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Family Matters: the Power of Parent and Caregiver Artists Part 1

In this week's blog we reflect on a favorite episode of the Smartist Podcast, featuring my interview with Actor and Advocate Rachel Spencer Hewitt.

One of the reasons I was so geeked, honestly, to talk to Rachel is because we share a common passion for both artistry, and service and advocacy work. I was so excited to dig in with Rachel about the organization that she's been steering for several years now, that is really serving in large part as an inspiration to what I'm trying to build and develop with Smartistry.

Setting the Stage

Rachel Spencer Hewitt is an award-winning advocate thought leader, Equity actor with an MFA in acting from the Yale School of Drama. Rachel's professional acting repertoire includes Broadway, off Broadway, extensive regional work, international theater, feature films, and more.

Rachel is also the founder of the Parent Artist Advocacy League for the Performing Arts, also known as PAAL, a national organization that serves as a resource hub, community and solutions generator for parents in the arts and the institutions who support them. Her work with PAAL has been mentioned in numerous publications, including The New York Times, The American Theater Magazine, HowlRound Theatre Commons, as well as in the recently published book, From Aphra Behn to Fun Home; A Cultural History of Feminist Theater.

Just to give a little bit of background, it was early 2018 when I was starting to come out of research and development for Smartistry and our mutual friend and colleague, Lydia Milman Schmidt, who runs the Chicago chapter of PAAL and is a classmate of mine from the University of Essex, connected us. It was through that, that Rachel and I got to know each other.

Melissa Peck: So Rachel, what are some of the things that shaped you into the amazing creative and advocate that you are?

Rachel Spencer Hewitt: I have to credit my community for any shaping, because so much of the advocacy work that PAAL does is because I made one smart decision, that was to listen.

Growing up in a very artistic family, I started to take a bit for granted that this is what I always wanted to do. I started off in college as a Marketing and Advertising major, potentially double major in Art with a minor in Theater. I had an epiphany in my Marketing class when they started breaking people into segmentation and talking about budgets. I had my script on my lap and realised I was in the wrong room.

Fast forward to having a habit of acting on those instincts of what space is calling to me, I went to grad school at Yale, and worked as an actor.

A huge part of what shaped the work that I do with PAAL today in advocating for parents and caregivers came about with my first pregnancy when I didn't have anything beyond a few anecdotes in the back of my mind in terms of parents in the industry. I hid my pregnancy for a very long time, for five months I didn't tell anyone. I didn't tell my agents. I didn't even tell my family for a very long time because I didn't like people always asking, 'How are you? How are you, how are you?'

There's so much of that that was beautiful and intimate as actually I'm very introverted and so I was just loving the experience. I am realizing more and more as the years go on how my treatment as a woman in the theater through my twenties had trained me to have a

strong distrust of our industry and how my body changed and my physical existence. So when I became pregnant, that distrust just manifested into; 'I can't trust anyone with this. Nobody is going to know how to take care of me.' I ended up sharing with my agent at five months because the flowy tops just weren't gonna cover it anymore in the audition room.

I expected it to be a very difficult conversation, and when I shut the door he was concerned and asked what was going on? When I told him I was pregnant, he leapt out of his seat overjoyed. He threw the door open, announced it to the entire office, a huge congratulations!

I was shocked. I was shell shocked. I had no idea what was going on. And I would learn later that that's extremely rare. Extremely rare. But in that moment, his reaction set a standard for me of how I should be treated when that news about my experience and my status became known. And he's still my agent today. His wife is a working mom and they have two kids. I didn't even expect empathy from that point. And yet he not only empathized, not only tolerated, but celebrated. Looking back on it, I still didn't give that blanket trust to everyone. I spent a year and a half of my daughter's life pulling myself up by my bootstraps, making it seem like nothing had changed, working all the jobs, all the travel, booking all the sitters for childcare, and learning it all just from the grassroots level. I was proving to myself that I could do it. If I don't have the tools, the failure is mine.

I was at a Christmas networking/reunion party, and I was having conversations with people and enjoying myself and feeling really proud of myself to be quite honest.

