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Theatre Dance

How parenting artists make it work

Reflections on the process of parenthood and making art, by Clara Chow

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Published: 18 May 2022


Time taken : ~10mins

i. “I’m still learning.” – Seneca, 65AD

Being a parent and a writer—or, to the claim the word in its broadest sense, an artist—often feels like being pulled in separate directions. When the kids were younger, I made choices between being physically with or apart from them on writing residencies abroad. I weighed the opportunity costs of time away pursuing a Masters of Fine Arts in creative writing, versus time here witnessing their childhoods. Now that my two sons are teenagers, it is frequently a choice of being present, in the moment, with them in our home, or a world away in the next room having disappeared into fictional plots.

For the longest time, I have wrestled with whether making a different set of choices would have yielded different outcomes: Would I have become a better writer if…? Would my taciturn elder son, now silent and thoughtful at 16, be more forthcoming with me, if I hadn’t…? Would my books have benefitted from feedback of ghosts of workshops never attended? Would my children have stronger teeth and brighter shinier hair if I…? And so forth.

I suspect the truth of the matter is that it doesn’t matter, in the long run. I suspect we are who we are by a process of our egos rubbing daily against other people’s; that our relationships are built upon a thousand, million mundane interactions each hour. That I would—through trial and error—still be the sort of parent I am whether I stayed or left to make art; and that my children—give or take some nurturing—will still be who they are, the way they are born to be.

 

Parenting, like making art, is a process.

Marina Cashdan in What Artists Can Teach Us About Parenting, published on Artsy.net in 2017.

In the same article, American artist Rashid Johnson is quoted as saying, “In my work, I know that I’m not going to get everything right and I have to accept that certain things are going to be flawed, and those flaws are actually the things that sometimes make the work interesting. And as a parent, I can’t get everything right, and the things that I don’t get right may add color to [my son’s] life and experience in ways that are productive and actually good.”

Yes, let’s start with that. Because it’s a comforting place to start. That there are an infinite number of ways to parent while making art, to make art while caring for others, each as valid as the next. All that matters is that we care. That we let that love shape, but not define, us. That we focus on learning—about ourselves, our offspring—not guilt nor perfection.

ii. “If you want to be an artist with an international career, don’t have children” – Marina Abramović, 21st century

Many things have changed since I became a mother in 2006. Flexible work arrangements have become commonplace; work-from-home the new normal in these pandemic times. The distribution of caregiving and other domestic duties has become more equitable in many households.

A spoken word artist I met online eschews prestigious residencies that bar children; instead, she takes her son and daughter to literary festivals, relying on the kindness of friends to keep an eye on them while she performs. Another writer friend rents an office to work uninterrupted on her novel after dropping the kids at school. We do what we can to keep creating and invest in ourselves as creators.

Perhaps the most significant change is a confident communal response to the challenges of parenting while being artists, as opposed to the quiet individual choices of just a generation ago.

Co-director of Derring-Do Dance, Faye Lim, helped set up an informal community of parenting artists on Facebook two years ago. “Parenting Artists| Parenthood in the Arts (SG)”, a private group for artists and arts/culture workers in Singapore, currently has 102 members.

“Anecdotally, just having people in the group discussing stuff such as paternity and maternity leave for self-employed people, how to get access to paid childcare leave; people offering encouragement to each other, like, oh, you know, call this hotline, I think these are some of the ways that you can feel a bit less alone,” says Lim. “This kind of information might not be so obvious. These technical nuts and bolts definitely helped me.”

The frank sharing of information on incorporating the cost of childcare into production budgets and other types of accommodations “gives people the confidence that they are not the only ones thinking about these things,” says Lim. Other issues mooted in both on- and offline conversations she has been a part of: adapting costumes to fit pregnant or post-partum performers and debunking myths about how becoming a parent kills your arts career.

