‘My Practice Looks Very Different Today’: 15 Artist-Mothers on Balancing Work and Family After a Year Like No Other
We spoke with artists from around the US and the world.
The events of 2020 turned the world upside down for everyone. But the burden of life in lockdown has predominantly fallen on women, and on mothers in particular, with many pressured to leave the workforce entirely to focus on childcare while schools are virtual, relying on a husband’s typically higher income.
For many artist mothers, especially those who already work from home studios, this issue has shaped their experiences of the pandemic, limiting their studio time as they struggle to adapt to new roles as full-time teacher, chef, maid, nurse, and playmate.
The situation, with its expanded caregiving demands, only adds to the professional disadvantages mothers who are artists already find themselves facing.
We spoke to 15 artist-mothers about their experiences during the pandemic, the challenges of stay-at-home parenting, and how they’ve achieved some sort of balance between their dual identities as artist and mother heading into 2021.
Amie Cunat, Brooklyn
My daughter, Aastri, was born in early November 2019. My husband and I staggered the maternity/paternity leaves from our jobs in order to be at home with her. Since March, both of our full-time jobs—I teach in the visual arts department at Fordham University, and Piotr is head of media arts at the Guggenheim—have gone remote. We’ve worked out a routine that has allowed us to maintain our respective schedules while caring for our daughter.
To be frank, I was totally naïve about having a baby. I actually remember thinking to myself: “I’ve finished difficult installations with little to no sleep. I survived grad school…no biggie. I got this.”
Before my daughter was born, I had an inkling that the amount of time I could devote to making work would be affected, but I didn’t consider how much physical and emotional energy a child required from their parent. The first few months with a newborn are intense—an incredible, heartwarming, beautiful time, but intense.
I made small drawings at our kitchen table while she napped. After a few months, when her sleeping and eating schedule became somewhat predictable, my husband and I both were able to make time to work in our studio at home. Now, art making is a part of our day-to-day as much as spending time with our daughter.
Michelle Hartney, Chicago
My life as a professional artist was turned upside down when schools closed. My childcare situation went from having my two children in school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., five days a week—which is when I work in my studio—to me being a full-time stay-at-home mom who also homeschools five days a week.
I wish I could say I handled it gracefully, but I didn’t. Those first few months were a total disaster. I was researching lessons and activities for an hour before we even started school every morning. I was putting all of this energy into it, but felt I was failing them 100 percent of the time. I felt I was ruining their education because I couldn’t get my shit together. Looking back now, I can’t believe the amount of pressure I put on myself.
My co-parenting partner has a very demanding job. My job as an artist is not what pays my family’s bills, so my work is what gets sacrificed. He’s home now more than ever before. He is able to help in so many ways he wasn’t able to before, which has been a huge blessing.
My practice looks very different today. I’ve been shooting photos for 20 years but never used photography in my actual work until now. Photography is super accessible, quick, and easy. I’ve been documenting the new trash in my neighborhood (masks and gloves). It feels good to be able to work on a project even when I’m not in my studio.
Kaylan Buteyn, Fort Wayne, Indiana
It’s been incredibly challenging to juggle working from home full-time while providing childcare for my three kids ages two, four, and eight. Thankfully, my partner has somewhat of a flexible schedule as a college professor, and we have divided up our work weeks to try to provide each other with as much work time as possible.
Because I am struggling to get in the studio, my time there feels incredible precious, which makes the pressure for perfection increase. I feel like everything I make in my studio has to be useful and brilliant. There is less time for play, research, thinking, waiting, and just enjoyment in my studio. Taking time to enjoy the process and feel pleasure from making work is a luxury right now!
On our Artist/Mother Podcast show, I’ve mostly asked every artist interviewed this season about how the pandemic has affected their practice. I can definitely tell it has put so much strain and stress on the artists in our community. Even if people are somehow finding just as much or more time to make work, the emotional stress of the pandemic is another obstacle to creativity.
Aimee Gilmore, Philadelphia
We are all still trying to recover from when [my husband] Justin got sick with COVID in early May. We were taking the pandemic extremely seriously. We didn’t see anyone, go anywhere, we weren’t touching mail or packages. Since March, Justin had only ever been out of our house to do our grocery shopping, always wearing a mask and always being super cautious—and still he got sick.
It was overwhelmingly horrific. He started with a fever and his health deteriorated rapidly to the point where he could barely sit up or even move because his breathing was so stressed. We live in a small row home with one bathroom, so Justin had to quarantine in Maya’s room once he started showing symptoms.
