Thursday, October 26, 2017

How to Get Work Done While Raising Kids: Interview with a Freelancing Mommy - Mary Reaves Uhles

Introducing the third of four freelance mommies, the very talented Mary Reaves Uhles

Mary is an Illustrator Coordinator for the SCBWI Midsouth Region. She has created illustrations for numerous books and magazines, and won many awards for her illustrations. She was recently commissioned to illustrate A Tuba Christmas (Sleeping Bear - Fall 2018) and Twelve Days of Christmas in Tennessee (Sterling - Fall 2018)You can find more of her work at www.maryuhles.comWhen she's not painting, she is taking care of her 8 and 11 year olds. 

Me: Hi Mary!  

Mary: Hey!

Thanks for letting me interview you! So I know you are busy. How do you manage your time? 

Mary's ToDo list
Mary: My primary tools are my to-do list and iCal calendar. I do my to do list for the week usually every Sunday night. I make it only stuff i think i can get done that week. I will add to it through the week, usually things like replying to an email or returning a phone call. I keep my due dates for projects and all the family stuff in iCal which automatically shares with my husband. Everyone has their own color coded calendar entry. I constantly refer to my calendar and calculate how many days or weeks I have on a project and how much I can get done on a daily or weekly basis. For example on the book I’m working on right now, I’ve calculated I can get one and half illustrations done a week. I track that progress every couple of days to see if I’m on track to make the deadline.

Wow. That's a lot. So how do you make and keep your goals? 

Mary: When I’m on a deadline that becomes the short term goal. Sometimes that means there are LOTS of short term goals. I keep a bulletin board of yearly goals, these are usually things like ‘update mailing list’ or ‘re work website’. For even longer term goals, which I also think of as dreams, I just work on them a little bit every day when I’m not on a huge deadline. This might be things like finish a certain dummy or try to revise a story.

Oooh! That's a good idea. I like having the yearly goals visible. But still, that's a lot to juggle. How do you balance your life between the demands of a freelancer and the needs of your spouse, kids, and your personal needs?

Mary: Oh man this is the hardest thing of course.  I aggressively guard my primary work times. During the bulk of the week thats while my kids are in school from approximately 
8:30-3. I usually don’t do anything else, particularly in the hours before lunch. I hate lunch meetings because they chop up the best part of my day.  If i do have a meeting or appointment I try to schedule it right after school drop off. As much as I hate giving up my morning hours I’d rather have the interruptions before I even start work. In my particular situation my husband works 90 minutes away from our house. So he leaves before 7am and doesn’t get home till 12 hours later. I usually get up early when he gets up and check email, maybe work on sketches or try to revise a line for about 30 mins in the morning. Then its time for the morning school rush to start. 

After school I try to focus on moving my kids through homework and don’t even attempt to multitask with work. So much of the balancing act is making sure everyone else stays on track so that one missed homework assignment doesn’t snowball into a late night homework binge. And I’ll admit it… I don’t cut my kids any slack on meeting their deadlines since my life is so deadline driven. I’m a big believer in family dinner so we usually all eat together about 7 at least 3 nights during the week. After that I check back in on the studio, check email, determine what my nightly schedule will be. Unfortunately my husband and I have gotten in the terrible habit of flopping in front of the TV after the kids are in bed. Fortunately I’ve set up my ‘studio annex’ in the den so I flop there. I’ll sketch, work on my light table, maybe work on postcard mailers - from there I can do pretty much anything except the watercolor part of my process. 

 Best TV show to listen to and glance at occasionally? Once Upon A Time. Worst show to do that with? The Handmaid’s Tale. I just can’t look away from it. I will work like this right up through the first guest of Stephen Colbert. Now if I’m on a painting deadline I kick everyone out of my studio after the kids are in bed and focus on that. On the weekends I have two protected times - Saturday mornings and Sunday evenings. I rarely schedule anything early on a Saturday so that I can get up early and do the work I want to do. Sometimes thats ‘project-on-a-deadline’ work, sometimes its ‘dream-goal-project’ work. Sunday evenings are reserved for doing my to-do list and hanging out with my husband. We still flop in front of the TV but I usually don’t open the studio annex. I try not to work during the weekend days after everyone is up and about (although there have definitely been weekends when that hasn’t been the case.) I usually don’t check email from Friday night until Sunday night. 

