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Breakfast with Jen

Sit back and enjoy this week’s installment of “Breakfast,” the Friday series that introduces an inspiring, creative mother from the blogosphere and gives us a behind-the-scenes peek into her life & art. I originally “met” Jen Johnson when I surfed onto her blog and got hooked. I clicked over to Jen’s Etsy shop Baby Friendly Beads. I couldn’t help myself — I placed an order for a beautiful “nursing” necklace and reminder bracelet.

When my package arrived (Jen had clearly shipped it out on a Saturday morning within an hour of receiving my order), it was truly like receiving a gift. Jen cares a lot about presentation. Not only were my items wrapped in gift paper, but along with several beautifully produced promotional cards, she had enclosed a bag of mother’s milk tea. Everything in that box — especially the jewelry, of course — was sent from the heart. While I had thought that this little splurge was a gift to myself from myself, I suddenly felt like I’d received a gift from Jen. Enjoy the interview below; it’s a gift from Jen too.

jen johnson

CC: Please give us an intro to who you are, what you do, and your family parameters.
I’m the mama in “Mama’s Magic Studio,” a wife, a feminist, a poet, a teacher, a domestic goddess. I write, raise my kids, and make beautiful things, including Baby Friendly Beads.

I have been married for more than 11 years, and we have two children: a 3-year-old boy and a 1-year-old girl. I currently have the great good luck to be able to stay home full time with the kids. Before becoming a SAHM and starting my own business, I taught high school English and college composition.

CC: Tell us about your jewelry making, and how your enterprise came to be. Any other creative pursuits?
I make Baby Friendly Beads, Jewelry for Breastfeeding & Beyond, nursing necklaces and reminder bracelets to help moms (and babies) with some of breastfeeding’s challenges. I created my breastfeeding jewelry to meet my own needs as a nursing mother: when my son was about 6 months old, he started yanking my hair and pinching my skin while he nursed. When I researched the problem, I learned that it was extremely common, and I discovered several folks making nursing necklaces to help keep baby’s hands busy in a more appropriate fashion. But I couldn’t find the perfect necklace — I wanted something adjustable in length, with beads that could slide on the cord, and most of all I wanted something beautiful — so I decided to make my own. I also started making reminder bracelets, as a more discreet alternative to massaging myself in public to figure out which breast was “next” for a feeding. bf_bubbles_applesauceMoms in my playgroup loved the idea of my Baby Friendly Beads, and everything started to fall into place once I heard about Etsy (which was still in Beta mode when I joined, back in February 2006) and opened up my Etsy shop.

I have many other creative pursuits. I’m a bit of a crafting addict, and I am in the midst of opening a second Etsy shop and a general website, Mama’s Magic Studio, where I’ll be featuring other results from my crafting adventures. You’ll find jewelry, accessories, beadwork, mobiles, and who knows what else. In the past, in addition to my beadwork, I’ve made baskets, created hats, sewed quilts, and knitted scarves. Some people have lists of places they want to see before they die; I have an ever-growing list of crafts I want to try: papermaking, bookmaking, candlemaking, spinning, felting, silversmithing, throwing pots, working with glass (especially making my own beads!), sculpting polymer clay, crocheting, sewing from a pattern…

These days, most of my creative energy goes to crafting (mostly beading), but writing is closest to my heart and speaks most to my creative spirit. I’m a published poet. Since I was 19, I’ve kept a journal in one form or another; now, I blog. I’m currently working on several children’s book manuscripts. While I was pregnant with my son, I finished the draft of a novel, an achievement of which I’m proud and a process which I enjoyed, but also an end result that made it pretty clear I’m not meant to be a novelist at this point in this lifetime. Lyricism? Absolutely. Plot? Not so much.

During the last three years, since the birth of my son in 2005 and my daughter in 2007, it has been extremely difficult to get the time and focus necessary to court the muse. She isn’t silent, though, and I’m still taking notes. I have every confidence that in the future (hopefully sooner rather than later) I’ll be writing more regularly again.jen's studio

CC: Where do you do your creative work?
I work in a cherished corner of the bedroom, on a little purple desk that my husband made years ago.

CC: Do you have a schedule for your creative work?
Once upon a time — before kids — I did. Now, I fit it in where I can, doing a bit here and a bit there. Beading is good for that, which is a large part of why it is my craft of choice right now. I get a good block of daylight work time about once a week, and I also work a lot after the kids are in bed.

