Messes and flops: my answer


Our chocolate volcano cake with whipped cream snow and strawberry hot lava (as envisioned by Maia)

Okay, my friends, we’ve had a week of illness here but Daphne’s much better now and Maia’s fever has finally gone down for the most part. I have a few minutes to write and join the conversation that Kristin started with her e-mail and that many of you contributed to when I posted her letter here.

I’d like to say that my life is perfect, that I really have it all together (ha!), that our house is always spic and span and worthy of a magazine photo shoot, and that all our art projects go smoothly and just as I had envisioned. But you and I both know that is not true. I am far from perfect, the dishes pile up in the sink and on the counter, I like to bake scones and anything involving chocolate much more than I like to cook daily nutritious meals.

And messes? We’ve got those. I don’t suppose I’ve told you that I’ve never successfully taught Maia to clean up after herself when she paints and creates? The kid is almost 6. Preschool teachers have their students cleaning up at age 3. What’s my problem?

But I don’t want to turn this into a big confessional. I could write long and hard about my failures and shortcomings as a human being and parent, but do you really want to hear it?

You know I’m as human as the next person. Right?! Because I am. This isn’t about that, though, is it? This is about how I choose to portray our life and our art on my blog. The Artful Parent is an edited version of my life. Not that it’s not true. Just that I’ve put on my fresh t-shirt (you know, the one without the spit up and sticky finger marks), combed my hair, and tidied up the house a bit for visitors. For you. Because, like many of us, I was taught to put my best foot forward. Because I really want you to like me (maybe I’m a tad insecure). And because I don’t want to see those messes myself (if I pretend they’re not there, maybe they’ll go away).

As for art, we definitely have our share of “flops.” They usually happen when I have something specific in mind and Maia, being an independent thinker, has something else in mind, is not in the mood, or perhaps I’ve set up a project that she is not developmentally ready for. I like to think of these as learning experiences rather than flops, although I don’t always see them as such at the time. And more often than anything, they are reminders to me to return to the process and the potential of the material and where my kids are right then. It’s usually followed by some space on my part as I let my kids engage in more child-led art rather than to try to be the "teacher" with all the answers. I might set out a couple of art materials to explore as they see fit rather than to direct a big multi-step project.

We do a lot of art in our house. I can’t blog about it all. And so I often choose to share the projects that are the most successful, the most beautiful, the most fun, and the ones that provide the best learning experiences.

I share the projects that I think your children might enjoy doing. I get super excited about the idea of families doing art together. This keeps me going. I get a kick out of the idea that I might share about an art activity we did on my blog and that you might be inspired to do it with your kids. So I try to write about the good ones. That’s not to say that I never write about when things don’t go as I had expected or as I thought they should. I do sometimes. And when I do I learn so much from you – from this wonderful community of parents and teachers. Perhaps I could more often. But my free time to write seems so limited right now (I’m writing this in the grocery store parking lot. By hand, because I don’t have a laptop. Much of my book was written the same way.) that I’d really rather focus on the successes than the flops.

So yes, I have messes and flops. I have times when I don’t clean up after an art project for days because I just can’t face it. I have days when I cry at the littlest things. Days when I think, “who am I to think I can write a book?!” And a book for parents, no less.

I feel good about my ability to do lots of things. I can cook lasagna and sew clothes for my family. I’m a hard worker and was always good at my various jobs. I was an A student throughout school.

None of this prepared me for parenting.

Nothing is as humbling as raising a child. When Maia was born, I couldn’t believe they were going to let me take her home from the birth center. Couldn't they tell I didn't know a thing? Things haven’t changed a whole lot. I’m a little more confident about my ability to wing it, but I sure don’t know everything there is to know about parenting. I’d like to say that I’m at least one step ahead of my children as a parent, but really, I’m more often two steps behind. I continue to learn so much on this parenting journey and it continues to be so incredibly humbling.

And through the mess and craziness (and sometimes the tears) of our days, it helps me to have a place where I can focus on the joy and the creativity and the art that we try to fill our lives with. My blog gives me a place where I can focus on what I love, perhaps on what I’m good at, and what I want to see more of in the world.

I can try to be more conscious of how I portray our life and art on the blog, try to be more real, but at the same time, I can't promise that I’ll change it a whole lot.

Kristin, thank you so much for your heartfelt letter and for voicing what many others were perhaps thinking as well. Everyone else, thank you for your comments and for adding to the discussion. It’s been so interesting to hear the different viewpoints.

