Parenthood: Olivia Shanks on balancing motherhood and her creative career

Today I am super excited to share with you an interview with Olivia Shanks, designer, producer, former model and mama.  I’ve known Olivia since we were 18.  Dear god – how did that get to be so long ago?  We met in Chicago as seniors in high school while checking out colleges. We both ended up at Northwestern and the rest is history. Here’s a little snapshot of hers.

So you graduated from Northwestern University with a degree in philosophy right?

This is correct! I wasn’t sure what type of career that I wanted to pursue early on at NU. I was blown away by my intro Philosophy courses and felt like it would be a solid foundation for whatever I would eventually do. I had initially considered going on to law school to focus on entertainment law, and again, Philosophy struck me as a solid precursor to that.

After college you did some modeling, bartending, started a clothing line, what else?

I also worked in marketing for about a decade and currently am a producer at a software development firm. The course I’ve taken has been one that has really unfolded organically. When I was finishing up my studies at NU, I got signed to Ford Models. I avoided taking on a day job to keep my time open for auditions and modeling gigs, so I started bartending to fill in the gaps. While I was bartending, I was introduced to spirits marketing and eventually got recruited to work on a few freelance projects with agencies. It sounds like I jumped around a lot but I actually modeled for ten years, bartended for ten years, worked in marketing for ten years. . . overlapping the work for some of the years.

Imaginary People, my clothing line, is something I always wanted to do, having made clothing since I was in high school. I had a good run with the line, but ultimately it was something that I didn’t have the time that was needed to focus on it, as those years coincided with some of my busiest years professionally and with a lot of things happening with my family. Being self-funded, dropping everything to focus on the line wasn’t an option at the time.

Did you always know that you would end up doing something creative as a career?

I think I always hoped to do something creative, although I wasn’t really raised to think of a creative gig as a legitimate possibility. My old school Vietnamese mother was pushing for a conventional profession. . . medicine, law, or, engineering. I tested strong in math and science so I think engineering was the hope. But after moving away from home and liberating myself from what I felt had been a somewhat protected childhood, I was determined to chart my own course.

What are you doing now? How did you end up there?

I started working as a producer at M1 Interactive a few years ago. To put it loosely, we develop immersive and interactive digital installations and environments for brands, museums and tradeshows. More specifically, we develop software and content for a broad range of interactive technologies. . . think touchscreens, Virtual & Augmented Reality headsets, projection mapping, holograms. As a producer I’m essentially managing our projects, working with clients and our team of developers and designers to bring their ideas to life. There are a lot of parallels to the work I was doing in marketing.

I came upon this job organically as well. My marketing work had me doing loads of traveling to produce large brand events. I grew exhausted from that lifestyle and was ready to lay down some roots. Right around the time I started to feel ready for a change, my current boss reached out to me to see if I was interested in coming to work for him. We had known each other for almost 20 years and I had recently reached out to him to develop a touchscreen for a tour I was working on.

Tell me a little about your other creative pursuits, like designing clothes, are you still doing that?

I’ve actually just started sewing again. When I first started sewing in high school and into college, I was making clothes that I couldn’t afford to buy. . . things I would wear out to parties. I’m now sewing things like throw pillows, baby slings and nursing tops. I’m getting into dying textiles as well. It’s definitely more challenging to find the time to finish projects when you have a baby to entertain, but I also have a greater appreciation for the process.

How has having your daughter, Willow, changed your lifestyle?

I had already made the shift away from the nightlife some years ago, so the change in that part of my life hasn’t been too drastic, but having a baby is definitely an alienating experience. If you or your friends don’t make a serious effort to stay involved in each other’s lives, it’s easy to feel completely out of touch. Now I just make more of an effort to see the people that I want to see, and I’m much choosier about the social events I decide to attend

I’ve definitely become more deliberate with how I plan and spend my time in general. Much like my career path, I’ve always liked to just play things by ear, but that’s not really the way I want to be as a mother. Sure, I want to be able to just roll with the changes, but I also want to provide a steady and predictable environment where Willow will thrive and feel safe.

With regards to work, time spent with or away from Willow has become a major factor in finding balance. Is it worth spending this much money on daycare? Is it worth spending this much time away from Willow? Is it worth the hustle every morning and everyday after work to get from here to there in time? There are a lot of variables (and those are just a few!) to maneuver to find the right balance for sanity and happiness. I’m fortunate that my employer has agreed to let me work a 4 day work week so that I can strike what feels like a comfortable balance for me.

When did you go back to work? How has that adjustment been?

I went back to work when Willow was 4 months old. The plan had been to return at 3 months, but finding a daycare we felt great about took a bit longer than expected. We really didn’t start looking for one until she was 2 months old. You hear about the struggle Chicago parents have getting a spot in a good school but never had I imagined that struggle would start right out of the womb. Sure enough, she was waitlisted at our top choice daycare. They ended up making room for her a month later, thank goodness.

It was a bit tough at first, dropping her off and driving away. . . there were tears. . . from me, not Willow. We’ve all adjusted well and I like to think that the attention, activity and socialization she get’s there is good for her, and that the separation and opportunity to focus on other things is good for me.

Has becoming a mother changed how you feel about your work?  Has it changed how you do your work?

I like to think I’m a more efficient worker as well. I kind of have to be. I’m working a four day week but I’m often trying to handle that fifth day of work before I check out on Thursday. I can’t exactly expect my clients to take the day off so I try to predict what will be needed on Friday and set the pieces in place on Thursday – so that I’m not working from my phone or stuck in front of my computer all day. Likewise, throughout the week, I find myself trying to get everything done early enough so that I can get out the door in time to scoop her from daycare.

Career-wise, where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

I love the company I work with. I work with a small group of very intelligent, very talented people on cool projects and in a pretty sweet working environment. I’d like to think that as time goes on, I’m bringing in and overseeing bigger and badder projects.  Things that both I and the company can brag about.

Do you have work-related goals that you definitely want to achieve?

Being a creative at heart, I look forward to developing another personal project drawing from what I’ve learned and experienced in my many roles over the past 20 years. It’s inevitable.

UPDATE: Olivia recently resigned from her full-time job.  She still works, both as a free-lance marketing professional and at home, taking care of Willow, who she is happy to have more time with these days.

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