Wednesday, June 26, 2019

life: artist / mother

When the baby and I woke up this morning, the sky outside our window was a pale apricot yellow, the air wet but bright, promising a brilliant June day. It feels like I blinked and Madeleine turned one year old last month, I celebrated two years in my beloved art studio at SoWa and eight years as a full time artist.

Where has the time gone? That saying feels so true: the days are long but the years are short.

One day past my due date last spring, I waddled into Studio 417, tidied up and opened my door for our building's monthly First Friday Open Studios. I felt fine and joked that I'd be there "until 9pm or whenever I had a baby." Three hours later Madeleine rushed into our world after a fast, intense natural labor: a healthy 6lbs 12oz with fluffy cowlicked hair, a sweet button nose and long artist fingers. When we came home on Monday the cherry tree behind our porch had burst into flower overnight, enveloping our porch in luminous clouds of pink as if to welcome our baby girl home. Maddie has my blue eyes, Mike's expressive eyebrows and a joyful and curious personality.

I'm so rusty at writing these days and am struggling to fully describe what motherhood feels like. It is wild. Madeleine felt like a missing piece of me, like I'd been waiting to meet her forever and just didn't know it. She is just so us; she belongs; she connects us in a new way and made us into a family. I felt great after she was born and found a lot of creative inspiration and energy in being a new mom.

We've had fun introducing Maddie our little corner of the world. The three of us spent the first several weeks enjoying our tree-top porch and visits from family. She's an easy traveller: we've road-tripped to New York, hiked Ithaca's gorges, and camped in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. We spent many weekends on our family's boat in Rhode Island and a week sailing around the Caribbean, rocked to sleep by gentle waves and up early to see resplendent copper sunrises I've always slept through before. She's a funny baby who smiles at everyone, loves waving to dogs on the street and insists on sharing every bite of food in her hands. Little things captivate her attention and in turn, mine, and she brings so much new perspective and joy (and noise) into all of our regular adventures. Watching her discover our surroundings, fresh and new, has inspired so many details in my new work.

That said, caring for a baby is an unprecedented lesson in extremes: love, exhaustion, confidence, fear, trust. From the first morning I woke up as mama, looking at her has brought me both a calm, tangible peace and an indescribable, anxious yearning. Watching Maddie change and grow each day, from her beaming, crinkly-eyed smile when she wakes up in the morning to her funny sideways flop as she falls asleep at night and everything in between, is both grounding and ethereal. My heart feels broken wide open, wrecked and mended. I'm hyper-aware of her vulnerability and possibility, and, strangely, my own as well.

Becoming her mother was easy  caring for Maddie felt shockingly intuitive from her first day home — but figuring out where my art fits in around her was a challenge. I tried to balance it all in one hand for a long time. Mike works a 9-to-5 without paternity leave, so from the time Maddie was a month old and we figured out how to leave the house in one piece, she and I would ride the subway to my studio and I'd paint while she napped, or pack prints with her in a baby carrier. I met with designers and delivered art with her on my hip. She came to weekend art fairs and slept soundly in a sling while I hung my work, and her stroller has hauled countless online orders to the post office. Like many working parents I was stunned by the huge expense of daycare (in addition to my studio rent) and I felt a lot of guilt trying to justify it when I could bring Maddie to work at supposedly no cost to me.

I truly loved having the freedom to spend time with her and my work together. But an interesting and little-known fact about babies is that they grow up! Suddenly my sleepy, squishy little infant dared to become a smart, standing, babbling toddler in her travel crib who wanted MAMA!, right now, no matter what I was busy doing. Anyone who has cared for a baby alone can attest that you barely have time to think half a thought while you're engaged with them, much less get your hands sticky with paint and summon the creative energy to make artwork.

When I was pregnant with Maddie, someone commented, well-intentioned: "It's so nice that your job will let you to be with her all the time!" But the reality of self-employment is that it's a constant balancing act; for eight years my business relied on 60 hour work weeks, outdoor shows 20+ weekends of the year and long nights (and overnights) in the studio alone. Nevertheless, I think that comment stuck with me for a long time, and I expected to keep up my studio practice at pre-baby pace while caring for her all day alone, balance a social life, a home, a marriage, self-care, et cetera. Thankfully I had an assistant who worked many outdoor summer shows while I recovered from birth, and a husband who helps with the heavy lifting, but otherwise my studio practice is a one-woman show. Motherhood made me supremely efficient and fiercely motivated because I wanted my daughter to grow up seeing me achieve success at my passion. But there's only so much you can do at any job with a baby in one arm.

One morning in late December while Maddie napped, I approached my easel to find that not only had I left my best paintbrushes in a bowl of water, but that the water had completely evaporated, leaving their formerly bright white bristles encrusted in a dingy, brittle film of dry paint residue. Despite having been at my studio all week I'd been getting so little done that I hadn't actually painted. In a forty hour work-week there, I'd found nine or ten productive hours in the midst of naps, walks, play, nursing, etc. I was selling lots of older work and thankfully booked solid with commissioned projects, but every recent email reply was days late, and every client interaction was embarrassingly sleep-deprived. When I tried to make up work during evenings and weekends, I felt guilty for missing family time. I was the kind of tired that makes your eyelids feel like sandpaper and your personality disintegrate into dust. Worse, I felt creatively burnt out for the first time in my career.