When he left to go to the hospital, we hadn’t seen him in days, and I wasn’t even able to hug or kiss him goodbye. The kids were both asleep and we quietly waved to each other from the hallway. I honestly thought that I would never see him again.
He spent the next seven days in the hospital. Having to care for Maya and Max all day every day by myself while also having to quarantine—we didn’t know if we were asymptomatic or going to get sick—was exhausting.
It is very difficult to make work right now. I get few minutes here while the kids are watching TV, an hour or so there during Max’s nap. It is broken up in a way that doesn’t really allow my mind to wander creatively, so the attention I am able to put into a work is very limited. But at a time when many mothers are having to work on the frontline of this pandemic and are facing financial and physical situations of incredibly dire consequences, I am so fortunate to have the luxury of a safe space to stay at home.
Michele Pred, Oakland
My daughter is old enough that she can do most of her schoolwork on her own, but I’m still overseeing everything. I’m lucky she’s right at the point where she’s more independent, but it’s more intense, because she’s home all day.
For a long time I was really frozen creatively. I’ve spoken to a lot of artists, especially artists who are moms, who felt the same way. I’ve gotten my juices back, but as far as creating new work, there was not a lot this year.
I was supposed to be in a feminist group show at the Berkeley Art Museum that still hasn’t opened up, although the museum commissioned feminist parades I was able to hold in Oakland and New York. A solo show at a St. Louis gallery was pushed to next year. I had work at a show in the V&A [in London] that was supposed to open in April, and it finally opened last month—for just four days before temporarily closing again.
I was really concerned and scared, but my sales have actually been okay.
Now that the Bay Area is back on lockdown, I am not allowed to go to my studio. I just moved into a new studio at the beginning of December, only to be shut out of the building, so that’s a real bummer. In May or June, I started thinking that I wanted to build a studio in my backyard. I applied for a permit in July, but I still don’t have it because of the building department’s extremely slow system due to COVID.
In our house, we don’t have an extra room for me to work in. I have a teeny desk in the bedroom, but I feel too holed up in there. I sit at the bar in the kitchen to use the computer, updating my website, answering emails, promoting different things. If I’m working [making art], it’s on the dining room table.
Nadia Nizamudin, Malaysia
When the lockdown was imposed, schools nationwide were closed, including daycare services. My older daughter, Nik Maryam, is six, and my second daughter, Nik Zahra, is two. As most companies were also having their employees work from home, initially the arrangement felt like a godsend. Very quickly, I was met with the challenges of caring for young kids while working from home [as an instrument engineer at an energy company], and sustaining my art practice.
At first, I was super productive with my art practice. I was giddy with the time I gained without all the commuting, getting kids ready for school, etc. I was able to stop working at 5 p.m., and just head into my studio immediately to work. I was also able to stitch while listening to meetings. I made a lot of work during that time.
We had the second lockdown somewhere in October, and for some reason for me the second one was worse. I think there is a sense of unease and restlessness that carried over from the first lockdown through the short burst of freedom between the two lockdowns. My kids were more unruly, work piled up exponentially, days were longer, and the weather more difficult… it was tough.
By 10 p.m., I am bone tired. I usually reserve nighttime and early morning to work on my art, but now I am usually too mentally beat to focus. Tonight for instance, my youngest ran a fever, was clingy the whole day, and I had back to back meetings.
The hardest thing is trying to do it all, trying to not be seen as a failure to play a role that is nearly impossible: being a mother, an artist and a full time employee. I never want to be in this situation again. My mental, emotional and physical health suffered, my kids had to deal with a snappy, on edge mom at times, and I was rushing art deadlines. It is just not a good place to be in.
Lakwena Maciver, London
It used to be that I was working three days a week, with my older son in school full-time, and my younger son two days a week in nursery and one day a with my husband, who is a barber. When lockdown started, he couldn’t work, so he started doing more of the childcare.
It’s been really positive for me. My husband not working, he got to spend more time with the kids and he really enjoyed it. He is now working one less day a week, so we’re both working four days a week. It’s actually now more balanced.
But the reality is definitely I’ve found motherhood really hard, juggling kids and my work. As an artist, my work is so personal, and you kind of want to give everything to it, but with kids you can’t, otherwise you’d be neglecting them. That compromise I find to be difficult.
What’s hard as an artist is you’re effectively running your own business. So doing that and running the home, it’s difficult. Tracey Emin is someone who is very outspoken about the fact that she wouldn’t be where she is now if she’d had kids. I think that there’s some truth that.
