into perspective — are uttered so frequently because they are true. And yet even those clichés don’t go far enough toward describing the awesome, overwhelming changes that motherhood brings. In the past six months since I’ve become a mother, 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 motherhood has had on my life. But as a 41-year-old first-time mom, I welcome those changes.

Before, 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, and then 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, grateful I could spend my days making, thinking about, and teaching photography. We tried for a long time to get pregnant, and went through a lot to have a child. 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 sense of connection that comes with having a child — which has made my life immeasurably fuller and more meaningful. As Danielle says, there’s also just 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 where to find 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 filled with overwhelming demands. We want to do well outside the home, with our careers, and also with our personal and home lives. 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. Finding the right balance is so hard — figuring out how much childcare you need to do your work and, for me, fighting guilt over watching someone else spend large amounts of time with my son, as I answer emails and Photoshop image files at my desk ten feet away. I feel incredibly relieved when the work gets done, but I am missing my son at the same time. It’s a cocktail of joy, resentment, and guilt.