The Not-So-Glamorous Life of Photographer Parents with Phillip Blume
Have you ever felt you’re failing as both a parent and businessperson? As if the two are impossible to balance? My wife, Eileen, and I sure have. But there’s good news. While we’re still far from being perfect parents (like light years away), we’ve learned a number of habits over the years that make a world of difference for us and our three children. Actually, I think my own parents taught me most of these habits—it just took me half a lifetime to realize it.
There’s no secret formula to parenting. Unlike in my other articles, I don’t have a three-step system for you this month. But I would like to speak to you from the heart, one parent to another.
When the Going Gets Tough
When I was a child, my dad ran his home business from a spare room in our drafty 100-year-old farmhouse. His office was the only air-conditioned room in our home. During muggy Georgia summers, my siblings and I retreated there. Lego bricks lay scattered across my dad’s drafting table, kiddie songs played over his vintage turntable and G.I. Joes hung on strings from the A/C unit that rattled in the window. He should have been furious. Instead, I mostly remember hearing his laughter and catching him gazing at us with pride in his eyes. It was the best of times and, though my dad never complained, it was the worst of times.
When I was seven, my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Dad’s meager income could no longer feed our family of six, much less pay doctors’ bills. So he abandoned his dream of self-employment and took any work he could get. He got a job as a salesman, hawking vacuum cleaners house to house. His vacuum demos were in the evenings, when people got home from work. For the first time in my young life, our family gathered around the dinner table without Dad.
The Blume family had always formed a full circle around our table, filling the room with laughter that convinced us everything would be okay. Now my dad’s empty chair sat as a silent reminder that the future was uncertain. I stretched further than usual across the table to reach my mom’s hand, then listened to her voice in place of his as she gave thanks. But I didn’t feel thankful. I felt alone and scared.
The first thing I want to say to you is this: You are doing a great job. None of us is a perfect mom or dad. All of us have failed many times—missed a ball game, lost our temper, forgot to pick our kids up after school. Stop beating yourself up. You love your children, and that’s why you work so hard for them. They know you love them, too. Even if you can’t be at the table for dinner right now, never stop putting it all on the line for your family.
The Tough Get Going
Today Eileen and I run four businesses together: three studios and an educational platform to help other photographers find success. We also parent and homeschool our three children. How do we do it all?
First, and more important, is why we do it. Our mission is simple: to help hardworking photographers find healthier success so they don’t have to choose between putting bread on their family’s table and being at the table themselves. Some personality types live for the hustle. But if that’s just not you, you’re in good company with us. During this too-brief stage in life, we are living for the precious moments we share with our kids. They grow up way too fast. You may have just a few sacred summers left to enjoy and influence your children before they are independent. Don’t miss it.
So back to how we do it. To be honest, sometimes we don’t. Some days we still fail. But I will tell you it gets better. If you’re in a rough patch and overwhelmed, don’t accept the status quo. It’s not inevitable. It’s time to get tough, get disciplined, make changes. You and your kids are worth it.
Without a doubt, being both a parent and a self-employed artist is a huge challenge. Here are a few tips we hope will help you.
Be a Professional
As we began the process to adopt our third child, our agency enlisted us in a ton of parental training and counseling. To our shock, we spent more time that year attending adoption seminars than photography conferences. The new perspective and tools we walked away with were so amazing that our only regret was that we hadn’t invested in counseling before.
Have you ever thought of parenting as an art form? It is. Or, if you have your kids at home full-time like we do, have you thought of parenting as your other profession? Have you invested nearly as much time in reading, listening and training yourself to be a parent as you have in being a photographer? If not, start simply. Get a great parenting book. We love The Connected Child. It was written to help parents of children who have suffered trauma, and is a brilliantly researched look into basic human behavior and emotional health that has changed how we parent our kids.
One of the most impactful tools we’ve gained is emotional presence. It means giving 100% of your attention to the person you’re interacting with, and it has a powerful impact on families (in business, too). We never valued this technique with our eldest daughter. She was the first baby who grew up staring at our backs from her play mat while we stared at monitors, unable to keep our heads above the editing flood in our first years as photographers.