CC: What do you struggle with most?
Time and energy. Until very recently, I was still night-nursing with my daughter, waking with her several times a night. Sleep deprivation makes it very difficult to get through the day, much less to be creative. Caffeinated creativity is something, but it’s not my preferred work mode. I’m only now paying down enough of that sleep debt for creativity to really flourish (which is why I’m only now starting up “Mama’s Magic Studio,” an idea I’ve had for some time). And of course as a SAHM to a one-year-old and a three-year-old, most of my time goes to mothering and family responsibilities. I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband who has a flexible work schedule; without his help, I wouldn’t be able to do a fraction of the things I do!

CC: Monkeys: How much does guilt factor in your life?
Guilt is definitely a big monkey on my back, a hairy creature with a tenacious grasp and an unpleasant odor. I deeply value and absolutely need the time that I take to be creative, but because that time must often be carved out of family time, it is difficult to shake off the guilt. Even when I do, the smell often lingers. I’m usually up late working, not spending the time I’d like to spend with my beloved husband. At least once a week, most weeks, jen's studio 2he watches the kids for a chunk of time during the day so that I can work. He’s happy to do it, and quite competent at it, but I often feel guilty about it. It seems an innate response for me, which is frustrating. But then I feel guilty about the frustration, guilty that I can’t just let it go…

I’d like to repeat a story that I sometimes share when guilt comes into the conversation. I have a very vivid memory from kindergarten: sitting at my little desk, head down, sobbing silently. Somebody in the class had done something wrong — I no longer recall what it was — and the teacher had punished the entire class by holding us in from recess, making us put our heads down, telling us we’d stay that way until the guilty party ‘fessed up. I was crying because it seemed to me that if I was being punished, I must have deserved it.

Nature or nurture? Who knows. (Really, it doesn’t matter, though I’m sure a therapist would have interesting things to say about all this.) What matters most to me is what I can learn from this memory: first, I have a longstanding tendency to feel guilty, even when I’ve done nothing wrong; second, I am longer that little girl. I can shake that monkey off. It takes work and energy, and the damned creature creeps back so quietly sometimes that I don’t even notice at first, but the awareness of his presence does wonders.

CC: Where do you find inspiration?
My children are the direct inspiration for my Baby Friendly Beads. It was very inspirational to breastfeed them for as long as I did (14 months for my son, 16 months for my daughter) and their antics gave me lots of great ideas for breastfeeding jewelry. Other sources of inspiration: poetry, nature, popular culture… I’m working on a line of earrings named after a Judy Grahn poem, and another named after a popular feminist quote. I love echoing the colors and sensations of the natural world in my creative work.

CC: What are your top 5 favorite blogs?
I’ve only recently begun to explore the wealth of the blogosphere, and finding time to read online is difficult. Several of my favorite blogs belong to friends who have made them private. But some public ones I check regularly are:

CC: Just for you: What is your greatest indulgence?
Etsy! It’s a huge indulgence to browse through the abundance of beautiful handmade things, and every once in a while I treat myself to something. I also love to go thrift store shopping.

CC: Library: What are you reading right now?
Middlemarch by George Eliot, The Essential Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), Trish Kuffner’s The Arts & Crafts Busy Book: 365 Art and Craft Activities to Keep Toddlers and Preschoolers Busy.

CC: What advice would you offer to other mothers struggling to be more creative?
When I find myself struggling (more than usual) with creativity, I find that often the problem stems from focusing more on product than process. I get my knickers all in a twist because I’ve not beaded enough necklaces that week, not written enough blog entries, not made enough progress with my children’s book manuscripts. When I’m worrying about “enough,” I know that I’m in trouble.

reading“Enough” stifles the creative energies, diverts the flow into anticipation and judgment. Being creative requires being in the moment, letting the energy flow as it will. Don’t worry about the result.

This is easier said than done, of course, when the kitchen floor is sticky and the sink is full of dishes, and when mom only has an hour (if she’s lucky) to devote to her own creativity. All too quickly, that hour becomes extremely significant, and there can be enormous pressure to use every moment in productive activity. If there isn’t a clear product to point to when that hour is up, the cycle gets more vicious the next time another precious hour presents itself. (And sometimes that sets the monkey to howling: of course I should feel guilty, if I don’t have anything to show for the time I just took!)

