Above image by Christina Kelly

Above image by Christina Kelly

Nearly two months after its initial publication, the July-August Atlantic Monthly cover story, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter, still has people talking (among them Steven Colbert and the listeners of the Brian Lehrer Show). The article details the author’s difficulties balancing a career as Director of Policy Planning at the State Department with her responsibilities as a mother. This reportedly became the magazine’s most widely read article, provoking a “firestorm” of responses from journalists and readers alike. These included critiques of its very title (did feminism ever promise women that they could “have it all,” vs. simply having choices?) and its presumption that “work-family dilemmas are primarily an issue for women” and not parents of both genders.

Despite these debates, critics do seem to agree that Slaughter makes compelling suggestions for policy changes to the “insanely rigid” American workplace culture “that produces higher levels of career-family conflict among Americans…than among any of our Western European counterparts.” Slaughter also makes some compelling recommendations for “reorganizing individual career paths to lessen that conflict.”

Like just about every other woman I know, I devoured all six pages of Slaughter’s largely personal narrative—but couldn’t help feeling less than satiated by a discussion mostly limited to traditionally cutthroat, male-dominated professions like corporate leadership, government and law (with academia offered as the main contrast). The perspective of women who work in my field, the arts, seemed notably absent.

I grew up with the presumption that a woman artist could “have it all,” with my own mother, Eleanor Cory, as my role model: a new-music composer who was very involved in my and my sister’s lives while continuing to write music (and get it performed and recorded), landing a tenured college teaching job in NYC, and winning competitive residencies and grants. She has always told me, “It’s a very creative thing to have kids. It made my music better.”

Yet many childless artists I’ve encountered in my generation seem to struggle to reach a situation similarly conducive to raising a family and earning a living without sacrificing creative passions. I’ve frequently heard artists say things like, “How does one juggle a day job + an art practice + babies? Art is already my baby.”

To gain additional perspective, I interviewed a number of artists I know who are also mothers, and perused parenting blogs geared towards musicians, artists, and writers. (While I was preparing this article for publication, Artinfo published a similar investigation by Alanna Martinez with a focus on “high-achieving women in the [visual] arts,” including leaders of several major institutions. My interviewees, by contrast, included practicing artists at various career stages in both the visual and performing arts. They offered more extensive suggestions for specifically balancing art-making and family, not only work and family. They also generated more ideas for tailoring existing artist support structures more towards parents.)

I was pleasantly surprised to find that many of these artists believe that the arts sector is more female- and family-friendly than, say, a top post in Washington D.C. Yet “having it all” in the arts can nevertheless take tremendous dedication, organization, and luck.

Below are some of the most common and compelling points from our conversations.

The path to “success” for an artist is open to interpretation

Anne-Marie Slaughter discusses women’s fear of “falling off the ladder” and missing out on positions of power in fields like politics, business, and law, due to children.

By contrast, according to installation artist Caitlin Masley, “how an artist defines success is relative to the artist.” Masley, with Dannielle Tegeder, is co-founder of Momtra, a blog for artists with young children that contains helpful hints for maintaining work-life balance, a list of successful, well-known artists who are also mothers, and myriad personal accounts. Says Marilyn Minter in the Artinfo piece, “The art world is difficult whether you have children or not. I’ve seen some women become better artists when they had children. Now they had to succeed!”

I spoke with one composer/PhD student who believes there may be risk in scaling back work to start a family, but asserts,If that means my music won’t be played in the biggest concert halls by the most prestigious groups, that’s fine—I know my work will still be appreciated and performed.” Nevertheless, she believes that the art world’s “obsession with youth” (as evidenced by the number of award programs in her field for artists under 30) drives many artists to wait until their early or mid-30s to start a family, after gaining some career recognition. Artists who do make this choice are likely to face the greater risks associated with having children later in life (an issue addressed by Slaughter in her piece).

