Tuesday, June 14, 2016

who am i and what am i doing? (the vocational version)

(in my studio)
this friday we drove up to tahoe for our annual week of vacation. it was a quick turnaround, with school ending just the day before, but once we got on the road i was so grateful to be heading away from our regular grind. we always drive through davis, which is about an hour from oakland, and the town where my undergrad alma mater uc davis is. (matt graduated from davis too, although no - i wasn't a child bride; we didn't get married for another six years...but that's another story.) we pulled off the freeway there to grab some lunch, and the traffic was backed up way onto the offramp. then as we inched our way to the light every lane was at a standstill. why was there so much traffic mid-day in davis of all places? could it be graduation? so early in june? i grabbed my phone and did a quick search and sure enough, it was graduation weekend. 

not a big deal...except.
i graduated from uc davis too.
in 1996.
yes, as in 20 years ago!?!

graduation doesn't feel like yesterday, but it doesn't feel like twenty years either. despite the fact that i have been posting about time racing by (it is), i am totally content with my life and what it looks like. that said, about a week ago i got a text from a friend saying, "i told my husband i think i'm having a midlife crisis. do you think that's possible?!" mid-life crisis is my middle name, so of course i said, "yes, totally possible. you probably are. me too!" 

here is the thing. i have now been out of college for 20 freaking years. 
i've been out of graduate school for nine! 
that's a lot of time, and i only have ONE life, 
so reflecting on twenty years, 
reflecting on nine years, 
reflecting on how i am using my time can be sobering. 
(detail of work in progress)

this school year (september until last week) is the most time i've had to work since my children were born eight years ago. before monrovia was born matt & i talked about how we wanted to handle childcare and our jobs. we decided at that time that as much as was possible that we would try to be with our kids before they went to school full-time. as an artist and illustrator, and with the flexibility of matt working with our congregation, we figured we would be able to be the primary caregivers for our kids even though it meant significantly less income for us, and we knew it would affect my own professional progress. (sidebar: this is a privilege and a luxury that many aren't able to do. others wouldn't choose this route, and that's fine too. for us it was a good choice.)

when we found out monrovia was deaf and that she would be starting school almost immediately as a baby, we had to reassess what that was going to look like, because it was different than we anticipated. when she was a baby, she went in a pack and play in my studio. when i drove her an hour away to deaf school i brought my freelance deadlines with me and worked on a couch at the school. when she slept at night, i stayed up late working sometimes until 2, 3 and 4 am. matt shifted his schedule around so that he could volunteer at our preschool co-op or take monrovia to appointments. this routine continued when ruby came into the picture. 

workable, yes. a small season in the long journey of life, yes. ideal for cranking out lots of work and making huge strides in my career? not really. but worth it? still yes.
(detail of painting, whitewashed, 2016)

some of the conflicts and the loves of in no particular order: 
i love painting. i love making illustrations. and yes, i love being a mom. 

and yet.
for so many years these loves have waged a certain war against each other for my limited time. 

i don't have a regular job with a boss and co-workers and annual reviews. 

i have me. in the studio. 

trying to decide where and how to allot my time: 

how many hours to my paintings? how many hours to my illustrations? 
should i lean in to my fine art studio practice? 
or put more energy into my commercial/freelance work?
should i divide my website into two separate sites? or keep it as one?
should i start working on that book project i've been wanting to do, 
or is that just one more project that stretches me thin?
should i be more savvy when it comes to social media? 
when do i leave the studio to go on field trips? 
or help out when the teacher is desperate for a volunteer? 

then throw in the question
is my work even good enough for me to be still pursuing it 
or should i move into some kind of more stable job with benefits & structure?

but what would i do?
what else would i even want to do?