I had a conversation with a male childless colleague and he started off the conversation with, 'How are you? This is the question that is expecting doom. I replied positively, 'Things are going great. My agents have been incredibly supportive. I'm making it work. I have to work full-time. I haven't had to turn down jobs.' And then I added lots of positive spins. He stopped me and said, 'Well, that's not everyone's experience. So I wouldn't talk about that.'

And it shut me up. I tell everyone, I wish I could say that I said something clever back, but I had nothing but, 'huh?'. The room froze for me. I realized in that moment there were so many red flags. All I could think was if he's shutting me up about my successes, then where are the story stories of failure allowed to live? In that moment I realized that my infant daughter, my 15 month old daughter was in a Starbucks with a sitter a few blocks away past her bedtime. The same Starbucks where I had changed for that party after a two hour bus ride from Philadelphia and I was about to get back on the bus with my newborn to go back to Philadelphia. All that work just to show up at this party to make all of these people feel like I was doing it. I was doing the thing and succeeding, and suddenly I was realised, no, absolutely not.

I went into a cone of rage. I went to the Starbucks and I picked up my daughter. I found the bar where they were all hanging out after the party and I paraded her around in front of everybody. She started screaming her head off because she was so tired. But I was like, scream louder. Like, just like wanting her to disrupt the space. I was so angry and I was so happy she was angry too. I got back on that bus and it was two hours to the city and I just couldn't sleep that night.

I was so stuck. Asking the question, who are these women? I had been journaling my experiences up until that point because I thought I'm not gonna believe this for myself later on, what it's like to audition while pregnant, what it's like to audition with an infant. I recorded it for myself. But it was after that experience, I decided to do the opposite of what he told me, which is to not talk about it, and I published a blog about it. I posted it on and the articles are still up. It was my early days of research and, I knew that in sharing my stories, I was ready to feel very alone. I was ready to be the weird one who's talking about her pregnancy and breastfeeding and its connection to acting. Actually what happened is I started to get all these messages from all of these other moms saying, thank you for talking about this.

'There was no maternity leave at my last employment.' 'I was fired because I was pregnant.'

It was everything from individual shame to organizations breaking the law, to folks feeling like they had made different family decisions because of the pressures from work. And I realized, it was the opposite of me experiencing this in isolation. We've just been so quiet about it that people are breaking the law and there's harm being done. So I started to research organizations like Ma'am Ireland and Pippa UK and published my work on HowlRound. My friend saw it and said we need something like this in the US and it just clicked for me. That friend was Jill Harrison, of Directors Gathering in Philadelphia, who's an extraordinary human being and gatherer of people, and mom and artist. We got together with a handful of moms and in four months we launched in Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York with our first chapters.

The prototype for that meetup happened in February of that year when we did a breakaway session on motherhood in the theater in Chicago where I lived at the time. I provided childcare because I knew that that was gonna be the groundbreaking thing, you cannot have feminism without childcare.

I met Lydia Milman Schmidt, who was there with her three kids, two of whom were twins on her lap eating Cheerios while she was talking about the incredible research that she had done for parents in Chicago Theater and I thought we're gonna be best friends.

So after we launched we dedicated the first year to motherhood, breaking the silence. And it was on that journey in meeting folks and hearing their stories, because I knew it had to expand beyond my personal experiences, that I realized the depth and the expanse of how much caregiver support was needed, and how much harm was being done.

I wanted to create a safe space for folks to gather and become the majority voice in terms of making caregiver support possible. And that's why we formed Parent Artist Advocacy Lead for the Performing Arts. So there'd be solutions and answers and community, and also real pressure for change on the industry.

MP: You had access to your rage, and allowed that to motivate you and to allow you to be visible.

RSH: In my twenties, the sexual harassment was so insistent, consistent and persistent. Throughout that entire first decade and a half of working in the theater, I shut down with so much fear. And then I became pregnant and I was suddenly back in my body and I was thinking, they're not gonna touch this. I actually had a decade and a half of shame and fear that should have been rage, but I didn't have the permission for it to be. There was something about pregnancy at that moment at the party when my mouth was shut up again, it did the opposite of what it had done for a decade and a half of suppressing me.