The importance of flexibility and time management 

Slaughter believes the mainstream American workplace should provide more opportunities for employees to set their own schedules and work from home. She discusses the relative ease of motherhood when serving as her own boss, prompting her decision to return to her tenured professor position at Princeton after two years in Washington.

The approximately 60 percent of artists that are self-employed (according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) should, by Slaughter’s definition, be in the ideal position to be parents. Most artist-mothers I interviewed did indicate that the ability to work out of home studios, and plan work time around naps and bedtimes, is indispensable.  Performing artists needing to take jobs dependent on others may have a harder time; however, a blog post in Paste Magazine, 18 Musical Moms Talk Motherhood, is full of stories of female band members bringing babies on tour.

Slaughter also discusses the importance of shifting the American workplace culture to one that values working fewer hours but more effectively.  Several artists with young children described being brutally strict about time: for example, squeezing in an hour of “writing time” right after a child’s bedtime, in the words of one testimonial on the Momtra blog. My mother believes that “less time to work means clearer faster decisions, greater intensity and commitment, elimination of unnecessary activities.”

Despite greater job flexibility, artists must navigate a three-way balancing act: parenting, working to earn money, and making artistic work that does not necessarily earn money.

Patricia Runcie, actor, director, theater producer and teaching artist  (and mother of a 16-month-old) explained, “Often to work on an artistic project doesn’t make any financial sense.  However, as an artist, you have this compulsion to keep working…So even when unpaid/low pay opportunities come up, you want to take them.”

In addition to missing out on benefits like employer-provided health care and maternity leave, artists I interviewed who are piecing together part-time work also described challenges like having to rehearse and perform in spaces with no breastfeeding accommodations.

Jeanne Quinn, visual artist and single mother of a one-year-old, is extremely grateful for her university tenured job in Colorado: “I had a semester of maternity leave at full pay…Nobody in the US has this…and I know exactly how lucky I am.”

Like Quinn and Slaughter, my mother attributes much of her successful balancing act to good academic jobs.

Every artist I interviewed mentioned the importance of hiring (and the challenge of paying for) help to watch children even when working from home–“the only way to get work done,” as one put it. One artist exclaimed, “Sometimes it doesn’t even make sense for me to take paid jobs instead of staying home because if I’m not home all the money I earn goes to childcare.” Many artists I interviewed cited the far better childcare and family leave systems in other countries, particularly in Europe—an observation backed up by the American Sociological Association.

The art world could still use an attitude shift

Slaughter believes that “While employers shouldn’t privilege parents over other workers, too often they end up doing the opposite, usually subtly, and usually in ways that make it harder for a primary caregiver to get ahead.”

I will never forget when one of the artists in the 11-month-long residency program I coordinate waited almost nine months before even mentioning her eight-year-old daughter. Though our program welcomes artists with families, she described being told in the past by other galleries not to mention it “or people won’t take you as seriously.”

Actress/director Runcie described having to pick and choose the productions (“largely organized by people who know me and the value of my work”) willing to accommodate her parenting schedule. “As a theatre artist (especially an actress),” she said, “I find there is this attitude in the industry that there are a million more of us out there, so if I have kids and it might be a ‘problem,’ they’ll just go with the other girl…I keep my family life very secretive unless they’ve worked with me before.”

Rebecca Hackemann, a British multimedia artist and mother of two school-aged children, states, “There seems to be a prejudice in the art world, that once you become a ‘mother’ you are no longer hip, cool and fascinatingly eccentric.”

Not every artist I interviewed reported such dilemmas. Quinn and Masley both described positive experiences in galleries with sympathetic curators (especially those who are also mothers). Said Quinn: “[My infant son] and I did four big installations this year, and his pack-n-play was set up in the middle of the gallery every time when we were installing.”

Suggestions for accommodating motherhood in the art world

Most artists I interviewed emphasized the importance of grants and residency programs to continue making art after giving birth. Some described using unrestricted grants to help pay for childcare while at a residency or while executing specific projects, and cited awards programs like the Sustainable Arts Foundation, whose mission is to fund artists (of both genders) with at least one child under 18.

