Welcome to Week 16 of Motherhood by Design – the series where mothers who also run creative businesses share their inspirations and their experiences juggling the demands of raising children while growing a creative career.
"I think too often we still hand over our entire identity in exchange for the job of mother, and it’s a beautiful job, the best in the world, but it needs to add to our whole experience of life, not cause us to shut out everything else."
Stephanie Dulli is a former actress who now performs her creative work behind the lens and laptop as a photographer specializing in maternity, newborn, and family photography. Her beautiful and ethereal aesthetic really shines through in her work as she strives to capture the most fleeting moments in permanent images. Stephanie is also the producer for the Washington DC version of Listen To Your Mother, a staged production of essayists who write about the beauty, mystery, hilarity and despair of motherhood, this year taking place at the National Geographic Grosvernor Auditorium. Come see her (and me!) perform on May 3!
Welcome to Motherhood by Design, Stephanie - can you please describe your family?
My family consists of myself, my husband Zach, our two sons Max and Huckleberry ages 6 and 3 and our daughter Piper, 9 months.
What is your business?
My business is Stephanie Dulli Photography. I specialize in child and infant photography along with maternity and family portraits. My passion is capturing those precious childhood expressions that are so fleeting.
When you were a child yourself, how did you spend your free time?
I had a vivid imagination and played a lot of “Let’s Pretend.” I actually had a teacher want to hold me back because my imagination was too strong! Can you imagine? It came in very handy when I grew up to be a professional actress (before kids).
Did crafting or handwork play a significant role in your childhood? If yes, in what way?
Not really. I was never a tactile creative child. I didn’t like playdoh or coloring. I much preferred dolls or elaborate pretending games.
When you were a child, did you have ideas about your own future as a mother? Was motherhood something you’d always imagined for yourself, or is it an idea you grew into later in life?
I never wanted to be a mother. I was terrified because I had a hard childhood, and especially the teenage years were terrible. I didn’t think I would be a good mother and I didn’t want a kid like me. Then on a certain birthday I turned to my husband and said “I have to have a baby.” 10 months later my first son was born.
In your early years of motherhood, did you have/make time for your creative pursuits, or was your creative work put aside for a while? If the latter, when did you pick it back up?
Honestly, both! I was an actress in Los Angeles when my first son was born, then in a crazy series of events we moved to Ohio and then Maryland. I had one sleep deprived-postpartum anxiety nightmare audition with Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theatre and decided that it was time to retire from the boards for a while. (Literally the MOST embarrassing 5 minutes of my life. Sorry, Mr. Kahn.)
However, the need to be creative is imperative to me so someone suggested I start a blog as I needed to tell stories and stand up and acting wasn’t an option at that time. So I did, and discovered I was a writer. I began refinishing furniture and that was creative. But once a camera was in my hand I felt like myself again. It grounded me.
Did you start your creative business prior to becoming a mother, or after?
What prompted you to start your creative business? Is it something you saw yourself doing when you were a child?
After the birth of my second child it was unlike my first when we were in Los Angeles and surrounded by friends who were professional photographers! There was no one to take his picture and I was spoiled...I didn’t want mall portraits (I know. Snotty.) I asked for a camera for Christmas and an obsession was born. I am very competitive with myself and I became focused on learning how to use my camera and achieve professional results.
As it turns out, years in front of the camera turned out to be very helpful! Soon friends were asking me to shoot their children and finally with a push from a friend who is one of my photographer idols, I took the leap. I never would have imagined this path for myself but it is the greatest journey and I feel like my past and now being a mother has been the perfect preparation for this, my dream job that I never knew was my dream.
How do you balance your creative work with your role as a mother and how has that changed over time?
I am still working this out. As my older ones are now in kindergarten and preschool I can edit while they are at school and when they are playing together. I edit while the baby sleeps and I usually only shoot on the weekends when my husband is home to care for our babies.
In what ways does motherhood affect your work processes?
In every single way. There is not an area that motherhood does not color my work. I look at my work both as a technical photographer, a creative person AND as a mother.
In what ways does motherhood affect your creative products?
When I deliver proof to my clients I offer them both posed “present” shots (you know, the ones you frame for the family) and non-posed captured shots. The term for this is Lifestyle but really it’s just kids being kids. And they love it. They love to play and laugh and make their silly faces and I love to capture that. The best compliment I can receive is from a parent saying “Oh! That is so them!”
What is the biggest impact that your children have had on your business?
I know how fleeting the phases of childhood are, how quickly those quirks and facial expressions are left behind and I try to capture that with my children and thus with my clients.
How do you think your creative pursuits, including your business, affect your children?
At first it was hard because they didn’t want me to leave. They were very used to NEVER being away from me, but now they accept it. They understand when I am editing and there have been a few times when I’ve been shooting a newborn at my home and my 3 year old has brought teddy bears and toys to shoot with, my oldest asked for a camera for his birthday last year and wants to be my assistant. As soon as he is old enough to do so, I will absolutely hire him as my second shooter!
Is there something you hope your children learn from you by having a creative business?
I hope they will learn that there are many ways to be creative. I hope they will learn self motivation, which is something I myself struggle with. I hope they will learn they can make their own paths and that there are many branches of creative jobs in one area. It never occurred to me that I could do anything but act and be happy. As it turns out, I can. I hope they will learn that even if you don’t go pro playing baseball you might just find yourself happier being the manager, the commentator, or the coach.
What advice would you offer the mom who feels drained by the demands of motherhood and wants more hands-on creativity in her life?
Be kind to yourself. Set long term goals. Most importantly it is NOT SELFISH to have a pursuit of your own outside of rearing your children. In fact I firmly believe that it is beneficial for children to see both mother and father involved in things that do not include them. I think too often we still hand over our entire identity in exchange for the job of mother, and it’s beautiful job, the best in the world, but it needs to add to our whole experience of life, not cause us to shut out everything else. We need to let go of the guilt attached to doing this and embrace that being a well rounded person with many different interests and activities is in fact a great blessing to our children both as they grow and when they are grown.
Thank you so much, Stephanie, for sharing your thoughts with us today! You can find Stephanie in the following places: