The fourth Thursday of April is “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.” Many companies make elaborate plans to be able to accommodate children on this day.
I remember going with my father to “Kids’ Day at Work.” We fingerprinted bottles, watched a lock expert pop open eight different locks in under a minute, learned about counterterrorism, and fired handguns in the indoor shooting range. Unfortunately, the nature of our work and our work environment as singers is such that children and other guests, including spouses, are not always appropriate or welcome at work with us.
How can we keep our families involved in our work when they often can’t even see what it is we are doing? With powerful tools, imagination and ingenuity, as well as some well-timed conversations with the powers that be, we can bring our families to work every single day.
No matter where you work, at home or away, know yourself. When you choose an unconventional career field, you may not be able to hold on to conventional expectations about families, roles, schedules, and related issues. Adjusting your expectations will provide your family with the flexibility it needs to handle the inflexibility that your career is going to throw in each one of their paths. Don’t kid yourself about this: Every single person in your family will be impacted by your career choice, and that is true even if you work 9 to 5 in a conventional office, or stay at home.
Recognize what your special needs and requirements are. When I am in rehearsals, for example, I need more sleep, and I can’t get up early to help get my son off to school. So my husband has agreed to do the morning routine alone. I have agreed to use some of my earnings to pay for a biweekly cleaning service so our home is reasonably clean and the pressure of getting it done is off both of us, to some extent. Before we had this service, I was becoming increasingly cranky over the state of the house, but my husband was already feeling overtaxed, and I was always at rehearsal. Know your limitations and communicate them to your family.
The less conventional your career choice and schedule, the more flexible both you and your partner have to be. Make sure before you go any further that your relationship is as strong as it can be. We aren’t born knowing how to be successful in relationships. We learn from watching those around us as we grow up, primarily our parents, whose model may look nothing like ours (my mom stayed home), or whose model may have been a dismal failure.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Relationships are hard work. Get a good book. Find a counselor. Get a support structure behind you that you can both rely on.
The demands of classical singers’ careers can be very challenging for their partners. Make sure you’ve had a very frank discussion with your partner about your hopes and expectations for your career and the implications for your relationship and family. Make sure they are fully in agreement with and in support of your goals and what you will need from them as a result of the special demands of your career. Ask your partner what you can do to make these demands easier on him or her. You need to have an arrangement that will work for both of you if the relationship is going to succeed.
It helps tremendously to understand your children developmentally so you can choose appropriate activities and conversations to share with your children, and know what to expect at their current stage. Pick up a parenting book, take a parenting class, or check out some of the latest websites just for parents (see sidebar). We aren’t born knowing how to parent, either. We learn from watching—again, usually from our own parents.
You will probably find that many of the normal parenting and relationship issues many people face apply to you, whether you’re on the road most of the year or home every night. It’s hard enough just to be in a committed relationship and/or to be a parent; add our odd working hours and travel schedules to the mix and you’re asking for big trouble, if your basics aren’t solid.
Working Close to Home
It’s easiest to include your family in your career when you’re working close to home. The challenge is to spend time with your family so you aren’t just a boarder in your own house. Even though you probably work nights and weekends more often than not, try to have everyone reserve one night a week. Have dinner together, even if it’s take-out or delivered pizza. Turn off the phone and TV. No distractions allowed!
The goal is to get to know each other and keep that intimacy going on a long-term, regular basis. If a night just doesn’t work, pick another time that does: a weekend breakfast or lunch, perhaps.
Regularly schedule a date night with your partner, and some one-on-one time with each child, so everyone feels they are getting an intimate, focused piece of you. This can be very difficult when you are wearing many hats, but you’d be surprised what you can accomplish with an ordinary errand.
20 Strategies to Involve Your Family in Your Job When You’re At Home
1. Regularly talk about what you are doing so that the family acquires your working vocabulary and a sense of who’s who in your professional life.
2. Make sure your family understands that your study/practice time is work time, and treat it as such yourself. Turn off the phone and TV, refuse to be distracted, and enlist the aid of your partner in maintaining sacrosanct practice/study space and time.
3. Ask your children or partner to help choose what you wear for a concert performance. (Narrow down the selection beforehand to things you would choose anyway.)
4. Have your child or partner help you make the program for a concert you are giving. Have them help with a mailing by putting on the stamps or return address labels.
5. Have your children or partner take a picture of you in costume (and get one with them) when they visit at the opera or concert.
6. Take your children and partner on a tour of where you work.
7. Call from a performance during an intermission, or just afterward. Celebrate your successes immediately with the people who matter most to you.
8. Make a scrapbook of everything you do and let your children help put the photos in. Tell them the stories of each one.
9. Volunteer at your child’s school to talk about your career. Classical singers, particularly opera singers, are rare (even if we don’t feel that way when we audition!). If you want to feel really glamorous, visit a kindergarten class in full opera costume.
