Monday, July 8, 2019

It's A Wonderful Life

As children's book writers and illustrators, we are a part of this amazing community that sees the world from the unique perspective of tiny humans. Something I hadn't considered until recently is the fact that many of the professionals working in this field are also balancing parenting (sometimes full time) while creating too.

Curious about this, I did a search for articles that would answer some of the immediate questions I had regarding the maintenance (and growth) of a creative career while being a parent to a little one. I started rifling through old SCBWI magazines that I had kept while perusing the internet and was surprised that I found more questions than answers. 

So I went to the experts and interviewed three Mentees who are balancing their creative careers while being awesome parents too! They had some wonderful insight I am excited to be sharing with you. Whether you are an expecting parent or a one that's already in the trenches, this article is a must-read on how to keep swimming.

Q: How do you balance staying home with little ones and still have time for your creative work?

CORINNA:  It’s tricky, for sure. I think it’s important to remember that this is a phase, and your children will grow up quite quickly. It may not seem like it at first, but as they say- the days are long but the years are short. This is SO true. 

I have found that it can be helpful to remember that limits are not necessarily a problem- they can also be your friend. Perhaps when your children are very young it is not the time to experiment with an overly complicated style.  Those early years are a great time to take honest stock of your strengths and weaknesses as a writer or illustrator and then play to your strengths! Embrace the things that you know you do well.  It can also be helpful to use materials or techniques that you can walk away from and come back to it without having to do major cleanup each time. Watercolor is wonderful for this. Or maybe it means working in small 20 minute increments, but learning how to string those increments together.  One tip that I learned for this, is to always stop when you are still slightly in the zone and have a clear idea of what you’re going to do next.  This gives you a quick and easy re-entry point the next time you are able to work on the piece again.  Because if you work on a piece until you have no idea what comes next, and you are interrupted often, it can be hard to find your way back into the flow.  But if you know what you want to do next, even if it is something as simple as making a pair of shoes red, you have a way back in.  

Also, you can surprise yourself.  I never thought I’d be able to work at night. But I found that I could put my daughter to bed at night and fall asleep with her, then wake up after 20 minutes or so and work from 9pm until 1 or 2 am.   This isn’t an ideal schedule for me, and as soon as my daughter entered kindergarten I went back to work during the day.  But it was definitely something that I could manage for a few years to make more uninterrupted time for art making.  I have found, especially when you’re tired,  that the first few minutes are the hardest.  But if you can just sit down in your chair and pick up a pencil and start working… you can find your way into a rhythm more quickly than you might think.  It’s mysterious in a way, but I have found that where ever you can make the time and space for creative work, it will meet you there. 

SUZANNE: I push a schedule to work earlier before everyone gets up.  Also during crunch time, my family leaves for weekend trips to let me focus for a few days.

I also bought a portable Cintiq I have used in the car, soccer practice, or anywhere in between.

SUNGYEON: I think it is super hard to do anything creative until the baby is two or three. I got help as much as possible like a food delivery service, grocery shopping service, a robot cleaning machine, a dishwasher, an air fryer, and an instant pot. I used my iPad as my main creative tool.  It is quick, simple and easy.  In this time, quality is not that important, quantity is precious. Quick doodling, quick sketch and a quick note kept me in a creative loop. 

Q: How do you manage to stay motivated when your brain is running on zero sleep?

CORINNA: Sleep is so important— for your body, mind and creative spirit… and not something that you want to sacrifice for very long. After about a year of working late at night and not sleeping very much, I started to notice it was affecting me.  As I continued to work at night, I made sure to take afternoon naps with my daughter.  This allowed me to work at night for a few more years without it taking as much of a toll.  Ultimately, this is something I think you can do for bits of time... on a deadline etc... but in the long run, it’s important to make sure that you have a healthy lifestyle and to keep the long view. Be patient. Be kind to yourself. Be realistic about your priorities at this stage- because it IS a stage. And it will pass. 

