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It Takes a Community to Raise a Family in the Arts – Part 2

Updated: Jun 3, 2020

Written by Geraldine Ysselstein, Arts Leadership Director

The first part of this article can be found here which focused on Pregnancy and Maternity Leave. This second part is about Returning to Work and Reintegrating into Society. Please note that I am writing this article as I witness the impact of COVID-19 on the arts sector in Canada. More on that later as an addendum to this article.

Geraldine's husband Aaron with son at Storybook's Matilda (2019)

Returning to work after maternity leave #1:

I had been working at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity while pregnant but was living in Calgary when I went on my first maternity leave. I decided that when I returned to work, I would look for a job in Calgary to avoid the commute back and forth to Banff. Eight months into my maternity leave, I accepted a job as the first General Manager of the Calgary Civic Symphony.

Returning to work, I was concerned about “pregnancy/mommy brain”. Is it real? Exhaustion from not enough sleep is real. Getting used to a new routine is real. Learning how to take care of oneself at the same time as a dependent child is real. Accepting different priorities is real. Having a pause from working is real. Hormones are real. While knowing all of this, I realize now that I should have been gentler on myself at the time. Also, “mommy brain” is a temporary situation. I recovered my brain when I started to sleep better, routines were established, and I was once again engaging with arts management work.

I was the General Manager of the Calgary Civic Symphony for fourteen months. The Civic Symphony has existed for 40+ years and is made up of retired CPO musicians and music teachers; but also, amateur musicians who are passionate about making and sharing music with the community while also maintaining jobs as nurses, lawyers, consultants, etc.

At first, I was able to complete the ten hours/week during my son’s naps who was fortunately a very good napper. But, as I became more familiar with the organization and more passionate, ten hours/week wasn’t enough time to plan and attend rehearsals and concerts, communicate through emails and newsletters, set up systems for sharing documents and information, apply for grants, update the website and social media, have meetings, and more. And so, I burnt out. In addition to the ten hours during nap times, I started to work into the evenings and weekends.

I hadn’t considered in advance of taking the job that:

  1. As the first General Manager, this wasn’t just a new experience for me, but also a very new experience for the organization. Moreover, the transition from a working board to a governing board is hard work.

  2. It was challenging to set boundaries around my schedule that could accommodate the schedules of the board, staff, musicians, volunteers, staff, donors, and contractors.

  3. I couldn’t afford the financial cost nor the time to find a babysitter to allow for me to be flexible.

  4. I was trying so hard to be a mom and work at the same time. I thought that creating boundaries because I had to care for a child would seem like an “excuse”. It’s something I still struggle with. But I must remind myself that everyone has someone or something to care for. Whether it is a parent, sibling, friend, partner, pet, garden, passion, volunteer work, another job, etc.

  5. I realized that for me, a ten-hour job in the arts isn’t realistic. Working in the arts is my passion and I needed a more full-time job.

I put undue pressure on myself. And then I left and was sad. I wondered what my role in the arts was and how I could work and raise a family in the arts in a sustainable way. Some things had to change. I spent the next 8 months unemployed; connecting back to creating art; learning and researching more about the arts sector in Calgary; working for a couple of weeks as a census taker for Statistics Canada; exploring my other passions including reading, cooking, and being active outdoors; and taking a lot of professional development programs.

In those 8 months, I finished the requirements of my diploma in Arts & Cultural Management from MacEwan University, I participated in the City of Calgary’s “Artists Working in Community” program, I started the Banff Centre’s “New Fundamentals” program, and I completed the Rozsa Arts Management Program (RAMP). I became creative about childcare (all our grandparents live in the east, so they aren’t an option!) and I was able to free up time during the day, evenings, and weekends to participate in all these programs.

And then in July 2017, I was hired as the Arts Leadership Director for the Rozsa Foundation.

Returning to work after maternity leave #2:

I worked for the Rozsa Foundation for 15 months before having my second child. Derek Stevenson covered my maternity leave and when I returned, he transitioned into the role of Program & Granting Manager. In preparing to return, I was apprehensive about how I would work with someone who had been in my role for a year and was continuing to work for the Rozsa Foundation. The portfolio of the Arts Leadership programs had expanded so much that it was necessary to have two staff focused on designing, developing, facilitating, and delivering our professional development programs. It was an adjustment for both Derek and I, but we worked to each other’s strengths for the next 6 months and I really appreciated the time that we overlapped.

Geraldine with sons at Wordfest's Imaginarium Family Day (2019)

I had “mommy brain” again after this maternity leave and this time it took a little longer to recover. Thank you to my Rozsa Foundation colleagues for their patience! My second child wasn’t as good a sleeper and I was so wired from being exhausted that I couldn’t sleep. It was a viscous cycle. However, I was better prepared this time in knowing that I needed both children to be in full time care – at school/after-school and at a day home. And I knew that this care needed to be close to our home in order to make the commute for them short.

The challenge this past year (2019) has not been on setting boundaries for my time at work (I HAVE to pick up my children between 4-5pm and I have NO time in the evening to do more work – although my brain is still very active), but the challenge has been finding time to go and enjoy the arts and finding time for my own creative and artistic pursuits. I depend now on the connection to the arts that I am creating for my children. I may not be able to attend all the concerts, plays, exhibits, and performances when I would like to; however, I can experience the arts through my children’s experiences (as audience members or creators) and eventually I will search out more opportunities in the arts for myself as well as for my husband and I as our children get older.

I have also learned that having children has helped me to develop new skills, contacts, empathy, and knowledge. I understood life more as a continuum, the experiences of others who have children (as well as those who can’t or choose not to), respect for the medical field, the mystery of life (and the potential for death while being pregnant/or in childbirth), that parenting is messy, there are highs and the lows, and my mental health matters. Parenting, working, and taking care of myself is a balancing act that is constantly changing.


Geraldine's son watching Jeremy Fisher's live concert during COVID-19 pandemic (2020)

Now with COVID-19, that balancing act has changed again. What have I learned that has prepared me for this situation? In leadership practice, we encourage leaders who are facing a complex challenge to consider a time when they have had another complex challenge where they were successful. Getting into that reflective state helps us address the current challenge. With COVID-19, I have found myself working from home (I’ve done this before), with children underfoot (I’ve done this before), with uncertainty about the world (I’ve done this before), and wondering what my role in the arts is right now (I’ve done this before). And so, I believe that we will all come out of this experience, relying on our past experiences, to create new future experiences in our work in the arts. It will take time. We need to be gentle with ourselves. We need to remember what delights and matters to us most.

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