Many of us take years to find what we love to do. Maura Stoffer discovered her passion for photography in high school and turned it into a flourishing business. Her business launched just as Instagram was exploding — and she embraced all the opportunities that were presented to her. Now, alongside her husband, Maura shoots beautiful weddings and interiors and juggles parenting her two children.
Here, she tells us how she handles maternity leave and childcare as a small business owner, what parenting changes she made when her second child arrived, and how she and her husband manage their life as partners in business and in life.
What was your first job and how did you land it?
My first job out of college was a preschool teacher’s assistant. My little sisters attended the preschool at the time so my mom knew of the need and encouraged me to apply for the job. I grew up with a lot of siblings, most younger than me, so I’ve been caring for children from a very young age, which was my only experience because I studied communications in school. I worked there for 2.5 years while shooting weddings on the weekends. It was hard. Children take a lot of constant energy! I was often drained.
How did you come across photography and what motivated you to pursue it as a career?
I came across photography in high school because I took a film photography class that captivated me. I immediately dreamed of being a photographer as my career, never really knowing that it was a possibility. I actually imagined being a starving artist very fondly. I loved printing in the darkroom — the quietness and creation that happened there. I wouldn’t say I ever pursued it as a career. I often would say I did not aspire to be a wedding photographer. But the opportunity to shoot weddings kept coming my way from friends and friends of friends that knew I was “into photography”. Looking back I am thankful I pushed through to shoot those weddings – which can be stressful at first — because I adore shooting weddings now!! Starting a career in photography almost had to start with weddings for me. It has enabled me to shoot so many other things because it teaches you so quickly. You learn the ins and outs of your camera and how to act fast and under pressure. It also taught me so many people skills. There’s nothing like being in the middle of an entire family on their most heightened day of emotions.
In addition to doing what you love, you also get to do it with the person you love – your husband, John (who you also grew up with). How has working with your husband impacted your relationship and what’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from it?
John and I are so thankful we get to do what we do. It has definitely been a journey, though, and one we continue to work on. We are both very driven and both like to dream. There has definitely been some competition between us in our business because of that. I think I felt an even bigger amount of competition because I’m a woman and most people tend to see and hear John first, which is strange when we are equal business owners. We have learned how to be on the same team and learned daily each of our duties and what we each excel at and focus on that. There is no use each doing the same thing, so we divide and conquer. Shoots are so much fun because we can work on our own thing and not wonder who does what, we can enjoy a wedding day or commercial or interior shoot because we’re comfortable. We know what’s expected of us. Daily, I run our wedding photography business and do the editing that comes with that and John runs our commercial side and edits those images and we shoot mostly together.
When we first started out working for ourselves (John a year after me), we had to work on spending time apart. We were together all the time. And we loved it! Don’t get me wrong. But we had to intentionally spend time apart and have learned the importance of it. Most couples have the opposite problem. It’s helped us to value this time apart even though we
crave being together.
As a photographer, you capture beautiful moments in categories that range from commercial and interior photography to weddings! Tell us the process of finding your own business and why it continues to be successful.
Thank you! When our business was being formed, we both worked day jobs. We weren’t expecting to have our own business that would create full-time work, especially one that could be a lifelong career. But because we were young and driven and interested in people and our city, we took on every opportunity that came our way. And it was fun! We worked part-time jobs during the week, shot and attended events in the evenings and shot weddings on the weekends. We put ourselves out there and pushed ourselves a lot. I think we kept our day jobs longer than we needed to because we weren’t used to the concept that we could work for ourselves at such a young age. Our business expanded when Instagram came onto the scene. It got our name out there and created an outlet to shoot something different. We became “art directors” and “models” and “marketers” in addition to photographers. We had fun with it at first because we had a reason to create an image
for the heck of it and wear all these hats ourselves. We started getting work from companies through Instagram and gained a lot of experience over the years. We became very interested in interior design when we remodeled our home a few years ago, which launched us into a season of shooting interiors, that we are so in love with today. All that to say, I think one of the reasons our business continues to be successful is because we move. We take on new opportunities and see the potential of excelling at those opportunities. A very wise Brad Pitt said once in World War Z (Yeah I just went there), “Those who move, survive. Movement is life”. And while this isn’t a quote I live by (and we aren’t being chased by zombies), I think there is something to it. We keep moving on to the next thing, get a sense for where photography is going, where interests are going, and grab on to those things to stay relevant and moving forward.
