It Takes a Community to Raise a Family in the Arts

by Geraldine Ysselstein


Arts Leadership Director Geraldine Ysselstein and her family

I’ve been back to work at the Rozsa Foundation for just over a year now after a maternity leave with my second son. In the past year, I’ve been asked by several fellow arts administrators – how is it going? How do you work full time, have kids, and have any time for yourself to pursue anything creative? It’s something that as parents we often wonder ourselves. Below you will find a glimpse into a few of my experiences over the last 7 years of pregnancy, giving birth, recovering, and raising two boys in an arts community that I’m getting to know better every day.


This is Part 1 about Pregnancy and Maternity Leave:


#1: EI, Maternity, and Paternity Leave & Benefits: In Canada, we have the privilege of being able to access Employment Insurance maternity and parental benefits for 12-18 months while we are away from work. However, one must have worked at least 600 insured hours in order to make an EI claim or have registered for access to EI special benefits if self-employed (and waited 12 months from the date of confirmed registration).


When I was a teenager and early adult, my family hosted classical/jazz/folk concerts in our house almost every Saturday for 11 years. It was an unusual upbringing and the experience taught my sisters and I many things including: if we wanted to have a family, it would be better if we got a 9-5 job rather than be travelling musicians. However, I later learned that deciding to have a family as an arts administrator can be just as challenging! Work, part-time work, low or irregular pay, no access to EI and benefits, working on weekends/evenings are all hurdles that we try to jump through – made even more difficult when one is entering into arts administration at the exact time when one might be thinking of starting a family.


Having an employer (both the Banff Centre during my first maternity leave and the Rozsa Foundation during my second maternity leave) who paid into EI along with me was important, not only for financial reasons but for psychological reasons. It made me feel that I was being supported – that having a family was as important to them and the country of Canada as it was to me. It made me feel cared for and that I could step away from my work knowing that a job would be ready for me on my return.


#2: Pregnancy: My husband and I arrived in Calgary driving from Thunder Bay on December 31st, 2012 at midnight. We watched the fireworks in downtown and promptly fell asleep in our sleeping bags in the rented house we had just moved into. During that first year, I split my time between living in Calgary and Banff while I worked as the coordinator for the Banff International String Quartet Competition (BISQC). Sometimes I drove and sometimes I took the Greyhound bus to Banff and stayed with friends for 2 nights a week.


When I became pregnant in 2013, I was hungry all the time, peeing all the time, had “morning sickness” in the evening between 5-8pm for the first four months, but was also very happy to finally be pregnant. That summer was very intense as Banff Centre staff and I prepared for the string quartet competition, but my colleagues took good care of me – making sure that there were lots of snacks in the office and that I left work every day at 4pm so I wouldn’t feel nauseous and overtired. And during the week of BISQC, they made sure I had a place to sleep on-campus, that I ate regularly and put my feet up throughout the day. I still feel so much gratitude to them.


#3: Maternity Leave can be lonely: And then my first baby arrived, a month early! Recovering from an emerging c-section took a very long time, months in fact. Additionally, Calgary was still very new to me that first year and while I didn’t have a car, I walked or biked everywhere with my son in the stroller, back-pack, or carrier once I had physically recovered. I would plan each week to visit at least one cultural institution that was somewhat walkable/bikeable like the Glenbow, Esker, Library, or Arts Commons and I experienced it all from the perspective of a new mom trying to figure out what I had just got myself into.


Safe spaces as a new mom were now very important to me. The size of bathrooms and being able to roll one’s stroller in, access to clean change tables, a place to breastfeed quietly and discreetly, a place to feed solid food without concern about it being too messy, a clean place to lay one’s child down to play and crawl, an interactive experience for both myself and my child, a place for myself to eat, a clean and comfortable place to sit and put one’s child’s coats/hats/gloves on, and a place that didn’t mind when a child cried were now of great concern.


I didn’t know anyone when I arrived in Calgary, but I started to make friends with other new moms in my neighbourhood. That made my first maternity leave less lonely. We would watch each other’s kids if one of us had to run to an appointment or hang out with each other and share all of our motherhood uncertainties while the children blissfully napped. That sense of community with new moms was different with my second maternity leave. My husband and I had moved out of the neighbourhood we had lived in for 2 years and all of my new mom friends were busy with two or three kids by then. I did know Calgary better during my second maternity leave and had access to a vehicle which made getting around easier, but I also knew that sleep was sanity and so that was my focus for that year. When I could, I would go to an arts and culture event in the evening/on the weekend by myself. I revelled in being an adult without children attached to me, not having to navigate two children’s needs, and giving my husband some space to enjoy time with our kids.


I am, by nature, a very private person. So, why am I sharing this personal story? Over the past 3 years that I have been at the Rozsa Foundation, I have noticed an increase in the number of women (90% in RAFT and 80% in RAMP in the 2020 year identify as women) in our Arts Leadership programs and this includes women of colour (thanks to our alumni and our past Rozsa Foundation communications coordinator Kimberley Jev). My hope is that by taking time to process my story – I can open a door to conversations about your stories and to consider how we in the arts sector might remove barriers for women as artists, arts managers, and arts audience members in the arts community. Please feel free to connect with me for a chat (geraldine@rozsafoundation.org).


This is part 1 in a two-part series about raising a family in an arts community. The second part will focus on returning to work and reintegrating into society.

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