Feature – Working Artists Far Away from Family: How Do You Start a Family of Your Own?

Lyn Gardner is calling for childcare reform in the theatre industry. In an article in The Guardian, she points out the need for childcare in the evenings to enable those working in theatre to do their jobs. As a parent herself, she states she, “would probably have dropped out too if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have willing parents nearby who could help out.” Natasha Tripney wrote a response in The Stage, interviewing two women working in theatre. The first quickly gives all the credit to her parents. The second, who co-runs a theatre company with her husband, also has childcare support from her parents. What also helps is that both women are established enough to be able to afford nannies and a couple of days at nursery. Parenting whilst working in the arts is clearly a possibility, particularly if you have family willing to share the responsibility of childcare and you are established in your. But what about those that do not have local familial support and do not have consistent work and income?

I am chatting with David, a box office assistant at a West End theatre, about the challenges of being a parent who works in theatre. Though he does not have the added complication of freelance work, shift work and late nights make childcare a micro-managed challenge. He says that as part of a small team, it can be tough to leave a shift even ten minutes early, but so far, he has not needed to make any major or last-minute demands. When I asked if parenting would be impossible without the routine of his partner’s nine-to-five, he replied, “Yes! Absolutely. Without the stability of one parent’s timetable to work around, it would be impossible for the children to manage all the changes shift work requires.”

David and his partner do not have a network of family to call on for childcare support. They rely on a good income and regular hours from one of them to enable the other to work in the arts. But what about the rest of us? Where are the freelancing couples that don’t earn enough to pay for childcare or have immediate family close by? This is a question I contemplate regularly as a thirty-something half of an arts working couple that would like to start a family, not one day, but soon. Sometimes I wonder if I’m fretting over nothing and if I should take the advice of well-intentioned friends and, “just go for it because it will all work out in the end.” Then I remember that my partner and I can’t even afford to rent a one-bedroom flat, let alone one large enough for raising a child. I cannot imagine my housemates would be pleased to share with a newborn.

Surely there must be others out there in similar situations. After a twitter and facebook callout, several responses reassured me that I wasn’t alone and reiterated a need for a cheap or free, flexible solution that those of us without family nearby can use without having to compromise our careers. I spoke to Laura, an actor in London and Sarah, an actor and artistic director of a company she recently founded in Manchester. Neither of them have children, but are in committed, long term relationships and hope to start families within a few years.

When asked what they would need to enable them to have children, Sarah immediately stated, “Access to free childcare! Regular free, or at least cheap, childcare!” Laura looks at the unreliability of her own income. She requires “a huge boost in notoriety…which would enable me to have a larger and more stable regular income or I’d have to give up my career for a family.” Money is clearly the problem. Cheap isn’t good enough, particularly in London with costs of living rising so steeply in comparison to wages. There isn’t much government support for self-employed people either, so financial support during maternity leave and early years is minimal.

What about taking a child to work with you? After all, the arts have the benefit of flexibility. Laura works a range of jobs to keep money coming in, including being “a massage therapist, science teacher, children’s entertainer, cabaret performer, corporate and events actor” in between acting roles. Looking at the responsibilities of these jobs, it’s clear that the majority of these roles would not suit having an infant or small child present. Of course, actors with financial stability and no need to day-job would be less affected by this. Sarah has her own company, but “I work from home…but I’m working, I can’t look after a child at the same time. I can’t be writing an Arts Council application whilst my 2 year old is downstairs putting their finger in a plug socket.” Something has to give, and it’s either work productivity or a level of attentiveness required from a parent.

Cameron’s government wants to increase the availability of childcare for working parents of three and four-year-olds. Whilst I question the sustainability of this in practice due to an already-stretched child workforce, this still doesn’t help aspiring theatre parents of children younger than three. What if you need someone to look after your infant whilst you pop to an audition for a few hours, but you can’t afford a babysitter, your partner’s working and your parents aren’t local? We may like to think we can rely on friends, but considering my own friends’ lives, they will most likely be working, busy or expect some sort of payment that I wouldn’t be able to afford.

Sarah imagines a formalized, local network of parents who work in the arts. When joining, you commit to exchanging free childcare services on an as-needed basis and sharing your contact details with everyone else. “For example, if you have a job last minute you could contact people on the list and see if they could mind your child for free whilst you took the work, then you would return the favour with their child.” There could be meetups, socials and so forth to add an element beneficial to the members’ creative work rather than just focusing on childcare. This model isn’t flawless in practice, however. Such a network would need to be large enough to make the chance of not finding anyone available incredibly slim. Parents would need to have contact details pre-programmed in their phones so they could send one text out to everyone, otherwise it could take up precious time needed to get ready and get to that crucial audition/interview/meeting. The network would need to cover a fairly small geographic area, otherwise the total travel time would become unworkable.

These issues return us to the root causes of this problem: the gap between the cost of living and childcare, and the generally low income of jobbing artists is widening. Government subsidies for the self-employed are not enough, either in quantity or flexibility. Artists who live near their families or earn enough to pay for childcare may not be in the minority of creative parents, but there is an invisible demographic of the arts world that want to start a family but their current circumstances make it impossible to do so without compromising their career aspirations. None of the artists I spoke to had any concrete solutions that would enable them to become a parent whilst maintaining a career in the arts, and neither do I. Meanwhile, I feel like my time to become a parent is rapidly diminishing in a world of ever-increasing financial instability. I therefore need to open the question outwards: what do we do about low-income artists that want to start a family and don’t have family able to assist with childcare?

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