<em>Letters Come Alive!</em> at <em>Octoburst! 2019</em>

As parent of a seven-year-old, Lim has found ways to include her child in her works. At two-and-a-half years old, her child toured with her on a dance production by Bernice Lee called Baby Baby Mama Bear (2017). “There was always a caregiver in the audience if they didn’t want to continue the show,” she says, adding that she and other parenting artists are looking into different interpretations and solutions in terms of performing together across ages. Her child also played an inspiring role in Letters Come Alive! by Rolypoly Family, which showed at  Esplanade’s Octoburst! in 2019. “My child was playing this game at home where they jumbled up a lot of letters and had a lot of pleasure in getting the pronunciation jumbled, and that became a game in our show.”

“As my child grew older,” says Lim, “their sense of autonomy and self-determination became stronger, and we made sure that when they are not comfortable, when they don’t want to contribute any more, or wants to retain ownership of certain things, we respected their views and opinions.”

The existence of informal networks like the one Lim co-moderates has made it easier for parent-artists here to connect with like-minded collaborators.

“From the moment I got pregnant, I was determined that my deep wish to be a parent was not going to compromise my identity as an artist,” says dance artist, film-maker and arts journalist Chan Sze-Wei, who has a three-year-old son. “I looked for spaces and collaborators who were open to working with and around the different states of my body and the developmental stages of my child.” At six months old, their son was on a residency with them at Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia, followed by a somatics course with them in the UK at the age of one. “My kiddo is often in studios with me, or when I need him out of the way his other mum will bring him along to the studio to pick me up at the end of the day and he will run around.”

Sze and son.

How have things changed over the last decade in terms of how the arts industry views working with performers who are also parents? Chan—a panellist on Gestation: How has parenting shifted the way that you think about the practices of the future? during the Singapore Art Week 2022 dialogues in January—says they used to hardly see children or families in the studio or theatre, “The dancers who I held in awe were the ballerinas and contemporary dancers who returned to the studio and stage in just two or three months after delivery, looking like nothing had changed.”

“Today, there are many more independent dance practitioners,” they add. “Perhaps this also gives those of us who are parents and independents, the space to shape our own working environments. I'm very grateful for the growing support networks and number of dialogues. I found the confidence to shape my own practices from observing other artists bringing children into their working environments – friends in Sweden, France, and locally Faye Lim! I try to ask whenever I can, if I can bring my kid along to rehearsals and informal showings. Of course, there are times when it’s not appropriate. I have also never tried to bring kiddo when I'm on a shoot. But in dance, music and performance art environments, I've been pleasantly surprised at how many fellow artists have been delighted to welcome us.”

Similarly, Glasgow-based choreographer Natasha Gilmore, a single mother to three children, told me recently that “being unapologetic about my parenting needs is an important attitude for me to have to enable me to receive appropriate support”. And while she is sensitive to the nature of events, she does not feel the need to ask permission to bring her baby with her to effectively social occasions, such as launches and talks (she’s given several with a kid in a sling).

Images from <em>Family Portrait</em> at <em>March On 2022</em>, created by Natasha Gilmore and featuring her three children.

“I strongly believe we need to improve access for parents in the theatre sector and develop a deeper understanding of what the needs are for practitioners with children,” she added. “Often schedules with very long hours, a six-day working week etc., are inappropriate for parents.”

As a case study for the Parents and Carers in Performing Arts (PiPA) campaign in the UK, Gilmore advocated that when negotiating a work contract, it is important to clearly outline your needs and limits in relation to parenting and childcare, and have them agreed to before you accept a job. Barrowland Ballet, the company she founded, has received funding from the Scottish government to test the implementation of “Care Riders”—a range of provisions such as adjustments to working roles, shared responsibilities, childcare and domestic support—to increase understanding and destigmatise the communication of these needs. PiPA also has a best practice charter, a set of guiding principles for professional performing arts organisations who wish to develop more inclusive and supportive working environments for caregivers. 

iii. “Stop comparing yourself to childless artists, especially ones with ascendant careers. When they air their petty grievances or self-promote, know that you are shaping a living spirit. Sure, that won’t get you a Pulitzer, or a solo show, or a grant, or into Sundance, but does a Pulitzer love you back? Don’t answer that question.” – Marco Kaye, 2019

For veteran actress and former arts Nominated Member of Parliament Janice Koh, the issue goes beyond campaigning for better treatment for parenting artists, but for equity for all freelance artists.