I’ve taken two years out of my career—and it hasn’t been just been two years. Once the child is alive, it’s not like you have one year and then you give them back. I’m glad I’ve had them, definitely—and I think I needed to have a year off to be with my child—but there’s still times now that sometimes I think am I doing something stupid here? Am I being foolish trying to juggle this?
A lot of stories written tend to be “super women” stories, congratulating women, and that’s great to encourage people, but sometimes I can’t help but think, is this the best way of doing this? Or should I take off five, 10 years from my career, wait for the kids to grow up a bit, and then go back to work?
I’ve come to the conclusion that my work is definitely sightly compromised, but I get these beautiful children.
Shizu Saldamando, Los Angeles
My work came to a standstill. The preschool closed. At first I was so relieved to have some rest and not have to worry about deadlines. Just having the luxury of spending time with my kid in my house, which was rare being a working mom, was really special and wonderful. But as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into seasons, I found it increasingly hard to cope.
It was impossible for me to get any artwork done or have the focus and head space it takes for me to really hunker down and create detailed drawings. I was able to do some Zoom guest lectures and get paid for that, but my child was always practically in my lap showing off their toys for part of it.
My husband is a full-time technician at a mechanic shop. He had a reliable paycheck each month, so my responsibilities definitely were relegated to childcare and housework. We were so lucky he still had a regular job, so it just made sense at the time. Even though I have a lot of exhibition opportunities, those rarely ever translate into money. So it just was a no brainer I’d stay home with the kid.
Midway through summer though, I realized I need time to myself. Not just to make artwork but to regroup and decompress. We agreed that he would try and bring our three-year-old with him some days of the week. It made a huge difference in my mental stability, and I was able to actually work on some projects that had been put on hold.
A’Driane Nieves, Philadelphia
[Before the pandemic], we had a babysitter who would come over three days a week to help out so I could get work done either in the studio or for the art nonprofit gallery I run in Philadelphia, Tessera Arts Collective. Letting go of our sitter was really hard, especially because she’s like family to us, but I’m immunocompromised and my husband and youngest have conditions that put them at risk. We feel we didn’t have a choice.
It was all-consuming. In March and April, my husband was stuck in Zoom meetings for his job six to eight hours a day. I finally called a family meeting and said “this is unsustainable.” Shared responsibilities became much more even after that. My husband had to adjust his schedule and turn down meetings so he could help more. We pretty much work in “shifts” during the day; it’s still stressful, but has made a significant difference.
Once summer vacation started, I started getting back into the studio. Now with them being back in school and fully remote, I pretty much have to wait until the weekends to hit the studio. My husband just takes over managing the kids so I can focus on my practice.
The hardest part is managing the mental load of them being home all the time. My attention is always fractured, which makes it hard to get immersed in creative work. I also have way less energy, and have to push myself more than before to stay engaged and motivated. It’s definitely impacted my creativity and thought process, which gets frustrating—but I remind myself that I used to make art in the cracks when they were babies and toddlers, so this feels very much like those times in my life.
Robin Kenny, Franklin, Tennessee
As I am the primary caregiver for our children, and working part-time as an artist and for the Artist/Mother podcast, the childcare responsibility fell totally on me. My husband works full-time, and, thankfully, continued to be able to do so through the pandemic, but I had to shift my focus from art-making to caring for the children, as they are only five and seven years old.
We typically also receive a lot of help from both of our parents, but did not feel comfortable asking them to watch our kids due to risk of possible exposure. It is hard to make work right now, but we have found a rhythm that works for our family.
I take care of most of the household tasks. I have a wonderful husband who does help, but I found myself very overwhelmed in the spring and summer, especially, trying to juggle everything. We have a very open and direct communication, so I was very up front about my needs when I started feeling overwhelmed.
The hardest thing about balancing the artist/mother identity is staying committed to investing in my art practice and studio time. I am a better mother and human if I am creating, though, so I have to continue to preach to myself the importance of studio time. My husband is not an artist, so he does not know the time and energy it takes. He has learned, however, that our family works better as a unit if I invest in my art practice.
Libby Sipe, Topsham, Maine
My daughter, Persephone, is five, so this is her first year of school this year. I was a stay-at-home mom before this, and I was looking forward rejoining the workforce. Instead, I’m doing remote teaching stuff.
I did get a part-time job doing research for a company called Art Girl Rising. It’s usually three hours a week. That’s what I can scrape together right now. There’s not a lot of free time. I was really hoping to go gung-ho into my studio practice—I have maybe an hour a day when I would have had six. This year, I had my first solo show cancelled. It was going to be at a local retirement home.
My husband is working from home full time. He’s the main breadwinner in the house—without his job we wouldn’t be able to own our house. There is a lot of guilt on my part, which I’m trying to be better about.
