Balancing Being a Mommy, Being a Designer, and Working from Home

Michelle's "home" office

Michelle’s “home” office (on a tidy day)

Yes, I am she. I am that insane mom who meticulously decorated her baby’s nursery, then used the same Pantone colors to design his birth announcements. I art directed his first photos, and even designed the cupcake toppers for his first birthday party.

In my defense, I have little choice. Creativity, through art and design, was my first passion in life. Since it shaped who I am, my version of motherhood is naturally design-heavy and art-intensive–as is my career. Being a mother and an employee offers many challenges, and my own balance isn’t always as neat as I strive for it to be; however, looking at life’s changes as opportunities, rather than sacrifices, has helped me simplify things.

Here are a few tips and guidelines I follow as a freelance designer who sometimes works from home. These habits have evolved as my child has grown, and your habits should as well. This flexibility, this willingness to adapt, is the key to achieving balance–not to mention maintaining both sanity and mortgage payments.

1. Create a Routine, then Use it to Your Advantage.

The smartest way to use your time wisely is to incorporate your workflow into your routine. For example, I can get a good number of things done before my son, lil T, wakes up in the morning. It is the perfect time to go through my emails and make a to-do list while I drink my coffee. A little later, nap time is more precious than gold! Besides providing lil T with the rest he needs to grow, I quickly realized that nap time equals work time! I get my best work done when lil T is napping in the room next door, with the faint humming of the humidifier in the background.

2. Planning is Critical.

As I mentioned above, I make a to-do list daily. Planning, including making a schedule and a to-do list, will help every aspect of your day run more smoothly. This could be the most important thing I’ve learned in my year and a half as a mother: we both thrive on routine. This planning, of course, falls into place more easily once you have created the routine we discussed above.

3. Establish a Dedicated Workspace.

When lil T was an infant, I would follow him around with my laptop, even when he was napping. Doing this, I soon learned that both my work and my motherly duties were falling short of their full potential. My husband and I chose to get some help, hiring someone to take care of him during the day. I moved myself back into my office/studio, where my work returned to its original caliber. I can still check in on lil T as often as I need to (he wouldn’t have it any other way), but I can go back to “work mode” with relative ease. Speaking of being in work mode…

4. Get out of Your Pajamas.

I make sure that I always get out of my pajamas, even if I’m simply climbing into sweats. It gets me up and going for the day, and is part of that routine which is so very critical. Psychologically, it helps me separate “relaxed me,” who plays with her son and watches movies with her husband, from “work me,” who has clear-cut agendas and time management skills. Furthermore, when my hubby returns from a long day of work, I don’t look like a greasier version of the same person he left in bed that morning.

5. Take Breaks.

This one is the most difficult for me. I get very focused and often forget breaks, or even lunch; however, occasional breaks can actually increase productivity, and getting mentally acclimated to taking breaks can help you “turn it off” at the end of the day–which is something else that I sometimes find difficult. Thanks to my routine, planning, and workspace, I can get into work mode easily–but getting out of it has proven more challenging. I am still working to be more like my husband in that respect: when he gets home, he is done with work.

6. Enjoy Life’s Sweet Moments.

After all, the reason I’m working from home is so that I can enjoy the life I have made while also staying productive. There is truly nothing better than when lil T pops into my office to make sure I am still home–I usually get the most southern “haaaaay,” or a big hug. These moments are a blessing, and I feel lucky to have the opportunity to watch my little guy grow while I work. I also take the time to make a healthy dinner for my family, so that once we’ve managed to put the day’s work behind us we can enjoy each others’ company.

I may never truly find the perfect balance; however, I feel like I am able to adapt to most situations fairly easily. I thoroughly enjoy working from home and being part of lil T’s life, but I also enjoy the company of coworkers when I commute to work. It also feels good to put a dress on, get a coffee for my commute, and have conversations that don’t include words like “ouchie,” “yucky,” and “poopy.” The adaptability that helps me work productively from home also helps me readjust to working at the office building, and it can also help you thrive in whatever workplace surrounds you.

Unicorn Sighting!

“I tried that,” I explained to the Apple technician. “Same result.”

After twenty more minutes of hearing “I tried that,” Robert admitted that I had him stumped. For whatever reason, our Mac Mini server has been killing external hard drives for nearly a year. We’ve tried Western Digitals. We’ve tried G-Drives. We’ve even ventured into Seagate territory, but they all bite the dust when our server tries to save backups to them. USB, Firewire, and even Thunderbolt connections yield the same results. Both Time Machine and Retrospect software have been alternately used, all with the same grim outcome.

Yes, we even relocated the server into a different room; you know, just in case the old server room had high magnetism, extreme temperatures, cursed Native American graveyards underfoot, or any other zany environmental factors that we surely would have noticed before.

“What you have there,” Robert continued, “is a unicorn sighting. I’ve been an Apple technician for nineteen years, and neither I, nor any co-workers I’ve asked, have ever encountered anything like your particular problem.” This was Robert’s tactful way of saying, “That’s not an MP, it’s a YP: your problem.”

While we’re still staggering through different methods to try to isolate the issue, we’re constantly replacing hard drives; and, after the first few times, hard drive manufacturers make obtaining an RMA more difficult. In the meantime, to fund our need for an endless supply of storage devices, we’re considering charging admission for gawkers to come and see our server firsthand, like Daniel Lambert in 1806. It may not be a unicorn, but it’s a world-class oddity. So please, if you have a few dollars to spare, step right up and witness history.

You Own a MacBook Pro? You Must Be a Designer…

You have to have a license to drive. You have to have a license to run a business (well, you should). People have to be certified to drive forklifts, cut hair, and even paint nails…but anyone can buy a MacBook Pro, change a font color, learn how to draw a square, and voila: instant “designer.” Never mind the years spent learning art: art history, color theory training, 2D design, etc.

Experience? Ha! Who needs it when you’ve got YouTube tutorials? Please…

So here’s my beef: this downsizing-to-save-money bit has become quite commonplace in the corporate world. The mindset of “pink slips for some equals new titles and more work for others” has become the accepted norm. Each worker’s burden gets heavier, and the quality of the output suffers. On the agency side, we feel the effects as well. We lose work–hard-earned and long-sought-after work that professional, respected designers are actually trained and qualified to do–when clients decide to “consolidate.” Mind you, “consolidating” refers to, “well, we have an employee who’s dabbled in design…and we think if create a support team…and invest in a MacBook Pro or two, (after watching some YouTube design tutorials) we will have an internal department that should be able to take on this responsibility. And think of the money we can save!”

If it’s not obvious, I can honestly say I am not impressed with this ignorant mindset. The lack of respect for design as a true profession is both shameful and concerning. From a business perspective, this approach is ultimately a death sentence for the corporate client, as the lack of intelligent innovation through design will take its toll on the company’s ability to compete and profit. It certainly doesn’t help the agency pay its bills, either, as this scenario also creates a struggle for the professional design agencies to survive and hold onto their talent.

As a business owner, I value–and greatly respect–the fundamentals of running a lean practice; but there is a point at which “cutting the fat” becomes cutting into the meat. Before long there’s no substance left, which is something that even the best designers can’t simply photoshop into place–let alone some accountant and his new Macbook Pro.