A Year Back from Maternity Leave - International Week of Happiness at Work

Apparently it's the International Week of Happiness at Work.  I saw that and thought "I am happy!" but it was a bit touch and go for a while there, trying to get back after having a baby.  I realised it's a year this month since my maternity leave ended, so I thought I'd have a look back at the year, take stock and give thanks to everyone who's given me the opportunity to keep stepping forward.

When the leave ended last September, Aidan was 8 months old.  We had just moved from Comber to Bangor and renovated a house over the summer, which seems unhinged now although little did I know how much it would change my life. 

I still had my old studio in Lisbane, which I had only taken on in 2020, hardly managed to be in (what with a pandemic and maternity leave) despite having invested in doing it up.  I was determined to keep it, make it work, however I could.  I'll be forever grateful to Tom at Lisbarnett Studios for giving me that start in a professional setting and seeing how it could work, however it soon became clear I couldn't keep it up.  An hour round trip - travel was eating a third of my studio time - and can you imagine how much my diesel bill would have been now??  And trying to work with the little baby there had turned out almost comically disastrous, not the boho artistic mama I had envisioned at all.

And talk about business bombing.  The year before I had numerous commissions and lifted £1500 on one busy studio open day.  Last year after an extended break?  Maybe one or two commissions, and zero visitors to the open day.  Not even joking. I thought that might have been the end of the art enterprise for a while.  Thank goodness for the pillar of support that is always my crew at North Down Craft Collective - being on the organising committee for their beautiful market meant I had a goal and it was a good sales day for me, restoring the faith a little. 

I was chatting to my friend Marianne, director at Boom Studios in Bangor and also chief messer at our Messy Play classes (let's be real, I was moaning to her!) about how I wasn't managing to sustain work.  I'd looked at getting a part time job and the only things I could do part time would see the income totally wiped out by childcare costs.  My income from being an artist may be a bit less than stable, but it's more than zero!!  Marianne told me she was thinking about paying someone to take on the studios social media on a freelance basis, and would I be interested in a few hours per week... yes I would.  And a couple of months in, one of the posts I had to do was about an available studio.  It looked like home and I never did post it, or maybe I did then panicked but anyway, it was clear as a bell that it was my space and I had to take it.  So that was Feb/March, I bid a sad farewell to my big farm shed in Lisbane and somehow wedged the furnishings in to one wee room - Studio 3 at Boom.  

I've never worked so much!  Both in the studios, but also with the freelance work and facilitator work that Boom brings in, we artists often go out and do festival work, parties, demos, art classes; I'm really happy to be a jobbing artist and balancing my landscape art with other gigs in the creative industry.  Local businesses employing Boom for their creative outreach work helps us sustain our own practice and gives a bit of breathing room to take on projects that we want to do.  

With that sense of new start and a bit of a sure footing under me, I got a bit of confidence back, aimed for an art fair in June over in Scotland, and set about making a whole new collection of work.  It was well supported by friends old and new and every little success and sale reminded me that I can make a living from my own business, it's so easy to think nobody will every buy a painting again, surely you've exhausted everyone who likes your stuff, you don't have an art degree, no creds, that's the end of the line for you!  It's called imposter syndrome and it's not true (must stick that up on a postit).

I'm a bit of a do-gooder and from my old career I specialise in events, processes and planning so I haven't been able to help myself from getting involved and implementing a few new bits behind the scenes at Boom, and I've thrown myself in to things like Boom's Trade programme which exists to support the professional development of people in creative industries. As much as I loved that old farm shed studio, working in a big building full of other artists has kicked me on no end.  And the times I've been supported with alternative arrangements for meetings, or to bring Aidan with me to them has often been the difference between me being able to be involved in something or not.  Thanks Marianne.

I couldn't do all this work if it wasn't for my wingman Rick, he works shifts and although it's often difficult, we've managed to work around each other to raise our wee guy, hopefully without him missing out on anything.  To the point where we can nearly look at that dreaded childcare, because I'm now working full time between all the strands of my business, and alongside parenting that often looks like working til 1am and/or weekends.  So I take that as a good sign!

I've just finished a round of mentoring via the council's Digital Growth programme and shout out to my mentor Orla McKeating because she came along at exactly the right time to overhaul my own processes and online presence, when I was going at 100mph with 5 spinning plates and couldn't see the woods for the trees.  Before that, rewind to 2020, Tierna Byrne took me through a brand overhaul and taught me Canva for all my design work and brand colouring, and we're still in touch - another person I value a lot from our paths crossing, must be due another soft play date...

Outside of work, I have a brilliant supportive family, even though far away I'm grateful for them always accepting loads of video calls to hang out with Aidan when I just need him to let us sit still for 20 minutes, or having me on the phone for a whinge.  Rick's Ma is a godsend, coming down on the train for lunch most weeks and just another set of hands in the room, makes a huge difference!  Ladies of North Down Craft Collective- sitting in with the wee guy so I can get out and take part in things, and generally keeping me in the loop - thank you so much. 

Local friends, making sure I leave the house - I hope you know how grateful I am to you Lyns, Laurie, Ruth as mum pals and everyone else, fellow local artists and beyond - I've made it my new year's resolution to say yes to social engagements unless I definitely can't, and I hope you keep asking!  I'm trying to be better at starting things.  Can't wait til that Ash gig haha.

Anyway this is quite the Oscars speech now and it's a year later.  I've finally got back to the point of working a few months ahead, there's a plan, there's a business, and the whole point of the article... I'm happy at work!  Frickin wrecked like. 

I'd be interested to hear how my fellow sole traders juggle it all, kids or not - if this year has taught me anything it's the importance of a team, whatever guise they come in, hired or bribed, near or far.  Let me know how you're getting on!

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