I work for myself, like many people in film & TV, so maternity leave hasn’t really been an option for me in the traditional sense. With both my children I had a very notional three weeks off, which in reality involved some work most days. With my son (now two and a half), that was hard because the lack of sleep hit me like a ten ton truck. With my daughter (now nine months) my stomach muscles were so destroyed that I couldn’t stand up long enough to even change a nappy for about 10 days. But I had deals to negotiate and I got on with it because the alternative, not doing it, letting things slide, having to start from scratch even, wasn’t very appealing.
The first year of motherhood was very difficult for me. I had gone from a busy, independent, sociable person, to someone who was stuck at home with a baby all day, struggling to cling on to the business I was working so hard to build. I breastfed my son exclusively for six months which meant I felt very tied to him, and I wasn’t confident enough (in either my mothering or in how it might reflect on my job) to take him to any meetings. I felt constantly pulled in every direction, all the while also feeling deeply isolated and frustrated. I wanted to work, needed to for my own sanity, and yet it seemed so impossible.
Over the Christmas holidays when he was 15 months old and we were starting to think about trying for a second baby I decided that I needed to go part-time. To have a day a week when I could take him to the park or soft play without feeling I was having to steal time away from work. More importantly than that, the headspace that it freed up was huge, and although there’s often something I have to do on my day off, it helps me survive the juggle.
Then when my daughter came along I felt able to take her with me to some meetings, perhaps because I know more now what I’m doing as a mother, perhaps because I’m just even more squeezed for time. Or maybe, hopefully, things have moved on a bit. In an ideal world I’d rather not have to be pitching while I’m breastfeeding (not least because my hands aren’t free to take notes!), but you multi-task. It turns out you can sell a film or a client, and keep a person alive, all at once.
In general we have a patchwork of childcare in place to make my work possible – some nursery time, my mother-in-law helps, my husband is in charge on Tuesdays, Friday is my day off, long toddler naps and squeezing extra minutes and hours into early mornings and evenings as needed. It’s a fragile juggling act, made doable largely because I work from home, but we handle it.
Parenthood has been an incredible way to make new connections too. I think with my son I was reluctant to admit I had a baby because I felt like it was a weakness, but then you realise that lots of other people have children too. They get it. And the shared experience becomes a plus not a minus in that relationship.
I had one meeting at BAFTA when my daughter was four months old, and the only free table was next to a group of older men in suits (well, not suits because it was BAFTA, but getting that way) who looked deep in serious conversation, and I thought shit, she’s going to cry, I’m going to disturb them, this is going to be awful. And then before I knew it they were all craning and smiling and coo-ing at her.
And that was a real turning point for me. A moment I felt I didn’t have to apologise for being a mother anymore. Yes I’m a parent. Yes I have small people who sometimes yell when I’m on the phone because childcare is really expensive and I can’t afford as much as I would like. But I’m good at this. And I love it. And I don’t want to stop. And most people have been there, or will be there, at some point or other. We need to be grown-up human beings about it.
I also think by not being open about it we fuel the problems, the inflexibility. With my son I would panic and rush to the other end of the house if he cried while I was on the phone. I felt like one squeal from him would end my career. But with my daughter I am more level-headed and in those early days when I had to take her with me to most meetings I came to the realisation that someone who wasn’t cool about me taking my tiny baby with me probably wasn’t someone I would want to be working with anyway.
If we’re in the business of storytelling, I think we need to own our own narratives of motherhood, not hide them away. Why shouldn’t we be raising children while we make films? Yes that might make things more complicated, but aren’t the best characters the ones with the layers?
In a recent chicken pox and potty training induced spell of cabin fever I came up with the idea for This Mama Does cards, an alternative to traditional baby milestone cards, but for Mums – SPONSORED BY COFFEE, OH SO TIRED, SHIT JUST HAPPENED, SEND GIN and so on (actually they could also be the captions for a day on set!). They’re a bit of fun to help mothers survive the day with a smile and photo (and a G&T!), but they also offer the possibility of creating a personal narrative for mothers, in a way that motherhood is about THEM, not just their baby. Babies are great and everything but, hi *WAVES*, I’m still here. I didn’t become invisible when I had a child. It isn’t all about if they’re sleeping through the night yet and eating their vegetables. What about the fact that I’m up all night while they’re not sleeping. And I’m the one on my knees clearing up half-chewed food. Neither of those things are fun and I think it’s ok for me to say so. I have no intention of fading quietly into a world of mashed banana when I could be helping a writer find their voice, a director their next project, and now a mother their own story.
I have small people who I love very much, but I’ve also read a million scripts and I know what works and what doesn’t. I am better at my job than I have ever been. And one day I am going to write a screenplay with a REALISTIC CHILDBIRTH. Because lots of things are improving, but Daphne in Neighbours giving birth with her tights on is still where we’re at with screen labours. And it’s not good enough.
Christina is a screenwriter and founder of Imagine Talent, a talent agency representing writers and directors. She also established and runs the Writers’ Group for Women in Film & Television to support and nurture female writing talent.