Motherhood, Art, and Money: What Is My Time Worth?

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What should I be doing with my time? I don’t mean how do I fill the days–far from it–as the mother of twin babies, every minute of my days is full. But how can I take control of how those minutes are spent? How much time should I spend on baby care, housework, making money, making art? What criteria should I use for making these decisions: Personal fulfillment, money, family contribution? How do I put a value on investment in myself? I don’t actually have an answer for these questions, but thought I might explore them a bit in this post.

Maybe a little history would help. I am on maternity leave from my job, but it is an extended maternity leave, so for the past six months I have been a stay at home mom. I am also a writer and illustrator, though my job, which paid the bills, was as neither of those things. Being a full-time mother has been confusing, to say the least.

For the first twenty-two years of my life I was a full-time student. I conceived of myself only as a student. Being a student, for me, was bliss. Deadlines, accomplishments, feedback and reward all built into my schedule. Since I majored in English with a writing concentration, and took art classes in college, art was built into school as well.

Graduating into the work world was the first challenge. In work, there are no grades, no graduations, and for me, no art. One similarity between being a student and working full time, though, was that you never had to justify how you were spending your time. You were a student, which meant you were investing in your future, or you were working, which meant you were paying the bills. Art became something I fit into my schedule outside of work–early in the morning, on weekends, at lunch.

Then came motherhood. Motherhood is a full time job. More than a full time job. 24/7. It is also something I chose. There is no time for art “before work,” the babies could wake up at any time, there is no concentrating on anything when they’re crying. And yet, there is no income from being a mother, aside from the income I would have spent on child care were I at my job. Since I’m not currently making money, how to justify spending time on art? What is the “value” of improving my illustration portfolio, for example?

I was intrigued to read this article in the New York Times Magazine, Outsource Your Way To Success. I feel confident that it’s “worth it” for me to spend time applying to new jobs, since this will clearly lead to money and will further my career. But when is it “worth it” for me to spend time on art? Is it “worth it” enough to pay someone for childcare a few hours a week so I can paint?

I don’t have answers. I’m just feeling frustrated, grasping at minutes like straws. Of course, I couldn’t stop spending time on art even if I wanted to. But what if that time wasn’t piecemeal and constantly interrupted? What if I invested in it? By doing nothing I am answering my own question.

The Exponentially Increasing Value of My Time

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I remember a time, not so long ago, when I didn’t factor my time into the value of things. A ticket to Shakespeare in the Park was “free” even though it meant waiting in line for four hours. A shirt from Daffy’s was a steal even though it meant a walk across town to the store and then searching through racks trying on clothes in unpredictable sizing until finally hours later emerging with a pair of designer mark-down pants.

Now that the time I have available to complete tasks has been reduced to precious few ticking-by minutes per day, I find myself prioritizing tasks based on the value of my time. Case in point:

I am an illustrator. I love drawing my babies. This morning it occurred to me that painting portraits of babies might be a nice way to make a little extra money at the holidays and get some illustration work. I am a member of a few local parent list servs, and on the spur of the moment I composed an email advertising watercolor portraits of babies or pets.

At first, in my mind, the text read: “Free! Limited time only! Send me a picture of your baby or pet and I’ll send you a 5 x 7 watercolor and a digital file to print onto cards, etc.”

Free advertising, I thought. Then after about a millisecond I reconsidered. Free? Really? But it will take TIME to do the portraits. I’ll say $10, I thought. Then as I was looking at that $10 next to the flashing cursor I thought, wait a minute, it will realistically take me at least an hour to do a portrait, and I am a perfectionist no matter what people pay. I deleted the 10 and put $20. Then I looked at the $20 and thought, that won’t even really cover my materials. $50. Then I looked at the $50 and thought, this is going to take all of my available time. I have about one hour each day, if I’m lucky, in which to complete tasks; is painting baby portraits going to take priority over applying to new jobs, cleaning (so I don’t feel bad about my life), eating, sleeping, maintaining contact with family and friends, hiring a babysitter, finding freelance writing work, paying bills, writing this blog? $60. $80 $100… And then I just deleted the whole thing.

Will I ever return to that place where time feels bountiful? Maybe when I retire. Right now I am like a time-hoarding miser. This morning one twin refused to fall asleep for her morning nap. She cried and cried. I was so resentful. Go to sleep! I said out loud to myself, grabbing my hair. This is my time! This is my only time! I am a stressy mess.

Last week I talked to my sister on the phone about the list of things to do keeping me from falling asleep at night. Her recommendation, “Start with the babysitter, that’s most important.” I think she’s probably right. One thing at a time. I will get through this.