Invisible Leaders and Creating Support for the Parent Artist
A Conversation on Research, Visibility, and Inclusion
In the fight for diversity, equity, and inclusion, creating platforms that give voice to the nuanced experience of all parents will identify how the theatre culture at large can act to make better pathways back in for those left out of the discussion, thus directly affecting the pipeline, content, and population of our craft. The Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL) is a national resource hub and all-parent, all-discipline league advocating for a national standard of best practices for parents in the performing arts. This HowlRound series builds on the work of PAAL and will cover challenges faced by parent artists and offer some solutions and advice.—Rachel Spencer Hewitt, series curator.
The power of research can stay relevant only if what and who we illuminate in the gathered data also identifies what and who remains to be discovered. A researcher’s aim, often, is to then embark on the undiscovered territory as a key next step in fully understanding the data gathered before. While research into gender inequity makes profound strides, the current state of parent-artist sustainability stands detached from the conversations surrounding inclusion. How can research play a role in creating a bridge between the parent-artist experiencing isolation and the solutions recommended for equity and parity? Research can provide revelations of what the next investigation must be. When a recent, illuminating study revealed a culture of silence around motherhood, Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts (PAAL) committed to launching its national network by breaking the silence on motherhood across the country, calling not only for experiences and discriminatory practices, but also creative opportunities and solutions that could be replicated for all performing artist parents across the United States. Below is a conversation between researcher Ineke Ceder and parent-artist Catherine Mueller Melwani about the necessity of future research into parent artists with the goal of developing best practices and action plans that benefit inclusive practices and sustainable life for theatre artists.
Why Can No One Find Me?
Ineke Ceder: Recently, my colleague Sumru Erkut and I published the results of our study, funded by the Toulmin Foundation, Valentine Foundation, Wellesley Centers for Women, and individual donors, on why there are so few women leading the larger resident theatres in the US.
If you expect to find a chapter in our report on how parents in the field see their career being affected by childcare responsibilities, you would come away empty. We encountered reluctance among participants to talk about this issue. “Women are trained, at least in my field, to shut up when they have children, because it is a liability. You won’t get the job!” was the explanation of one of our female interviewees. If we cannot gather stories or data on a particular issue, the issue remains hidden. Those who need to have it addressed are kept away from the conversation, because access to the table has been closed off; and those who may have resources to share, may not know how to reach the ones who became hidden and are in need of support.
Catherine Mueller Melwani: I am the woman that Ineke’s study wanted to find but could not find. I am the woman that falls between the cracks because I am not claimed by an institution or governing body. I am a freelance actor, director, and educator who runs a laboratory in Lower Manhattan for artists to have access to play, space, and support for their process. I have worked in academia and with my own companies. I have performed, taught, or trained in places as diverse as Groovtlei, South Africa, Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Paris, France. I am lucky that I have gotten to do so much making, largely on my own terms. I also have a child under the age of one in my home. With the advent of this event, it is as if my making prospects disappeared, with the exception of those I initiated myself. This stems from a well-honed societal perception that “a new mother will get in touch when she is ready to get in touch, when she feels like it, that she must really be enjoying nesting and who wants to bother her in her blissful nest of nursing and nappies and we’re sure she doesn’t want to be in rehearsal for anything right now plus her schedule will be complicated won’t it so we should instead hire an enthusiastic twenty-seven-year-old fresh from grad school who won’t complain about long hours, little pay, and will enthusiastically work for a line item on her resume.”
That women like me could not be located for Ineke’s study is not a surprise. We are very well hidden, working as adjuncts and freelancers; represented by two unions but ineligible for earnings-induced health insurance; making art on the margins of the grant/residency/awards cycle that anoints and approves of art. We have children. We have unusual bodies, female bodies, shaped bodies, that may or may not carry visible evidence of the lives we grew in them, but psychically are forever altered. We have opinions. We have time limits. We have very real financial restrictions. We have to think beyond ourselves all the time, about bottles and vaccines and diaper supplies; school pickup and ballet recitals; college applications and tuition. The mental load of a freelance artist is impressive in the first place. Add to that the mental load of being a freelance artist and a mother and we should all receive prizes for showing up on time in clothing free of any sweet potato puree.
