I am a writer, director and run my own midscale touring theatre company. I am also a mother of two small boys aged 6 and 4. Both 'careers' are tough, emotionally draining and financially unrewarding but I chose and continue to embrace both of those roles. My husband is also a freelance artist and runs the company with me, which brings its own struggles. It's a reality we've both willingly created so we accept the many challenges that come with juggling making art and having children, but time and time again I'm approached by women artists anxious about whether it's possible to do both and who feel unable to start a family. I've written on this topic a lot over the years but I thought some tangible practical tips might help (and hopefully be broad enough to apply to those with caring responsibilities more generally, and to arts careers beyond the narrow scope of theatre).
All of this requires huge resources of energy and self-belief, and I'm well aware that those two things are themselves huge challenges for artists, even without caring responsibilities. But hopefully there will be at least one tip in here that may help you see that it could be possible for you.
1. Create and cultivate a network of support (unpaid) Not everyone has family nearby who can help out with child care but you can create a family. When we just had one child I invented 'Noah club' and would share requests for help on Facebook for anyone who wanted to entertain a baby for a few hours. At that stage of my career I wasn't in a position to pay for childcare (even now the reality is that paid childcare equates to what I'm paid as a director so very often on a directing gig I come out on zero). I was happy for Noah to go to anyone and he became one of those babies that would happily go to anyone because that was all he'd ever known. I once dropped him off at a fellow director's house for an entire day (and this director was someone I had met literally once). It requires a level of trust in the basic goodness of humanity. But you know what - babies are very resilient. And hopefully your friends (and that random director you met once) are trustworthy. Crucially - I never felt guilty about this. Those people offered to give up their time freely and often were hugely grateful to test out their potential caring skills. Genuinely. And your child gets a wide and varied tapestry of life experiences. This is particularly easy to manage if you have a short meeting in a central location where you just need that hour or 90 minutes of clear head sans baby and a friend can just take them to the cafe next door or go for a walk.
2. Create and cultivate a network of support (paid). It's not quite so easy to get freebie childcare once you have multiple children so once I had my second son we started offering money (we pay £10 an hour). The network got smaller but we now have a dozen fellow arts professionals who we call on for school pick ups and also longer stints. Again the children love it - each babysitter brings with them a set of skills and interests that gives them huge variety. 'Lego Tom' who's actually a very successful theatre director (even the best directors have quiet periods) recently came to live in our flat for an entire week while my husband and I were in tech opening a show in Exeter [extra tip don't run a theatre company / work with your partner because it does mean tech time is super intense for childcare]. They had the time of their lives and even had a sleepover at his house and a trip to the Lego store (thanks for that Lego Tom) and did some epic lego building.
3. Take them with you. This is a choice (Well this is all a choice) but it's eminently possible to take your children with you into many arts environments - before they're mobile or verbal it's easy enough to have them in meetings or even rehearsals. I'll never forgot the meeting we had with the Arts Council where 12 week old Noah did the kind of poo that leaks everywhere. I lovingly handed him to my husband who took him outside to change (though not before the poo had leaked all over his shorts) and carried on with our impassioned plea for funding. That's one instance where it was super helpful to be running a company with my husband. But create your own systems that work for you - I breastfed through press interviews, I breastfed through conferences, I had them in rehearsals when they were tiny. For me the visibility of my children in my process is as much a political statement as a financial necessity. Of course it's easier to create your reality when you're in a leadership role but there will be enough parents and allies around you that you can always ask for help. The culture around the visibility of babies and children in a working arts environment is changing and it can be a beautiful and empowering thing to have them present. It's still hard though so no one should feel like they're failing because they aren't simultaneously rewriting that Arts Council application whilst in labour [that is another thing I would not recommend* even if your labour lasts 48 hours so you've got some time to kill.]
4. You can cook fish fingers in the toaster (if you have one of those folding metal baskets that slot into the wide bits of toasters). That's just a straight up life hack but useful in the same way as anything that saves you time is useful when juggling a full time caring role with a full time arts career.
