It's working for Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr
Long before they were parents, they were Matthew Swanson and Robbi Behr, writer and illustrator; their creativity integral to their happiness as both individuals and a couple. So in 2006, when the then-childless couple found their 9-5 jobs cushioning their bank account, but crushing their creativity, they did something few others do—the couple sold their house, quit their jobs, moved into a barn on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, and gave themselves one year of creative freedom. Nine years and three children later, they are still going strong as parents, partners, and creatives.
1) You had great parents so you already know what to do; intuition will kick in. 2) Don’t sweat it. Your kids are going to like you. 3) It’s going to be twice as hard as you imagine—but a hundred times more gratifying.
However, the advice I’d offer to others who are thinking about having kids is to wait until you have your own dreams in place—or at least well under way—before pulling the trigger. Robbi and I have spent the last decade building a creative enterprise that has succeeded beyond our most optimistic expectations. We had our daughter about 18 months after launching our business. Once we’d gotten started with our off-the-beaten-path lifestyle, we came to realize that, with a little sacrifice or two here and there, it was not incompatible with raising a family. But there is no way I would have taken the leap of faith we did in quitting our jobs and throwing ourselves into the unknown if kids had already been in the picture. It would have felt reckless and wildly irresponsible. And so we would have missed out on all of the amazing things that have happened to us since. And we wouldn’t have been as good parents because we wouldn’t have been following our dreams, working from home, and modeling for our kids a lifestyle based on putting one’s passions first and then creating the conditions necessary to support and nourish them.
You are capable of accomplishing a lot more than you think in any given amount of time. Once you have children, your time is divided and subdivided, and you still have to get the same amount of stuff done. Actually, you have to get MORE done. And yet you somehow manage to do it. I sometimes marvel at what my pre-children self did with all of her time.
Oh, and probably even more importantly, find yourself a partner who is so gracious and willing to take up all of the slack when your manic juggling act completely falls apart.
My employer/client was right there in the bathroom with me when I peed on the stick. He was very supportive.
Actually, at the time I was also teaching a class at the local college – it was just an adjunct position so I wasn’t obligated to tell the college (the semester would be done long before my pregnancy was an issue). However, I felt like I should tell my students, mostly because (in an unexpected phase of pregnancy-induced vanity) I didn’t want them wondering why I was gaining weight and wearing the same clothes to class all the time. I spilled it in a rather businesslike tone to a smattering of coos and applause from the women in the room and confused silence from the men.
I think with Alden, our first, we had planned for me to have about a month of zero productivity after she was born. We had tried to get ahead on as much as possible before she arrived (of course she threw a wrench into our plans by arriving 10 days early. And since I am never early for anything, I had really estimated for 15 more days of productivity).
The day Alden was born, Matthew and my dad and a family friend started renovating the unfinished storage area in the Barn that would become our bedroom and studio. Our entire living/work space was a construction zone, so I set up my computer at my parents’ house and we lived there for about two months. Matthew was busy most days doing triple-time – working on the renovation, doing work for his day job, and helping take care of me and Alden. My mom helped out immensely in the first few weeks with baby care and, most importantly, meals!
I was surprised to find that after about a week I was pretty much able to get back to work with breaks for feeding and burping and bouncing and napping. Because I work from home, I wasn’t confined to a regular work schedule, so I was able to still get a fair amount of work done by spreading out my work through the day and night instead of trying to work just during the 9-5 workday (which I’ve never really been able to do anyway). I learned how to sit hunched at my desk breast-feeding while one-handed typing or drawing. Matthew and I both developed the very useful skill of bouncing the baby with one foot while working (or sleeping).
With the other two, we tried to get ahead as much as possible but I was able to get back to full productivity much more quickly because we weren’t also renovating at the same time. I think I had a few days back from the hospital before I felt like diving back in.
Work for me is a multi-layered affair. I have a half-time, work-from-home job for the communications firm I used to work for full time before Robbi and I started our publishing business. Also, I am the author of several picture books and an upcoming middle grades series with Macmillan. And then there is the work of writing books for and running our two small presses.
After our daughter Alden was born, I took about a week completely away from my “real” job—after which I started making myself available for phone-in meetings (on mute, while changing diapers and etc.). But since I don’t have to go into the office, I could answer emails and draft copy while Robbi and the baby slept. Which meant I got to be home during those amazing first weeks and months while continuing to do my job. It was the best of both worlds.
