Full-time Summertime Kids
Are you an author or illustrator with kids home for the summer and no childcare? If so, I can relate.
Working from my backyard studio is a dream come true. But it can also be a nightmare. When am I working and when am I not? I have two school-aged children that love to hang out— ALL DAY. How do I create balance between conversations with my super-fun kids and conversations with my jealous muse? Over the years I’ve found ways to organize my physical and mental space to make room for both.
When the kids were infants I didn’t have a studio. I had a mess. My first snuggly baby would wake up the instant I put him down. Completely sleep-deprived and tortured by my muse, I would tape paper up on the walls and then write or draw while bouncing him in a baby carrier so he could get a full nap and I could write a full sentence. This does not count as part of the “creative balance” mentioned earlier, but it was the first step I took as a new parent to work despite a seemingly impossible situation—a baby that wouldn’t sleep if he wasn’t being held.
Tiny toddler stage was even worse because of my shattered expectations. I had imagined I would have new opportunities to work once my hands were free, but I found myself unable to stand next to a piece of paper long enough to draw or write anything. Toddlers RUN. I was also pregnant with my second child, so I wasn’t very fast and needed to constantly move just to keep within a safe distance of my daredevil little boy. Thankfully I was able to coordinate a childcare swap with my neighbor (also an artist, check out her beautiful lights) a couple times a week. I created my sanity by creating time for myself. During this stretch, red lights in the car meant time to scribble down ideas, as were notepads against stroller handles and beside bathtubs. Writing poetry was best because I could scratch out fragments and think about words when I couldn’t hold a pencil and stand still long enough to write anything down. A finished poem was more satisfying than my baby sleeping longer than four hours. This sounds like a desperate situation, and at times it was, but it was also prolific. I wrote a lot of poetry and was able to feed my muse some highly caloric snacks. I still look back on these notebooks for ideas.
My kids grew older and I finally got a backyard studio— along with a bunch of time to work during school hours. But then summer would arrive and I’d have no childcare. I set up a corner in my studio (precious real estate in my tiny 10 x 8 foot space) for my kids with a table, books, art supplies, weird squishy sand, magnetic blocks, cars, trucks, and a big comfy chair. My phone also had a deep library of podcasts and audiobooks to play in emergencies. This corner has evolved over the years and currently it is just a comfy chair and a baby monitor connected to the main floor of our house. The baby monitor is extremely useful. I can hear when the boys wake up in the morning (they always call out to let me know) and I can keep tabs on any shenanigans. They spend a lot of the morning with me, coming out whenever they want to sit and chat with me, or else read their own books or work on their own art. Last year we installed a basketball hoop to the studio’s roof, so now I listen to dribbling, rebounding, missed shots, swishes—and get distracted by long games of horse.
Having a physical space set up for the kids allowed me to get a lot of work done despite being interrupted every few minutes. Also, my kids became really connected to my work. My boys and my muse started to make friends. I was getting work done! However, I wasn’t very happy. I seemed to feel guilty no matter what I was doing.
I realized I needed to think about my mental space. The hardest part of trying to balance art and parenting was managing the flow of ideas and the drive I had to finish the work I’d started. Constant interruptions while developing an idea or my urge to complete a project while with family left me perpetually guilty and dissatisfied. Guilty while working because I wasn’t spending fun summer hours with my kids, and dissatisfied that I was distracted while hanging out with my boys. I needed some sort of mental boundary that would let me relax and enjoy the people and work I loved.
A very obvious idea came to me a few years ago. Obvious, but hard to put into action. My children finally had enough independence that they could play with each other and entertain themselves for a few hours as long as I was nearby to keep an eye on them. The idea was to mentally give myself a designated “work time”. I began setting my alarm for 5:30 and working until my kids woke up. We’d hang out for a bit, have breakfast, and then I would go back to work and they would play close by until lunch. Although my kids were still around me all the time, in my mind I was dedicated to my work. After lunch the afternoons were devoted to “expeditions” and I was focusing on my boys. Sometimes this would be going to a museum or on a hike, but usually it was walking to the community pool, playground, or library. It is a simple schedule and idea, but not so simple to enforce— both with the kids and within my own mind. It was really tempting to run off and do a fun thing that was happening in the morning, or in the afternoon to start thinking about my work. After a bit the kids internalized the schedule, and so did I. The boys knew that even though they wanted me to play directly with them in the morning, they would have an expedition in the afternoon, and I knew that even though my muse wanted me to work in the afternoon, she could have me in the morning. It felt like balance.
I still follow the same summertime schedule, though now the boys are elementary-aged and attend more camps. They are also happy reading a book or making comics for hours on end in the afternoon. I could definitely get some more work done in the latter half of the day. However, I still wake up early, work till lunch, and devote my mental time to the kids in the afternoon. Having a clear mental division of studio time and family time helps me relax and enjoy the fleeting summer days with my children. It also allows my kids to enjoy me —a mom (with major bags under her eyes), who is no longer quite so distracted, frazzled, and wracked by guilt.
How do you swing your summertime parenting challenges? Any good tips? Funny stories? However you manage, I’m sure your kids are your biggest fans!
-Meredith Crandall Brown
keep in touch on Instagram! @crandallbrown