Designer and Mum, and Everything In-between

3 years ago by

Written by Lana Lopesi
Supported by 
Creative New Zealand

Lana Lopesi is the editor of Aotearoa Design Thinking 2018, a series of commissioned critical design essays published by Design Assembly and funded by Creative New Zealand.

This article is the second in a four part series of future focused articles canvasing prominent conversations within the design community. Read part one here.

The continuation of creative life because of (or perhaps despite) motherhood is something which for five years now has been close to my heart. There’s a plan so they say. You study, you work, you travel and then you have your family. However, for me – and for many others – plans have turned out to be utopian fixtures of one’s imagination which have never quite panned out.

About 18 months ago, when I muttered, sorry screamed the E word (Epirdural) and my midwife told me I was too far along, I took a deep breath and thought to myself women have been doing this every day for as long as time, and so I got to work. Just as in that moment I thought about all the women who had experienced that level of pain, in this moment of 5am wake ups and bottomless plunger coffee, I often look to all the other career mums around me to see how they do it in the creative industries. Don’t get me wrong every career mum, creative or not, will find their own way, but there is a calm in knowing that there are other women out there who are also trying to find their balance.

Jade Tang-Taylor’s 100 Days Project – 100 Mums – took this ethos on board, in which Tang-Taylor asked 100 mums “How do you balance a career that you love and a family that you love?” After falling pregnant to her own bundle of joy Tang-Taylor started the project perhaps to alleviate some of her own concerns about balancing her career. At the end of the project she boiled down her over 100 interviews to a top 10 list of recurring themes, my favourite three being that it’s fucking hard, every mum is doing their best and no one has really nailed work life balance.

Artist-curator Ema Tavola created the PIMPImanifesto in 2017 during her residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies. The manifesto includes one point with the title Mothers, which reads

“Enable mothers. Always. Enable primary parents. Enable those who balance extraordinary pressures, demands, loyalties, responsibilities… and art. Understand that creative souls don’t disappear, but take time to manifest externally whilst energies are necessarily diverted toward growing humans. And mothering can and often does deepen and intensify the language of heart and thought, and the skills of patience and persistence, tolerance and resilience.

Enable mothers”

Taking these two prompts of balance and enabling from creative-mamas Tang-Taylor and Tavola as a creative launch pad, I asked a couple of Designer-Mums about their experiences with motherhood in the design sector. Laura Cibilich, Design Director of RUN; Jess Holdaway, Founder and Designer of FRANK Stationery and Anna Myers, Strategist at Alt Group, shared their ideas on being designers and mums and how those two things may or may not meet.

Licia Ronzulli’s tiny baby sleeps peacefully in a sling tied round her mother’s shoulders at the European Parliament.

Lana Lopesi: There is an idea that children (and parenthood) are obstacles to career progression, which to some extent hangs over any mother in a serious profession. Mothers are encouraged to be reasonable, to be practical – and to ask ourselves, can we really have it all? So I want to ask you, can we have it all?  

Jess Holdaway: This question rears its head every now and again in my life. At times I disagree with the notion that we can have it all, and then other times I fiercely fight for the notion that we can. I seem to yoyo depending on my energy levels to be honest. Sometimes I am so overwhelmed by pressure of “all”, that I want to forsake it for simplicity, but then I feel an injustice rise up out of me that mother’s might be seen as disadvantaged or hindered because they have children.

There are huge challenges to being a mother and forging a successful career. A lot of those challenges I see come from the outside in. I have yet to meet a mother who isn’t capable of having the capacity to juggle many balls at one time. I am blown away at the capability of mothers in general (including myself) to get it done, and get it done well. In fact the best hire you could probably make is a mother! Who else truly knows the importance of being productive in small windows of time!?

If companies were more open to making room for mothers through things like flexible work/remote work etc, then I think the concept of “all” wouldn’t be so daunting to me. I hear about companies who demote women after they come back from maternity leave, and I feel so much anger boiling up within me that I want to grab my protest sign and throw eggs at their building. On top of mothering and trying to have a career, we are also tasked with trying to fight for equal rights. It’s a lot.

In the meantime, I think I have to keep redefining what ‘all’ means to me. I think a lot of mothers go through the re-defining in the face of raising children and fighting for their careers. I think the only way we can have it all, is if our systems make room for us to have it. So the fight continues.

Laura Cibilich: I believe you can have it all – but you do need to have great people and support around you. For me that’s my husband Raymond, and our parents who help out a lot too, for which I’m forever grateful for. For others it may also be friends, a nanny or a flexible employer.

In regards to career progression it depends on what stage of your career you’re at and what position. Generally the higher up you get the more flexible an employer may be. I feel very fortunate to be be self-employed, running my own agency and so can work flexibly around my kids.

Like anything in life you have to work for what you want. For mums that will be trying to get some sort of balance, which is more like juggling in my case!