I think, too, that part of the challenge lies in the fact that motherhood is extremely process oriented. So many of the things we do to take care of kids and home have very little tangible, permanent product to show for our efforts. It’s so easy to get caught up in the doing, even to resent the time and energy it takes: the dishes will need to be washed again; the diaper will need to be changed again. For me, this can be one of the most frustrating parts of motherhood. Sometimes my inner voice protests, Can’t anything just stay done?!? (And if it did, just think of the time I’d have instead to work on my own creative endeavors!) If there aren’t many permanent end products in our daily lives as mothers, it can create even more pressure to make the most of our creative times, even more pressure to worry about end results instead of enjoying getting there. But ultimately, this is just another monkey howling and hanging on.

How to shut these apes up? I find that when I can be in the moment as much as possible, life is so much more joyful. I’m more creative in every way — with my own creative projects, but also with my interactions with the kids and with the challenges that inevitably occur while caring for them. (It’s a Zen thing, I suppose, and I’ve yet to have it work fully on changing poopy diapers, but my I’m truly happier when I’m simply taking pleasure in each moment with the kids — merely for the sake of the moment, whatever we happen to be doing.) And when my designated creative time comes, I find that when I can cherish the process and trust my own creative impulses, the product takes care of itself more often than not. I try to keep in mind Jan Phillips’s words of wisdom from “The Artist’s Creed” in Marry Your Muse: “I believe that what truly matters in the making of art is not what the final piece looks like or sounds like, not what it is worth or not worth, but what newness gets added to the universe in the process of the piece becoming.”

As mothers, we are very familiar with adding newness to the universe; we are directly responsible for birthing and/or nurturing new lives, bringing them into being. Motherhood and creativity go hand in hand, but not all creative pursuits work easily with the demands of motherhood. If you find yourself “struggling to be more creative,” perhaps you might consider letting your creative energies take shape in another medium for a while: for example, if you usually write, try a kinesthetic craft. In my case, the shift from extended writing projects to blogging and crafting was extremely liberating. It has helped me follow Rumi’s advice: “Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you.” Value creativity wherever it can take root in your life, and you’ll inevitably see something start to sprout. Give it the sun and water it needs in the form of whatever time and energy you can give. Be kind to yourself if that time and energy is less than what you’d like. Don’t worry that it doesn’t seem “enough.” Creativity, once rooted, is a persistent, weedy thing. (That’s why so many of us struggle with it, I think; we try to turn the weeds to roses.) It might not be what you expected, but it’s fascinating to watch it grow!

CC: Such important points. Thanks so much, Jen!

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. jen, so much of what you say, esp about art as process and not product really speaks to me right now. and i may have to let go of self-indulgence guilt, and get one of your necklaces, soon! i think my tactilely curious daughter would love that, too. i admit, i’ve bee secretly admiring them for awhile now.

    when my sons were younger, i couldn’t write but a smidge here and there, but i found myself candlemaking and stamping and watercolor painting, etc with my guys. i knew it made me happy, but i still felt guilty over not writing. i am more aware now that that is valid creativity, thanks for the reinforcement. i am beginning to view much of what i’m doing now from baking brownies to gardening as all drawing from and feeding my creative well. still looking for how doing laundry can be viewed as a creative endeavor, but….

    thanks for a great interview, miranda and jen!

    July 18, 2008
  2. Jen, I really enjoyed the glimpse into your life. So much of what you said resonated me. I hadn’t thought of the very nature of motherhood as a creative act, but you are so right.

    July 18, 2008
  3. lovely interview! very nice to know you, jen. i nursed my girls (twins) simultaneously, so i really could have used a little extra distraction for them! great idea for your jewelry.

    July 18, 2008
  4. Jen #

    Thank you all for your kind comments, and thanks Miranda for the interview! I really enjoyed thinking about these excellent questions, and I’m glad to hear that my answers ring true for folks.

    July 18, 2008
  5. It was wonderful getting to know you, Jen. Please keep us posted on how the new venture comes along!

    July 18, 2008
  6. And I should add — I laughed out loud at your “massaging myself in public” comment — something I now realize I no longer do when I’m wearing my reminder bracelet! I need to order more; they’re totally addictive. I might have to get the “white goddess” one that’s currently in your Etsy shop…here’s to no more self-groping!

    July 18, 2008
  7. i’m loving this blog …. lots of good stuff to read ….

    jen …. as for all the guilt and finding the time to be creative? those babies will grow up so much faster than you want them to …stolen moments now slowly become plenty of time …
    a few years ago, when my youngest started kindergarten, i started pursuing art full time …. i still have to much laundry and sticky counters ….. but i also have the happy artsy life i wanted ….. usually well balanced with family ….

    a baby on your hip keeps you a bit off balance …. but it won’t last long!

    July 18, 2008

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