i still face a blank page or blank canvas and wonder...
is what i am going to fill you with worth being made?
bottom line: what do i have to show for 20 years out of undergrad? i'm supposedly mid-career but i'm not mid-career. i don't regret the choices matt and i made so that i'd be mostly home with our girls, but i see how it's affected my professional accomplishments, and sometimes i feel lame about it. i still have a lot of fear and insecurity about the work i make- both my paintings and illustrations. and they feel so very different. they are both a part of me, but to look at them at face value they look unrelated and random. 

so a few weeks ago i went away for a couple of days to think, plan, be still, draw, think about all of these questions that rattle around in my brain and fill me with doubt. a couple of full days with no distractions, no kids, no housework, no school drop off or pick up for the girls, no wifi.
i spent hours writing and thinking about where to put my time, and how to divide up my energy. 
do i pour my time into this?
(work in progress)
or this?
(the bottom three cards- all my designs- happened to be lined up in a local store)
in the end i decided something really revolutionary and profound, and it was this:

whatever, as in...i am both of these things and all of these things and i make paintings and greeting cards and illustrations and i am a mom who takes longer to get things done in my studio because i am also raising two human beings. so whatever! to the voices in my head that say that blurring the lines and spilling over and failing and trying again and working in slow motion and across genres is a negative thing. whatever to my preconceived ideas of where i should be at 41 years old. 

when it comes down to it, i think that the very same way i have to reframe my self talk with my body and health i have to rethink my inner dialogue about making, how i see success, the reality of what my expectations are professionally. first and foremost i have to stop comparing my life's work to other artists & illustrators, because their story is not mine. and that's a good thing. i am working on owning the conflicting loves of my life to see them as a strength rather than a deficiency.

i came home from my personal retreat with more than just whatever. i looked carefully at my current commitments, accomplishments for the last year, ideal projects i'd want to do and came up with some specific goals; i am reworking my website, starting the book project i've been wanting to do, expanding my illustration work, finishing a series of paintings, and spending time looking at how much i can actually volunteer with the girls' school. 

so whatever to our imagined and real critics. let's kick them to the curb, shall we? 

and your homework...tell me: are there voices in your head that make you question yourself or compare your life's trajectory to others? maybe it isn't professionally. maybe your personal life- friends, relationship status, whether you have kids or not- looks different than you expected or hoped. how do you combat your insecurity or doubt? 


  1. Susannah,
    If this is a mid-life crisis, then I've been going through one since my first child was born! How many times have I thought, "I could have had a career in music?" How many times have I felt like I'm withering on the vine because I don't have the time to develop my skills (even worse, I feel like they're disappearing). But it is the conflict that we mother-artists must live with, and it is rare that we feel that our time mothering and our time art-making are perfectly in balance.
    I've also reached your conclusion of 'whatever!' I do what I can do, and someday, my life will look different. Grandma Moses and Laura Ingalls Wilder all started their 'careers' later in life. And when the doubts and insecurities sneak up on me (as they still do from time to time), I tell myself, "My children have only one mom. But the world is not lacking in professional musicians. And besides, my music is a great influence in my children's lives!"

  2. I should add that I feel my art and music is purer than it has ever been, because I am not doing it for any audience but myself. It brings out a new joy that I can find in the little things (and not in the applause or awards): hearing my twenty-month year old sing his version of Amazing Grace, playing music with my kids, making a card for a loved one, sitting down to play a favorite Chopin waltz. I still miss some things, like singing in a huge choir with a full orchestra, but I have also discovered new loves.

  3. I think you do a great job including your art while being there with Monrovia and Ruby. When I was younger I read a book titled "How get control of your time and your life". The major premise was to set goals of what you would like to accomplish in your life, in 5 years and if you only had 6 months. Then do something everyday to move toward both long term and short term goals. After that there was a lot of making lists and prioritizing stuff. Now it all seems exhausting and fretful, but then I've always had trouble setting long term goals. The land of "whatever" sounds much more sane. When you're dealing with family, priorities will rise to the top naturally because you only have these years with your kids at these ages and you know you will have your art all your life. When you're thinking of your life pre-kids you don't realize how consuming it all will be. Whatever...


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