10. Ask if your child or partner can be a supernumerary in an opera in which you are singing—if they are interested. (Don’t force the issue.)
11. Teach your family members easy-to-sing snippets from the operas or songs you are performing. Sing them together (in accessible keys).
12. Use opera plots as stories for your child. My son particularly likes stories where somebody gets shot or stabbed (no shortage of stories there!). Warning: You may have to simplify a great deal.
13. Bring your family to opera rehearsals or performances when appropriate. Marta Domingo has told me of bringing her children from an early age to see Plácido perform. She is passionate about teaching young children to love the art—and how to behave during a performance.
I agree with her. My youngest son has been attending my performances since he was 6 months old and now wins praise for his exemplary behavior during concerts and other performances.
Unless you are Mr. Domingo, however, you probably cannot simply show up with your children in tow. Please check with your administrators before bringing family to rehearsals. Christina Scheppelmann, director of Artistic Operations for Washington National Opera, points out that it is dangerous to bring children into rehearsals. They may get hurt, get in the way, or accidentally cause others to get hurt. Children can also be a distraction to other people and consequently become a problem.
Ms. Scheppelmann also observes that although WNO tries to be respectful to the families of performers, the company must also make certain that family members do not end up outnumbering performers and staff, and they must control who may bring family members to rehearsals and performances. This is, after all, a work place, not a recreation area.
Her points are well taken. Please use good judgment when approaching your company with a request for visitors to rehearsals. You know your children better than anyone. If they don’t have stellar concert behavior, it is probably best to leave them at home and try something else. Remember, it all reflects back on you.
14. If you have a church job and your family attends church, invite them to attend the church where you work. See if they can sit close to where you are sitting. Again, use good judgment where your children’s behavior is concerned. If they cannot sit through a church service, try something else.
15. If you must miss a family activity because of a rehearsal or performance, make sure they understand how much you regret your absence. Do not assume that because this has happened before they will understand.
16. If you have to miss bedtime rituals because of evening commitments, try to find a daytime ritual to replace it. Or create a special bedtime ritual that is just yours for the evenings when you are at home. My son and I have a book that we read together, but only when I am tucking him in, and only I get to read it. He and his father read a different book when it’s their turn.
17. Don’t skip your sex life. Just because you are wiped out at night doesn’t mean your partner is. Conversely, if you are super pumped after a late performance and come rolling in after midnight ready to go, don’t expect your partner to rise to the occasion when they have to get up at dawn to get the kids off to school and/or face the next day at the office. You’ll have to get creative and plan some intimacy for when you are both available at a reasonable time and can be in the mood. It sort of shoots romance in the foot, but this is your life. If you want sex in it…
18. Give your partner some extra special treatment. Send flowers to the office after a performance, thanking them for their support, or take them to dinner with your earnings.
19. As artists, we celebrate life and all that is beautiful. Bring that attitude into your home in all the ways that your personal expression meets real life. I’ve painted the rooms in my home vibrant colors and hung an opera print prominently in the living room. Own your career, and invite your family to co-own it.
20. Encourage your family to find their passion and help them nurture it every day, even if it has nothing to do with music.
Working Away From Home
When you are away from home, it can seem like your family falls off the face of the earth—and you fall off the face of the earth to your family. Rehearsals, performances and networking responsibilities can seriously eat up your time, and those time differences can make it very difficult to stay in touch. Don’t give up. Now is an especially important time to have those basics down. You and your entire family are going to suffer from your absence, whether it shows outwardly or not. Adjusting expectations is vitally important to the success of your family’s security and stability.
When my youngest son was 14 months old, I had the opportunity to sing in Europe for several weeks. My husband was suddenly thrown into the role of single father, and I was thrust into the role of single woman abroad. Both of us had our own set of unique challenges during this period. On my return, my son would not come to me at all. It was a very difficult period for me, until he had adjusted to me being back.
I did not raise my two oldest children myself. I parented them from the other side of the country, full-time. Many of my expectations of how parenting was supposed to work had to change to accommodate my situation and the ability of my children to accept their parenting reality. Much of what I learned during those 15 years I have pulled together to help those of you who may travel, or end up traveling, for extended periods of time.
Being away for a long time is in many ways similar to getting divorced and having one parent get custody, as far as your children are concerned. The biggest difference is that you are going to come back. Suddenly, one parent takes over most, if not all, of the parenting roles and responsibilities, and the other parent disappears from the scene. This sudden change in the balance of the parenting dynamic can have a huge impact on your children. The key to your success (and theirs) lies entirely on your ability to create and maintain stability and continuity.
Typically, the parent left at home experiences the most problems with maintaining discipline, and the parent who is gone experiences the most problems with not wanting to ruin precious time together by using discipline when it really ought to be applied. Children need boundaries. Set them and stick with them. They will flourish within them.