5. Separate your guilt from their emotional distress. I have never met a care giver who doesn't struggle to navigate the guilt you feel when you prioritise your work over your caring responsibilities (or vice versa). This can feel very painful when confronted with a child in distress. After working a 90 hour week in Exeter, away from my children, opening my latest show I had 48 hours with them before embarking on another 90 hour week. They watched the show with my husband (while I sat hidden, in another part of the theatre so I could focus on noting the show) then we spent the following day together before travelling back to London on the train. During the journey a series of unforeseen events arose that meant I had to take them home then immediately turn round and travel straight back to Exeter. I let them know that I wouldn’t be putting them to bed that night after all (bedtime is so loaded with emotions isn’t) and my eldest child burst into tears. It broke my heart. But the reality is that now, three weeks later they have completely forgotten those extra few hours spent with a babysitter (thank you Adam) and it's a complete non issue for them. I can continue feeling guilty about upsetting my children or I can let it go. I haven't fully let it go yet - but I'm 70% there. Then I remember that my younger child will sometimes burst into tears if he can’t eat his breakfast with a specific spoon. We're not responsible for the emotional reactions of other people, and besides which giving children opportunities to feel and process difficult emotions is a valuable and necessary part of care giving. Or at least these are the mantras I tell myself to help work through those moments of maternal guilt.
6. Force yourself to take care of yourself. It's so easy to fall into sacrifice and martyrdom being a care giver and being an artist. Just being either one of those, let alone both. The overworked tired mother, the struggling penniless artist. I can fall into these roles/traps all the time but I know that beyond a certain point my emotional/mental health and cognitive function will start to suffer. And my work suffers and my children suffer. During rehearsals I get up at 6am with the kids and am either with them or rehearsing/in meetings, then with them, then after their bedtime catching up on emails until midnight. It’s pretty full on. And occasionally it's too much - you can never predict those nights when the kids wet the bed or wake with a nightmare. In fact you can predict they will always fall in the middle of your busiest rehearsal period. I can function happily, merrily, on 4-6 hours sleep for 6-8 week stints (being in rehearsals gives me extra energy - I’m sure other artists feel the same - that’s the time we’re most alive). But if I have only 2-3 hours sleep I'm a mess so I make myself go stay elsewhere for a night (thank you to my lovely twin brother Daniel who lives down the road) I don't work for an evening, I get off Facebook and I sleep. I might even have a bath! And then sleep. I appreciate it's even tougher to navigate self care if you're the sole carer, in which case I would say tips 1 and 2 are even more important. People will help you if you ask for help (and/or pay them). Don't burn out. And also in the same vein - stay hydrated and make sure you always have healthy snacks in your bag. And on your desk.
7. Believe. Believe that you can do it. Because you can. The biggest gift my mother gave me (and my many siblings) was the gift of self belief. I have terrifying levels of self belief and I've had that all my life (thanks mum). I spend a lot of time encouraging other artists, especially women, to believe they have the capacity to do that thing, direct that show, start that family - all at the same time. And every time someone tells me I can't do something, every time that Artistic Director questions whether I'm 'ready' to direct on one of his larger stages, all it does is fuel the fire of my self belief and desire to prove him wrong. Anyone who doubts you gives you that gift to work harder and prove them wrong. If you doubt yourself, doubt your own capacity - then you can prove yourself wrong! You just create more capacity. Living through a decade of austerity means we're all a bit entrenched in a scarcity mindset - the idea that there isn't enough money, there aren't enough opportunities, there's just not enough to go around. I even worried when having my second child that I wouldn't have enough love - as though the love would have to be shared between my two children. But our capacity to love expands, it's infinite. Just like our capacity to create. Yes physical resources are tangible and finite, but belief in that idea is never helpful to the artist or the carer - it forces us into competition with each other (or with ourselves over our capacity to be both an artist and a mother). You do have the capacity - you will create the capacity. It is tough, it is draining but it is possible. Now go and make something happen. You can do it.
*You'll be glad to hear we got that funding, so spending two hours of my labour rewriting the application was definitely worth it.
- By Poppy Burton-Morgan: Writer, Director and Artistic Director of Metta Theatre (Poppy’s latest musical In The Willows is currently touring around the UK until June 2019- go to www.inthewillows.info for more info.)
If you found this interesting then have a look at these other articles on freelancing’