With love,


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  • Reply
    Julie Liddle, ART IN HAND
    June 10, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Thank you, Jean.

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    June 10, 2011 at 11:00 pm

    Dear Jean,
    This is so heartfelt, so touching, my eyes welled up and made me sit up and think. Think hard.
    Will come back to share more…
    Right now, I’ll have a second read… :)
    Have to say – dear mommy – I so resonated with you over here… :)

  • Reply
    June 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    I recently was discussing the blog SouleMama with some friends and they were complaining that her life was so “fake” with all her happiness and managing her (now five!) kids and never talking about the perpetually dirty house, days of crying in the bathroom wondering what you’re doing wrong and all that. I thought to myself….it’s exactly how she *wants* it to be. It’s not about the good, bad and the ugly, but about the good and reminding oneself to focus on the good when things go bad. So, I like to think when I read her “wine and popcorn for dinner” posts, or her “gratitude” posts, that maybe it’s her way of saying, “I had a REALLY rough day yesterday, and instead of focusing on that, I’m gonna focus on this!”.
    I love your blog and understand why you don’t go into all that. Thanks for all you do!

  • Reply
    June 10, 2011 at 11:12 pm

    great response Jean, just right.

  • Reply
    Barbara Zaborowski
    June 10, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    I, for one, never imagined that you had storybook children or a constantly clean house or art projects that never failed. (Maybe it’s the twenty-five years of teaching; I’ve seen so many plans turn out differently than expected or not turn out at all.) What you do have are “perfect” children, a “perfect” home and a “perfect” life, in that they are all real. What comes through in your blog is your dedication to providing art experiences; it’s what you add to your family life. Some families are musical, some are academic, some are sports-oriented. I hope someone is blogging about those families, too.
    All that said, I always enjoy hearing about failures, too, IF you have learned something from them. Sharing what you’ve learned from both the successes and failures can be very helpful to those of us who intend to try your projects.

  • Reply
    jen at
    June 10, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    so authentic and so well said.

  • Reply
    June 10, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    Great post. I never thought you were perfect and I am sorry if others did, to the point where you felt you needed to post this. But, I think this is good to read, especially for new parents who are not prepared for how to manage the compromises. Good enough is sometimes as good as it gets and that is really okay!
    And failures are really important to read about. When I was an elementary school teacher of gifted kids, I had to constantly remind them that most, if not all, of the man- and woman-kind’s creations have come after many failures.
    Success is not as exciting when it comes easily.

  • Reply
    June 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm

    I love the bit about putting on the fresh t-shirt and getting ready for company. So true. I can certainly relate to Kristin as well because I felt an overwhelming sense of not measuring up to all these apparently perfect lives when I discovered the world of blogs. I still need to remind myself some days that everyone’s blog/website is definitely edited (mine included). Like you said, not to appear fake but to just celebrate the good things that you think people might like to share. Wonderful, heartfelt response to us all.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 2:24 am

    But, you ARE perfect. I wouldn’t change one thing about this blog. You share so many wonderful ideas with us, and have a beautifully child-centered approach to art and parenting. I like how you stay genuine and also put your best foot forward when you “host” us here, and I (seriously) wish that you lived next door to me.
    Besides, I don’t need to see YOUR sink full of dirty dishes when I can just go look at mine whenever I want.
    I believe that every parent should know this: If you are keeping your house perfectly clean, you are not spending enough time with your kids, and if your art projects never fail, you need to start trying something new.

  • Reply
    kristin (a different one)
    June 11, 2011 at 3:03 am

    Wonderful response, Jean. You shouldn’t apologize for blogging only what you want to blog! I’m learning this more as I’m new to blogging after a long time just reading others’. I only post mere snippets of my life and maybe I allude to failures, but I’m not posting what I don’t want to post, and I’m not posting my laundry pile or my dust-bunny-ridden floors! We know no one is perfect. Craft/sewing/design blogs are made to inspire, and you are inspirational. Thanks for doing what you do!

