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Stephanie Street: Why does the allegedly liberal arts sector punish working parents?

Clwyd Theatre artistic director Tamara Harvey discusses being a working parent on Twitter. Photo Manuel Harlan
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I begin this month on Twitter, again. This time, I’m locked in to Tamara Harvey’s excellent feed on the perils of being a #workingmum. Her tweets have garnered quite a following among theatre parents because she brilliantly captures the workaday (pun intended) mess, the inevitable guilt and persistent sense of failing someone, somewhere that comes of trying to keep all the plates spinning.

Of course, these feelings are not unique to those of us in theatre and TV. Working parents – mainly mothers – across all sectors, face immense challenges in trying to keep a career and a family running in tandem. The state is often blamed as there is no subsidised provision for early years (under two) childcare, like there is in parts of mainland Europe. Instead, working parents in the UK face the reality of working long hours to be able to afford to pay someone else to take care of their children.

Theatres across the UK bolster childcare support as part of PIPA campaign

This need to stay in the fray is especially sharp in our sector because you’re only as good as your last job. And if your last job was three and a half years ago (three is when most children are eligible for a free nursery place), you may as well have become invisible.

A full-time nursery place for a child under three costs more than £250 a week, which does not cover the cost of ‘out of hours’ childcare when a vast proportion of work is. You don’t need a maths GCSE to see that, if an actor is on Equity minimum, it is impossible.

The rebuke often goes: “Well, you chose to have children.” And on some level, I get that. When I started, I knew an actor who lied about having kids (when they had two) so that they could be seen to come to a job with no complication or strings attached.

We are meant to be the liberals, the open-minded. We wouldn’t dream of punishing people for choosing to have kids… would we?

But on most levels I don’t get it. Because we, the artists, are meant to be the liberals, the open-minded. We wouldn’t dream of punishing people for the choices they make about how they dress, their faith, who they love, whether they have kids or not… would we?

I understand that for those without children it can seem rich for parents to ask for more time off, or a supplement to their income to help with childcare costs. Why should parents be entitled to more because they have kids?

The answer is without ‘more’ it is almost impossible to work. And then we would go even further down the path of theatre and TV being open only to the chosen few, from the right schools, or the right postcodes, who can afford to end a job in deficit.

I applaud Tamara’s wonderful, funny tweets not only because I empathise, but because she’s raising awareness and making the struggle universal. This is a job, not a hobby or a privilege, and if it doesn’t make us a living, we need to rethink what we are doing and why.

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