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State of the arts: the reality of combining parenting with a career as an artist

Emma Dwyer examines the reality of combining parenting with a career as an artist, and the impact of Covid…


It was recently reported that one in 10 women left work during the pandemic. This was not down to cut backs or lay offs, but to take care of children and manage home schooling.  The Mothership Project, a network of parenting artists in Ireland, ran a survey to assess how artist parents were impacted during lockdown. They found that – among many alarming stats – with the closure of schools, 45% of respondents estimate that they are doing between 1-5 hours of work on their practice a week. 45% of respondents said they were doing all of the childcare. Both in and out of the arts these stats will have a huge impact on parent’s careers. 

“People do say stupid things like ‘don’t have a child if you want to be a successful artist’. I want to be a human; I don’t want to just be an artist,” says Fiona Reilly, artist and mother to one. “We’re just normal people, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to have a family and a house.” Many, if not most, artists have low unpredictable incomes – maternity leave, health insurance, and mortgages for example are things that artists can’t take for granted. Childcare is also out of reach for many artist parents – many balance the domestic load with their artwork including applying for grants and other opportunities. 

At the beginning of 2020 Fiona was living and working in Firestation Studios, on a residency with affordable rent. She had become pregnant while on the residency and had her daughter seven months before Covid lockdowns started. Initially her partner, a jeweller, was furloughed from his job and this gave her time to work in the studio, “I benefited in terms of time and space, but that was very particular to my situation because I was on residency,” she explains.

Once the residency ended Fiona and her partner moved in with her parents while they applied for Rebuilding Ireland mortgages in the hopes of that living arrangement lasting a couple of months: they have now been there over a year. Despite living at home, Fiona has no childcare support, “I now basically just try and work on her naps, work in the evenings and work on the weekends but it’s pretty much impossible and I don’t know if that’s because I have a child or because of Covid.” 

When Covid ends she anticipates things getting more difficult; childcare will still be financially and practically out of her reach and during Covid she has found there has been a degree of flexibility in the organisations she has been working with. She was invited to take part in an exhibition when her daughter was two weeks old, “I was thinking ‘I’ll have a baby so I won’t be able to do anything I ever did before’.” The curator encouraged her to make whatever work she could, “I haven’t felt excluded in any way,” she adds.  

“Everyone’s story is different. There are families where both parents are artists, then like me artists with one parent working full-time, so the majority of the childcare gets covered by me,” says Seoidin O’Sullivan of The Mothership Project. “What is interesting from a feminist perspective is the amount of coverage about women feeling like they have returned to the domestic sphere,” Seoidin an artist who also works at NCAD two days a week, reflects of the significant attention this matter has received. During Covid her partner – who works full time – shifted his hours on the days she worked to take care of their two children. Due to schools closing during Covid the childcare workload for Seoidin was too much to manage alone and keep up her work at NCAD.

In 2013 Seoidin sent an email to artists she knew asking if they had experienced similar issues to her as a mother and artist. Within three weeks there was a group of over 20 artists and arts workers addressing issues they face as parents in the art world. The Mothership Project Covid survey took place in response to an Arts Council survey that asked what impact Covid has had on artists, but neglected to ask what impact it had on parenting artists. Mothership wanted to ask what is the knock on effect in the arts for those with children when it is more challenging to make work, access childcare, secure income and to apply for funding. 

“At the start it was really exciting you know, everything shut down, and you’re at home and it’s like you’re living out some movie plot,” says Conall Carey, a Cork based printmaker with two daughters. Conall’s wife works for the HSE and was deemed an essential worker. “She was working round the clock seven days a week. I was there with the two girls, all day every day for four months. The novelty wore off after the first month.” 

Conall had two big commissions with deadlines during the initial lockdown. He was making work for two state-funded buildings as part of the Per Cent for Art Scheme. The two projects he was making work for were forging on, there was an expectation for him to deliver, but he had no access to studios or workshops and was at home minding his kids. The deadlines were pushed back and he outsourced some of the work but there was the major stress of losing that income that he had been banking on for some time. Since then he has focussed on working at the Crawford College of Art & Design where he is a technician, balancing that with creche and school drop offs. 

Before having his family Conall used to go on various residencies around the world that are now out of his reach. Residencies are by design not family friendly, but are a huge opportunity for artists to make progress in their careers. He has felt his identity as an artist shift since becoming a father, “I have never been told you can’t be a successful artist and have kids, but that is something I felt in my bones when we were pregnant the first time and that is probably the most stressed out I was by the whole situation; the first year we had Hannah [his eldest]. I was trying to do both, I had already said to myself ‘you won’t be able to both’. You really want to have it all and it’s just not possible.”

The Mothership Project hopes that by asking the questions and sharing the answers, an awareness is built around the pressures on artist parents, during Covid in particular. While there were some positive effects of the lockdown, for a lot of parenting artists there will be gaps in CVs, works not produced, funding not applied for, and opportunities not taken. Another sobering stat from Mothership’s survey: Only 2.5% of parenting artists who responded are getting to work 20 or more hours a week on their art practice.


Main photo by Conall Cary

Department of Social Protection Application form,
by Fiona Reilly.