LAMF: TESSA VALYOU

Holy hiatus! Like a Mother Fucker is NOT dead. And neither is this blog, but that's a post for another day. To refresh your memory, LAMF is an interview series inspired by women who are momming and….running a business, writing, racing, designing, creating. Read Becki Spellman's LAMF interview here.

This series was inspired by own interest in how other moms “do it” (I refuse to use the word “all”) and by a moment of clarity while listening to Magic Lessons podcast. A mom wrote in riddled with guilt about not devoting everything to her kids because she also wanted to write a novel. Cheryl Strayed (the guest that week) responded that she needed to write that novel, and she needed to write it like a Mother. Or more accurately like a Mother fucker.

So the goal is two fold, to celebrate the MF, and to also open up a view into the real, real life of what motherhood (and life) looks like for different people. 

This round of LAMF I’m interviewing Tessa Valyou. Tessa is a mom of two, designer, business owner, #girlboss, runner and blogger living in Vermont. I have followed her for years on social media and brought her bags into Oiselle during my time there. I’ve considered moving to Vermont just so we could be friends IRL (only mostly joking). I admire her as a designer and creator, but also really admire the open curiosity, humor and grace that she approaches parenting. 

I had a lot of Qs! And I'm not cutting it down. I'm not sorry.  

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So let’s start at the beginning…where are you from? Where did you go to school?
I grew up in upstate NY and went to Saratoga Springs High School. By the time I was looking at colleges I was looking to run D1 and hopefully with a scholarship. I applied to one school, University of Vermont. Thankfully they accepted me! So I spent the next 4.5 years at UVM running and trying to figure out a major and career path I might be interested in.

Did you always know you wanted to create? Would young Tessa be in love with your life now?
My dad was a HS art teacher and always an artist/builder. My mom was a Special Education teacher and always loved to sew/knit/cook/bake/garden… all the good stuff.  So there was always creative expression going on at home and a lot of freedom to experiment. I always gravitated towards the crafts side of things. My mom taught me to sew and I loved to create pieces for my doll house and baby dolls.

I should have known there was a business side to me too. I used to LOVE selling my things at garage sales and making jewelry from beads, I would get a natural high from making a sale.

I seemed to always be happiest if I was moving and making with my hands. I was this tiny, stubborn, bold girl until middle school when I became very very quiet. Now I know, I am naturally introverted, but I really struggled in big groups at the time and didn’t know why. That’s why I liked my quiet art classes, and running teams. I really came out of my shell in small groups like that.

Even through college I had NO idea what I was going to do as a career, I was interested in so many things; Veterinary Medicine, Professional Running, Coaching,  Art Education, Health Education, Sociology, Writing, and Athletic Medicine.

Your husband is also an artist, did you meet in school?
We did! I was a Junior and he was a Freshman at UVM. His best friend was on the XC team with me and he would always come along to track and XC parties. We slowly got together over the course of a year and have been together ever since! I remember he even pretended to be a runner (he ran hurdles in HS) to go for a run with me as a first date. We did end up taking an Art class or two together in college. He took screenprinting in his last semester and fell in love with it. Thank goodness!


And you two got married when? 
October 2009.

Had you established your business(es) previous, or after you were married?
We started our business together in 2008. Torrey had been working at a Screenprint shop since college and we knew we wanted to open our own shop eventually. I was very unhappily working retail, so I figured we had nothing to lose. It was the start of the recession too and as our accountant friend told us we had nowhere to go but up! We had such few expenses and responsibilities back then, I knew it was better to start it when the pressure was low. We had friends and family on both sides of the idea, but I think in our guts we just knew it was the right decision and went for it.

You and your husband are both artists and designers; he is the head of New Duds, while you run Foliage Handbags?
It’s funny, on the paperwork it says I am the President of New Duds Inc. We are 50/50 on paper.  When we started in 2008 we thought we would mostly sell our own line of shirts and printed products while taking on some custom printing as a money maker. Etsy was really growing then (where we sell most of our products) and we were riding that high. At the start we did both have our hands in all parts of the business. I am often coming up with shirt ideas and working on the colors, photo, selling while Torrey would illustrate and print them. As time went on we both realized how much custom screenprinting could help us reach our goals so Torrey really took charge of that side of the business. We got some free micro business counseling from a local city program around that time too that really helped. We made 5 and 10 year business and personal goals and tried to figure out the basic steps to get there.


I’ve run my handbag line as a separate product line, Foliage Handbags, since 2013. I had been making and selling them with our other products in New Duds for years. When we had our son I ended up shifting to things home and working on my sewing line until we got childcare figured out. That in turn meant Torrey HAD to hire someone to replace me at the shop and we were growing so we were at a tipping point there anyway. It all worked out in the end but there have been growing pains and ‘discussions’ along the way. As I’m sure there will be in the future too!