Also keep in mind, that even when you are not making art, as long as you are parenting a small child, you are absorbing SO many influences for your art.  Your heart is growing and your understanding of children is growing.  It might help to think of it as the research stage of your bookmaking life.  Because no matter how tired you are, you will certainly be looking at TONS of picture books together.  And this will not always be the case.  On those days when you are SO tired, I think it also helps to keep your work loose and rough. To think of what you are doing as notes, quick sketches, and imagine that you are saving up some of these impulses and ideas for another day.  Now that my daughter is almost 10, I have more time for work.  But she’s no longer the perfect age to use as a model for most picture books and she no longer says and does all those strange, wonderful, surprising things that very small children say and do.  

SUZANNE: I try to read at least a few picture books every day and sneak in sketches with crazy materials.  This inspiration keeps me going.

SUNGYEON: Please sleep whenever you can. I went to urgent care a couple times for exhaustion and it was not worth it. Wait and think about what you will do when your baby goes to preschool. Meanwhile, go to the library with your baby and research and study children's books with them. It is a precious reference, and babies are experts with children's books. Learn from them. It is your research period. 

Bank your stories/ideas in a notebook as you research. In a couple of years, you will be ready to sit down and carve out these ideas.  

Q: What is one piece of advice you wish someone had given you when you were first trying to find time for creative work with a little one?

CORINNA: Be patient. You will have more time to work on art and books soon enough.  Your child will grow up SO fast, and they will want to hang out with their friends more than you.  So treasure this time.

SUZANNE:  That is was OK to be selfish with your time.  That I deserve to have this time and it doesn't make me a bad mom.  I struggle with this still.

SUNGYEON: You may not have the luxurious 3-5 hours of creative time, but you can still find it here and there. The longest time you may find might be less than 30 minutes if you are lucky.   So plan ahead for creative time when baby falls asleep.  I made lists of what to do for  30 minute blocks. When the time comes, don't look at dirty dishes or surf the internet. Utilize your precious 30 minutes meaningfully. 

Take turns with your partner.  Have baby-free time one evening, and give your partner baby-free time another evening.  

Q: Is there anything you wish you would have spent more time on or prepped more for before your little one arrived?

CORINNA: It’s such a difficult thing to “be prepared” for.  In many ways, I think it’s best to be prepared to be unprepared.  Make peace with the fact that life is going to surprise you and that those surprises and the messiness of it all are also the essence of life itself.  The truth is that being a parent (and balancing parenting with a creative career that will take as much of your time as you can give it) can be very difficult at times.  But being a parent also opens your heart up in an incredible way. And this can be a tremendous gift to your art making, in the long run.  Ultimately, making picture books might be your dream, just like it was mine, but it isn’t going to make you happy.  The more books I make, and the more my career grows, and the busier I get, the more this becomes very very clear to me.  Happiness or contentment—or whatever you want to call this thing that we are all searching for…really can only exist right here, right now, in all the tired and mess and hoping and wishing and failing and trying again.  

SUZANNE: Setting up childcare and not feeling guilty for wanting to do both.  I wish I would have felt comfortable spending the money on a good computer and a Cintiq tablet.  I felt all the money should go to the new family and that I could get by.  It was only after winning the mentorship I gave myself permission to stop using my 15-year-old tablet from college.   

SUNGYEON: Baby-proof your art space.  Organize art supply drawers, so that you can work efficiently. Donate unnecessary art supplies, and simplify your environment.  You will fill up space with lots of baby stuff, but don't give up your art corner.

Also, don't spend too much time decorating the baby's room. Babies don't care about their rooms and they will want to replace the beautiful elephant and flower mural paintings with superheroes and princess when they grow up, anyway.

I transformed my art room into the baby’s room before the baby was born and it took three years to convert it back to my own space. Luckily, I wrote some baby diaries to remind me of wonderful times.   I wish I drew more and took more pictures of my baby.  Enjoy the precious moments!  They don't come back until....... you have a second baby! :)

~Jeslyn Kate

Jeslyn Kate writes/illustrates for children and teaches art.
You can find her work at these different locations:
Instagram: Jeslyn Kate
Twitter: @jeslynkate


  1. Wonderful insights! Congratulations Jeslyn!

  2. I feel seen. Illustrating with babies around is tough! It’s nice to know I’m not alone.