“There’s a lot to be done to look at the people working in this sector and what kind of protection they need,” says Koh, pointing out the lack of basic workmen’s compensation for performers or entertainers, or provisions for personal circumstances that prove disruptive to work, unless an individual has specifically negotiated for such clauses in a freelance contract. “Six or seven years ago, the Ministry of Manpower and NTUC became more interested in the freelance sector and they’ve made some inroads into making it better, but I just don’t think it’s as comprehensive as we need it to be.”

Looking back on the struggles of being freelance actress and a new mother, some 18 years ago—her sons are now 18 and 16—Koh says, “Even applying for the kind of work subsidies that working mums have access to, it was really hard. We didn’t fall into the neat categories that allowed us to apply for that kind of grant. You are paying hundreds of dollars a month for childcare, and working mums could apply for subsidy, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have a full-time job. It’s worth looking at whether that has changed. It felt like that was the penalty I had to pay for being freelance. And yet we needed so much more because our job was uncertain.”

Janice with her sons.

Yet, at the end of the day, as a freelance artist, how much time you want to spend with your child was up to you and you made it work accordingly. “During this crunch period, when the child is in their formative years, how you want to live your life is really up to the individual. Even if there are policies to support you, and there are creches at major arts companies,” says Koh. She made the decision to take on more television roles and voiceover jobs between 2004 and 2010, while her children were little, as it was easier in terms of scheduling than theatre. Even then, she recalls, between theatre and Parliament, there were two or three years when she hardly saw her sons at all. “Live arts can be very punishing to have children, because of that non-negotiable time frame. Tickets have to be sold, so even if you’re sick you have to turn up. I understood the nature of that.”

“For me, because I have support at home, it has never been such a big issues. But for those who don’t, they have to be aware of how their lives are going to play out.”

Still, being a parent has influenced her art “enormously and deeply”.

“A lot of the work that I do draws from my own personal experience and life experiences,” says the actress, who will be seen next onstage in project SALOME at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. “Certainly having children and taking care of a family, that transforms you significantly, hopefully for the better. All the work that I’ve approached, there’s a lot more that I draw from, just because my life has expanded and my heart has expanded, and my own perspectives have changed. That doesn’t mean any artist who does not have children doesn’t have that. A lot of work that I do with Pangdemonium, whether it’s Rabbit Hole, the grief of the loss of a child, to The Mother, definitely in those kinds of productions, it helps significantly that I have a point of view and that comes from my own personal experience—my own real pain, thoughts, fears and anxieties as a parent.” 

Janice in <em>Rabbit Hole</em> and <em>The Mother</em>. Photos by Crispian Chan, courtesy of Pangdemonium.

Likewise, dance artist Chan made a deliberate choice to shift from live performance to film in 2015, to give themselves more flexibility for the family they were planning, “Pre-baby injuries and then pregnancy also made me decide not to try to continue with strenuous performing jobs.”

On how being a parent has changed their practice, Chan says, “The nature of my film and choreographic work hasn't changed so much, but my process definitely has. I’m also seeking out collaborators who are also parents or welcoming of my schedule and needs. There’s also a more playful aspect to my work. I'm already a playful person/creator in general, but I get a lot of inspiration from facilitating my kiddo’s imagination.”

Parenthood, says Lim, has made her reflect on boundaries: Figuring out what is negotiable and what is not as far as she and her art are concerned, now that she has a child dependent. “It’s been so much more important for me now, like, what that process of art-making is like. For everybody. How does the institution you work with take care of us and itself? How do we bring what we want to bring to the work, take care of each other and disrupt? You know, make something glorious together.”

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