Work Life Stories: The Mother of Invention

Meet Design Mom, Gabrielle Blair, mother of five, with her sixth child on the way.   She is Co-founder of, “Digg for Chicks” says Mashable, and her Design Mom blog has been named a “Top Motherhood Blog” by the Wall Street Journal.

Gabrielle has mothered full-time, run various businesses, worked full time, worked part-time.  Warm, engaging and blissfully inspiring, you’ll see that for Gabrielle and her family, work life balance is a constant reinvention.  She has countless readers asking her “how do you do it?”  Here’s a small insight. 

“I was very concerned about work life balance, even when selecting a career, because I always knew I wanted a big family.  Even then I was mindful of choosing something flexible.  I changed programs from interior design to graphic design for that reason.  My husband and I wanted the family but we also both really wanted to work.  Initially we started our own businesses, so from the beginning this has been our reality – there has never been any other way of doing things.

“With our first child, we’d take classes, work at night.  It was perfect, until it wasn’t.  The second child came, we adapted again.  We were able to employ someone for four hours a week allowing us some focused productive working time and the rest we traded off.

“When we moved to New York, we played more traditional roles, with Ben at Columbia doing his PhD and me home with our then three children.  Three was a lot for me, a much bigger shift and so I felt really good about staying at home and taking on a handful of freelance clients.

“Then, as many families are experiencing right now, there was no work after Ben’s graduation.  I went to work full-time as an Art Director.  I’d had some very early agency experience and of course, had been freelancing all along and so was up to date trend wise and technologically.  If I’d checked out for five years, it would have been really intimidating.  The beautiful thing about being a designer is that your work, your portfolio, speaks for itself.

“Working to someone else’s schedule was a heavy adjustment but on many levels it was good for me.  My husband had a turn, now it was my responsibility.  In our case, I felt more compassion towards both roles.  It’s hard to be home with your kids, there is a lot that’s challenging.  And it’s hard to be away, you’re exhausted when you walk in, you miss the details and moments.  That was our path for nearly three years and then we felt it was time for our fourth child.  I was intending to go back, but then Ben started a school and I did all the design for it.  I was primarily home with our children, but he was also available.  We ended up having another baby right away.  In addition to the language school, my husband started teaching as a professor and his hectic but flexible schedule allowed me to get back into my design world.

“I started my blog and it became something a little bit magical.  It certainly didn’t start as a business.  Our five children ranged from 8.5 yrs to a newborn and I needed to focus on my family but was compelled to have something creative.  With no pressure, no deadline, and not needing to add to family income at that stage, we had found our place.

“The school was sold and Ben now runs the foreign language curriculum for K-12 as a home based executive.   Design Mom turned into a business and then my partners and I founded Kirtsy.    My husband and I share an office and we can make whatever schedule we want.   We have complete flexibility.  If we both need to travel, we can take turns.  Our little ones are in preschool and our older ones in elementary school.  Our sixth child is due in May and it will be another adjustment but we know how to do this.

“How do you balance it all?  Of course you’ve got to let some stuff go and lower your expectations.  For me it’s been true.  Be realistic, you need some time with your little ones.  It doesn’t mean you’re checking out forever, just a season.  Don’t worry, there will still be work there.  Take small steps to stay connected.  Sooner than you think you’ll be ready for a project.

“Design is particularly suited for that.  But I don’t believe it’s limited to certain industries.  As companies and people try new things, almost every job can offer some kind of flexibility.   It’s expensive and hard to train new people.  Make the case – it’s worth it to the company.  I don’t believe the flexible path is only available to the entrepreneur.

“I’ve had to say no to things.  I have been involved with the kids schools and PTA at times and at other times it’s not feasible.  You have to make choices about what you can and can’t take on.

“Our rhythm changes as our children and businesses change.  We work in the morning and through naptime.  My personal strict rule is that from 3pm until bedtime I am home which means not at my computer!  It’s chores, homework, school projects and hanging out time.  Then when everyone’s tucked up in bed, if I want to work again I can.