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 4:15 am

    I didn’t comment on the other post because I couldn’t understand who thinks that anybody can have a neat-clean-normal-perfect life when you have kids… We are moms and we should know what we are into, all of us!… Said this, my life, with all my mess around, is perfect to me even when I am fed up of cleaning and cooking, without spare time for my sewing and crafts, being tired and even lonely sometimes… My life is perfect because it is what I wanted, and I enjoy it with my little girl and all the mess she brings when cooking, coloring or playing.
    I have a blog and I barely have time to post as much as I would like, but when I do, I like to show my achievements (crafts with Margui, sewing stuffs or baking) because it is nice to feel and see that I manage to make these great things in the middle of my roller-coasters daily mess… I have friends who believe I have such an easy life with a lot of time to “play” with internet and other stuff… The truth is I am an expat living in The Netherlands, without any help from family or friends, but with still a big will to keep my sanity by doing some nice things that doesn’t have to do with the household duties. And I do so by devoting time to craft with my daughter, involving her in my cooking and grasping some spare time for myself late at night or very early in the morning, when the house is in peace.
    Jean, I love your blog and I don’t want to see your mess because I do know you have it. I want the stimulation you give to us with your post.
    Maybe it is a question os self-esteem… Sometimes I feel lost and like failing, but I do know that I do my best, that I am human and a mom, and that I am not the only one fighting the daily mess. I don’t need to see this in others to feel better. I want encouragement and stimulation for being a better mom by teaching new things to my daughter.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 7:18 am

    Jean, I wanted to write on your post the other day (yesterday?) but time slipped by and here it is another day! I was going to say that you do sometimes post flops, but I think one of the main reasons I come to your blog is to be inspired and see something doable and beautiful. Thank you for your words and be heartened, you have inspired me (and many others I imagine) to try new things and keep art in our everyday lives. You are a person, who though we haven’t actually met, I am happy to call a friend. I think that speaks lots to how well you write and welcome you make us feel here. :)

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 8:11 am

    I think it all depends on the type of blog and on the boundaries the blog writer sets, and sometimes we work our way into those boundaries as we go. When I first began blogging almost five years ago, I was blogging about homeschooling, knitting, and life in general. I tried to be honest about the challenges and the joys, but there were definitely lines I wouldn’t cross; some things were private. But I would say it was a very honest blog. Then we changed from homeschooling to school, my kids went into the wider world, and I took that blog offline. When I began blogging again last fall, my boundaries were clear: my kids & art blog is about kids and art. Very little of other life gets in. My craft blog has more of my personality, but very little (so far) of Other Life Issues. I will be honest about my adventures and experiments in art activities and what works and doesn’t work there, but I’m not generally going to talk about the challenges of family life, unless it’s an in passing sort of thing like, “My husband was away and absolutely nothing creative was even attempted.”
    I have often thought that is is particularly difficult for bloggers who have a public image and book contracts, because those lines have to be more firmly drawn, especially when a certain image has been created of a certain kind of life. (I’m not saying you fall under this category; I honestly wouldn’t know!) I enjoy Amanda Soule’s books, but I don’t read her blog. I also don’t read blogs for parenting information or advice. I’ve been doing this for a while now and know all about potty training and whining and stomach bugs and everything else you can think of, really, and I read blogs for ideas and inspiration, for myself and my kids. I can understand how newer moms need that sort of connection, and that’s why it’s great there are so many different sorts of blogs and bloggers.
    So when I say that I’d like to see the near-misses, the projects-not-as-planned, it’s completely in the studio, because I am interested in the documentation of the process. I believe that’s valuable. But that may not be your vision for your blog, and that’s your decision. But hey, I know nobody’s house or life is perfect. :) That’s a given!

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Good answer! It seems people can look at mommy blogs in a couple of ways… a place to commiserate, or a place to inspire. Yours drew me in with its heavy emphasis on the second :)

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 8:47 am

    PS – I think it’s possible to write about our oops’s in a way that inspires, too! You have certainly done that.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 10:30 am

    I appreciate the letter from Kristen and the thoughtful response so much. I’m one of those moms who reads blogs to get inspired, but sometimes comes away feeling so inadequate. Just getting through a day with a two year old can feel so overwhelming that the last thing I want to do is learn to knit a sweater, do a collage, or feed some chickens. (Not that I can knit or have chickens.) Sometimes it feels good to see another mom’s messy house and laundry pile. Because you realise that you’re not alone.
    I’m in the process of learning to deal with my imperfections, that my life is never going to look like Soule Mama or Bending Birches or the Artful Parent. As lovely as you ladies are–your life is your life. Edited versions or not. My life is my life. And my life is just a bit messy. There are trucks all over are floor. The contents of the laundry basket are there too. There are a dozen half finished craft projects in my basket.
    My kid is wearing a diaper and nothing else. I’m still in my pj’s at ten thirty when I’m writing this.
    And that is okay. It’s all okay.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    I’ve loved these two days of posts and comments, and I echo what many others have said: Your blog is wonderful as it is and feels very authentic and honest. I was surprised to read the few comments referencing the Soulemama blog as one that makes them feel inadequate. I haven’t had that reaction, but perhaps because I’d read a couple of her older posts on just this subject. Here’s a link to one that may provide some comfort to readers who feel she is trying to present a “too perfect” image to the world. I love her comment in one of these links that she wants her blog to be a place of peace and a meditation on what she wants to celebrate in her life. I think it’s also important to remember that blogs are not documentaries – they are intentionally edited creative expressions – in which the author gets to write the story of their lives. Great work, Jean and thanks so much for sharing your life and family and projects with us!

