I did the unthinkable and took the entire month of August off. Just as clients were racing to launch their fall campaigns and prepare for all those busy times that lead up to the new year, I decided to close up shop, kick up my feet, and do absolutely nothing profitable. It was an important move for me and my family. Having had a rather hectic June and July, I was losing touch with the fun part of my job and not really feeling all that inspired. I was burning out. I was producing sub-par work and probably not living up to my clients' expectations. And I was being sorely missed at home. It was time for a break.
Taking the entire month off was a test. Was I willing to forego a month's worth of work — and all the opportunities those projects could lead to? Right into my first week, while we were staying on a farm in rural BC, I received two separate juicy illustration commissions — both for large US retail clients. And I said no to both. And you know what? It felt great to choose my family over work. No disrespect for these companies nor to downplay the significance of their marketing plans, but how on earth could any project compare to being with my family in the best days of summer? It took me a while to get to this point from my initial dismay at the denied opportunities, but when I did, I could feel a weight lifting from my shoulders.
That’s not to say it was easy from then on.
I am a workaholic. I gain my sense of self-esteem, my pride, my identity, and my sense of purpose from my work. I structure not just my day but my entire life around my career. From winning new work to creating the final art, and everything in between (even in administration tasks), I am completely preoccupied and enthralled by what I do. I consider myself richly blessed to do what I love for a living. So you can imagine that, after the novelty of unstructured time away from the studio wore off, I started to feel a little bit squirrelly. By the middle of the month, my days felt long and unstructured; I felt lost and useless in my domicile. My wife is by now well adapted to life at home with young children, but I was still pining for the so-called grown-up world. In spite of the amount of time I was spending with my toddler and baby daughters, I wasn’t happy at home. I was tired of their respective whining and crying and the long stroller walks trying to get them to nap properly. I was tired of feeling irritated at them. I was tired of finding ways to find ways of spending time so as to keep the kids from turning into monsters. It was at this point when I started to worry that time was getting away from me. It was a true conflict: how come I am not happy at home with my family? I even became depressed — something I haven’t dealt with in a very long time.
Shouldn’t I find my family more enjoyable than anything or anyone else in my life? Clearly, the answer is yes. But there are caveats: I truly believe that pure leisure time, without substantial structure or purpose, is unrealistic and unhelpful in large doses. Humans are hardwired to work, and hardwired to have a sense of purpose. When we know our purpose, what we are striving for each day, everything else seems to fit in its place, we are more content. I wasn’t used to my new purpose at home, so for a short period last month, in my family, things were falling out of place. Amanda and I were arguing more, I was on edge most of the time, and it felt like our two year old’s tantrums were worsening. The worst part about it was that this was supposed to be our happiest month ever because I was home and we were spending all this time together. It was discouraging, to say the least.
Fortunately, my wife and I are very poor grudge holders and anytime there was an issue, we talked it out and resolved it as soon as we could. What we found was that there are some dark and dirty corners in our lives that were easy to avoid in the midst of our usual routine. It’s so easy for us to hide in our roles, especially me at work, the striving illustrator winning work and meeting deadlines, providing for my family. I consider it a blessing that I had the opportunity to leave the protective shelter of my work life to work on life’s most important project: loving my family. I consider it a good thing, though not easy, to have faced some of my demons, to have my blind spots revealed, to recalibrate my sense of that which gives life its fullest meaning.
Now at the end of my epic month off, I truly am coming back to work refreshed. Yes, it is good to be back to a routine wherein I know my role, doing something I’m reasonably good at, and fulfilling a much-needed purpose in my family. But I am also renewed in mind, knowing that I can’t simply gain my sense of purpose and identity from what I do for a living. To not just avoid things I’m not confident at (i.e. domestic life) under the guise of being a breadwinner. My purpose is not to be a dependable source of income but a dependable source of love and security for my family. To invest more in them than in my work, because that is how they will know I love them — not by what I tell them (or fund on their behalf) but what I do with them, and how much. In that regard, spending the past month away from the usual grind to learn all this together with my family will prove to be priceless.