Several artists also described the difficulty of leaving young families for out-of-town residency programs and praised  programs like that of the Headlands Center for the Arts that provide living accommodations for entire families. Some suggested that grant and residency programs set aside a limited number of spots for artists with children to encourage family balance, not just unrestricted studio time.

One visual artist with a 2.5 year old son brought up the importance of “seeing and being seen at openings;” she and most others mentioned the difficulty of fitting in this type of networking with children in the picture: “If you go to events [like openings] to try and network, or support non-friend artists—you cannot bring your kids.”  Masley would like to see more galleries hold later evening weekday or weekend daytime art openings, outside the typical 6-8pm time when parents are putting young children to bed. She also believes more museums could offer special childcare rooms, citing examples at the Katonah, Aldrich and MassMOCA Museums. Several performing artists hoped for childcare at rehearsal and performance spaces.

Masley’s Momtra blog also recommends establishing not only support networks of artist-parents (who may feel isolated from their childless colleagues) but “artist baby-sitting coops.” Online resources like Momtra could be an inspiration for more mainstream service providers like local arts councils to highlight family-friendly arts institutions and resources or offer special workshops for parents.

Is balance in the arts just a women’s issue?

The artists I interviewed (and Martinez’s interviewees in Artinfo) were divided in perceiving vast differences between men and women in the art world, but several artists echoed Anne-Marie Slaughter’s belief that it is more difficult for a woman to be away from home, especially in a child’s early years.

In her article, Slaughter discusses the importance of marrying the “right person” who is “willing to share the parenting load equally (or disproportionately).” Some artists in my sample group and their freelance husbands split the caregiving.  One visual artist married to a musician described the difficulty of balancing work and family when her husband is touring. When asked if it would be just as easy for her to leave her 1-year-old son if she were a musician that needed to travel, she said, “in addition to the responsibility of breastfeeding, a baby just really needs his mother.”

Visual artist Jennifer Dalton is one of several artists in the Artinfo article who mention the persisting disparities between men and women in the arts, in both earning power and exposure. She believes this makes it especially difficult for women to get ahead with children. In her longer interview published in Artinfo, Dalton describes her 2006 survey conducted with almost 900 anonymous artists, “How Do Artists Live?” “Among those responding the male artists with kids had the highest percentage (approximately 50 percent) of gallery representation. Female artists with kids had the lowest percentage (approximately 20 percent). Male artists [without] kids and female artists without them were about tied, about 27-28 percent with gallery representation.”

On the flip side, male artists may face different pressures that discourage fatherhood, as suggested by one reader comment on the Artinfo article: “A male artist has to sacrifice family and social life in pursuit of his talent; as society expects males to be the bread winner.”

My father, Joel Gressel (also a new-music composer) landed a steady day job in the financial sector that allowed my mother to teach only part-time for ten years and pay for part-time childcare to watch me and my sister while she wrote her music at home. A few other artists discussed the importance of their partners working as the primary, if not the only, earner.

Expanding the Conversation

This exploration has led me to believe that artists able to work on flexible schedules from home are in a better position than many types of workers to forge fulfilling career trajectories that include families.  Yet when babies compete with both day jobs and creative work time for scarce hours in the day, sacrifices such as scaling back hours spent on artistic work or declining networking opportunities can result.  Although most artist-parents I interviewed have had at least some luck finding grants or residencies, flexible day jobs with benefits (especially in academia), spouses with stable incomes, helpful family members, etc., even these parents fear losing touch with their artistic selves and communities (in the words of Patricia Runcie, having to balance the “inner angsty artist with the person my baby sees as mommy”). I believe most of the challenges faced by artist-parents are not unique to women, but in the arts, as in other historically male-dominated fields, mothers perceive that they must work especially hard to be taken seriously after giving birth, and are vulnerable to lingering societal pressures to prioritize family over work.