That day I sat at my easel, watching Maddie nap peacefully, feeling so in love with her but very disconnected from the artist-self I've always known. How did I get there? How could I get back? Where is the road map for this? How do I stay productive and keep up momentum without missing moments of these sweet "never get them back" baby days other parents warn you to savor? It's well documented that female artists are less represented than their male counterparts, and artist/mothers even less, and so many articles dissecting how parenthood affects creative energy and success, and whether women artists can still work to their full potential alongside the endeavor of child-rearing. It was silently defeating.

Sometimes in the thick of things we can't see the forest for the trees. We're fed pretty photos of people who "have it all" or highlight reels of someone's life without seeing the many silent hands that made it possible or what messes lay outside the frame, and it warps our expectations of ourselves. Except the expectations put on motherhood involve another tiny person and the stakes feel monumentally higher. 

After a busy December I came up for air, snuggled my baby at home and sought out advice from my maker friends who have balanced their small businesses with small humans. Their insights assured me that it wasn't just me unable to find a picture-perfect balance with my sweet baby in the studio. In the end, I recognized that I can't do it all, all at once. That admission hurt my pride a little because I've never had to admit I couldn't do something. It also signified much deeper reassurances for me: my work matters. Art is my business, not a hobby, and no business can flourish when confined to nap times and the hours after bedtime. Childcare was a game changer and I wish I had looked at it in the same logical way as other business expenses. But I guess a lot of parenting is emotional, not logical, as we try to wear so many hats without acknowledging that their silent, heavy weight.

Ruth Bader-Ginsburg once credited her success in law to her infant daughter Jane, saying that each part of her life gave her respite from and appreciation for the other, and I'm feeling that fully. I still have yet to discover the magic balance between creative and family time that doesn't feel a little guilty but I'm getting there. On days Maddie goes to daycare I'm excited to step into my studio for a blissful 8 hours of inspired painting, and excited to leave for the day to see her again. On our days off together, I'm mindful, out of "work mode" and completely present as a parent, no longer trying to work two jobs at once. I put in extra hours working during naps and after bedtime, am fiercely protective of my studio time, creating more and better work. I sold my largest non-custom painting last month, and (probably more importantly) am growing as an artist and person in non-quantifiable ways as well.

"Sea Change", one of many large paintings I've finished since Maddie started daycare

New small works framed by hand in driftwood

Me and Maddie on our porch on her first birthday

Many women say that being a mother is the hardest job they've ever had. In the past I assumed (with the inherent skepticism of the child-free) they meant birth and diapers and late nights. But really, it's the visceral, elemental change in our priorities and personhood. This "job" makes our lives shift in both tangible and invisible ways. Truly, everything changes, but not in the way I thought. The center of our universe is now a tiny human who we can't get enough of, but every other element of our sense of self is still deserving of a place in its orbit, too.

In 8 years I've never been nervous to click the "publish" button here, but I'm sharing all of this to counteract the highlight reels I see online, to be honest about the highs and lows and what has worked for me (so far). It's a work in progress.


  1. I love EVERYTHING about this post, Mae!!! I am glad you published it!!!

  2. Mae I have been waiting for this for a while, I have followed you on Instagram wondering how you made it work with a baby and being at SoWa so often, My 2 "babies" are 18 and 23 now but I remember well the days of trying to balance everything and not give up my passions, No advice I don't know how got through it LOL other than follow your gut and know you are doing your best without giving up "you", -Kate

  3. We need more of this conversation! I remember yelling at a few of my girlfriends after I had my little guy, so upset that they didn't tell me how very hard momming actually was. And then add a career or creative life on top of it? Near impossible. Marty will be 4 in November and I'm just starting to find my way back to myself. Motherhood is an amazing yet treacherous ride, and worth every minute. Keep going, Mae, you're doing great.

  4. First of all I want to say thank you for writing this post. I understand completely when you say you were nervous to post it. We are always second-guessing ourselves as moms. But that is one of the signs that you are a good parent. You put a lot of thought into what is best for your child. I decided after I had two young daughters that I wanted to be home with them and not miss anything. I still needed to work though. So I went to college and got a degree in medical transcription and worked from home. My daughters are grown now almost 30. But I also have a son who is 19. He graduated from high school last year and I was able to be self-employed and have a flexible schedule. I thought it would be easy. It was not. There was a lot of juggling and chaos but I wouldn't trade it for the world. It will never be smooth but it will be worth it. Being self-employed I was able to go on field trips with my kids, be there for all of their Sports, dance recitals, etc. I was able to volunteer in their schools. And yes, I had part-time daycare. I could not have made an income without it because my work depends on how much I get done in a day. And I remember my mom asking me why I needed daycare since I work at home. It was well-intentioned and my mom is awesome, but people won't always understand. That is okay. You understand. Taking care of me first so I can be a good mom was hard to grasp at first. But I remember my best friend telling me what they say on an airplane. You put the oxygen mask on yourself first then you put it on your kids. If you don't take care of yourself first, you will never be able to take proper care of your kids. I have loved your art for a long time. And now I am enjoying your posts about motherhood. You are doing a great job. You truly are. Hugs to you.