Tell us a little about you, where you live, and your family. I am a freelance illustrator. I work full-time as a graphic artist for the military, but in my free time I draw and paint. We live in the Fort Hood area in Texas. The military brought us here, and we’ve been here for the past four or five years because my husband was stationed here. A few months ago, he retired, and we’re staying here for a little while because he’s going to start school and start a new career.
What does your job as a graphic artist with the military entail? I work for Family Morale Welfare and Recreation, and what they do is provide activities for the families of the soldiers: bands that come through, Fourth of July events, things like that. I design all of the posters and advertising for them. I worked in an office for two years, and then when my husband got transferred with the military I was lucky enough to work remotely. I feel extremely lucky that I can do my job from home, and every year I cross my fingers that there aren’t any budget cuts so that I can keep my job. They give me work orders and I do work on my own time, on the computer. It’s a full-time job, but some days are busier than others.
Were you working in that job before you had your daughter? Yeah. I started this job around 2006, and at the time I wasn’t planning on having any kids. Kids were the farthest thing from my mind. I was pretty self involved, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I was focused on myself and my family, not thinking outside of my own little bubble. Around 2008, my husband brought up having kids, and we joked that it was the best idea he ever had because it hadn’t been on my radar at all. We started talking about it, and I said I would need some time to give it some really good thought. I thought about it for like two weeks straight. Do I have what it takes to be a mom? And can I even do it? I knew it was a hard job.
I’m a planner, and with all the planning that I did, I still wasn’t prepared for what it means to be a mother. When I decided I could do it, the next month I was pregnant. Myla was born in 2009, and every year I am grateful for my job, and that I don’t have to leave the house and go work in an office for hours and hours. I can work and be home with her. I only took about a two-week maternity leave, and the rest of the time she was on my lap nursing while I was on my computer, in her bedroom. I was pretty lucky that way.
Did you plan to go straight back to work? Not really, but I think that because I was working from a distance, I always worried that they would suddenly decide they didn’t need me. Like I said, some days are super busy and some days are not, so it ended up being a good pace, as long as there wasn’t anything urgent. They are like a family, so they work with you if you need a little extra time, which works with a newborn. Having worked in an office with them for awhile made it a lot easier because they were really understanding.
What was your childhood experience with art? Both my parents are artists, so it was pretty cool. My mom and dad both painted, and my mom was extremely artistic. My dad joined the military and left the military, worked at Dow Chemical, and came back to the military, saying, “It’s pretty much like the military out there.” He had to work his way back up, and he kind of had to push his art to the side. He’s sort of like me in that he has a lot of different things that he likes to do. He can compartmentalize, and that’s what I did when I joined the military.
Every time we visit my family in Oklahoma, I do a post on social media of this Hogwarts village that my dad built by hand—a little garden train village. He built all of the buildings, and my mom helped him paint them. They are both still really creative.
We also lived in Germany for a good chunk of my life, so we got to see a lot of things and we got to go to different places. They made a point to get us out and about a lot.
Were you always drawing as a kid? Yes. My mom would have me draw these little shapes, and that’s how I learned. I drew little people, and then robots, and then dinosaurs. I almost always had my face in a sketchbook, and anything to do with anything, I drew. When we had something going on at school I would draw it. Anything we did ended up in my sketchbook.
How creative were you feeling after you had your daughter and returned right away to your military career? I’m a planner, so when I was pregnant I thought, I’ll plan it all, and this is how it will work. But that doesn’t work with kids, so I learned! I didn’t know how little time I would have in the beginning, but when I was about seven months pregnant and sort of waiting to have the baby, I started making quilts, tons of quilts. I made her dolls, I made her a little train set. All my creativity was for her.
“I was sort of shellshocked for the first few months, wondering about what I was supposed to do with a kid.”
Then when she was born I had no time. I was sort of shellshocked for the first few months, wondering about what I was supposed to do with a kid. I had never been a mom before, I had never thought about motherhood before, so I didn’t know what I was doing. But I had instincts, and I cared for her. I was completely focused on her.
As she got older, I wanted to be creative, but I had no energy to do it. It felt like I would never have time again. My mom would tell me, “You’ll have time later, down the road.” The very first time I got my own sketchbook out was when Myla was four years old. She suddenly got crazy interested in drawing when she was three, and I thought it was awesome, and maybe I could draw on my own a little bit. So I got my own sketchbook out and started drawing little faces. I hadn’t done that in so long; up until then, all my attention had been focused on her.
You almost have to put that part of yourself aside for awhile, even though you’re not 100% sure how and when it will come back. Right. I don’t know if it’s different with different mediums, but for me, with art, I know it’s always going to be there in some way. Creativity is going to be there, but I thought it would all be for her, not for me anymore. And if it was for me, what did I have to say as a person? I felt like an un-person. Am I a mother? Am I a woman? What am I? It was a little awkward at first. It’s like skin. It doesn’t ever go away, but you’re not always thinking about it. It’s there, but every once in awhile, you look down and think “Oh, that’s really dry, I should probably do something with that.” That’s how my art was. I would think, wow, I really haven’t drawn on my own for a long time. The urge was there, but I didn’t have the time or the energy to do it.