On your return, remember that things may have been working just fine while you have been gone. You can’t just jump right back into the way things were before you left. The family will need a transition time, and the amount of time required will vary, depending on your family and how long you have been away. Be patient, don’t take things personally, ask how you can help, and try not to be resentful. If you can manage this time with grace, you will avoid resentment on the part of your partner and children, who may feel overwhelmed by your return. On the other hand, keep the lines of communication going while you are away, to make sure you don’t become obsolete to your own family.
20 Strategies to Involve Your Family in Your Job When You’re Away
1. Send postcards from every place you go.
2. Encourage your kids to start a collection of something simple and small that you can send to them or bring back with you (stamps, coins or other currency, rocks, etc.).
3. Bring your family with you whenever you can.
4. Call. This can be very difficult if you’re in a different time zone. You will have to make the extra effort to plan and coordinate with your partner. It is best to set up a regular call time (on the kids’ end) and stick to it.
Experts agree that consistency during a parental absence is the key to maintaining a child’s sense of security and well-being. The child will feel unloved and forgotten if you say you will call and then forget or are late. Remember, time goes by very slowly when you are a child, so even 30 minutes late feels like eternity when you are 10 years old and mom said she’d call at 8 p.m.
Don’t expect great conversations on the phone with young children. They don’t know how to do it yet. Keep talking and asking questions, and be positive and upbeat.
5. Hide things in your kids’ rooms for them to find while you’re gone.
6. Make your kids’ favorite meal before you leave and freeze it for them to bring out and enjoy while you’re gone.
7. Invite your child to choose one little item for you to take with you. Look at it every day. Tell your child how it makes you feel to see it.
8. Reserve a special pair of “hug pajamas” that your child wears only when you are away. Before you go, take out the PJs and give them a big hug, then give them to your child and tell them that every time they put them on while you are gone, your hug will be around them all night long.
9. Do not allow guilt to tempt you into buying all kinds of toys and gifts for your family members as a way of apologizing for your absence. What your family really wants is you, not stuff. If you start a habit of buying them off, they will become materialistic and will expect ever more exciting things from you when you return. They should want you when you come home.
10. Don’t allow your lonely feelings to cloud your judgment. Keep your commitments at the front of your mind. Nothing ruins a happy family more quickly than infidelity at any level, even “harmless flirtation,” and the lies and erosion of trust that ensue. Discipline yourself. Find other, harmless activities to keep you busy. Have an open conversation with your partner about the loneliness and temptations they may face in your absence. Support each other. Keeping your promises shows great respect and honor to your partner and the love between you.
11. Don’t allow your lonely feelings to cloud your judgment with your children. Be ready to be supportive of any position your partner has taken. Don’t allow the children to get between you and manipulate you. Don’t take it personally if your children seem to be closer to your partner after you’ve been away for a while. It’s natural for them to bond to the primary caregiver at a certain age. They still love you, it’s just different.
12. Don’t be overly permissive or overly strict in disciplining after you’ve been away. Try to maintain the same level of discipline in your home all the time, so your children have stability.
13. Talk with your partner about what to do when your child idealizes you while you are away. Your partner should not participate, but should also not fight it compulsively. Just calmly express that no one is perfect and that it is our imperfections which make us all unique.
14. Get a joke book and tell jokes to each other over the phone.
15. Subscribe to a kids’ magazine and get one for yourself. Talk about the articles over the phone.
16. Send patches from places you’ve been to sew on their backpacks or jackets.
17. Find out what your kids are studying in school and ask them questions. Have your partner fax you copies of schoolwork, drawings, letters or notes, and special recognition items.
18. For older kids, send newspaper clippings from wherever you are and discuss what’s happening on the front page of a different city or part of the world.
19. Make a video or audio tape to leave behind. Sing some favorite songs to your child on this tape, or read a favorite book.
20. Buy your child a special set of cards or stationery just for writing to you. Include their own stamps and personalized return address labels.
Here, There and Everywhere
Some ideas work no matter where you are working. Keep your family on your mind, and try to find ways to make that evident to them.
• Dedicate a recording to your family.
• Mention your family by name in your bio.
• Take time to really listen to your partner and children and reflect back what you hear, without judgment, without solving the problem, without reassuring too soon or brushing off what you are hearing. Just listen.
• Don’t let other people define your relationship for you. The year my husband and I were married, I decided to go to a summer festival. Another newlywed couple heard about my plans, and the wife commented to me that she would “never let her husband go off to do something like that after we just got married.” I felt guilty after that conversation, but when I shared the exchange with my husband, he reassured me that he wanted me to go and that he wasn’t her husband, he was mine. Own your own relationship.
• Be yourself. It’s one of the most important life lessons you can teach your child.
With creativity, planning, hard work, good information, a solid foundation, and lots of love, you can develop a game plan customized for your unique family team and for your career that will bring you success at all levels.