Do you have a favorite category of photos to shoot? Are there any photoshoots that are especially meaningful to you?
Women, I especially love photographing women. I like to think that I have the ability to make a woman feel so comfortable and beautiful and raw in front of my camera in a pretty effortless way. I think they feel striking and dreamy and are surprised by how true they feel. Like the self they want to share. It’s something I’m proud of.
Some photoshoots that have been especially meaningful to me are ones that are not for work. Ones where I’m shooting my children day to day, messy and real. Or a friend holding her stillborn baby in the hospital before she says goodbye. Or a small business, whose message has captivated me and I have complete creative freedom to create with no expectations. Raw and real. I love that. It can be so beautiful.
Can you tell us about the transition to becoming a working mom and what surprised you the most about it?
Well, I’m not sure if we planned this right or we are just lucky, but our children both came at the time of our “off-season” for weddings. Because of this, I was able to transition very slowly into being a working mom. By the time work picked up again, we had so much family around us willing to help with our daughter. My mom and sisters watched Frances during long wedding days and anyone and everyone would grab a shift here and there for other shoots or meetings. I remember a lot of people would say to me while we were hanging out, “I’d love to watch Frances anytime”. To which I would honestly reply, “Great. How about tomorrow morning”? One child is so much easier than two. We could bring Frances anywhere. Even to events and parties at night and she would just sleep on me. Two kids – one which is a toddler, is a little different!
What surprised me the most during the transition is the importance of time. I thought I’d be able to merge my two worlds — work and home life, but more and more I learned that I need to intentionally separate them so I can be fully present for both. I still like to include our children in almost everything in our lives, but it’s in their best interested and in the best interest of our family that I am fully present when I am with the kids. And it’s in the best interest of my work, that I am completely present for that as well. This usually means that I work a lot of late nights after my kids are in bed and choose to fully be with Frances and Brooks during the day.
How did you choose to handle maternity leave as a business owner?
Thankfully we had both our children during our slower season for weddings and around Christmas time, so I didn’t have editing to do on a regular basis and most people were taking a break as well. For about two months in both cases, I mostly just relaxed and got to know our new baby. After the initial week or so, I always took time to answer emails and have phone meetings but only here and there. When we had our first, we were shooting mostly weddings and I was fairly free to take my time easing back into work. But after our second, we were shooting a lot more commercial and branding photography, and because of my personality and comfort with Brooks (being our second baby), I jumped back in very quickly and excitedly and easily! I was very comfortable working with Brooks on my lap (or boob). We actually flew with the kids to California for our first wedding of the year when he was two months old and had a friend babysit during the wedding. He was a pretty uncomfortable baby and I felt so bad leaving him with someone else for so long but also knew he was ok just for one day. And we vacationed the rest of the time. Then when Brooks was three months old we shot a wedding in Canada and left him home with my mom for three nights. I pumped the entire time and flew home 100oz of breast milk. I was so scared he wouldn’t nurse anymore when I get home or that I would dry up. Or that security wouldn’t allow me to bring the milk on the flight. Everything went great though. Looking back I cannot believe it worked out so well and I’m so thankful for my mom that had Brooks for three nights when he was three months old and waking up every couple hours in the night! Thankfully our work is very much in sprints. So for every 12 hour shoot day or long weekend away, there’s a whole week I can be flexible and snuggle our babies all day long.
Does having children influence the way you capture photos? If so, how?
No, not really. But I find myself wanting to document them daily so I shoot a lot more these days.
Were there any personal or professional changes you found yourself making from your first child to your second?