Wow, Mary! I love that you have a strategy for organizing your time. But what do you do about the mommy guilt?

Mary: sigh… live with it? Actually I will say I’m not terrible with mommy-guilt. I feel guilty if I yell at my kids because I’m stressed out about something else. If that happens  try to apologize and explain to them. I feel like the best thing i can do is model the behavior of “yes people get mad or stressed and yell, but I still love you and I’m asking forgiveness.” I don’t feel guilty if they miss out on something because either of their parents is working. My 11 year old would tell you that the line I use when he’s whining about me being busy is: “No one likes it when we’re busy but everyone likes spending the money, so i don’t know what to tell you.”  If they are interrupting me every 5 minutes to look at a lego creation I try to calmly say, “I have 5 minutes to hear about this interesting thing but then you can’t interrupt me again until _____ time.” Sometimes that works better than other times. Since I do have my protected work hours during the week, I try to also protect family hours on weekends and on family vacations. For me that means no checking email or social media, no texting with anyone else if I’m in a place to be focused on them. By doing that I feel like even though my time IS so divided I’m clearly saying ‘you are a priority now.’ 

I love that!

Mary: I do have to say on a philosophical note that I think women buy into guilt too much. At one point when my kids were younger I read an article about how its not a parent’s job to solve their problems or make them happy. The philosophy to adopt is ‘I can’t fix this for you, but I can walk with you while you learn to fix it.” I really liked how that could instill a sense of resilience and independence. Trying to keep this in mind has really helped me alleviate the guilt if my kids are struggling with their life not looking the way they want it to.  The guilt doesn’t help moms be creative AND it doesnt help us raise our  kids. I think we have to make a conscious decision to leave it behind as long as our kids are fed and safe.

That's so true! Mom guilt aside and onto the subject that I loath the most... Any tips on keeping a clean house?

Mary: What is this “clean house” you speak of. 

Hee hee.

Mary: I am unfamiliar with this concept. A while ago a really good illustrator friend of mine informed me cheerfully ‘oh we just don’t clean.’ Instead of being horrified I found this quite freeing. So whenever I see the cobwebs building up around my windows I think ‘oh its ok, i just don’t clean also.’

OK in all seriousness this is something that all working moms struggle with - no matter the industry. Full disclosure, I’m a Virgo… organization and order tends to come a bit more easily to us. However the flip side of that is disorder and clutter bother me MORE than most people. It’s like visual noise that makes me anxious, but I’m the only one in my family really affected. My solution to this is keep the flat surfaces clean and uncluttered. I put away things from the counter tops and pick up things from the floor (or make my kids put it away if its their sneakers causing a pileup on the stairs.) Dust is very irritating to me so I just don’t buy or keep knick knacks that have to be dusted. I actually do enjoy organizing so occasionally decluttering a dresser or kitchen sink is Mom’s version of ‘fun.’ However we regularly live out of the laundry baskets piled up instead of getting clothes put away immediately. I clean the toilets and sinks when they actually show the dirt. I’ve also taught my kids how to clean a bathroom. When they want a new toy or gadget I hand them the sponge and dust rag. Cleaning a toilet and sink in this house will net you enough to add onto the Lego Friends collection.

That is great. I'm sure it keeps them motivated to clean. (And I need to invite you over to my place for some organizing "fun.")

Mary: The one housekeeping chore I don’t slack on is cooking and meal prep. I like to cook and it’s also an essential part of managing our household finances. I plan meals that have left overs and usually cook two to three times a week. The nights that I cook coincide with my weekly work to-do list. I usually plan ahead on Sunday night which nights I should count on cooking vs. heating up. 

What have you given up to make more time to accomplish your goals?

Mary: I think its various things over the years. Here’s one thing that always comes to mind when I think about giving up stuff: In 2010 my kids were 5 and 2. It was still the recession and I had taken on a couple of design projects to fill in the gaps as illustration was slow. I started to realize that whole days would go by and I would not draw anything. So by late 2010 I made a new years resolution that I would draw every day in 2011. The question was when was that going to happen. At the time my only free time was the 15-20 minutes at night that I read in bed before going to sleep. I had been very careful about guarding that time…. I needed to read to turn off my brain from the day. But in reality, it was the ONLY for sure time I had to draw. So I did it, I drew every night before bed for about 15 - 20 minutes, and I read for maybe 3 minutes. Or most nights I picked up the book and then immediately feel asleep. What happened was two things: a) my average time to finish a book went from a week to a month, and b) my character design improved dramatically. Even though these days I don’t always draw every day, what I really learned from that year was that I needed to work my dream every day.

