Trying to find a balance

Editor’s note: Trying to find a balance in our industry is hard. When you can successfully merge business with pleasure it’s a huge win. On one hand, work never seems like work, but you’re always, well… working. It can be a vicious cycle that affects us all in its own way. There is a reason why the work/life balance topic has been discussed so much over the years. 

In this powerful and honest Motionographer Guest Post, the amazingly talented Laura Alejo offers some perspective on what it’s like being one of New York City’s top creatives as your family expands, your perspectives change, and you work to hold onto what matters most. 


 

 

As many others have done, I landed in NYC some years ago with an eclectic portfolio, a couple of contacts in the motion graphics industry and a lot of motivation. Using these wisely and no thanks to my very poor English, I got my first gigs and ended up working at Hush as their first employee. Learning, now for real, the shenanigans of the profession. They were four busy and inspiring years.  After that, looking for a change I started my freelance career. I worked in many different studios around NYC. I enjoyed the thrill, the adrenaline rush of the unknown, sitting in front of a computer in a new place with a new team. One, two, three, GO!  Fighting the fear and experimenting in a non-formulated way to get to a new visual. Long days and big expectations. I loved it. I had the best time getting to know new people, learning from others, going out for drinks after hours, being silly while waiting for late night renders and meeting up with the motion graphics NY crew. “Party Hard – Work Harder” as we used to say.

Randomly I got some remote projects and at that time a friend of mine had rented a studio space very close to my house, so I decided to move in with her. At the same time, priorities began to change, my husband Marcus and I had decided we wanted a bigger family. Being at the studio was nice, I was able to manage my time and as a freelancer, I was making good money. I thought long and hard about the future, why and how we wanted our lives to change to accommodate a little one. How my professional career would be affected by it. What were my options for combining motherhood and career?

It took us two years to birth Ona and Mars and prepping for their arrival I started to build up a plan based on certain priorities:

  1. Make money and stay on top of my finances.
  2. Have flexibility
  3. Be close by and enjoy my daily routine
  4. Make good work.

Good work was at the bottom of the list because I was not even thinking about quality. I was focused on being booked. I was in a “we need to make THIS work” mode and THIS was life itself. Being all of a sudden a family of four in NYC with no other family in the country and no kind of financial support is not easy.

I knew I wanted to go back to work for two basic big reasons: money and mental health.

At this point, I was getting booked constantly, working remotely most of the time. The type of projects were the same as before: design, AD or producing a whole piece. It was my endeavor to make it happen, delivering hard work and having the conviction that I could make this set-up work if I really went for it. The twins were expected mid-February, so my plan was to slow down in December and enjoy doing ceramics while waiting. They were born two months premature on Christmas Eve. It was a scary and exciting time. The magic happened, my beautiful family, my new reality. Time for waiting, hoping and wonder. During that time I dedicated some thoughts to my unfinished ceramics, but I did not think once about motion graphics. I knew that work would come back organically and all my clients knew what was going on.

 

Maternity leave autoresponse:

 

Hello,

Thank you so much for reaching out!

I am proud to announce that I am a new mommy now, our twins were born on Christmas Eve and they are my most important and challenging project now. I am planning to take some time off design and illustration duties this winter and I’ll be back in the spring, ready to take on new adventures. If you have a project you would like to discuss starting around February  / March, please share project details at work@lauraalejo.com and I would be happy to review and give you an answer as soon as I can.

Thank you for understanding, I look forward to tons of creative and fulfilling collaborations for this New Year.

 

And the first interesting work email worth considering came just two weeks after Ona and Mars were born. There followed a long chain of emails between then and when the project finally kicked off in the beginning of March – the babies were two and a half months old. It did happen after some back and forth, but I found support, understanding and extra time. The job was a second round of videos that I had art directed the previous year, so it was a safe bet given the circumstances. I was able to bring my computer home and set up a little desk in the living room.

