Sunday Mailbag

June 15th, 2008 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: I went full-time freelance several months ago and my wife and I just had our first kid (a boy) last Sunday. Obviously I’m taking some time off to get adjusted to have a new guy in the house but the work is starting to pile up. As I’m easing back into the work my question is how did you find that balance between work and family when working from home?

A: I thought this would be a good question for today, being Father’s Day. First off, congratulations on your new arrival and happy First Father’s Day to you! This is my 18th.

Since I stopped working 70 hour weeks during the summers at the theme parks I have basically been full time freelancing out of a small studio in my basement. The “working at home” thing is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you are almost always around and able to see the little things that many working parents miss out on. I saw all the first steps and all the lost teeth. I was home when my kindergarteners got on that big yellow bus for the first time… and when they got home. I can count on one hand how many school music programs, band concerts, dance recitals, soccer and baseball games and other little things I have missed over the years. Best of all I was usually there when they had a scraped knee or needed to be taught how to ride their bikes or just needed a hug from dad because some kid was mean at school.

It’s a curse because you are never away from the office when you work at home. I get bored very easily and would often find myself pulled back into the studio in the evenings when it should have been low key family time. It’s difficult to relax when you have work just a few feet away and it needs doing. Also, it’s so easy to be distracted by all those little things as well as the refrigerator, the TV, that loose door in the pantry, etc. Family can sometimes be demanding of your time and if the work is getting behind it becomes a problem… and forces you to make choices you would rather not have to make.

The best thing to do is simply to separate the two as best you can…. studio time is work time and when you leave the studio it is family time. Set up a schedule and pretend you are miles way at the office during work time, and miles away from it during family time. I was never very good at that as I work at odd hours and in spurts of energy, but if you have the discipline to work hard during “office hours” and then leave it alone completely when you leave the studio, then the distinction is clear.

Personally I found that a little blending of work and family worked best for me. I had a relatively open door policy with the studio… I even had an area for the kids to color and draw set up for a while. I liked having the kids come into the studio after school, or to spend a little time with them in the morning as they got ready. I have no problem when my kids come into the studio to say “hi” during my working time, or to ask a question or tell me about their day… or even to ask me to help them do something simple. If I can manage it I will help, but if I am fighting a deadline I have to set the boundaries and say I will help them with that after I am done with my studio work. Over the years we have developed an understanding about my work and their needs. Fortunately The Lovely Anna runs point for me when I’m in crunch time and can solve most kid problems herself unless they involve heavy lifting, bugs or dead things the cat left on the front porch. I never had to resort to the “Homeland Security” method of family interaction… that being placing a colored meter outside the studio door and setting the levels to “Yellow” for “come on in and chat”, “Orange” for “I can talk but it better be important” or “Red” for “Deadline. Do Not Disturb”. I kept it a little more simple… if the studio door was all the way closed, Dad was on deadline and the only disruptions that were okay were of the “I’m home, Dad!” variety.

I also found over the years that finding and giving a small amount of your time as needed, even when the deadline demon is staring you down, is worth the effort. Yes, it would often have been better work-wise for me to skip that 3rd grade afternoon holiday music program, but that hour or 90 minutes wasn’t a deal breaker and while there will always be another job there will never be another 3rd grade afternoon holiday music program for that kid. You don’t sit around the kitchen table after your kids are grown and moved away looking at an album full of the jobs you did and remember how special they were.

This is starting to sound like a Cat Stevens song, so I will cut this short and get to the point. It’s tough when you work out of your home to separate life and work, and it’s easy to fall into the trap of working all the time and having no time for your kids and family. The advantage of working from home is lost if you let that happen. Find the best way to balance it for you, and make sure you enjoy being there and watching your kids grow up. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was from a man who used to do carpentry work for my caricature booths… he told me that he “works to live, not lives to work”. Good philosophy.

Happy Father’s day, all you dads out there.

Thanks to Kevin Kravens for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here.


  1. meredithd says:

    Great advice about work/family separation. Can you post a picture (or drawing) of your studio layout? I’m always curious about other artist’s setups, specifically storage for original artwork and supplies. If you are in a basement, are you worried about moisture and your computer/artwork? Is lack of natural light a problem? Thanks!

  2. Tom says:

    Meredithd- You can see a virtual tour of my studio under the link “Posts people ask about” under “pages” at the top of my blogroll.

    We have a finished basement that is only 1/2 underground on the west wide of the house, so my studio is very comfortable and there are no problems with moisture and such. I also have a double window on the studio west wall, so lots of natural light.


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