I wasn’t inspired to create in 2020. After the pandemic hit, I spent much of the year anxious about the future. I worked remotely and tried to stay on track, but I was too busy and not distracted enough all at once. I couldn’t go anywhere and my kids were suddenly home 24/7. My husband worked from home for a few weeks, but then had to go back to the office. I felt isolated. I was drained trying to do my job while taking care of my kids. I didn’t create anything new.
[My early covid parenting journey included a lot of chalk drawing, screen time, and long drives]
This story is mine, but it’s not just about me. The COVID pandemic has revealed the instability of caregiving infrastructure in America. Women have been especially affected, showing that the burden of childcare falls more on women than men. In all sectors, women are leaving the workforce at alarming rates: it was reported in March 2021 that “almost 1.5 million fewer moms of school-aged children were actively working than in February 2020.…women's participation in the workforce fell to levels not seen since the mid-1980s” (Proujansky 2021). Even when women keep their jobs, their performance has suffered. In academia, where I work, during the beginning of the pandemic women were publishing less than their male counterparts (Flaherty 2020). Because publishing is highly valued, this has serious long-term consequences for promotion.
As I reflected on my own experience with the stress of childcare during the pandemic, I realized that caregiving was not only unstable during COVID. Even during the best of times, it had been costly, unreliable, and unstable during my entire time as a new mother. As certain political conversations begin to center the importance of childcare and women in the workforce, there is increasing understanding that caregiving is “human infrastructure” (Peck 2021) requiring government intervention. Helping women, who bear an outsized responsibility for childcare, also helps the economy.
While politicians have begun to talk about caregiving as infrastructure akin to the building of bridges and the maintenance of roads, suggesting hope for a future in which women are not so unequally burdened, I didn’t have the luxury of waiting for new legislation. Like most women, I needed something to sustain myself in the present. I couldn’t just wait for that infrastructure to be set up, so what was I going to do in the meantime?
At first, I killed time, looking forward to 2021 as though a new calendar year would magically change the situation. But I quickly learned it was much of the same. Just as my kids were starting to get into a routine with hybrid learning, they ended up in quarantine three times over the course of two months, which meant they were out of the classroom and home with me for long stretches. I was zapped juggling teaching responsibilities, childcare, and my own feelings of isolation and anxiety. There was nothing left to nurture creativity. But I’m a designer. Creativity is what I do. How could I reignite it? I realized I needed to build a personal infrastructure to jumpstart my creativity.
Instead of dwelling on all the things out of my control, I put aside anything that could wait and shifted my focus to work that I could do when my kids were around. I thought about how much time I had (not much) and how much attention I could devote (also not much). But I realized I had enough of both to do one drawing a day, and focused on learning how to improve my digital drawing skills on my iPad.
[All the images I created during the month of January 2021 for the Spoonflower Doodle a Day challenge]
To help get me started, I signed up for a free online drawing challenge, which provided daily prompts and asked participants to post their daily drawings to social media. It helped define the parameters of what to draw each day for a set number of days (the month of January 2021). Instead of feeling pressured by the challenge, it motivated me. It guided me by directing each drawing, and by posting online each day, I felt a sense of community with other people participating in the challenge and my friends and family who supported my participation with likes and comments. The challenge helped me get into the habit of drawing every day, and I was able to sustain this habit even after the challenge ended.
To get started, these three steps were crucial to building a sustainable infrastructure to nurture my creativity:
- making a commitment
- setting a goal
- defining a set of limited parameters
Making a Commitment
To build your own creative infrastructure, start by assessing your capabilities, interests, and goals and build from there. For me, it was important to start with making a commitment before I began, even if I didn’t have everything else figured out. I knew in December that I wanted to start a daily creative practice on the first of the year. From there, I committed to creating a drawing every day for a month. I already had experience drawing, which made it easier for me to do the work and build a habit in the service of developing my skills further. The tool was new, but I knew how to draw digitally. Sharing my work on Instagram every day helped me stay accountable and committed to the project and helped me build a sense of community. It was exciting to connect with new people and see that people enjoyed the work I was creating. While I could have made my own list of prompts and posted online independently, I found the challenge format invigorating, particularly during a time when I couldn’t interact with many people in person.
You can begin by putting a start date on the calendar and work on refining the goal and parameters by your deadline. It’s important to tell someone about what you’re doing so you start making yourself accountable to the project. If you struggle with accountability, it helps to join a community, as I did when I signed up for the drawing challenge. Not interesting in sharing online? That’s fine, but can you share with a trusted group of friends or even get some of them to join you to help with accountability? And most important of all, be kind to yourself! If you falter in your progress, don’t stress about making up the work you missed. Focus on moving forward and consider if you need to adjust your commitment.
Setting a Goal
My goal for this project was improving my drawing skills on the iPad. In order to take the pressure off, I didn’t focus on quality for this challenge. It was more important to me that I just complete the task. Part of my strategy involved selecting a tool (the iPad) that required no setup/cleanup. This no-mess medium saved time and also worked well for my situation because with small kids there is constant interruption and movement, and I didn’t have to worry about my materials adding to the mess. I could complete something quickly and feel like I accomplished something. On a few special days, I was even able to get into a deeper flow and make work that I didn’t think I was capable of at the time.