I still have a little input into the New Duds screenprint shop. I work on our own line of shirts and do a lot of behind the scenes stuff with that. But we now have three printshop employees and I have my own part time sewing assistant so we have grown quite a bit!


You and your husband work together, parent together, obviously live together … what’s that like? How do you find your own space? Or is that even a need?
Oh yes, how do we spend so much time together?! We like to separate and divide our rolls at home and at work. Whoever is better at something, likes to do something, or just has more time for something, usually is in charge of that thing and the other person tries to BUTT OUT, ha! But we to work together on projects and bounce ideas off each other all the time.

Honestly the hardest part of our relationship so far has been when I went home to be with the kids and he kept going to work out of the house every day. I had to have lists, and I couldn’t control anything going on in the shop. I had to put more on his plate or ask him to do things for me I used to do myself. Then if he forgot or got overwhelmed it would all come to a head. I knew something wasn’t working, I knew I felt really overwhelmed, I kept thinking I just needed more help. I also had our kids close together so it felt like in so many ways I just wasn’t myself for a few years. But that forced us to figure it out, to make it work, to communicate again and again about it. I am too impatient to stew in anger, or on ideas. I like action, I like to DO things.

Its really, really good now. I needed to go back to work out of the house. For my sanity, our marriage and to keep our family strong and happy. I went back into the studio this past fall and work 4 days a week out of the house.

Have you ever worked for someone other than yourself?
I worked retail jobs for a few years in and out of college. I also was a XC coach. But I honestly found the social interaction of those jobs too draining. I love having the quiet creative time to recharge and be myself.

How many years had you had the business before you decided to start your family?
We started in our business in 2008, married in 2009 and had our son Wesley in 2012, then Lily came shortly after in 2014.


What does maternity leave look like for a self employed artist? Did you create rules around it?
This is the one thing I wish I could have figured out a bit more before we had our son. Seriously. What does it look like? Could someone have told me? It’s different for everyone. We had very little planned. If I could change one thing it would be to have some sort of childcare lined up for about 6 months out. In so many ways I am so happy we had the flexibility that I could stay home for a year with Wes and part time work until Lily was over a year old. That is so amazing, I know. If someone had told me ahead of time that would be the plan I would have been all for it. I think having a flexible return to work schedule would make a big difference in the Maternity and Paternity leave in the US. To go from full time home to full time work with a 3 month old (or less!) blows my mind.

But I had no intentions of staying home, I LOVED my job, very deeply, and found a lot of personal growth and strength from it. I just didn’t realize how much those first months were really on the mother, plain and simple. Also financially it made sense that I was the stay at home/work from home parent in our family.  But I really struggled with switching unexpectedly from work mode to mom mode. I would just get into a project and nap time would be over or I had to shut myself in my sewing room after the kids went to bed. I wanted to enjoy my time at home with my kids and not feel guilty if I watched a show or went for a run in my free time instead of squeezing in a few more hours of work. Thankfully my Mother in law became available to watch the kids a few days a week and a year later we added on two more days of childcare.


What surprised you most about that first year?
That you can’t just put a baby in a pack in play and look on from the other side of the room while you work. I had no idea how babies worked. Man I love those little chub muffins so, so damn much. But that is the JOB, the roller coaster JOB of the century, parenting. We would sometime joke between Torrey and I that we have cycled through ALL THE EMOTIONS twice before we even leave the house in the morning. Both us and the kids! But the reality is the best things in life are really hard, and even really boring at times, but they also are reviving and joyful. Watching a human being develop from nothing is one of the most amazing things I could ever witness and be a part of.

How old was Wes when you decided to have your second?
Lily was a Christmas surprise. Wes was 13 months, I had JUST had my first period back, we were trying to be careful, I had just said how crazy it was that a friend was having two under two… and then… insert foot in mouth. It was the best damn surprise ever, but it took a little getting used to.

How has it changed things to have two?
The best parts: It goes by really fast, you know it doesn’t last forever, you really soak in that baby chub, I had little fear we were baby pros at that point, you have all the stuff, and SIBLINGS! The worst parts: It goes by really fast, you know it doesn’t last forever, the baby chub still wears off, I have no idea what to do with SIBLINGS.

And what surprised you about that transition?
I am surprised at what a head game it is mostly. How people have been doing this forever but sometimes I think, “how the hell?” I’m surprised I am keeping a few boxes of baby stuff, I am surprised Lily may be my last baby. I think we won’t have another child, but I don’t think I could ever feel 100% done with that decision. Even with all the hard, and all the mess, I feel like as long as I can have children something deep down in my biology will want another.