Anna Myers: The design industry is a service industry, and that industry has built up an expectation of being available to work on deadlines no matter what the time of day. In some companies there is still a culture of “presenteeism” – value being placed on being physically in the office, no matter the output.

I know of a couple of talented women designers that have either been made redundant after announcing their pregnancy, or for not being able to commit to a full-time role upon their return to work.

I felt quite lonely when I became a mother working within a design firm, as I didn’t know that many others in my position. While there were few examples within studios I could use as role models, at that time, most of the other designer mothers I knew were freelancing, or had their own businesses. Networking events are often held at parent-unfriendly hours. I knew no mothers in creative leadership positions in design companies. However, since then I have met many strong talented creative directors who are mothers. I would still love to meet more mothers working and progressing their careers within creative studios.

Having children can create obstacles to career progression, but it doesn’t have to stop the journey. You can have it all – if you make the terms. The most flexible role is to work for yourself, which can be viewed as the ultimate career progression as you are in control of your own destiny.

I am in a privileged position. My workplace is very supportive of both women and mothers. At this point in time, the company is an almost equal split between male and female employees. There are women in leadership positions within the company. Two of our current leadership roles are held by mothers. The company is also really supportive of fathers, allowing the fathers in the company to change to flexible hours so they can share in parenting duties.

LL: I wrote an article a few years ago now about being an artist and a mother and I wrote about artist Tracey Emin, “who has positioned herself as a beacon for women making progressive art. Emin has been outspoken that she could not have pursued her career if she was also a mother, telling Red Magazine in 2014: “I know some women can. But that’s not the kind of artist I aspire to be. I would have been either 100 percent mother or 100 percent artist. I’m not flaky and I don’t compromise.” Emin continued to say that there are good artists who are also parents. “Of course there are. They’re called men.”” For me what Emin is saying is that art just as motherhood requires complete devotion and so to love both is compromising both, it strikes me that design has the same obsessive qualities to art, do you have any response to what Emin’s comment?

JH: There’s no doubt that there is a huge list of things that are demanding our attention daily; not just a little bit of attention but 100%.

In my response to Emin’s comments, I would have to begin by saying that to think this dualistically is to live, by comparison or in opposition. This puts emphasis on things like all/nothing, pretty/ugly, smart/stupid without making room for the hundred degrees between the two ends of the spectrum.

This kind of thinking makes life feel simple, without making room for the messiness of actual human experience. I would challenge what she says with the question: Where do the boundaries of motherhood end and begin? When do we stop being mothers and start being designers?

I just don’t think we move in and out of roles this way, and if we do, I question the sustainability of that. Do I forsake the whole entire part of me that created another human being when I go to work? Impossible, that is ingrained in me and informs everything I do.

In short, I admire Emin’s ability to draw boundaries around energy and attention, but not for one minute do I believe you are ‘flaky or compromising’ because you are generous with your attention and time to many different things. In fact, the richness of being a mother and good designer is in the tension of being a whole person in both of those roles. Each contributes to each other in intricacies we would never be able to map.

LC: I can understand what she’s saying and before I had children wondered if I’d truly be able to have both – the kind of career I wanted as well as children. I don’t believe in perfect, so I don’t think you could ever have a perfect career or be a perfect parent, it’s just about being the best you can be. I also think they work together as drivers.

There are 24 hours in a day and it’s just about how you use them. If you spent all your waking hours designing you may not necessarily be a great designer, just as if you’d spent all of them as a mother you may not necessarily be the best mum.

Becoming a mother has made me more driven and I make the most of every moment – personal and professional. It’s made my work more streamlined, so I’m more effective and work more efficiently, and brings in another perspective I didn’t have before having kids.

I find when working with clients it makes me more relatable, as a lot of them are parents too. I wouldn’t be able to have some of the career conversations I do without the experience of having children.

They’re not little forever (although mine are still very young), so perhaps my career progression could take a little longer than if I didn’t have children, but I absolutely think being a mother will help me in life and my career in the long run.

AM: There is always compromise. Life is never just one thing or the other. If you’re a driven individual, there is never going to be enough time to do all of the work you want to do, to learn all you want to learn. But I think this applies if you’re passionate as an artist, and if you’re passionate as a mother. I’m sure any successful designer is constantly striving to achieve all they want to in a lifetime. So why deny yourself children if so?

I let go of the idea that my only creative outlet was design. As soon as you realise that raising children to be a valuable addition to the world is one of the most complex design challenges you can possibly undertake in your lifetime, it becomes less of a compromise.

LL: Is motherhood conducive to the design industry? And if you so (or if not) can you share with me some examples?

JH: In my experience, I have been able to work while being a mother on my terms. Since my son was born I have been working flexibly for the first year of his life, without taking a back seat, or a demotion. I work from home and I contract to one main client, who is super flexible with my hours and when I complete work. This has allowed me to work around my son and his schedule.