What are your creative goals? Whether you’re a painter, writer, dancer, or a designer, I’m sure you have a creative goal you’re hoping to achieve. In my case, I made a commitment to draw every day before I even developed a clear goal. This can be helpful because I was able to match a feasible goal to my current circumstances, which was focused on developing a new skill rather than making my best work. I had bought my iPad in September 2020 and hadn’t used it much. The task of learning to use it seemed daunting, but I decided to focus on skill building through consistent use.
You can of course start with a goal and then make a commitment and last set the parameters for your project. If you start with a really big and far-reaching goal, try breaking it down into smaller parts. Begin with a commitment to tackle just one part of that goal and give yourself a time frame of 30, 60, or 90 days to try to achieve it. When the time is up, reassess and decide if you need more time or if you are ready to move to the next step in your big goal.
In the beginning of my project, the limited parameters and tools helped me the most to stay on track. I followed the one- or two-word drawing prompts provided online by Spoonflower and Rhianna Wurman of Ellolovey for a free “Doodle-A-Day” drawing challenge hosted in January 2021. Example prompts include: bicycle, bouquet, seascape, sunshine, wilderness, library, etc. This helped with decision fatigue, allowing me to start right away without agonizing over what to draw. I could take the prompt at face value and draw what it said or, if I was feeling inspired, create something tangential that was motivated by the prompt.
As you make a commitment and develop a goal, you’re already beginning to define the parameters of your project. My suggestion in the beginning is to make sure you narrow the parameters to make it very easy to pick up and start every day. For me, I focused on frequency; once a day. This isn’t always easy to manage, but I knew if I narrowed down the rest of the parameters to suit my personal situation at home, I could manage to do something for at least 15 minutes each day. While I knew I was going to draw, I made sure to limit this project entirely on an iPad Pro utilizing an Apple Pencil and Adobe Fresco Software.
Do you have limited time? Consider shortening the length of time you work by setting a timer and only working in that pre-determined time frame. This way, you aren’t focusing on finishing something each day, but rather creating a daily habit so that the work gets done over a period of many days. Or if you need more flexibility, try committing to a weekly practice that allows you to work an hour per week at whatever times work best. If you have limited physical space to work, make sure to take this into account.
While my son did online meetings with his kindergarten teacher, I drew. I was often interrupted but this was okay due to the infrastructure I built. I didn’t need an hour of unbroken attention. I wasn’t trying to create my highest quality work. I was trying to develop a new skill and a daily habit. Some days my drawings weren’t very good, but I made sure not to go to bed until I finished one drawing for the day and posted it online. If I felt like I hadn’t accomplished anything else during a day, I had at least achieved that.
Take all the factors constraining your work habits into consideration as you build out the features of your personal infrastructure. Remember to focus on and clearly identify: 1. a commitment, 2. a goal, and 3. a set of limited parameters.
By the end of the month, I started evolving my drawings into illustrated collections, and I learned that what I was most interested in was surface patterns, a field of design that involves creating art for mass-manufactured products. As my kids started getting back to a “normal” schedule, I kept working on my surface pattern designs and developed it into a small business, creating a logo and a website for my work.
The parameters for my project also evolved as time went on. I moved from solely digital work to incorporating handmade paper cutting techniques. Today, I don’t draw every day, but I work on my surface designs at least once per week, and I now focus on the quality of my composition and work on each for longer periods of time. This change is inspired by my new goal to build a strong portfolio of surface designs created in my new drawing style. My infrastructure has evolved to suit my needs and my goals.
Now that things are “back to normal,” I’m learning that until the precarity of caregiving is resolved in the United States, I need to keep refining and fine-tuning my creative infrastructure to keep my illustration practice and new small business moving forward. I’m continually assessing my creative and business goals. While I make consistency a top priority of my creative practice, I’m often scaling back how much I can create because I have a clear idea of what I’m capable of now. In the (highly possible) scenario where my kids have to quarantine again, I’ll use the lessons I learned from creating my first infrastructure and set up a new daily practice with limited parameters and achievable goals, to build my creative resilience so I never feel stuck like I did in 2020.
Flaherty, Colleen. 2020. “No Room of One's Own.” Inside Higher Ed, April 21, 2020, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2020/04/21/early-journal-submission-data-suggest-covid-19-tanking-womens-research-productivity.
Peck, Emily. 2021. “Policymakers Used to Ignore Child Care. Then Came the Pandemic.” New York Times, May 9, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/05/09/business/child-care-infrastructure-biden.html.
Proujanksy, Alice. 2021. “Nearly 1.5 Million Mothers Are Still Missing From the Workforce; Mothers, especially those with school-aged children, have been slow to return to work during the Covid-19 pandemic.” Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2021. https://www.wsj.com/articles/nearly-1-5-million-mothers-are-still-missing-from-the-workforce-11619472229.