It made me snap. Where I had lived a decade and a half trying so hard not to be difficult and actually just brought more harm onto myself, in that moment it was very much because of; my awareness that this was the world that my daughter was going to be living in. This was the body that carried my daughter. This was the body that was mine again. To feel that being shut up again on a body that I had reclaimed, there was no energy left to turn it back into shame. I think that that's also why parents are so afraid of seeming difficult because we know that part of our exhaustion has removed our filters. When we enter spaces and folks need something, we just go, 'fuck no, there's no time. The children are hungry. I need money to feed them. I wanna be an artist, but I'm lending my body that's already being lent to so many people and I'm just asking for a little bit of help.' It may be because I'm an actor and I'm in touch with my feelings, but it's also because in pregnancy I reclaimed my body and the rage was there to access.

Anger is different to me. But rage, I now believe is so beautiful. It's so productive. It's energy that insists on justice. And I love Moms with rage. I just love parents with rage. I love caregivers with rage. I had access to that rage, and it fuelled me then, and it fuels me now.

I often have folks calling me anonymously and talking about the discrimination that they'd experienced or their fears of being discriminated against going into a new job. I often find they're hesitant to say that they're upset about it. And I invite them to feel their rage and I promise them that I will be transparent about their rage when I go out into the world and when I talk to these institutions.

PAAL has something called Compassion Training, where we teach organizations through love and compassion how to exercise compassion in their organizations. I am transparent about the fact that if harm has been done, people are allowed to feel that rage. And we should also feel that rage on their behalf so that we move productively forward and create spaces that are safe. Spaces that feel full of warriors who are gonna not just tolerate us or maybe give us access when we ask for it, but fight for that access as allies and accomplices.

I believe that every movement that progresses forward deserves that.

MP: I resonate so much with that. And thank you for being so candid and upfront about some of these things that are very personal, very intimate. I just wanna take a minute because I haven't really done this since I launched the podcast, which was 11 episodes ago, and share how my why story for building Smartistry fits into this same narrative.

I led a very lonely theatrical career. It was instilled in me from the time I trained that if I wanted stuff to happen, I had to make it happen. And I took that upon myself and felt like if I want it done my way, I gotta do it myself. So I tried to build community, with a mixture of results. And when I built my company, Focal Point Theater Company, I had a small, very tight knit group of committed partners in that. But once I got pregnant, they didn't know what to do with me, and I didn't have the leadership voice to advocate for myself and find a way to make that work.

So the company dried up effectively. And at the same time I was working with a storefront theater company in Chicago that was made up of a lot of very young emerging artists. In that same sphere, they didn't know what to do with me. I was the only one among them that was married and pregnant, and had a family. So my experience was very different and I instantly became ostracized. I went through a period of mourning. Maybe it was sadness more than rage. But what I know now is that I did come to rage because all I have wanted to do with Smartistry is empower people through information. I feel like a vessel.

RSH: It's the caring not just about our own stories. It's that lived experience that actually creates space for other stories to channel through you so you can carve a path.

Going back to that word you used at the beginning, 'what has shaped me?'. These experiences have shaped us into a vessel of healing. A vessel of solutions and empowerment. I think that when we let our rage live, it takes the energy from harm, and says, no, I'm gonna turn it into the solution.

When you find a community that relates to how we've allowed rage to shape us into the healing answer to that harm we experienced, I think that's the way forward.

The Way Forward

MP: Is this business model providing resource through community, uniquely matriarchal or non patriarchal?

RSH: It's really interesting because I haven't heard it referred to like that, but PAAL's shared leadership structure absolutely fits that description intentionally. I remember early on going to a conference where I was doing a workshop on supporting caregivers and I was able to attend a few sessions. One of the sessions was creating feminist spaces and creating feminist rehearsal rooms. I didn't know what that meant, but I knew I was totally into it. I entered the space and the folks facilitating the workshop, opened with the reality that to create a feminist rehearsal room has so much to do with power sharing. Where our theater infrastructure, which we now know is not just anti-feminist, but also white supremacists, racist, gender exclusive etc., works on the vertical. It's all about delivering up and controlling down. And to deconstruct that, to disband that, to build something new, it has to run along the horizontal.