The house gets messier when you have three people in it constantly. We ended up having a conversation. He knew there was a division of labor issue in our household, so he was very open to helping me out. He’s been a really good sport about it, and when I need something, I just ask. We approach everything with kindness and respect.
Natalie Baxter, Wassaic, New York
My husband, Josh, is a freelance photographer. I used to work for CBS in the news department, but in 2017 I quit to work full-time as an artist. As soon as COVID hit, my husband wasn’t working because there were no photoshoots happening.
It was really stressful. We always lived on the edge of “ok, we’re good for now,” that kind of freelance lifestyle. He had a good client base, so it always worked out—until all of a sudden it just stopped.
We made a schedule. Three hours in the morning is your dedicated work time, three hours in the afternoon is my dedicated work time; in between that we’re sharing responsibilities. It’s this balancing act we both to do work to be mentally sane. This was while we figuring out unemployment. There was a lot of financial stress in the beginning.
At the start of lockdown, our daughter Petra, who is now a year and a half, was not even walking—she was a whole different baby. We were living in a small railroad in Ridgewood, Queens, that we were starting to outgrow. Then with the pandemic, everybody’s world got smaller. The apartment felt like it was closing in on us.
I’m sure the pandemic is a setback for women in all fields, and the art world is no exception. A lot times when I was pregnant I thought my career could be over. I was nervous to even tell some art world people. I was worried that people wouldn’t want to give me shows or people wouldn’t take me seriously.
Mona Cliff, Lawrence, Kansas
I have three children, ages 10, 11, and 12—two girls and the youngest is a boy. I’ve been a stay-at-home mom since 2009, but the time they were in school was the time I would use to work, so lockdown has really impacted that schedule.
My studio is actually our dining room—my family is really sweet to me and lets me use that whole space to create. My husband has essentially put his office in our bedroom. The kids mostly do schooling in the living room. I don’t have my own space, so I get really bogged down everybody coming and interrupting what I’m doing.
You can hear what everyone is doing because our space is small. If the kids are bickering, I can hear them! Everybody is on each other’s nerves.
With remote learning, I’m mostly the one who’s monitoring, keeping them on task, and making sure they are doing their work. And then there’s food preparation—let’s worry about lunch and breakfast and then dinner! It really takes a chunk out of your day to prepare food for everyone.
My kids are old enough that I can assign them chores to help out. But because they are here more, they are also making more messes. It’s just constant. And the majority falls on me to just keep everything going and stay on top of things. It’s really impacted my ability to get things done.
Angela Hennessy, Oakland
I am a single mom. It’s just me and Jalen, age 14, at home. I do get some alone time when he goes to his father’s house three days a week.
As we made the transition to remote learning in March, we thought it all would be temporary. Personally and
collectively, the focus was on making quick adjustments for immediate health and safety issues. It was crisis
When my son began high school online in August, we had to develop more long-term strategies with greater attentiveness to self-care practices and activities to alleviate boredom.
I have been able to bring materials home to continue my making practice. I’m often sitting on the floor in a sea of hair, or on the couch crocheting, braiding, and stitching things. I have always been an artist, so seeing me working at home isn’t that unusual for my son. He has worked on big projects with me right at the kitchen table. Artists who are mothers learn to continue their work while navigating the interruptions. It’s just how it is.
Madeline Donahue, Brooklyn
As lockdown began my mom was in Brooklyn with us helping out with my newborn. My now four-and-a-half year old daughter was in preschool. I was a ceramic resident at Artshack Brooklyn, skipping with glee as I walked the few blocks to the ceramic studio every morning.
That all changed with the lockdown. The ceramic studio shut down, and I couldn’t go to my painting studio in Bushwick. Though our apartment is spacious, we have no outdoor space.
We decided to head up to my husband’s parents’ house in Connecticut. What we thought would be a couple of weeks turned into a six-month stay. For a while we had three grandparents helping out.
My husband has cooked every meal since March. I can’t even cook a single dinner without burning it to carbon. Something about having two kids, I’ve lost any ability to make food.
It is very difficult to make work. I’m tired. But I do feel like I have had more time to make work because I am not commuting to my studio. I found a way to work with my kids around. I simplified my practice to drawing and ceramics. I bought a kiln in Connecticut so I could continue my ceramic work. I’ve taken advantage of the outdoors and really enjoyed making ceramics with the backyard birds. I am now attached to my kiln and am desperate to find a way to have one for myself now that we are back in Brooklyn.
Responses have been edited and condensed for clarity.
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