As for the “job” of being an author, it never stops. I was working on a story in the delivery room and got in trouble with Robbi for typing too loudly while she was busy having contractions (she banished me to another wing of the hospital for about 20 minutes). I can’t turn my writer’s mind off. Actually, major life events have a way of shifting it into overdrive—the result of new emotions and influences, most likely. So, instead of taking a hiatus, I ended up writing more in the wake of each of the kids’ arrival. Our most successful book to date, The Baby is Disappointing, was directly inspired by our daughter’s birth (Not by her! She has been most satisfying). The book is a satire, a roadmap of all the expectations parents put upon the new arrival.
As for our small business, it doesn’t take a paternity break. We kept on getting orders that had to be filled after each of the kids was born. We had to keep up with the production schedules for our books. Which meant juggling and working tired and putting in longer hours than usual. But we made it work because we wanted to. Our creative work is the definition of a labor of love.
I certainly got less sleep at first. And I got used to writing while using my left leg to operate the baby bouncer. But our lives are set up in a very baby-friendly and kid-friendly way. When they were very little, the kids just hung out in the studio with us during the days—literally, we had this little baby harness attached to a bungee cord and we hung it from a rafter and let the kids swing back and forth between our desks. When the kids got a little bit older, they spent their days with our neighbor. And when they were old enough, we sent them to the great little Montessori school in our town.
There are some afternoons and weekends when we’re both busy on a project and ask the kids to keep themselves entertained in the other room while we work. Fortunately all three are really good at taking care of themselves and one another—in part because we’ve created this expectation from an early age. In our experience, kids are capable of a lot more than we often give them credit for. We’ve tried to give our kids the opportunity to do things for themselves, to create their own entertainment. But we do occasionally give in and resort to the iPad or Netflix.
On weekends when one of us is up against a deadline, the other will take the kids adventuring. One Saturday morning, Robbi woke up, her brain having solved a creative problem she’d been working on for a while. It was clear she had to illustrate our next book RIGHT NOW. So I took the kids and drove to Pennsylvania. We slept in a motel. When we got back on Sunday night, the studio was a mess of still-drying paintings covering every conceivable surface, but the book was entirely done.
A couple of times each year we give each other extended creative sabbaticals by taking the kids on week-long road trips while the other one takes time to work and catch up on sleep.
Robbi is my biggest source of support and inspiration in all things. She is the person who fuels every aspect of my production. She helps shape and refine the ideas that spring out of my head. She creates the illustrations that bring my words to life. And she creates the children. A mighty woman, to be sure.
Our enterprise doesn’t work unless both of us give our full energy and attention, so, out of respect for what we’re doing, I’m unwilling to be the one that drops the ball. I think we both feel this way. Which is why we’ve been able to keep going at a full sprint for the past nine years.
Interestingly, if one of us is feeling tired and frustrated, the other one will become energized and optimistic. We never seem to tank at the same time. It’s like there are universal rules requiring us to remain in collective equilibrium. Whoever is feeling good is usually able to pull the other one back up again. Or at least to fill in until the fog clears. Which is incredibly helpful. Because we’re so busy, we don’t have time for a collective funk to set in.
Matthew was primarily my biggest source of support. He is a champion diaper-changer, baby bouncer, burper, slinger-of-babies. I feel incredibly fortunate not only to work from home myself, but to also have a spouse who works from home. I often hear from new parents who, with one parent staying at home while the other works, can hardly find time to take a shower during the newborn stage. I was lucky enough to have Matthew at home with me, and we could always switch off on baby duty–so while both of us were somewhat compromised in the showering department, neither one of us was truly hygienically challenged.
We also could not have done what we’ve done without the help of some dear friends and neighbors across the street. Kato and August spent a good deal of their baby-hoods over at their house a few days a week with Alden so we could have some kid-free time to get work done. We also had multi-day book shows and conferences to attend when our neighbors would look after the kids while we were gone. It was indispensable help for us and also great for the kids – they got passed around so much that they have no trouble being left and are pretty adaptable to us not being around.
Getting used to turning off the creative engine—or at least the creative mode—every once in a while. Pre-baby, Robbi and I would pretty much talk about our creative projects whenever we were conscious—in the car, over dinner, in bed at 2:00am. Once the kids got past the infant stage, though, it became important to start carving out time where they were the main focus.
Also, especially now that there are three kids and they are starting to get involved in activities and play dates and school events, the challenge is finding the time for the kind of intense creative focus that this work calls for. We somehow seem to find a way to keep it all in balance. So far, at least.
Hard salami and Coke every day for nine months. Don’t tell my obstetrician.
I never expected drawing while answering the same question over and over and over again would be so hard and sleeping in awkward places would be so much easier!
I never expected dealing with the irrational needs/thought processes of tiny, empathy-less psychopaths would be so hard and that getting through the airport security line would be so much easier! (They let you go in a separate, special line for people who, if allowed to languish in the regular line would irritate everyone else!)