“Work life balance implies something that doesn’t exist but I prefer it to someone saying you can do it all.  I have come to accept that we are reinventing the ‘balance’ every year, every month.  This balance thing is never done.  It works for several months and then you reassess.

“My husband and I both understand what it means to be home with the kids – the difficulties and the wonderful things about that unique role.  He really is my best friend – who I want to hang out with.  Not everyone could work side by side.  He has never devalued what I do or made me feel I was just playing along at a career. 

“I travel a lot now.  There’s no giving him instructions, he’s fully engaged.  The only time for instruction giving was those years when one of us was working full time.  You get disconnected from the family details in those phases.  This new, accidental career, is starting to have a lot of demands and he’s completely with me – there’s no selfishness about it, no “this is cutting into my time”.”

Gabrielle is a keynote speaker this Saturday at Mom 2.0 in Texas on social media, blogging and the new publishing paradigm.  

What do you think about this kind of path?  How does balance and roles shift and adjust for you over time?  Gabrielle is a gifted designer and you’ll find all sorts of inspiration on her site.  Also, catch up on the first posts in this Work Life Stories series here and here.  And be sure not to miss the remaining installments by subscribing via email or RSS at the top right hand of the page.  I’ll be speaking with some talented men and women in more traditional corporate environments over the next couple of posts.

Loving your comments and thoughtful support as we share stories.

Photo: with permission from Gabrielle Blair

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  • wendyhcd

    Hooray, hooray for the insights shared by Gabby/DesignMom! I've watched her in awe since we were college roommates. Her ambition, talent, and devotion to her family is unparalleled. Her husband Ben is truly a fabulous husband and human being. I'd be interested to hear Ben's perspective about how he balances it all, too. The male perspective seems far too silent on this subject in our society. So glad you interviewed Gabby! I learn something new in each of your posts, Chrysula. I'm fascinated by this topic.

  • Urban Tangerine

    Another amazing true story. I love the examples of people continually adjusting focus to make sure things are working for them in each phase. Half the people I know link to Design Mom on their blogs. I'll be spreading the word about this piece to them.

  • Persianlass

    I was introduced to her design blog a while ago, and it has inspired me to be more creative.
    Trying to balance roles is a struggle, especially living in an area like New York or D.C. I found myself in a similar situation after my husband graduated from his Masters program. We had 3 children under 5, one newborn baby. He wasn't having any luck finding a job after he left his position on Capitol hill. Many days I struggled with the decision to go back to work as I could potentially make a good living with my language skills. Every time I decided to do it, I felt a big pit in my stomach and the thought of leaving my kids killed me. There were many reasons why it would not have been a good decision for our family. It works for some families, I just know it wouldn't have worked for us.
    Thanks for your design ideas, I have enjoyed spending time being creative, and turning trash to treasure.

  • Kami

    6 kids? NYC? That's one brave lady. Reading this story is so interesting partly because of how inspiring it is and partly because it made me aware of how after devoting the better part of the last 4 years to being a mom, I'm ready to get my work on. I miss the fulfillment of having a career and though being a mom to my 2 boys is very fulfilling, I personally need more to be happy. To be the mom I want to be.

  • Tenn Hens

    Wow – I'm so impressed and inspired! I'm a graphic designer about to have a baby so this is something I've been thinking a lot about. I love how she balances for a while and then re-evaluates as life changes. I have hope that my own business will flourish even with a new addition. Thanks for this!

  • Martha

    Great stuff! Love DesignMom.

  • Donna ~Blessed Nest

    I love Design Mom. What a great article about work- life balance. I totally get the constant adjusting as life moves on! Chrysula, You're amazing. xo

  • Wordplayhouse®

    A flexible schedule, freelancing and supportive husband and family can make it possible to enjoy the benefits and creativity that come from working. It’s wonderful that you’ve found a way to make it work and are able to share your creativity with everyone everywhere.

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