There can be leadership, but the way that leadership shares power is what dictates whether or not that room is intersectional and feminist. I remember feeling like, oh, that's the language for what I see in PAAL and what my colleagues see in PAAL, and what the steering committee sees in PAAL. It had already built itself on a network of three locations, a network of three cities. There was no hub, it had started off also with a communal circle of moms in Chicago whose kids were coming in and out of the room. The ethos of the organization was the breeding space for the infrastructure, as opposed to the other way around, which I feel most nonprofits form an infrastructure and then try to develop an inclusive and progressive ethos. I don't think that that's possible because I believe the nonprofit structure is broken. And I believe that even more now that PAAL has grown. I will say that from the inception, we knew that PAAL would commit to something that we call the vertical 50/50. Which was that at minimum every level of leadership would have, or it would not be able to function in at all,

it would not be considered complete, it would not be considered functional unless it had a minimum 50% of folks of the global majority and always include the black lived experience. When you live that way intentionally, most of our leadership actually functions closer to 60% folks in the global majority.

It's also that when you invite those folks to your spaces where you make it inclusive, and give those of us who have been marginalized the power, you realize that we are actually very adept at power sharing. It's not a skill that needs to be learned, which a lot of institutions right now are having to bring in experts to teach them to share, which they should have learned in kindergarten.

We knew we wanted a shared leadership team, but it did take time. We started with the steering committee, and chief reps in the local cities, and then that developed into what we now have this year formally, officially a five person shared leadership structure of an executive team, and it is incredible. They're the greatest folks I have had the chance to work with. My role in the team is Director of Programming and I work alongside our Managing Director, Iris McQuillan-Grace, our Director of Technology and Innovation Adriana Gaviria, and our Director of Community and Justice Initiatives Tamanya Garza and our Producing Director, Garlia Cornelia Jones.

When the five of us enter a room, the collaboration and the insight is invaluable and we have formed our board of directors with the same intention, and it's a volunteer board. We are working very hard to restructure that the financial and the development portion actually does not come through the hands of the board. But that they manage the budget still. It is folks who are not only experts at managing budgets and organizations, but also who have the lived experience and the need that PAAL provides support for.

It's very interesting that you say that it feels maternal, or even paternal in the sense of those who have been marginalized, because we're very conscious of any binary language, like transgender and non-binary parents who caregive are excluded from virtually every space.

And we're inclusive of them. This shared leadership is very much capturing the phrase 'it takes a village'. So in order to create a healthy nonprofit that centers those with the greatest need and centers the voices of those with the greatest need, it takes a village and it takes a collaborative village with the ethos of power sharing as a lifestyle.

MP: It always reminds me that power is not pie. There's plenty there. It's a never-ending resource. We're not gonna run out of it.

RSH: One of our favorite phrases is to talk about PAAL as an open arms organization. That's inherently what we've always wanted to be and we're adamant about it because we've experienced the opposite. That very much in the nonprofit world and the arts world, it's a door slammed in your face organization unless you have something to financially contribute to them. We want to just be the total opposite. We want to find ways that we're amplifying and uplifting and growing in partnerships that.

MP: In previous episodes I've talked with other guests about the scarcity mindset that creatives experience. To put a bow on what you were saying, I think an open arms statement or value system is the antithesis, the antidote to the scarcity mindset.

RSH: 100%. And I just wanna say, finances are limited, but collaboration is infinite. And if any organization listening, thinks they don't know how to do that in a sustainable way, I would encourage them to think about, how can you collaborate? How can you support each other? How can you lift each other up? Versus, what are you spending your money on?

There's a way to create community partnerships that exchange resources beyond the financial, so that the financial is cared for and respected in that way.

MP: So I think many of our listeners on this podcast, may not have lived experience as caregivers or parents. And I would love to hear from your experience and your research and all of the knowledge that you have, what are some of the tangible challenges that parent and caregiver artists see on a day-to-day basis? You already described some of your personal experiences, but can you share some other places where you see direct impact?

RSH: There is inherently, because the way our society conditions us, this pressure to keep your caregiving invisible. There's shame surrounding that. There's expectation, especially in the workplace to enter taken care of, or you can't take care of your job. As opposed to your workplace should help take care of you, so that you can take care of your job.