I am surprised at the emotion, connection to mortality, passing of time and grief in the strangest places. I feel sometimes like a kid still, like a teenager still, like a 20 something still. I don’t always feel adult enough to be an adult. Bringing out old toys and books, going to playgrounds and libraries, blowing milk bubbles, play dough… it just brings back so many parts of my past into the present. Thinking about how much my grandmother would have loved Lily. How much I wish so deeply all my grandparents could play with my children even though most of them have passed.  So many times I say to myself “I still can’t believe I even have one kid… and I have two!” I still walk up the stairs to turn off their night light and think… “How is this my life?” in the best, best way. “How did we go from no kids to TWO HUMAN BEINGS WE MADE, LIVING IN OUR HOUSE, WE ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR?!” It will always blow my mind.


And aside from your life as an artist, you’re also a long time competitive runner. Those lifestyles don’t always go hand-in-hand, how do those passions relate? Or do they?        
They don’t go hand in hand? No one told me that. Maybe that’s why it has been hard to do all the things?! No, really. I feel like... why not? I love running. It did so much for me as a developing person in my youth. It’s like I bumped into my perfect sport by accident. I joined the team because my Earth Science teacher was the coach and my brother had some girlfriends that were on the team. Little did I know I walked onto one of the best Cross Country teams in the nation and it would change my life forever. I really  missed the scheduled practice and teammates after it was over in college.

I took some down time since my last marathon in 2009. We were starting the business and starting our family. I spent those years just running a bit, when I could, no training plans. But then this past year I found Oiselle, and I found a desire to get some speed back in my legs. I was sick of slow slow runs that felt kind of crappy, I was sick of the 20lbs holding on of my 45lb pregnancy gain. So I got a coach and I made myself connect with other runners again and it worked. I have been training 5 days a week since Jan and am in LOVE again. I am so happy that I found a schedule that works for me to keep it in my life. Many times I thought if I can’t do this well then I don’t want to do it at all. I almost gave up on running so many times. But I have recently just wholeheartedly embraced my weaknesses. I do not run unless someone is telling me to, I do best with a scheduled time to work out. It’s no wonder I loved running on a team and have struggled post college without that. It doesn’t mean I love it any less than someone who can get up every day at 5am and pump out the miles alone. It just means I have to do it my way to succeed. 


Has your relationship with the sport changed after your babies?
I really struggled with the lack of energy I had pregnant, breastfeeding and postpartum. I felt like I needed to save every bit I could just to get through the day and be a decent (not grumpy) human. So that was hard to get running in too. It would just drain me. But once my daughter weaned and I went back to work I felt like I actually had more little moments to carve out for running. After work, in the evening, my day was more scheduled so I just added it in as something else to do.

What does an average day look like?
6:15 – 7:30 - One child wakes up and one of us will get up (we trade off mornings).
7:30 – Other parent wakes up.
7:30- 8:15 – Shower, quick eat, coffee, dressed, out the door.
8:30 – 9:00 - Daycare or grandma drop off, sometimes coffee shop stop.
9:00 - 4:00 -  Work in studio – 50-75% making bags, 50-25% photos, emails, shipping, brainstorming, folding shirts, cleaning, eating lunch, we try to work hard and efficient so we don't have to work long…
4:00pm – Run if Torrey is picking up the kids (we trade off that too).
5-5:30 - Everyone is home. Dinner for the kids, snacks for us.
6-7:00- Play time, bath time, snack time.
7:00-8:00 - Bedtimes for both kids.
8:00 on – Yoga, TV, emails, dinner for us.
10:00 -11:00 – In bed.

I almost always run in the evening and we plan them out at least a day ahead of time. If I wait for a free moment it won’t happen. Some days one of us goes in early or stays late, we just try to communicate those needs in advance so no one is surprised.

Is there any advice you’ve earned or been given that you want to pass along?
Ask for help, and say no to things, but never say no to help. Also be gentle on yourself. Go to bed early for a few nights if things are feeling overwhelming, you are probably chronically overtired. Don’t try to do everything, take stuff off your plate. Also have ladies nights with friends once a month or so. I am a huge advocate of date night being with another couple or some friends. We see each other enough, what we don’t do is see the ones we love outside our family. That laughter filled night does wonders.

DRAWN OUT

D

TESSA ONLINE + IRL
Foliage Handbags
New Duds
Run Tessa Blog

IG @foliagevt, @newduds 
Twitter @newduds
Facebook Foliage Handbags, New Duds

If you live in Seattle you can buy her Foliage x Oiselle collection at the Oiselle Flagship. If you live in Vermont, keep an eye out for her at Burlington City Arts and other local markets/collectives. 

Comments

  1. I absolutely loved these lines: I am surprised at the emotion, connection to mortality, passing of time and grief in the strangest places. I feel sometimes like a kid still, like a teenager still, like a 20 something still. I don’t always feel adult enough to be an adult. Bringing out old toys and books, going to playgrounds and libraries, blowing milk bubbles, play dough… it just brings back so many parts of my past into the present.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Wonderful interview and photos. Inspiring story!

    ReplyDelete

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