We were in Alaska when my husband was deployed, and my daughter was not even two years old. Alaska is a hard place to have a toddler. There’s nowhere to go. So it was me and her in a house by ourselves. My husband was gone for 12 months, and Skype didn’t work very well at the time, so we would send emails back and forth. I had to come up with projects for Myla to remember my husband, while working full-time at home. I would try to make a little paper doll of him, or a little flipbook of pictures of him, and we had a couple of videos of him reading stories. But she didn’t quite get what was going on.
She was a very energetic two year old, and I didn’t have childcare at the time. She needed my full attention and I stupidly thought I could work and watch her at the same time, which is not possible. Eventually I got childcare outside of the house a couple days a week, which helped a ton. But it was really hard.
Wow. That sounds really difficult, being alone in Alaska with a toddler while your husband was deployed overseas. You’re crazy. You’re exhausted. You’re tired, and no one’s there to help you. I wondered, how am I even going to do this? I had no concept of art at the time.
When she was about three my husband came back. It took some time to get in the groove again. Things have to balance back out, and you have to get used to someone else in the mix again: what they want to do, and how they want to parent. It was a little tricky at first to be able to say, “Ok, step on into this thing I’ve created, this machine that I’ve got running fairly smoothly.” But you have to make room for your partner.
Once he settled in, we were able to do things like take her outside in the summertime. Because I’m a planner, I’d have to plan to make room for messes. We’d go out to this farm in Alaska for vegetables every week, and they had a place out there that they would hose down so kids could get messy and muddy. I would come prepared for those messes, and I would bring towels and baby wipes so I would have a plan for clean-up.
That’s how I kind of got creative in the beginning. I’d just say, “Let’s just make a big old mess.” We’d go in the backyard and I’d get finger paints and let her paint all over me, all over herself, all over everything and just hose it down when I was done. I think that was my way of getting some sort of creativity going again. That feeling of sloshing paint or mud around.
After a year of being isolated, alone, having to—out of survival—create a very structured life, I would imagine that that would feel like a huge release. Just allowing that mess. Allowing the mess was good, as long as I could control the clean up afterwards! I was worried about needing to control the mess.
In Alaska you only get four months out of the year to go outside with a toddler. You can have playdates with friends, but that’s about the most you can do. It was funny because at the daycares in Alaska, the kids can go outside up to negative 10 degrees. They put on all their snow gear and they go outside. So in the summertime, we went outside every day, as much as we could, and made messes. And then we moved straight to Texas which was the exact opposite!
Can you talk about the first time you collaborated with Myla? I started to see a focus in her; I’d catch her working intently, drawing in her sketchbook. I knew that look, because I used to do that.
I realized I didn’t have to watch her as much as I had to when she was little. She was four by then and okay on her own, so one day I got my own sketchbook out. I thought, all right, I’m going to draw my own thing. I love drawing old black and white faces, so I had some references and drew an old black and white photo.
Suddenly, I felt her laser beams on me, and when I turned around she said, “Mom! You’ve got a new sketchbook!” She came over to me, and I explained to her that it was mine, just like she had her own. She wanted to draw in mine, but I was trying really hard to keep my own space. I tried telling her my sketchbook was for grown-ups only. But she insisted that I had to share, and that if I didn’t, “we” would have to take it away.
“I told her we could share one page. I had to let the control go a little bit; I had to realize that it was just a sketchbook.”
I thought, wow, all right. So I told her we could share one page. I had to let the control go a little bit; I had to realize that it was just a sketchbook. It’s not like it was going to be put into a museum. She asked me what I was going to draw, and I told her I was going to draw a body on the head that I had drawn. She asked if she could draw the body, and she drew a dinosaur body on this head that I had. And I thought, that’s actually really cool!
She kept asking for me to draw her more heads so that she could add bodies. So that’s what we did. Later on, after she had gone to bed, I decided to color them in.
How did that drawing go viral online? I had just started writing a blog about the things I was trying with my art, so I posted about that drawing on the blog and shared it on Facebook. And I sent it to another blogger, just for fun. She posted it, and someone else posted it, and suddenly it was everywhere. I woke up one morning and I had a ton of emails. It was pretty strange.
Now that she’s a little bit older she does her own projects. She likes to make little creatures out of paper, and she still loves to draw. We still do projects together, but it’s not the same as it was. And even when I post things like it, they’re not the same as they were when she was four. But it’s still fun. I like to try new things with her. New art projects and new mediums, just because she loves it.