I loved it. Being close and still being able to put my headphones on and transport myself to the realm of abstraction, getting in the flow of creation.

Thankfully Marcus’ job at the time let him have a very flexible schedule for the first months, but two babies at the same time is a LOT of work, so my parents stayed here to help. It was life-saving. Our daily routine was a continuous rotation of changing diapers, feeding, and pumping. 24 hours, non stop, so that first job felt like a liberation.

I remember the moments sitting there, facing the window, storyboarding, playing with colors and shapes. Hearing behind me the sound of babies, grandparents, food being prepped, smells of milk and family recipes. I loved it. Being close and still being able to put my headphones on and transport myself to the realm of abstraction, getting in the flow of creation. And loved the fact that I decided when and how to go back at work, that I asked for it and that the team on the other side was so on board and respectful of my new situation (btw they were all men, who pushed to move things around to keep me on the job. Thank you!)

I finished that project at home while learning to be a mom. Before my parents left, we started looking for a nanny. I knew I needed the help, I felt completely overwhelmed alone with these two tiny creatures and I knew I wanted to go back to work for two basic big reasons: money and mental health.

That spring we moved the studio to a new great space at the Pencil Factory. Still super close by, light-filled and with my beloved partners in crime: Freddy, Alex, Isaac, Andreina, and Isa. I took on smaller projects and I managed to work all summer 10 to 3. I would go to the studio every day and when I didn’t have a specific project, I started my own. Ideas for children’s books, comic strips, paintings, doodles. By fall, I decided that I had to put in more time and stay at work until 5pm if I wanted to take regular projects and maintain my day rate.

 

 

I learned to negotiate. I learned to speak up. I learned to effectively manage my time and be efficient. Be on point. I learned not to be afraid to explain my situation, my limitations and virtues. I try to look at schedules, budgets and creative needs with objectivity, knowing that sometimes things can be moved around. I actively suggest alternatives and solutions. I am super clear about what to expect and when. I push for feedback to know things in advance, so that I’m in control, there are no surprises, and I can be home by 5pm. No emails, no phone calls, no work after I’m back home. It’s my family time. No work on weekends. All this sounds great and I try to make it happen most of the time, but things are not always how we want them to be.

This is my being a mom response for booking inquiries:

 

Hello!

Thank you for reaching out! Yes, I am still freelancing :)

I work mostly remotely from my studio in Greenpoint but I am also open to work on site.

If you have a project in mind that I could help you with it would be great if we could talk about specifics, schedule, and expectations as I have to plan accordingly to fit parenting duties.

 

More projects came in, and I’ve had mixed feelings over the last year. I’ve proven to myself that I am able to provide for my family while feeling good about spending quantity and quality time with my kids. Also feeling good about coming to the studio every day and being busy. On the other hand, feeling every day worse about my work, and this is about the choices I made and about my priority list. Now that I have the top ones covered, I am really upset I let something go – making good work –. I try to find excuses for it. Why didn’t I do anything worth sharing in the past year? I picked the better paying projects, I picked the easier ones, I did not dedicate extra time, I was not passionate enough…

I learned not to be afraid to explain my situation, my limitations, and virtues.

 

It’s hard not to be competitive and it’s even harder when your studio mates are really passionate, hard working, successful, coffee drinking males. I work side by side with Alex, Freddy and now Jimmy who joined us 6 months ago. For them, this specific time in their careers, their 30’s is about getting to the peak and exploiting it. I love them, they are my fuel and they keep this mother on track with the new stuff that is going on. But I am so jealous. I am just not there, I was getting there and I had to push the brakes hard and abruptly. And even with all the planning and thinking, still, I don’t have the ultimate solution. My career is suffering, my self-esteem is suffering. My whole plan shakes and I don’t really know what is more important any more.