  • Reply
    Amy Fields
    June 11, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Don’t change one thing about this blog!!! You do post flops and I have read about them. Most should understand that we all have a messy house and days we cry all day. I don’t come to your blog to see a messy home=). I can just look up at my living room for that. I come to your blog for inspiration and new art ideas. You have delivered that so often. I find you very “real”. Keep up the good work and I look forward to reading you just the way you are for many years to come.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    I’m not sure I’ve ever commented before, but I had to click over from my reader to say that I have never felt this blog to be anything but authentic and heartfelt. Compared to a few other blogs I read, I find your writings to be honest and your desire to share accessible ideas comes through above all else. I’ve never thought you were trying to portray a perfect life. I’ve never thought to myself, “How does she do all that?” Everything you share seems doable. And I appreciate that immensely. I appreciate you celebrating and sharing your successes! Plus, I don’t think you’ve completely avoided sharing your concerns or occasional flops! Anyway, I find this blog perfectly imperfect! :) Thank you for sharing your ideas and writings so generously. I know it takes a lot to carve out this time with two little ones.

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 6:18 pm

    ditto, ditto, ditto! I come to your blog for inspiration and ideas. I think there is plenty of “real life” coming through the posts, I very much enjoy your perspective and writing. And every kid and family is so different, even if you posted a whole blog full of failures, each one might turn out to be a success for one of us. I appreciate blogs with good boundaries and clear vision. Yours has both, in my view!

  • Reply
    June 11, 2011 at 9:06 pm

    Jean, You do such a wonderful job with your blog and it is evident by the comments you receive. I don’t want to see your mess. I come here for a hit of colour and to see your wonderful photographs! I love Daphne’s hair by the way!

  • Reply
    Heather N
    June 12, 2011 at 9:48 am

    Hi Jean! I would not change one thing about the way you blog or its content. I first ran across your blog when I had a toddler. I was looking for projects to do. What struck me so much and has had me coming back since 2008 is your emphasis on child-centered art. That art is a process, not just an end-product. This simple idea has empowered me to watch with immense joy while my child tries a new media in a new way. It has allowed me to stretch my boundaries of what I used for art as a child (mainly crayons and markers) and to try so many new things. My daughter, who is in preschool now, has fully-stocked art spaces both upstairs and downstairs. She loves art and does it on a daily basis – sometimes with me and sometimes on her own. I’m not sure this would have been the end result if I had not found your blog. I might have fallen into the trap of just doing art kits that required me to do most of the work for my daughter.
    My daughter looked at me the other day and said, “Mom, I am an artist.” Yes, sweetie, you are. Thank you Jean!

  • Reply
    Krista M
    June 12, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    so true….our blogs are often how we ‘want’ things to be. Nothing wrong with sharing the success stories and isn’t it great when someone is kind enough to comment on something you’ve taken the time to share?

  • Reply
    June 12, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    What a great discussion. Kristin, thank you for sending the letter and agreeing to let Jean publish it.
    I have such a feeling of relief to see so many responses here, so many different insights. I share so many of the same feelings: Some blogs do make me feel inadequate (mostly incredible photographers with spotless houses), but they still inspire me. Other blogs I see for what they are: “snapshots” of the good in a day, and those inspire me, too, without leaving me feel inadequate. I do stop reading blogs when the writer complains about this or that – I do enough of that myself!
    Jean, I love your blog and have always felt welcomed and inspired by it. I think it feels welcoming, in part, because of its authenticity. You do make comments here and there (I remember specifically when Daphne was born) about your real life, maybe even struggles. Just little snippets, enough to make me think of you as a real person.
    I really like the idea of spiffing up your house for us, your visitors. It makes me feel even more at welcome. And as though I should bring a little gift with me when I stop by. I guess that’s what a comment is, eh? I’ll try to do that more often.

