SARAH WEST VALSTAR
'...flexibility makes me feel much better as a Mum.'
Mother of two. Participation Specialist, Nottingham Playhouse
What is the most challenging aspect of working in your art form and being a parent for you?
The regular evening and weekend work, theatre trips, dance classes etc. where you miss bedtime and fun with your children. This mum guilt always takes the edge off the good time. However, I have certainly learnt that this is my worry, but isn’t often the children’s worry. They particularly relish their extra time with Daddy or our brilliant babysitter, and even sleep better!
I find it really hard to ever take leave from work because of my child’s illness. It’s hard to get good cover or send a good plan or resources to the person taking your group, and it’s nearly impossible to get someone to cover something you are performing in. Back when I was Head of Drama, I really remember willing so hard for my child to go to sleep in hospital so I could write very detailed cover work as we were so close to A level and GCSE coursework and practicals. It was definitely past midnight when I sent that email to the Headteacher!
What support did you feel you had from work when you were pregnant?
I worked as Head of Drama when I was pregnant, and nothing really changed! Although I think this is normal in this line of work and until I was nearer the end of my pregnancies, I didn’t need any. Then the long days were hard: teaching all day, rehearsals after school then parents evening. The students, however, were surprisingly helpful taking on lifting or demonstration/ rehearsal leads to support me towards the end of the pregnancy. And usually of their own volition too!
Was there anything that may not have been in place that you felt could have been useful?
A toilet in my building block that was just for staff and not shared with students. A drinking water tap in my building block!
Do you think working in the arts made you think differently about your pregnancy/recovery?
I think stopping dancing during pregnancy was a bad decision. I was so worried about doing something to hurt the pregnancy, but then I lost part of my identity because of it.
From your experience, what advice would you give to an expectant parent regarding leave?
Make sure you have someone competent/ you trust taking over your work so you can properly cut ties during maternity leave if necessary. You shouldn’t be feeling responsible for anything other than your baby and yourself (you can then still keep contact on your terms). Be assertive about this to senior people if you are in a situation where they make the choice about how to cover your position whilst you are of.
If you were expected to dance postnatal (either by yourself or your employer) how did you approach your recovery?
After my second child, I started freelancing for local theatres/ the council after leaving my post of Head of Drama. Less take home and more ownership over what work to take on helped. Going back to teaching adults dance was very useful as it made me get back into shape and in touch with my dancing again. When you’re delivering a technique class, you have to go, there is no way of backing out! I found motivation to leave the baby when it wasn’t for work difficult. And when its adults (friends and friends of friends), it can be a very supportive and nurturing group!
What changed most for you on your return to work?
Not being able to forget home/personal stuff as easily in order to focus on the job fully.
Getting used to always having some form of children’s fluid on my clothes! Ha!
I took my youngest with me to two of the courses that I delivered as a freelancer for a theatre organisation (an intergenerational project and an early years and parent/carers creative play session). That was NOT as idyllic as it sounds and I ended up getting childcare for both as the juggle really was too much! My eldest also came along to my sessions, and he found the change of mum to facilitator difficult at first (as did I!). When the children came as audience members to a show I was in, that worked ok as the boundary was clear!
Projects that are just a couple of hours a day were harder for me to take than before without children. Childcare is usually whole days, and without family nearby, sometimes exciting projects were near enough impossible to take on while actually making money from them. I found going from being a freelancer to a paid participation specialist much easier to manage, as being a mum and working is already such a huge juggle, and set days really helped. Unfortunately though, I was still doing freelance hours on top of my paid days because of an ongoing project, and these were very ad hoc in terms of days as it was a tour. I also got too excited about a few short-sessions of storytelling, 55+ dance classes and Shakespeare projects and said yes to too much, which really didn’t fit with being a mum of small children. I got myself into a pickle with childcare arrangements and not making any profit after paying for this! My mum (who lives two hours away), an ex-student and my childminder were very helpful and flexible, otherwise I don’t know how I could have done it.
The flexible nature of my current job is SO useful to raising children. As a teacher, I could not ever get time off for nativity plays/ Sports Day etc, but now, if we can work it out, I can just switch my hours around in a week to accommodate. Obviously, there are certain things that are impossible to miss, but that’s understandable. This flexibility makes me feel much better as a mum who can be there for important things, but also much more positive about my place of work.
I find the idea of leaving my children to go to work still a very anxious thing to think about prior to the lead up for the event, and always have done. But once I am at work and delivering, they disappear out of my head in order to focus on the group in front of me. When I stay away in a hotel when I am examining for LAMDA, it is so refreshing and a reminder that I am a woman that isn’t just a mum and can have a night to myself! I tell you, room service and a big bed for one these days is exquisite! I feel like a new person the next day!
Does parenting help you in your work?
Hell, yes! They encourage me to be more playful, more physical in my everyday life and a yes person. I have found myself gravitating towards early years and primary school projects as I feel I know what they love and need as its part of the life I am living right now. The majority of my experience is more teenager/ young adult, but I feel so acutely in touch with. It is also about being very aware of what experiences my children are lucky enough to get and wanting other children in more deprived areas/ different cultures to also have access to such experiences. For fundamentally important things such as resilience, emotional intelligence and self-regulation I really believe touch and response, role-play, dedicated parent-child time etc. are key.
Does dance help you in your parenting?
Absolutely. The arts are my hobby, my career and my main vehicle for bringing my children up as empathetic and passionate young people. It reminds me to do the activities and role play I think up with my own children too! It also makes me remember how valuable dedicated time one to one creativity/ moving around together is. The children love role playing the early years shows I have been in- it’s their favourite thing to do! They also love re-enacting what we have seen at my theatre together. I firmly believe that creativity can empower people to develop a love of stories, helping them to be able to connect socially, explore emotions, understand teamwork and develop initiative and freedom of thought. This is key to what I love about my job at the theatre and being a mum.
Do you know of any resources that already exist for parents who work in dance?
Dance Mama, Mothers Who Make and Parents in Performing Arts Campaign.
Anything else you think would be worth raising?
More about Sarah
Sarah is a Participation Specialist at Nottingham Playhouse and a freelance practitioner in community and educational settings. She has performed as part of some early years tours, runs the in-house Young Companies for the Playhouse and delivers workshops in primary and secondary settings. Working in community settings such as libraries is what she loves; creating opportunities for those who can’t/don’t access theatre or creativity easily. She also examines for LAMDA and teaches Contemporary Dance. I am a former Head of Drama (private school, comprehensive and sixth form college). I am a keen puppeteer and love physical theatre and directing movement within plays. Giving and making participants in my sessions feel ownership and pride over their work is important to me