Should I put in more time? Should I start to put myself out there again, reach out with confidence? But I am scared of getting a good project because they usually come at a cost. We all know that. It will most likely require unconditional attention, extra hours, unknowns… and I am not sure I can or want to do that. On the other hand, often the most sought after projects are the ones with smaller budgets. Living in New York and adding child care to our already high expenses I can’t afford to get involved in a really cool collaboration, or to participate in a great series, or to pitch a new idea.

It is a daily struggle that is combined with sleepless nights and parenting fears. That’s why the work/life balance is such a hot topic.

 

I personally decided to give my career a chance, to do what I love and enjoy the time I spend with my children.

 

Our options as parents are defined by many different factors, like each family’s particular configuration, resources, location, personal beliefs…. Our options are also influenced by our industry and somehow by policies. With scarce maternity leave laws and very costly child care we are putting women at a crossroads. Having to make very difficult decisions involving the very things that define who they are. Sons and daughters versus dreams and professional goals. They call it the sweetest hardest time. And it goes by so fast! It’s really hard to focus and figure out where to go.

The best I can hope for is a maturing industry that finds answers in small groups and in dozens of places. If as a professional community we care about balance and our fellow parents, we should build a culture that’s about understanding, about making right choices when putting projects together, thoughtful schedules and realistic expectations. I personally decided to give my career a chance, to do what I love and enjoy the time I spend with my children.  I just need to keep going trying to balance my priority list as I go, so I can be a happy, fulfilled mama.

 

 

Photo credits: Carla Tramullas

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  • Amanda Russell

    Yes girl, yes. This hit home for me big time. Finding out I was pregnant exactly two months after opening the doors at Cream studio was not only terrifying personally, but also for my other business partners. Wanting to be the greatest mom in the world, but feeling pulled to the studio to satisfy my creative hunger was a struggle. Great read!

    • Laura Alejo

      Thanks! And dealing not only with your own work but being a studio partner has to be even harder. Congratulations on your hard work!

      • Amanda Russell

        Likewise. :)

  • Sarah Anne Gibson

    Great article! It’s so nice to read something from a female motion designer’s point of view. I don’t have any plans on having kids for the foreseeable future, but it’s something I think about from time to time and wonder if I’d be able to pull it off.

    • Laura Alejo

      Thanks Sarah, the desire of growing a family, is that your choice, will give you the strength, no doubt about that.

  • Stephen Kelleher

    Ah the thing they never taught you in school when preparing you for a career; when life intervenes!!! I don’t think there is one solution or even ‘a solution’ which will work continuously as your life outside of work changes and develops but rather it’s a process. And it seems you and Marcus are doing a wonderful job with that process :)

    Kudos my friend.

    • Laura Alejo

      Thank you Stephen, that’s right, fluidity and continuous change! that’s what is all about :)

  • Michelle Ouellette

    Thank you for the thoughtful post. I felt like… Once I had my son (only one for now!) that my work life would be over.. But I now think of things in seasons. After you have a baby (or two!) it’s ok to take things lightly.. You can reap some of the benefits of your hard work… And do some profitable unsexy projects. We really can’t do everything at 100% at the same time, and family is important- you can’t get time you miss back. But work can be important soon, they’ll be in preschool in a short time- and you can get them a matching desk.

    • Laura Alejo

      Thank you Michelle, yup, you have to pick your battles… and teach them soon some photoshop tricks ahaha.

  • Erica Gorochow

    Bravo. I appreciated Laura’s candor. What a great, important post.

    • Laura Alejo

      Thanks girl!

  • Aleksander Saharovsky

    Thanks for sharing this! Great read!
    As a freelancer Daddy and sharing the parenting activities with my wife I can feel more or less your doubts. Thinking about renting a nice place, living in a nice city and not paying a lot of money for guarderías I decided to move to Barcelona from London. We haven’t decided if We’ll stay here or not but the idea of working in a slowly pace for the first two years of my daughter holds me here.

