The Mama Actor’s Guide to Mixing Baby and Work
“for women in the workplace it’s death by a thousand cuts–and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives.” -Katharine Zaleski
I recently booked a gig on Rashida Jones’ new show, Angie Tribeca. As usual with television, it all happened incredibly fast. I auditioned on a Tuesday, got the call from my agent on Wednesday and shot the job on Thursday. Whew! This type of fast turnaround can wreak havoc on any mom’s sanity who does not have a deep bench of babysitters on speed dial. Day care for the Tuesday audition worked out, but on Wednesday, wardrobe called and asked if I could be there for a fitting in two hours—eek! It was not required for the gig, but being the people pleaser that I am, I felt the pull to say yes.
Rather than twist myself into a pretzel to be able to jump through that hoop child-free, I mustered up my courage and said, “Well, I would only be able to make it if I can bring my baby with me. There’s just no way I could find a sitter that quickly.” I girded myself for the subtle anti-baby vitriol I’ve conditioned myself to be on the lookout for, but she said fine, and when I arrived at Raleigh Studios everyone was nice to me and my baby—from the security guard who signed me in, to the PA who turned out to be the producer’s daughter, even the costume designer with the little dog.
Now, I’m not advocating that you bring your baby to set or anything, and on the actual shoot day of course I left her with a sitter, but I discovered that I err too often on the side of “kids, what kids?”. Meaning, I’m overly sensitive about seeming unprofessional, and have a tendency to minimize the importance of my role as a mother when I’m in the context of industry people or events. Just in case I’m not alone in navigating this tricky intersection, I’ve put together some guidelines to help you, mama actor, find your own comfort zone when it comes to mixing baby with work:
1) Be honest about what lies underneath your hesitation or mixed feelings.
If I were to honestly unpack my tendency to minimize motherhood, I would find fear. Fear of being perceived as unprofessional when I want to be perceived as a professional, fear of being perceived as soft when I want to be perceived as powerful, fear of being perceived as “mom-ish” when I want to be perceived as sexy, fear of being perceived as not committed, as scattered, crazy, haggard, tiger-momish, exhausted or whatever other stereotypes of moms exist “out there”. In other words, I’m afraid that people will see the totality of who I really am. Because the truth is, I am a professional with an awesome personal life, I’m powerful but also soft, committed but also doubting, sometimes scattered, haggard and exhausted. I am a completely imperfect, gorgeous, complex human being and I show up for life every day with my boots on ready to engage, and sometimes that looks messy.
But wait, there’s more. If I dig a little deeper still, I find that underneath that fear of being truly seen is the fear of being rejected, unloved. And that’s it right there, isn’t it? The little nugget of fear at the center of it all—the fear that if I show up as who I really am, that true me just might not be worthy of love. What’s amazing about this kind of radical self honesty is that it’s liberating in every sphere of my life, not just when it comes to balancing mom/actor tension.
I invite you to ask yourself, how do you tend to react when faced with situations where your mom self collides with your work self? Do you minimize, overshare, lie, power through, armor up, perfect, over-dramatize? If you dig deeper, what fear might be hiding beneath those tendencies, and how can you bring it to the light of day?
2) Know what the norms seem to be for your area of the industry.
Like anything else in our industry, there are no hard and fast rules that apply to every single person or situation. It becomes a matter of keeping your eyes peeled and getting a sense of what the norms are. What do you notice about the way people talk about and/or incorporate their children in the studios, casting offices and sets that you frequent? For example, I’ve noticed that it seems to be okay to bring your kid to a commercial audition but not a theatrical audition (though I’ve also talked to moms who do it). I’ve heard of actors bringing their babies to set if it’s an indie film, but I’ve never seen a baby on the set of a television show (unless you’re Claire Danes or Sarah Michelle Geller I suppose). I will say that there are insurance issues on set so don’t bring your baby unless its for a brief visit in the company of a nanny, and make sure it’s cleared with producers in advance.
3) Know yourself and your child.
Once you have a sense of the norms for the part of the industry you inhabit, know your child and yourself. For the auditioning actor mama, is your kid the type who will be still as a statue for the 5 minutes you’re in an audition room if you give him an ipad? Or is she a screamer who doesn’t yet understand the concept of an inside voice? Do you feel more grounded having your child with you before going in to an audition or is it too distracting? I have not yet brought my children to an audition (fingers crossed that the babysitting gods continue to smile upon me), because I’m not good at splitting my focus and prefer to have 100% of my energy available to concentrate on my work. For industry events that are lower stakes, more casual or family oriented, I might make a different choice.
4) Be a leader in talking about your children.
I attended a Women in Film event a few months after my baby was born, and while I was chatting with a lovely fellow actress, I asked her if she had kids. She seemed almost embarrassed to admit that yes, she did. Once I told her that I also had kids it opened up a whole new connection and deeper conversation where we both learned a lot about navigating the business as mothers. I often get a sense of hesitation from women when it comes to talking about their children. Maybe the reluctance has to do with privacy concerns, but I think it’s more likely a fear of vulnerability (see #1). To be fair, this fear is not without merit. This piece in Fortune magazine written by Katharine Zaleski outlines her litany of anti-mom biases as a young professional. Among them, she says:
“I was there to meet with Time.com’s then managing editor and pitch a partnership idea, but once I took a seat and surveyed the endless photos of her small children spread across the airy space, I decided this editor was too much of a mother to follow up on the idea.”
“I secretly rolled my eyes at a mother who couldn’t make it to last minute drinks with me and my team. I questioned her “commitment” even though she arrived two hours earlier to work than me and my hungover colleagues the next day.”
She is honest when she says, “for women in the workplace, it’s death by a thousand cuts—and sometimes it’s other women holding the knives.” I wish it wasn’t like this. I wish there were a third way, that women didn’t feel compelled to choose between “leaning in” or “leaning out”.
If you are a mom and you never talk about your children with colleagues or at networking events, ask yourself why not? Talking about your children in your workplace, whether it’s a set, studio, or office, opens up the space for other women to feel comfortable talking about their children, which can lead to a more connected and dare I say loving environment. I get that it takes a bit of courage—it’s kind of like being the first person to say “hello” on the street, or the first person to say “I love you” in a relationship. I get that it can feel vulnerable, but for an industry whose lifeblood is telling stories that are personal, important, truthful and deeply emotional, why wouldn’t we want to talk openly and often about that which is important and personal to us?
5) Bring all of your mama heart to your work.
What surprised me the most about having kids is the way in which it completely renovated the landscape of my heart. I never would have fathomed that such deep and abiding joy and connectedness could coexist with such desperate loneliness, irritation and resentment. At the risk of being Captain Obvious, having kids feels big, as in a lot more feelings, more often, more intensely, all at the same time. This emotional complexity of being a parent shows up in my art, and in this way I bring my kids to work with me every day. Don’t shut yourself off to the dark side of your mama heart. Allowing yourself to feel the more “negative” emotions rather than judging yourself for them can help you bring them into your work and infinitely enrich your art. Being a mom makes me a better actor.
I hope these guidelines help you find practical ways to navigate the daily balancing act that is life as an artist mama. I’d love to know how you make your own own rules for mixing your children and your work.