She was naturally compliant and yearned to please. As soon as she walked, we could yell instructions to her across the house, and she’d hear and obey. We took full advantage, constantly multitasking and, as we now realize, neglecting important parts of our daughter’s emotional development.
But when our second girl came, it became frighteningly clear we were out of our depth with this born artist. No matter how loud I yelled or how angry I sounded, this child would act as if I didn’t exist. We had her hearing checked, but it was perfect. She spent a significant percentage of her small life in timeout, but it was useless. I regret the anger and harsh words I heaped on her little heart during her early years. Now I know her incredibly imaginative mind just works differently. When she’s at play, she is fully tuned out—no less (maybe even more) than when I am on my smartphone and fail to feel a little hand tugging on my shirt.
With our second daughter and now with our son, we’ve learned our behavior was the problem. Instead of shouting to stop them playing ball near my camera lenses again, I only need to step away from my computer and get down on their level. On one knee, I gently lift my daughter’s chin with my hand so our eyes meet. She sees a look of loving concern in my eyes, not anger. I talk more softly than usual, not louder. And, miracle of miracles, she hears me. The more consistent I am, the more responsive she is.
Hands Up, Back Away From the Phone
Smartphones are toxic for kids and you. They are more than a bad habit—they’re proven to be chemically addictive. That hit of dopamine your brain gets every time you flip on the blue screen is a mind-numbing drug.
Eileen and I have struggled with this addiction. If you need a support group to keep you accountable, join us anytime. Our kids have made their feelings on the topic clear: “Mommy, look at me. Get off your phone.” “I hate your phone, Daddy.” Kids are perceptive. If confession is the first step to correction, let’s admit we’re a neglectful generation of parents. They see what’s going on better than we do at times. And to think we have even let them watch our phones for extended periods to distract them while we worked. It’s like sharing needles with your kids.
To combat the addiction, we’ve taken drastic, firm steps.
First, smartphones live outside our bedroom. Use an old-school alarm if you need it and break the addiction. Secondly, at the table, I want my kids to see their parents laugh and interact the way my folks did, so no phones at the table. Not even in our pockets. Studies show that people’s IQ drops simply by having physical contact with their phones.
Beyond the phone, computer work ends at 5 pm. If we can’t finish by 5 on most days, it tells us that we are being inefficient and distracted or we are taking on more work than we can handle, in which case it’s time to choose another task to outsource or scale back. Listen to this, because almost no one says it: Yes, it is possible to accept too much work. It’s called making priorities. And sometimes our priorities as parents require us to turn down money.
It may sound crazy, but we finally removed the TV from our home. We still allow some shows on the iPad. But it’s amazing how infrequent the pleas for shows has become since we removed the 52-inch temptation. After a couple days of complaining, kids relearn how to make-believe. All of us feel like our brains are healthier as a result, too.
We make occasional exceptions to the 5 pm rule during busy portrait season. But when there’s an exception, we’re dedicated to giving our kids at least one available parent at all times. Eileen and I switch roles through the day. In the morning, she homeschools the kids while I work on marketing and email replies.
We eat lunch together. Then in the afternoon, she works on editing, design and product orders. Besides, it’s better when we aren’t hovering, critiquing each other’s work. It’s a trust thing.
What about photo shoots? There was a time when my parents were able to help. But seasons change, and now they need more of our help. Our kids have learned to be great travelers, joining us on most of our global adventures, attending conferences with us when we speak and even tagging along for weddings and fashion shoots. Although we usually get sitters during photo shoots, we’ll never forget moments like when fashion designer Alida Herbst played fairy godmother to our kids in her London studio, sharing her collection of broaches with them while we shot models. It’s your family and your business. It’s what you make of it.
Believe in the Dream
Only God knows why Eileen and I dared start both our photography business and a family at the same time. But this very month, as we celebrate 11 years of marriage and business together, we’re thanking him for three pairs of little hands that join ours around the table every night. God also knows we wouldn’t change a thing. We’re parents first, photographers second. But even when it’s hard, it’s pretty cool how blessed we are to do both together.