  • Reply
    June 13, 2011 at 8:20 am

    I’ve been thinking about the letter from your reader…and, having the sweet pleasure of being your friend and neighbor, I felt much the same way you expressed in your response…that the blog is your place to shine it out! The messes, challenges, tears, frustrations…those are an assumed part of the process. It’s nice to hear about them, sometimes, I suppose. To make us all feel better. But, for me, that’s not why I log onto your blog…to hear about that stuff. Your blog inspires me to shine out MY best, to take that deep breathe I forgot to take and say “YES” to an inspired moment, an artful moment, a kid-centric moment. Thank you for sharing your most inspired self with us, Jean. BIG LOVE!

  • Reply
    June 13, 2011 at 10:38 am

    I just want to say thank you for this heartfelt post. It came at the perfect time. I was sitting here trying to prioritize my to-do list and feeling so unfocused, unsuccessful, and definitely not perfect at doing my job as a mother and “home manager.” It was such a relief to hear your words especially about motherhood being so hard. I taught 2nd grade for 11 years before having my children and it has been a real blow to my ego! I just never ever knew it would be so hard (especially since you really care about doing a good job). Sometimes I think other mothers/bloggers must be the types who were born to stay at home with their children and be so patient and carefree and I’m just not one of them. We women just never give ourselves enough credit for ALL that we do. And it’s hard to remember that even though this is a wonderful time it’s not going to be tiptoeing through the tulips every single day. Once again, thank you!

  • Reply
    Jean Van't Hul
    June 13, 2011 at 8:00 am

    Thank you, everyone.

  • Reply
    Linnie Joy
    June 13, 2011 at 8:09 am

    i love that you write about the happy things, i think its super important to choose to focus on the good rather than the bad, and i like to read that kind of positivity(I do the same thing myself, and it has really helped me to start seeing the sunny side more often and not slip into being a debby downer) so thank you for keeping it upbeat, i feel like i can identify with you more because you do!
    i told my hubby, my blog is like my list of blessings!

  • Reply
    June 13, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    It’s me, the Kristin, just popping in to say I’m so glad my little email prompted such an interesting discussion. And thanks so much, Jean, for this heartfelt response. Can I tell you how much it helps me to know that Maia never cleans up after her projects? This is one of my big struggles with my daughter as well. I don’t think I’m a person who spends a lot of time feeling “inadequate.” But we are each cocooned in our own little lives, so it’s nice to be reminded sometimes that we are all struggling together (in this case, to do art with our kids). This post on Superhero Journal (not a kids craft blog) kind of sums up what I see as the power of sharing the not-so-perfect bits as well:
    All that said, I love this blog and respect Jean’s right to share whatever she thinks is best.

  • Reply
    Rachel at Stitched in Color
    June 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    Jean, I am also as a blogger so concerned with authenticity. It’s a challenge to balance that important goal with our goal to be a positive, encouraging, inspiring place to be. Thank-you for sharing your emotional challenges to writing a book. I am working on my proposal now and it’s just so overwhelming on so many different fronts. Can I really do this? Wow, I think so. Crazy.

  • Reply
    Adelle F.
    June 15, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I think the paragraph near the end – that the blog gives you a place to focus on the good and what you love – says it all. I think the things you’d share on a blog are the things you’d want to share with or show another person in person. I’ve always thought you have been very real and have shared things that haven’t gone as planned, often saying you had one thing in mind but Maia did something different or that you’d been away from the blog for a few days because you’d all been sick, etc. Personally, I wouldn’t want you to change a thing….I like you just the way you are!!

  • Reply
    June 15, 2011 at 3:02 pm

    “Nothing is more humbling than raising a child.” I love that comment, and the wisdom that goes with it.
    I’ve read your blog on and off for a while, and I’ve always loved your simple and humble approach. I think you have so many readers because you seem like someone we can relate to. I can remember several times when you posted on a not-so-good day or an art project that “flopped”. You do a lovely job balancing the good and bad, I think.
    Comparison is an ugly beast that we all fall prey to in our most insecure moments…especially moms! Keep up the good work.

  • Reply
    [email protected]
    June 16, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    Yay! Our daughter is a MAIA as well! :)

  • Reply
    June 17, 2011 at 6:01 pm

    In the current of parenting and life, we go through various up and down. It is so important that we turn to wisdom and a supporting network to enlighten our path. Step back and reflect and find peace, courage and motivation to keep on growing, learning, adapting, accepting and smiling from the bottom of our heart because of the goodness the world and each and everyone of us all share.
    I am very grateful that in this mothering journey, I am not alone. There is a strong mama network on the Internet to share this very special and important journey together. Thank you.

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