I am interested in opening up this discussion to other Createquity readers–not just more women artists but male artists with (or without) children, artists in the for-profit entertainment and design industries, other arts leaders, etc. How difficult would it be for arts organizations to better accommodate the scheduling needs of parents, or for artist service organizations and grantmakers to turn their attention to parents as a group with unique needs? Are there arts fields or career options that are more family friendly than others? How are male artists coping with their own set of societal pressures?  And, importantly, should the arts sector, in the words of Slaughter, “value choices to put family ahead of work just as much as those to put work ahead of family?”

  • Tracy Hudak

    Thank you for compiling this and articulating the contrasts between mothering in a corporate-employed structure versus as a freelance or multi-employed capacity.

    I am totally jazzed by the artist childcare co-op idea. Expanding on this- communities that present monthly art walks should consider offering a child care activity to support the networking.

    On a personal note, I unconsciously dove into new motherhood with the same all-encompassed focus and passion that I had approached creating with (I am a writer, director,actor and visual artist). As a theatre person, it was impossible to participate in the art form, given the schedule and the need to coordinate with other people. I found myself at a Suzuki workshop trying to stomp for that pounding three minutes and all I could think was, ” I am lactating, I am lactating. No one else here is lactating.” Months, even years in, I found myself crazy with overwhelm with the parenting work, grief for the life I had before and no way to climb out. I am not in the least a suicidal person- I have an indefatigable lust for life. But I considered it, which makes me quake thinking about it now. It took a long time for me to realize that I had forgotten about the art, about the need to express, the need for space for contemplation and integration of all that I was experiencing through art-making:writing, drawing, movement. It made me think of all those mother poets and artists who stuck their heads in ovens. Did they too forget the necessity to continue expressing in some form? I had no other parent/artist friends at the time and forgot to search for support in the larger culture. I look back at that time and wipe my brow with a big Phew!

    Thanks for letting me share.

  • Katherine, thank you so much for this wonderful post. I too devoured the Slaughter article. You have explored something I have been working on for more than eight years now. I am in post-production on a documentary film about this very subject called “Lost In Living.” I spent seven years documenting four women. Two of whom become mothers in the film and struggle with maintaining an artistic identity while living through those intense early years of child rearing. The other two have grown children and now have their time back. It’s been a fascinating journey and you might find it resonates with your work. Here is the link to the film: http://www.maandpafilms.com/lostinliving and here’s the link to the Kickstarter campaign now in progress: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/27218549/lost-in-living Thanks so much for taking a look and for a great post. I am sharing it on Facebook and on my film page. All the best to you.

    • Lauren Carmichael

      I am an artist (non-professional illustrator) currently in the role of a student and mother of two toddlers. Unlike other working class artists, I wasted years of playing around, and not focusing on my work on a level of exposure. Until recently, I realized my interest of focus were my illustrations, and performance arts in a variety of mediums.

      My love for my body of work has never been more passionate until motherhood. I felt this personal demand soon after giving birth to my first child to take action, as opose to partying and wasting my talent away, which in fact did happen during my twenties. There is lots of regret and lost opportunities in the past. However, I suppose that was not my destiny, being I didn’t have the support network I do now with the involvement of my education.

      Now aspiring to transfer to a four year institution for a Bachelor of Fine Arts; in the making I will struggle for the much needed studio time for building my portfolio, and aquiring a social network with other artists. The titlement of being an artist and mother is complicated, yes, but include student to that role, you have a women ready to explode in rage.

      After viewing the trailor for the film, “Lost in Living” I was out to tears and inspired at the same time. These women speak the truth on the topic of struggle for artists who are mothers. Recently, I had a one on one critique with Jaune-Quick-to-See-Smith, and I asked her how she made it through school, exhibitions, and social activisim with the responsibility of being a mother, and she replied, “never give up. It’s a challenge, yes. It’s all worth it in the end.” I took her words to heart. I want to believe there is light at the end of the tunnel. My route just happened to be a bit harder than the path of graduating from highschool, applying for art instituties, and achieveing the titlement of a working class artist. Yes, I had to make it harder on myself.

