Mother of two. Independent Dance Artist and Director of Challenge 59
What is the most challenging aspect of working in dance and being a parent for you?
The uncertainty and unpredictable nature of work commitments. You’d think after 20 years I’d be used to it but things constantly change, balancing childcare with no family or support nearby. I find it hard, being the planner that I am, not being certain about income generation. We rely on after school clubs for childcare, but it is has to be booked and paid for in advance. When you don’t know your work schedule is it hard to anticipate what you’ll need. Logistical things like travelling away, planning ahead can be challenging, but for me it’s the blurred lines – not having time and space to think (exacerbated in lockdown!) and finding time to nurture and feed myself artistically and generally! I also struggle with guilt – guilty for working away from home in hotels or not getting home in time for bedtime- then guilty when I’m not working and am at home. No one puts that guilt on me – just myself! I’m getting better at letting it go!
What support did you feel you had from work when you were pregnant?
I was freelance whilst pregnant and carried on dancing up until 7 months. I didn’t have any support. I worried about gaining work following leave.
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
It may be an unrealistic ask, but if some kind of a pledge that organisations are interested in and invested in you as an artist and that even as a freelancer, the conversation about work can be picked up following maternity leave, would be reassuring.
Life during pregnancy was pretty hectic for me. I relocated to London from the North West in January 2011, got married in the February and ended up in hospital a week later with pre-eclampsia even though my daughter wasn’t due until the end of April. I joined a local antenatal group but after just one session I ended up in hospital and told I wouldn’t be leaving until the baby was born. I had barely found out about any maternity allowance or what I was entitled to and wished there had been support about this at the time. My husband wanted to take as much time off after the birth as possible so wasn’t around beforehand. I think we both could have been a bit more prepared…. when I asked him to bring a babygro to hospital he replied ‘what is a Babygro…..draw it for me’!
Do you think being a dancer/ working in the dance industry made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
I think I was very naïve in thinking that I was fit and healthy and in control of my body and birth plan! I had it all planned – had visited the birthing centre, no epidural, possibly water birth, breast feeding. I remember reading a pregnancy book a friend had given to me, skipping pages saying to myself ‘well that’s unlikely to happen to me, I don’t need to read about that!’. I remember midwives and surgeons wheeling me into theatre as an emergency telling me to ‘forget the plan, it’s out of the window’. I was in for the biggest shock. After that, I let go of all expectation.
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
Everyone’s journey and circumstances are so different so I would be wrong to give advice. I was fortunate that financially at the time I didn’t need to rush back to work. I planned for maybe returning to work after 6 months, picking up freelance work slowly. I took on the odd weekend intensive and day here and there where my husband could be at home. My concern had always been (especially having moved to London) that I wouldn’t get work and my career wouldn’t return. I needed, or rather had a desire, to keep my foot in the door and up to speed!
The reality was very different. Although I did take on the odd intensive project, I actually had the best part of 2.5 years out (with some small freelance projects)! My birthing experience was, let’s say, traumatic (and rare!) to say the least. My first born was resuscitated and weighed just 3lbs following an emergency caesarean due to preeclampsia. She stayed in NICU for 4 weeks and when she was ready to leave I developed an infection that resulted in sepsis, was nil by mouth often, trying to express breast milk for my baby two floors down in the hospital and had a further operation. For three months I had to have an open wound in my stomach dressed. I was never diagnosed but do think I was suffering from depression. After 21 months I had my second child. If I hadn’t have done it then I don’t think I ever would have had a second.
I would say don’t beat yourself up, do what is right for you at the time, don’t make comparisons.
If you were expected to dance postnatal (either by yourself or your employer) how did you approach your recovery?
Most of my work was either choreographing or teaching so there was no real expectation to quickly be back at a certain level. I eased myself back in to exercise with swimming and lots of walking pushing a buggy! I took on a teaching role that allowed me to be in a studio before pupils arrived. The job itself was similar to first jobs I took on as a graduate. Although it wasn’t necessarily challenging me career-wise (though I think you learn and grow in any role), it enabled me to get back into my body, develop my confidence again and I saw it as a stepping stone to find where I wanted to go in future.
What changed most for you on your return to work?
For a while everything had to remain quite local whereas I used to travel all over the UK with overnight stays. When my second child was 12 months old I went back to teaching at weekends and did that for at least 6 years! I’ve recently reclaimed my weekends (mostly out of duty to taxi two children to two different football pitches every Saturday and Sunday) and I love it! I felt a little directionless for a while but knew that in time I would find myself in dance again. I sought more intensive one-off work and had to allow for much more lead in time to be involved in projects. Often freelance jobs come in with short notice but this isn’t conducive to planning childcare with no family or other support around. I think what changed the most for me is what I am uncompromising on. I became very clear with this, out of necessity, sanity, self-worth and the practicalities of having two children.
Does parenting help you in your work?
Yes! My productivity levels (with the exception of lockdown!) increased a lot! I do the school run at 8.45am get on my laptop at home for 9am and crack on until pick up time at 3pm……sometimes I don’t even realise I haven’t had lunch! It’s a bit more tricky when I’m teaching and having to travel but on my at home days, I am so productive!
I don’t know if this is a ‘thing’ as I think I am quite an empathetic person but I do feel more sensitive when teaching to group and individual need. Especially as a lot of my work is with young people – I think of their lives outside of the studio, what they might be bringing with them and how I’d like their parents or carers to be involved or think about dance as an experience. I do also cry at the most ridiculous of things...!!!! Haha!
Does dance help you in your parenting?
Yes, it is so important to retain yourself and your own interest/ skills. Dance is part of my identity. Parenting requires so many skills that dance can equip you with – negotiation, intuition, emotional intelligence, ability to multi-task like never before, listening, creative play! I could go on...
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
No. I am aware of PIPA’s work but would love to know more!
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
Thank you for the invite. I was unsure how much to share and don’t in any way intend for this to scare – but wanted to be honest.
More about Jo
Jo founded and directs Challenge 59, a programme bringing together multi-sector stakeholders including those from arts, education, local authorities and digital technology. The programme was selected as one of a hundred top education innovations in the world, 2019 with Jo winning four social enterprise pitches.
Her work focuses on youth dance and choreography, dance in education, artist development, non-specialist teacher training, and dance in targeted youth/ health settings. She facilitates and devises professional development courses, has authored national publications, spoken at multi-sector conferences about dance as a vehicle for learning and is lead artist for the Royal Opera House.
For more information and support on preeclampsia, please visit: action-on-pre-eclampsia.org.uk