With the support of an amazing husband, I haven’t had to compromise my skill level just to get paid, and I have been able to spend time with my son in the most deliciously present way. Now I am lucky. I know it can’t be this way for everyone in the design industry, however, I know an incredible bunch of women who work the same way as I do. I think design lends itself well to a flexible project by project work which allows mothers to juggle caring for children and making money. I feel grateful to be in this industry.

LC: It really depends on what role you have within the industry. I run my own agency, so feel very fortunate I can work on my terms and have a lot of flexibility.

As a designer I know it helps give me clarity when I’m working on designs, as well as giving me a greater perspective and depth when coming up with creative solutions. It helps me think more creatively. My children remind me to look at everything differently and with the fascination like I’m seeing everything for the first time.

However, I know of an account manager within the design industry recently reentering the workforce after becoming a mother. After looking for a part-time role in the end she had to settle for an almost full-time role, because she just couldn’t find any companies wanting a part-time account manager. As a mother and employer I can see both sides, but do think it’s a real shame that this is happening.

As a creative industry I think we should be paving the way, thinking creatively about how parents (not just mothers) are working. I know the traditional working role is shifting, but it’s happening very slowly. One of our company values is ‘family friendly’, and it’s something that has really resonated with clients, as well as our wider workforce. They feel welcomed, anytime and with or without their families, meaning they’re more comfortable, relaxed, driven and we’re finding it leads to a better outcome for all.

AM: Design is about communication, listening, understanding human nature and what makes people tick. About identity. About finding new ways to approach a problem. Parenthood is like an alternative crash course in these skills.

I think it also can drive more conscious, considered results. If I am going to leave my kids in daycare so I can go to work, then I want to spend that time productively, doing meaningful work that will advance my career so that I can have a better life with my family.

Parenting may have slowed my career progression… But it completely changed the way I see the world. It has helped me focus on what I want from my role within the company and my career.

Speaker of the House Trevor Mallard in new baby friendly parliament.

LL: Focusing the conversation forward, what changes may (or may not) need to be made both in thinking and practically to enable design and motherhood to come together more smoothly?

JH: Since the birth of my son, and the birth of myself as a mother, I have learned an incredible set of new skills that I have nowhere to put! I can’t get endorsed for resilience, patience, problem-solving on Linkedin. This whole part of me has been developed and upskilled every day I parent, yet I have nowhere to promote this, in fact, if I do, I am afraid it will somehow be seen as a disadvantage.

I am very passionate about how design and motherhood work together. I would love to see agencies and clients use these new-found skills and insights to inform new work. Marrying these together would see us create work with depth and impact. If we could make more room for mother’s voices to be in the conversation, we could create some truly impactful work.

It’s vital that we constantly pull from our own human experience to create design work that means something and I am hard pressed to find a more meaningful human experience than bringing a new person to the world. We need that in our design, we need that in our communities and relationships.

LC: We’re in a creative industry, striving to do things differently for clients, so why not extend this creative thinking into the workplace and for working mothers (and parents)?

Before I had kids I thought the answer might be in the way of a crèche or daycare in a workplace or the same building, although since becoming a mother I’m not so sure that’s even the solution. Now I think being more flexible and open-minded is the key. That might mean less hours in the office, non-traditional working hours, a shorter working week, having the option of working from home, having some times when kids are welcome in the office or not even about the hours rather than the outcome or work generated etc.

Overall there are positive trends currently happening in gender equality and diversity, as well as sustainability, all helping the shift to business not just being about monetary outcomes, which all helps, although we still have a long way to go. Hopefully the design industry can take the next steps to help drive this change.

AM: I have taken two rounds of maternity leave while at Alt. I’ve been able to negotiate the hours and days that I want. I couldn’t do it without my very supportive family who all live in Auckland.

My husband also works at Alt and is a huge part of me being able to work the way I do. He backs my decisions wholeheartedly. We support each other in what we have on, and take leave for holidays and sick kids depending on whose work commitments can most handle it. The company is flexible to both of our needs.

I feel that effective change needs to be initiated by companies:

  • Being open to making leadership positions more flexible
  • Supporting mothers’ choices without judgement
  • Committing to boosting the ranks of female leaders; and accepting that they will still be valuable if they decide to start a family
  • Allowing mothers to also have opportunities for leadership workshops and skill enhancement
  • Empowering fathers to be able to share the load of school holidays and sick days
  • Working with your mother employees to discover what their skills can bring to the company and helping them to grow in that role


When staff feel supported and valued, you create a loyal and focussed workforce that are creative and productive. Employers need to realise part time workers are still valid as they have years of experience. The knowledge they have of the company and their expertise should not be lost purely because they work less hours.

And for mothers? Nurture your self-management, initiative, focus, creativity and critical thinking, as these are skills that can achieve great results no matter how many hours you’re in the office.


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