This idea that if they see me a mess, then they'll think I'm incapable, which happens. So just that challenge knowing that the caregivers around you are probably censoring the majority of their challenges to preserve your comfort. And how can you, as someone who wants to be a support system for them, how can you share with them that they don't need to work that hard to keep you comfortable? One of the best phrases you can offer is 'what do you need?' If someone shows up late, if someone seems a bit testy, asking how are you, what do you need, is the best gift that you can give anyone. When someone enters the space late, offering an authentic and genuine welcome because who knows what they had to tackle before they got to you.

If they feel safer with you and cared for, you're gonna get a better conversation and collaboration out of that person. That's the best way to not extend that negative moment. I would also say the financial impact of caregiving in this country is atrocious, especially being one of the most developed countries in the world. This country is an abomination in terms of the lack of economic support for caregivers.

Just look at anyone's hospital bill, or Google, how much does it cost to have a baby? Google, how much does it cost to adopt? Google, how much does it cost for IVF? Just let those numbers terrify you and know that caregivers confront those budgetary realities on top of groceries for multiples, on top of rent, on top of travel etc. So then when we take a look at employment, and the majority of folks who end up caregiving are women and folks of marginalized genders, those are also the folks who are paid less.

Take the intersectional reality of that group, of the folks of the global majority who also fall into that category who are paid exponentially less on the dollar. Yet those are the folks who often have to pay more for childcare because they are more likely to be responsible for caregiving. And so they have to make those decisions. Before we go into this realm of that it was their choice to have a child, let me just offer to anyone to stop ever using that word in this context.

I call it the weaponization of the word 'choice'. The word choice needs to be about empowerment and allowing the individual whose reproductive status is being discussed to feel autonomy and empowerment. When we throw it back into anyone's face and say 'it's their choice to have a child so those financial burdens are their own, the workplace burden is their own.' What you're doing is you are trying to use choice against them to absolve yourselves of communal responsibility, workplace responsibility, and also projecting a reality that very likely is not the case. It is so classist, and racist, and misogynistic to think that children or life dependents happen by choice.

The process of getting pregnant, the process of foster care, the process of adoption, the process of being responsible for caring for your parents, caring for your siblings, caring for other family dependents, is so chockful of variables that it is in the minority percentage of what is within anyone's control to choose. We do nothing but harm and weaponize with that word when we throw it back in someone's face.

The cultural shame of having to hide the burden so that other folks are comfortable, the financial realities. Then I would also say logistical, being responsible for all of the caregiving and the workplace etc, and not feeling support from your community, I think it puts such a burden on the brain and the body for that caregiver in a way that it wasn't designed. Going back to it takes a village, I really believe that caregiving was designed for multiple minds to serve a community of dependence. When we remove that communal support, we tax out an individual.

MP: One of the things that I feel challenged by is the availability of time. The demand of your time to be able to run multiple contracts, multiple gigs or touring, all of these things that artists are just expected to be available for.

RSH: This is key to any sort of progress and self-realization, and communal actualization of support. This idea of time in what we expect others to have in terms of time wealth. I was on a panel earlier today for The Playwrights Realm, we partnered with them on the Radical Parent Inclusion Project that ended up supporting all caregivers and they have continued giving caregiver support institutionally with their organization. We did a panel today and one of the guests mentioned, when asked, what do you wish people knew? The guest mentioned, as a caregiver of family dependent, that it never stops. There's no clocking out. There's not even a 'that was a long 10 out of 12.' I only have three hours of sleep. It's never that. Even when I'm sleeping, I'm listening for anyone who needs me.

I actually just had a situation where someone thought that I would be too busy for a reading because I'm so busy with my caregiving, which Ma'am Ireland calls 'falling off the list'. Where folks are doing you a favor by removing opportunity. Even if someone's gonna say no, we all have the right to our own agency and saying no.

When I became pregnant and knew I was gonna have kids, I had to turn down 95% of my auditions because that's the percentage of jobs where I would be paying the babysitter more than I would be making. So any amount of time that I have away for my children is costing me a minimum of $20 an hour.

So I do a reading that rehearses even only four hours before doing, three hours for a reading. We're looking upwards of $250 for every reading. I don't have that. That's time that I don't have in the day, unless I'm gonna do it after bedtime on Zoom, which I've done a lot this year. I also don't have that money to spend on that time. The valuation of time.


There is so much more to discuss! Read Part 2 of this conversation here.

And go check out PAAL'S website, get involved and leave your comments below.

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