This was originally published on the Huffington Post
I'm a member of two different Facebook groups that have frequent postings; one of them is a group for moms, many of whom also happen to be artists. The other one is a forum for classical singers, a few of whom happen to be parents. There isn't a lot of crossover topics between the two groups -- but this week, unrelated to one another, I read a post on my classical singer group asking whether people who had kids felt that it affected their careers as singers, and another post on my mom's page asking whether any artists that were also parents were managing to keep their artistic careers going while still staying afloat financially. Where the crossover between these two queries occurred was mostly in the comments section, where people who were artists and parents explained how they managed to keep from moving their families into cardboard boxes, and what sacrifices they had made in order to add children to their lives. Everyone said that whatever sacrifices they had made were worth it, and they wouldn't change a thing. But almost all of the commenters with kids mentioned that either they or their spouses had moved into some sort of academia or other work in order to pay the bills and remain at least somewhat financially stable. The number of people who had moved in different directions than their original artistic intentions was almost everybody. Most people said they were content with where their choices had led them, but it lead my mom's group to start a discussion about why it's next to impossible to be an artist --- and especially a couple in which both people are artists and self employed -- and make a go of having a family.
For opera singing parents, the challenges are quite extraordinary. Because not only are there all the challenges of being a self-employed artist, whose income is sporadic and difficult to predict, and who has no health or retirement benefits from their job, but we must factor in the concern that our jobs require constant travel, which makes adding a child into the mix pretty insane. Not only do we have to arrange extra plane tickets and different accommodations than may be provided by the company for whom we are working -- usually at our own expense -- but we have to arrange childcare in a strange place, ahead of time, without even having a chance to meet with the candidates. So a mother must bring her child with her to a strange place, and the very next day leave them with a strange person while they go to rehearsal. Or we leave our child with someone back home for a long period of time. The fees of opera singers have notoriously dwindled in recent years, and the competition has made jobs less available and less frequent. After a singer pays a coach to help them learn their role, and lives in a strange city for several weeks without pay, they then get a lump sum for their performances, of which 10-20 percent gets paid to an agent, and another 15-30 percent should be set aside for taxes. After deducting the costs of monthly health insurance (probably at least $700-1000 per month for the singer and child) and any retirement that could be set aside (ha ha -- we wish) that doesn't leave the singer a lot to work with. And I'm not only talking about struggling singers, I'm talking about singers who sing in the major opera houses around the world. And if you're adding onto that the extra expense of travel, accommodations and possibly childcare, you are left wondering why you bothered to leave your house in the first place. And while other types of artists have different challenges, almost all of them face rising expenses and dwindling profits, and share similar concerns to we opera singing parents.
Which leads me to the question; should artists even bother to procreate? Is it fair to our children that we lead such financially itinerant lifestyles? If someone wants to have a family, shouldn't they just do the responsible thing and get a "real" job?
The problem with this line of questioning (which so many artists face from friends, family and strangers sitting next to us on airplanes and in coffee shops on a daily basis) is that it really does question whether being an artist is of value to a society at all. Because if having children is so impossible for someone who works as an artist -- and I'm not even talking about a struggling "wannabe" artist, but someone who actually makes a living as one -- then it suggests that it is not a career worth being compensated for, but merely an avocation for a young and untethered person who doesn't mind living la vie boheme, using old chairs for firewood and eating sardine sandwiches.
I bring this up because there are other countries who consider these problems. There are countries who provide health care and education to all their citizens (Sweden, Denmark, Norway -- most of Europe actually), who provide paid maternity leave to expecting mothers (and fathers) even if their jobs don't (Canada), who give stipends to every family for each child they have (Germany), and who even have government sponsored excellent childcare as well as insurance for artists who are between jobs (France). Many of these countries also have state sponsored arts funding, coincidentally. So artists are paid pretty well, and don't have to go around worrying all the time about how they are going to make ends meet. Artists are acknowledged as being participating, contributing members of society, and their worth isn't taken for granted. Yes, the citizens of these countries also pay higher taxes -- but not that much higher considering all the benefits they are offered.
So we're back to the same question I ask so often in my blog posts -- why doesn't America value artists more and allow for them to continue to contribute without constantly worrying about financial collapse? I'm not talking about handouts -- I'm talking about extensive tax breaks for childcare, and access to truly affordable health care, and community support to the organizations that create art so that they can pay artists fair wages. I'm talking about wage earning that is commensurate with education, and acknowledgement that arts organizations enrich communities both fiscally and socially.
Coming full circle back to my Facebook forums and where they intersect -- parents all over this country are struggling to make ends meet because of things like childcare and healthcare. Artists all over this country are struggling because of lack of income, lack of jobs and lack of government support. In a way, artists are prepared to make excellent parents because they are used to finding creative solutions to financial hurdles, something most parents have to do many times in their child's lives, regardless of their occupation. But this isn't the only thing that can make artists great parents. Artistic parents can't help but encourage artistically minded children, whether that means artists or merely arts supporters. And we desperately need more people who believe that creativity is a vital arm to our society. So we need artists to keep procreating so we can make a new generation of people who are willing to think creatively and who think of artists as necessary members of their community.
So I say to all artists; go forth and procreate. You are creative. You will figure out a way around the financial and logistical hurdles which you will encounter. And you will hopefully become part of the village so essential to other artists in your community also raising families.
And also; nothing inspires creativity quite like trying to have a conversation with a toddler.