When we had our second child, Brooks, I knew we needed structure right off the bat. With just one, we were able to squeeze by with someone watching Frances as a favor here and there, but two children are no longer a favor. It can be a lot! So we made plans for paid babysitting twice a week. I knew I wanted to separate family/work life since two children would require more attention and care (and fun!). I’m not naturally very structured at all, but having children is bringing that out in me — a little bit. On a personal level, I learned the importance of structure because our first craved it. And she loved it. And she thrived with it! She slept wonderfully right off the bat and learned her naps per day and 12 hours at night without me even teaching her. She just needed it! So I assumed it in full force with our second, thinking all babies were the same, and well, he needed it too, he just didn’t know it. It helps us all stay sane to expect sleep times. But we also can be a bit tied to the house during nap time now, but we’re all very happy and well rested!
Walk us through a typical workday.
No two days are ever the same. But mornings are typically the same in our house and are my favorite time of day. John gets up with the kids at 7:30 and makes coffee and gets Frances and Brooks breakfast. I wake up by 8:00. We drink our coffee while the kids play. Frances goes outside to get John’s newspaper. And I try to read a little something as I sit on the floor with the kids. A page or two is all usually since I am way happier just to be playing with the kids. During the nicer months, we typically go for a walk during this time. At 9:00, two days a week, we have a babysitter and head to a shoot or to Soho House for editing, emails, and meetings. The other three days a week just depend on what John and I have going on – we each take a day to get additional work done/schedule meetings/shoots/ have personal time. If I work from home, I only work during nap time and after the kids are in bed for the night. When I’m at home with Frances and Brooks I love setting time to play with cousins and aunts and uncles and go for lots of walks.
What is your current childcare situation? Do you have a backup plan if
My mom watches our kids two days a week. It is the sweetest feeling not having to worry about Frances and Brooks when I’m away from them because my mom loves them and cares for them so well. My sisters and friends are back up and graciously help all the time. I try to book shoots on days that we have childcare. In addition to my mom watching Frances and Brooks two days a week, John and I also each try to take another day working outside the house. It’s become very important to us in the last year to separate our work and home life.
Are there skills you’ve learned in your career that have helped you as a mother?
Not necessarily. But I’ve definitely been inspired as a mother through shooting weddings. We’ve shot so many couples that have amazing families. I love being present at a wedding and seeing a family interact. Moms and dads that have beautiful relationships with their grown children. It helps me visualize the relationship I want with my children.
With your creative career as a photographer and your responsibilities as a mother, where does your inspiration come from?
My husband. He’s a dreamer. I am too but I dream lofty dreams. He dreams dreams that can be achieved and helps make mine achievable.
My church inspires me to think beyond myself in every aspect of my life. To move beyond self-consumption and obsession and to think of my city, to be present and intentional in Chicago. I’m inspired and filled when I jog by myself. I’m practically dancing along, dreaming with the most unassuming playlist blasting in my ears. Probably the same song
for the seventh time in a row.
My children inspire me to stop and experience the now. To find beauty in the messy, little moments.
My parents inspire me every day to have grace and forgiveness and humility. My family enables everything I do by loving my children so well and encouraging me.
What advice do you have for expecting moms?
Every baby is so different. Try not to compare yourself and your experience. Just because something works for one mom doesn’t mean it is going to work for you. Because her baby sleeps and yours doesn’t does not mean you are doing something wrong. Because she nursed her baby for six months longer does not mean that was best for you and your baby. Because she didn’t have an epidural and calls her experience beautiful does not mean that yours wasn’t. Just be true to yourself as you walk into motherhood.
Maura Stoffer is The Everymom…
Best way to spend the weekend?
Sitting on the back deck while the kids play in the kiddie pool and I order pizza.
Camera equipment you can’t live without?
iPhone. But for real, my 35mm lens.
Go-to snack for your children?
Vegetable and fruit squeeze pouches
Setting for a perfect photo shoot?
Morning light. Big windows. White walls. Clean.
Favorite part of being a mom?
Bedtime. I love putting my babies to sleep. Rocking them and feeding them when they’re young – three times a day for naps and at night. Neither of my babies are big cuddlers, but before bed, they are.