I love a good study, and appreciate immensely that this one exists, but how do I even get asked the questions intended to include my voice if no one can find me in the first place?
The answer to erasing the silence around [parent artists] lies in addressing caregiving as an inclusion issue…making sure that all voices that a theatre’s mission calls to the stage feel they belong there, and that they can access the support systems they need so they can remain in the theatre as long as their passion for it inspires them.
Access Needs Pave the Way for Inclusion; Parents Are No Exception to this Principle
Ineke: If Cat did indeed get to answer questions about what she needs to function fully in the theatre field as a parent artist, she might, under the current circumstances, become the victim of an unintended consequence. Would she create the perception that she is unavailable for the type of work the theatre offers if she opens up about particular needs, the need for an extra room on location, a predictable schedule, a break to pick up a child or to breastfeed a baby? Would she still be taken seriously as a dedicated participant in the field? Would she be asked to explain why she “wants it all”?
The answer to erasing the silence around the issue lies in addressing caregiving as an inclusion issue, an exercise in making sure that all voices that a theatre’s mission calls to the stage feel they belong there, and that they can access the support systems they need so they can remain in the theatre as long as their passion for it inspires them. Keeping our eye on the mission of theatre to bring all of humanity to the stage and to represent each aspect of it ensures that we include all possible stories and all possible storytellers.
This inclusion work starts with finding someone for each new hire to connect with, someone who “gets them,” who has been there and done that, and makes “doing that” seem normal. Someone who can erase the shame that now surrounds mentioning motherhood/pregnancy, or, at the other end of life, the need to care for an elderly parent. Who can share resources. Who knows where to place that comfortable chair for breastfeeding employees. Who creates a two-way bridge for a person like Cat, so that Cat can continue to grow in and give from her own leadership position, and at the same time can access the supports she needs. In a word, professional mentorship. If a company does not have access to this individual with experience, they can connect with PAAL to find a mentor they can access for their employee’s provision or professional guidance for their own company.
There are simple conversations an HR person can have with employees so that parents can remain part of the field despite challenging work-life balance issues. For example, once someone is hired, start a conversation about whom they take care of in their families; make sure to ask the same question of anyone, regardless of age or gender. Repeat this conversation every year with each employee, with each freelancer. If there is no formal HR person on site, no previously codified process of this nature, or if someone is job-seeking, an advocacy organization such as PAAL can offer access to guidelines about rights, appropriate questions, and more.
Good-quality, accessible childcare is another equity issue and an issue of national economic stability. Childcare also represents an access issue: Employment is only accessible to those whose needs outside of that employment are met.
Everyone comes into every room with life circumstances that require management. When you are a caregiver for an infant, these circumstances are harder to hide. But folks managing elderly parents or personal illness are similarly fighting for balance. That we stigmatize mothers for asking for a room in which to nurse their children is ridiculous.
Cat: An advocacy group accessible to anyone in the performing arts is paramount. The needs of new parents go far beyond babysitting, though that would certainly and immensely help. The few art/theatre/mom forums I am part of are consistently filled with questions asking how we are supposed to make this work. Anything from contract concerns to timing work with a partner’s schedule to childcare to tantrum management to second pregnancies to postpartum body issues to How to Talk to Your Agent/Casting Director/Director/Costume Designer. We need each other. We are a vibrant subset (artist moms) of a huge set of people (moms) in the world, yet if it were not for one person within my own network of mother artists kindly adding me to one of these forums, I would have never known they existed. There is too much silence, too much secrecy, too much invisibility. If you ask why those things persist, look again at our country’s meagre to nonexistent embrace of the needs of mothers of young children, from maternal leave to access to healthcare to our culture’s obsession with tiny, fertile-but-not-yet-plucked female bodies, and you can begin to formulate a reasonable theory as to why we are not seen.
Needing more onsite childcare and childcare workers who understand the nuances of a working artist’s life, from the fluidity of tech rehearsal timing to the perils of inflexible audition scheduling, is a given. But we also need advocates within each organization to make sure the rights and requests of parents or caregivers are not seen as liabilities but accepted as needs addressed like any other, unexceptional in their nature but important to those with the need. Everyone comes into every room with life circumstances that require management. When you are a caregiver for an infant, these circumstances are harder to hide. But folks managing elderly parents or personal illness are similarly fighting for balance. That we stigmatize mothers for asking for a room in which to nurse their children is ridiculous. There is much work to be done.