    • Laura Alejo

      Haha gracias Aleksander! It is funny because I am originally from Barcelona, so I do think very often about the very affordable child care options over there and the family support. But yes, it is about choices and Ny and it’s people is still pulling hard for me. Hope you are having a good time there!

      • Aleksander Saharovsky

        De res, Laura! Well, in terms of support, I would say Spain is very tough, specially with freelancers. What keeps me here is the quality of life x money. Barcelona still cheap compered to London or NY. The guarderias are quite cheap as well. Professional career, Im still not sure if this is the right place to be. I love Spain and its people, the weather, the food. In a short sentence, there’s no perfect place on earth.

  • Michelle Higa Fox

    Thank you for generously sharing your story Laura. The difference between hoping in theory that starting a family with a career in this industry is possible, and actually hearing the details of it happening in practice is refreshing and inspiring.

  • disqus_wzXgfBaIqp

    Thanks for sharing this article Laura. Its comforting to see all the parents in the industry coming out and speaking. I applaud you for keeping it going, as twins are no joke. Your time will free up a bit after the first 2-3 years, but you hit on a bunch of points which I personally face daily. Good to hear someone else’s side and how they handle it.

  • Brian Gossett

    What a beautiful and sincere perspective from such an amazing talent. Laura, you’ve always been one of my favorite designers and will continue to be for reasons beyond what’s in your portfolio. So inspiring to see a mother staying motivated to continue to do great work. I wish you all the best!

  • Chad Thompson

    Thanks for writing this truly Laura. My wife and I run a small studio with a 1.5 yr old and run into so many tough decisions regarding everything you’re talking about. The part that stuck with me is the costs that come with taking good or big gigs. I don’t generally look at gigs differently… Because the supposedly easy ones somehow turn out to be as hard as the exciting “how are we gonna pull this off” gigs. But we’ve seen an uptick in client neediness as the jobs get better. To me, there are possibly a lot of folks looking at your beautiful warm family photos and thinking how great that looks, while they’re grinding away alone. It’s such a weird mind game between what is right or best or wrong or fulfilling or satisfying. I wish you the very best.

  • Monique Wray

    I appreciate this so much. Eloquently put and incredibly genuine, thanks for sharing Laura.

  • Gabi Vallu

    ♥ THANK YOU FOR THIS .

  • liliandarmono

    First of all you’re a hero ! Anyone with more than one child is in my books. Twins? Superhero. Pushing back and being firm with your limitations as a parent in a country like USA with no public healthcare and demanding work ethic? Triple superhero. All the best to you Laura. After a ridiculously hard pregnancy and balancing the Spectrum series, my gorgeous son is now 3.5 months and still so new to this motherhood thing, taken some little lovely jobs from old loyal clients, and so unsure what the future holds but hopefully it will make me a better artist and creative professional….thanks again for sharing your story!

  • Great article!
    p.s: loved that taller ceramic head piece :-)

  • Jaime Vazquez

    Very inspiring, thank you for sharing your story. Im a father of three kids, the youngest two being twins also, and I freelance remotely from my home so I realize how hard it can be. For us it got a lot better after the kids started going to school and we got used to that new routine, as it gets more structured. Great work and wish you all the best!

  • Bee Grandinetti

    Thank you for sharing this with so much honesty, Laura! So precious! We need more discussions like this.. Both eye-opener and inspiring. I can just begin to imagine your struggle.
    Your work is beautiful and I have no doubt you’ll find the balance and fulfilment you’re looking for soon :)

  • Salih Abdul-Karim

    Absolutely EXCELLENT!! Thank you for sharing your world with all of us.

  • Kimberly Dulaney

    I’ve been waiting to read an article about motherhood while being a freelance motion graphics person. Especially from a sweetheart like Laura. I’m so happy she agreed to share about her experience in a honest way. Even including her messages to companies. I’ve been freaking out of the thought of starting a family, dealing with weird freelance health insurance, and the fear of all my hobbies vanishing. You’ve given me hope. Thank you lady!