How would you say your perspective changed when your daughter started to draw on your work, and you were able to let go a little bit? That was a key moment for me, because I had always thought I was sort of free flowing. I was not. I learned that as a mom pretty early on, but I didn’t learn it in my artwork until she started working with me. As a mom I learned that when you start to eat a meal, and your kid starts digging in your meal, well, then it’s not exactly your meal anymore. Or maybe your shirt isn’t yours anymore because your kid slobbered on it. Suddenly it was my sketchbook, and at first I was really protective of it. It’s something I’ve had my whole life and it’s precious to me.
Then I thought, she’s precious to me and her input is just as good as mine. I wanted to show her that she could draw in my special book as well, and that her voice was just as important as mine. I wanted her to feel like she was included. I realized I just needed to let go a little bit.
“…she’s precious to me and her input is just as good as mine. I wanted to show her that she could draw in my special book as well, and that her voice was just as important as mine.”
But there were times when she would scribble across a face I had drawn and I would gasp inside. Outside, I was very calm, but internally I would be thinking “Oh my god! She just scribbled all over a face I drew!” I’d ask her about it, and she’d say it was a tiger. The lines across the face were tiger stripes. I learned to see someone else’s perspective.
It’s been so cool as she gets older to see what she sees through her artwork, and how it changes over the years. When she was younger she would draw bunnies with two ears, and then one day she just started drawing one ear flopped over. I remember the first time she drew a leg behind another leg. It’s exciting to see these things develop in somebody.
Looking through your work, that’s what strikes me. You share your work with not only another person, but with your own daugher. You can see through her eyes in a way. It must be so powerful to watch her brain working on top of the things you’ve already created. It’s amazing. I’ll just be fascinated watching her and seeing little things and knowing where they came from. I’ll see her draw something and I’ll think she saw that on a show yesterday, or she heard that somewhere, and that’s where that came from. I know that as she gets older I’m not going to see those influences so clearly because I won’t be with her every moment. But because I can be right here with her, I feel like I have a really special connection to her. I kind of know how she thinks.
And I don’t have that same connection with any other person. I have a completely different relationship with my husband, my sister, my mother. I always said if she was interested in football or something, I wouldn’t be able to contribute anything, but I would be there to support her. I would try my best to learn, but I’m very lucky that I have the same skills that she is interested in.
What would you say has surprised you the most about yourself through this whole process? When she started working with me and we started having that artistic connection, I started feeling like the things that I’m doing are right for her. It doesn’t matter if it works for anyone else, it works for her, and it works for me. I am doing all right.
I think there’s so much criticism with mothers having to be everything and having to do everything and do it perfectly without making mistakes, while being fully committed to your kid, and yourself, and be completely selfless. Being the type of person that’s constantly worried, I realized it doesn’t matter if it’s working for everyone else. This is what works for me. That was sort of surprising to me, and that realization allowed me to breathe and relax.
I had tons of plans before I had her. I thought about what was right and wrong and what I was going to do and not do. But once I had her I realized you have to do what is good for your mental well being. You have to just be able to trust your own voice.
Is your husband home now? Yes. He just retired from the military and he’s getting ready to go to school. He isn’t working at the moment, so he’s been able to ride bikes with her, and do things that he couldn’t do before. He wasn’t able to be there for the day-to-day in the early years, but he’s able to have a connection with her now. I’m learning that he has to figure out what works for him as a parent, and that might be different from what works for me.
Yeah. It takes a lot to be able to let go in that way. Yeah. That’s a hard thing too, especially as a military family. I had to take over everything, and now having a partner that’s able to be there is like a breath of fresh air. It’s a relief.
What goals do you have for yourself and your artwork in the future? I can’t provide for myself with my artwork singlehandedly. I wish I could, but for me, having a day job has given me creative freedom. I don’t have to depend on my art financially. I don’t have to do custom portraits if I don’t want to. I have friends who have to take work they don’t love. They worry about making a living from their own art, and whether they can consider themselves true artists. But I’m glad I have a fulfilling job that pays the bills and allows me to paint and draw and spend time with my daughter. I don’t have to do custom portraits unless I want to, and for me, that’s freeing.
When my husband retired, he asked me if I wanted to go back to school and try a different field of work. But I pretty much have my dream job here. I get to work from home and still do something I like. That’s more than anyone could ask for.
“My advice is to share what you love with your children, because they’ll feel that from you. They will feel that love.”
What advice would you give to other Mother Makers? If you have really young children, I think the important thing is to know that it’s not a bad thing to put all of your energy into your kids for a little while. Your creativity is going to come back. You’re not going to lose that part of yourself forever. When you’re a creative person and you first have a kid who needs your absolute full attention, 24 hours a day, nobody tells you that you’ll get it back. You will have that time. Take this time to let go. Once you get it back you’ll feel that spark of life again and your children will be able to see that. They’ll feel that from you and you’ll be a happier person for it.
The main thing I’ve learned from all of this is to just do what you love. Do what makes you happy and share that with people. When Myla was younger my instinct was to keep it to myself. I always drew at night time, because that was the only uninterrupted time I had. When I started drawing with her, we found that special connection. My advice is to share what you love with your children, because they’ll feel that from you. They will feel that love.