Imagine with Me
Ineke: My hope is that the field will give this issue the attention it deserves now. There are a plethora of initiatives bringing equity to the field, in employment, in leadership, in what is on our stages, in who is in our audiences. One example is PAAL’s initiatives on producing pregnancy and postpartum handbooks that are discipline-specific.
All initiatives are enormous steps forward. Once they have mainstream acceptance and replication of recommendations, we will begin to have full inclusion of every voice.
As a researcher, my next step will be to collect data for decision makers related to caregiving by performing artists. How many people in the field are grappling with work-life balance issues due to parenthood? How many are grappling with other caregiving issues; what do those issues look like? Who are these employees? Is the field losing them? What are the hopes and dreams of these theatremakers? Who has come to their rescue and who needs help envisioning what such rescue could look like? The data are not available. This lack of a clear overview of who are affected by this issue partly lies at the base of the silence surrounding it, but also strengthens that silence. Once we have clear and solid data we can create a structured conversation around this topic and work toward lasting systemic change. If your foundation wants to join me on this journey, please find me so we can start this urgent work.
Cat: Imagine with me: You announce your pregnancy and boom! You are immediately granted membership to the fabled Parent Committee, the one you have long heard about from other parents, sponsored by the organization of choice to which you belong (union, theatre company, arts organization, university department, etc.), a beautiful, bountiful group of parents within your field who can connect you to the resources you need (pediatrics recommendations, afterschool programs, college saving funds). Professional counselors are also on hand to guide you through your experience, folks versed in asking the nuanced questions that might access a hidden need. You are automatically assigned an awesome, savvy person as your Parent Mentor, and this person takes the lead on your relationship so you don’t have to. This person is the kind of person who, when you meet her, you think Oh, wow! Why haven’t I known about you all along? This person asks after your health, your parenting strategy, your support system, your art, not in a nosy, fix-it way, but in a way that leaves you feeling like your industry gives a shit about you and your experience. Someone who understands your humanity as you grapple with the perils of first-time parenting but who also celebrates your humanity as you grow into your role with perspective and pleasure. Imagine if this kind of care and attention was standard for all new mothers, lasting through the first year of their parenting experience. How much more balanced and connected might some of us feel if we had someone to talk to on occasion who understood why we were worried about the cost of audition childcare, our fluctuating physical bodies, our hesitation regarding how to discuss our limited availability with our agents/casting directors/directors/cast members? Imagine if this caring attention was extended to every mother everywhere, regardless of the field in which she worked. What might be possible then?
One recent summer, I was supervising an ensemble of college-age theatre artists as part of an educational program that paired these emerging artists with artists engaged in residencies to develop new work for performance. I sensed a real anxiety among my students regarding artist sustainability. We began a conversation with the resident artists that lasted throughout the program, asking gentle but pointed questions about how they paid their bills. Many were disarmed by the line of questioning, but my ensemble persisted, yielding myriad perspectives on how artists really support themselves while making art. From teaching to directing children’s theatre to working in web design, SAT prep, marketing, and more, to those who confessed to a supportive spouse engaged in a more lucrative field or a trust fund that helped them gain footing just out of college, an understanding that having a day job was not tantamount to artistic failure set in. Through dialogue with others their perception changed, and the freedom or restriction the resident artists felt discussing such details changed as well. Transparency regarding effort and resources was paramount. We need the same for mothers.
We chose to be artists because of what this path contributes to us each personally and to the world collectively. We became mothers perhaps out of a similar supposition. Why does this industry, one that claims to be focused on telling the stories of humanity, neglect the very essence of humanity present in the unseen work of mothers? Why do we not invite that work into our workforce, into our classrooms, and onto our stages? Why am I a hidden contributor? A hidden player in this field? Why can no one find me?
Let’s continue this conversation, at the playground, in the conference room or lobby of your glorious theatre. I suspect I am not the only one who has been waiting to answer your questions.