Samantha Crawford - Making it Work
Sunday 8th March 2020 – International Women’s Day
As the curtain fell on the final night of Robert Carsen’s production of Die Walküre my heart overflowed with joy and gratitude. My seven month bump and I had made it. Doing more figurative plate spinning than I ever thought possible, keeping the show on the road professionally and personally for 9 weeks away from home. It felt very apt I should be finishing my time surrounded by the literal sisterhood of my eight Valkyrie sisters, all of whom had become friends. This doesn’t always happen in productions, so I felt especially thankful for them. Returning to Teatro Real in Madrid was something I had been looking forward to, as my previous experience had been really positive. Great company, great city. However, last time there was no toddler or third trimester of my pregnancy to deal with
Curtain Call for Die Walküre at Teatro Real. L-R; Stuart Skelton (Siegmund), Adrianne Pieczonka (Sieglinde), Tomasz Konieczny (Wotan), Pablo Heras-Casadao (conductor), Ricarda Merbeth (Brunnhilde), Rene Pape (Hunding), Samantha Crawford (Ortlinde), and Daniela Köhler (Helmwige).
Don’t get me wrong, my husband and I had made a timetable of care for our 16 month old daughter, but that doesn’t mean everything falls into place without colossal effort. And sometimes even then, it still doesn’t work. For example, our daughter has a cold, an audition abroad is scheduled, routine appointments with midwives in (my minimal) Spanish etc., can all add extra strain to best laid plans. I took courage from many of the more experienced parents who had managed all this long before I became a parent and kept at the top of their professions. Several of whom I had met whilst performing at the SWAP’ra gala and other communities for parents in the arts. I arranged several coffees, sadly no G&T’s for me, with these trusted friends and colleagues hoping to gain wisdom and practical tips. It was a great investment of time and I’m incredibly grateful to them. The three main repeated pieces of advice I received were; build your community, get the right childcare and invest in your wellbeing.
Samantha Crawford (Ortlinde) © Javier del Real
Build your community– It may go without saying that your usual support network at home will not be with you, to its fullest extent, when on the road for work. You need to get smart at building friendships to support you. For us, this came from a variety of places; playdates with work colleagues who had children of a similar age, parents in the parks who shared their children’s toys and allowed social time for our daughter, a local child friendly café that you visit regularly, joining a few online groups / forums for the city that post about upcoming events and give advice, and local knowledge from our nanny. All of these sources of knowledge and friendship made our trip more manageable, and memorable as we shared the joys, frustrations and privilege of being parents in performance. I knew I would be doing the first month of childcare and rehearsals alone, as my husband, Matthew, was working at home in London, so I knew a support community for us abroad was vital. The points I felt the most physically and emotionally exhausted were when I had not reached out and initiated meeting up. Being honest about my situation within the community was the best way to find the help and interaction needed. Undoubtedly, this enriched our experience in Madrid, deepened friendships and kept us all laughing together.
Samantha’s daughter visiting rehearsals with fellow valkyries, Rosie Aldridge (Rossweise) and Marifé Nogales (Grimgerde)
Get the right childcare– The plan Matthew and I came up with for 9 weeks was based on our unique set of circumstances for this trip. It will never repeat in exactly the same way as family life requires constant adaptation. We didn’t have the family or friends to help with daily childcare so needed to plan timetables carefully. If you have this option available, explore it and see if can ease the financial pressure of employing someone to help. We employed two nannies who covered my weekly schedule and I allowed myself any extra hour after rehearsal to have a quick bit of socialising before getting back for our daughter’s bedtime routine. This was manageable on our budget and I tried to use the evenings for admin work, studying my next role - Elisabeth in Tannhäuser, yoga, meal prep and Facetime with friends and family. Fortunately for me, our daughter sleeps very well and I did not have to deal with broken night’s sleep. Having a nanny also enabled our daughter to come and visit me at work during rehearsals. Encouragingly, our conductor also had his young son watching, and I cleared her visit with staff in advance. I was so glad she could see me in this environment, although her main objective was to climb all over the frozen soldiers’ corpses strewn around the set. She went to the park soon afterwards. For the second month, our daughter was at home with Matthew and she settled back into the support networks we have there. A mixture of care from our nanny, nursery, church, friends and family helped support him whilst working and parenting alone. We tried to stick to the same routine, within reason, to give our daughter confidence whilst away from each parent for extended time. Due to my pregnancy and work schedule I was not able to return home for more than 24 hours. Those five weeks apart were filled with a lot of nursery rhymes being sung over FaceTime from my dressing room, before going on stage for my ‘hojotohos!’
Invest in your wellbeing– ‘Ignore at your peril,’ was the message loud and clear from the working parents I spoke with. It is no surprise with the sheer volume of jobs required each day to keep family and work life balanced, that taking time for my wellbeing had slipped in the past 18 months. I already knew the importance in my head, but it took exhaustion and anxiety setting in, to make the changes for me to flourish. I wanted to thrive, not just survive. By the time I started in Madrid, I had readdressed the balance of my daily energies and was feeling much stronger, in mind, body and soul. Side note; dads need encouragement to care for themselves too. We decided to plan everything in our diaries to give a chance for the self-care to happen. Time for all three of us, time for each parent to themselves, time as a couple without children. It has really helped. Not everything happens as planned in the diary, but plenty more than if we didn’t take action. We revue this almost weekly, as our family needs it. Most of my priorities are the age-old truths of wellbeing; time for rest, friendships, eating well, exercise, clear work boundaries, quality time with my family, practising gratitude, and remembering that there is no shortcut for these investments. They take time, but I’ve taught myself to incorporate lots of these habits by attaching them to routines I already do. Meaning, less to remember. For example, I put on ‘Sounds of Nature,’ soundtrack whilst making breakfast for our daughter. This helps me be mindful and have a moment of calm in a noisy household before I’ve even had coffee! I also use a spiked massage ball to stretch my feet, hips and back in my dressing room after my make-up is done, but before I’m in costume. (Running onto a darkly lit stage in high heels needed careful preparation to balance my ever-changing body.) I encourage you to find whatever works for you at home and on the road.
Samantha backstage, ready for action as Ortlinde!
Before becoming a parent, I thought it would be an overwhelming and isolating experience. I have found this to be mostly to the contrary. Our lives have now become even more built into an extended community of people willing to help support us as I travel and work in opera. These friends are at home, in WhatsApp groups, trusted online forums, the opera houses and ready for Facetime in an airport café or late after a show when I can’t sleep from the adrenaline. These areas of support allow me to focus more fully on the immensely rewarding experience of performing in opera and being a working parent. I have been so encouraged at the ways to make this career work for my family and it was mostly due to honestly assessing my needs and asking for help. I was not alone, and because of that I found real joy and laughed a lot more than I thought I would. I hope this encourages you too.
Here’s to all the women and parents in opera, happy International Woman’s Day.