Right now the thing I’m giving up is social media. This is not the easiest thing in the world since everyone’s life happens on Facebook or instagram. Art directors expect you to be promoting yourself online to get the book and marketing people expect you to promote it after it’s published. However I find social media to be an energy suck.  Sure i like seeing random pictures of my friends vacations but I can’t stand the notifications pinging while I’m working so they are all off. I check in a few times a week and I open conversations with ‘sorry if you already said ____, but i havent been online the last few days.’ 

The other thing I’ve given up recently was my blog. I wrote a blog for about 10 years that chronicled being a mom, freelancing and working toward publication. But in early 2017 I officially ‘closed’ it. That made me sad because I really loved writing those posts but it was getting harder and harder to find time to do it. I went from a weekly post down to three a year. I had to realize that my Facebook feed was basically standing in for my blog and that I just needed to be realistic about where my time was going. It’s still out there - I’m keeping that domain name, blog or no blog;) 

EAT was a finalist in the 2014 SCBWI Bologna Book Fair Gallery
(Well you are pretty fabulous.) And that's good advice. I know I need to change how I spend my time on social media. It can be a total waste of time. 

So how long has it taken before you felt like you had your major breakthrough?

Mary: Define major breakthrough. I started freelancing in 1998. The short version of that part goes like this: 24 year old kid loses animation job, gets job in design, wants to freelance. About a year later same kid gets a book contract. Kid is ecstatic. Puts in 3 weeks notice at design job. 2 weeks later book contract is canceled. Kid has to decide, still quit and strike the freelance trail or go back to design job? I quit. I managed to build up steady work in editorial, magazine, and advertising, even some mass market publishing. But nothing in trade which was my goal. In 2007 I had a portfolio review that changed everything. It wasn’t a contract slid across the table or a phone call a week later saying "we love your work we have a book for you." It was just advised about the direction in which I needed to push my work. I pushed that way for 5 years. In 2012 I sat down with that same art director who said “oh yes, this is MUCH better.” But I still didn’t get any projects from that house. Then in 2013 I got my first job with Cricket Magazine (literally 16 years to the day after my first rejection from them) and I illustrated a chapter book series. Around that time I started being ‘tested’ for jobs from a few big publishers. Then, in 2014, I was called by Sleeping Bear to work on my first book, The Little Kids’ Table. Kooky Crumbs followed 3 months later. So when I do count the breakthrough? Was it in 2007 when I was handed the map to make my art better? Was it in 2012 when I got validation that I was on the right track? Or was it finally breaking into trade? I honestly don’t know. I know we all hear about the artist who graduated or won a contest and BOOM! Agent! Contract! Accolades! But I really think working slowly but steadily is more typical. I don’t even know if I believe in a ‘big break’ so much as a lot of little breaks, listening for every opportunity, and playing the long game. 

That's reassuring. I think it's good to have that perspective. Are there any resources that have helped you organize your life and accomplish your goals?

Mary: For organization I’m always interested in hearing from people in the restaurant industry. Restaurants have to operate on the knife edge of efficiency in order to survive so people who are successful in restaurants tend to have great organizational tips. I recommend the podcast Freakonomics for all kinds of business and money management topics. I recommend Chris Oatley’s blog and podcasts for inspiration and actionable steps toward a career goal. I also recommend Giuseppe Castellano’s classes and blogs

Any more advice to us freelance mommies?

There’s a lot of people out there “advising you on your career” for a price. If you hire a consultant for your portfolio or freelance business make sure you are getting advice from someone who has the same success you want to have. 

Time is your most valuable resource. Always think about where a project or a career move will put you two years down the road.

Such great advice, Mary! Thanks for your time!

All art posted above is (c) Mary Reaves Uhles.


Interview by Meridth McKean Gimbel, a kidlit writer, artist, & champion taco cruncher who is currently building a time machine. They are also represented by Linda Pratt at Wernick & Pratt. You can follow their work at:

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