      Thank you for this article. I am currently researching grants, residencies, and funding programs for women artists like myself , which is the main reason I came across this feed. I for one use resources such government financial assistance. I do want to emphasize the stress level of a no to low-income mother-student-artist. It is crucial we meet standards of every day living, and sometimes having the time for oneself is limited for someone in my position. I hope I can jump this hurdle of higher education, meet the goals of to inspire other mothers/artists in college with the works of my exploitation in creations with values of my expression.

  • I thank both you, Katherine, for writing this, and Mary Trunk – the film maker of “Lost in living” for posting this on her fb page. I like what you wrote: “The perspective of women who work in my field, the arts, seemed notably absent”. And this is why I like Mary’s film so much, and also the film- “Who does she think she is” by Pamela Tanner Boll, which I recommend.

    I personally think the “the meaning of art and the meaning of mothering”(weather it’s a man or woman preforming it) should be added to the list of subjects needed to be deeply explored. If our cultures are so upside down regarding prioritizing what is important – maybe we creatures of creation and spirit have something to teach them? Is it a mere coincidence both Art -making and Mothering are considered not useful for the economy?

    Shira Richter- Artist, Mother, Activist on behalf of both

  • Katherine Gressel

    Thank you all for these insightful comments and for sharing my post. I’m excited there is another film coming out about this topic–I actually did come across the trailer for “Who Does she Think she is?” in my research for this article too. I will definitely follow the progress of your project, Mary, as I think this important topic warrants continued discussion especially as it relates to arts policy.

  • Bonnie

    I worked on a series of interviews with women artists as well. They discussed frustrations with work/life balance. The main stress was time-time to think and let an idea unfold is just hard to come by with children. Here is the link: Twenty Two Reviews

  • I’m at work surfing around web and saw this article. Thank you Katherine.

  • Thank you for this article! I devoured every word! And have shared it with many friends and colleagues. I’ve actually been working on a panel discussion made of visual artists who are also mothers that is set to take place on Tuesday, October 16th at 7pm at the School of Visual Arts theater.

    Taking Custody: The Double Life of the Artist Mother

    So far I have seven amazing women at various stages of career and motherhood committed to speak about how they balance raising children with their demanding creative careers, a topic that is rarely addressed in the art world.

    Here is the official Evite (http://public.sva.edu/eblast/0345/).

    I hope you can make it, and if you know of anyone who you think might be interested in attending, please spread the word! I really want the night to be a huge success—being an artist myself, I often wonder how it will be possible to pursue work that I am passionate about while raising children, and the school giving these women the platform they deserve to share their experiences, I think, is incredibly important.
    All the best,
    Cathleen Cueto

    • Katherine Gressel

      Dear Cathleen,

      Thanks for telling me about this! I actually did pass it along to all the women I interviewed for my article, and I will try my best to make it tomorrow though I’ll probably have to leave a little early. I’m really glad you are organizing this and hope I can keep reporting on this issue too.

  • I enjoyed your article, and links, thank you! I have a site, Mother-Musing, which features interviews with artists who are parents as well: http://www.mother-musing.com.

    • Katherine Gressel

      Thank you for sharing this, Susan. I will definitely look at your site too!

  • Andrea

    Thanks for this article Katherine, I just stumbled upon it while researching motherhood and artistic practice. I’m preparing to have a child in the next year but do have some anxiety over what the changes will be and how to cope. This was a helpful start to my research as I try to devise a plan.

  • Pingback: Being an Artist and a Mother | BMA 205 Professional Practice()

  • Katherine Gressel

    I just found out that Creative Capital is conducting a survey to find out more about the needs of artists who are parents–seems like they are working on professional development for parents. I encourage artist-parents who found this article of interest to also fill this out: http://survey.constantcontact.com/survey/a07e9ifd9n9hx2fwhd5/a01nkhxxdeye5/questions

  • Thank you for this wonderful overview!