Linda Ruth Williams is Professor of Film in the English Department at Exeter University and the investigator on in a major new four-year research project on contemporary women filmmakers led by Dr. Shelley Cobb and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, entitled Calling the Shots: women and contemporary film culture in the UK, 2000-2015. She is the author of five books on cinema, and a co-curator of the annual Shetland Film Festival.
Mark Kermode is the Observer‘s chief film critic. He is the author of Hatchet Job and The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex. He co-hosts BBC Five Live’s Film Review with Simon Mayo (watch them here), and writes the Kermode Uncut blog for the BBC website. He presents Live in 3D, a conversation with film audiences, monthly at the BFI Southbank.
For too long working parents denied the other sides of their lives. I know of lots of women who have deliberately not mentioned that they have kids at job interviews for fear of not getting the gig. – Linda Ruth Williams
Linda: Well – we’ve got to 2018 with two teenage children and two pretty intact careers – how did we manage that? I feel like I’ve been tired since the last century …. I have been tired since the last century!
Mark: We have tried to divide the child care, although it hasn’t always been equal. In general, I am in London Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, so Wednesdays and Thursdays were my days for childcare. And when the kids were younger we did stick to that – you did three days a week, I did two.
L: Yes, it was the ‘who is lead parent today?’ thing. Part-relay race, part spinning plates. I guess we have both been lucky that, even though we have been doing jobs that have been more than full time, and have usually spread over the edges of the day, we could sometimes be in charge of our time and make it happen. When the kids started school I remember, on days when I was able to work from home, really going for it with writing and research and teaching prep from 9 to 3, then doing a few hours of tea, C-Beebees and bathtime, then downing evening espressos in order to do a few more hours work once they’d gone to sleep, and picking up what we couldn’t do in the week when we got to the weekends. Though sleep has been a rare commodity in our house.
M: God bless CBeebees! I used to organised entire days around Auntie Mabel! I remember trying to get work in around the edges of childcare, whenever both the kids were asleep. The problem was that the kids being asleep was also a rare chance to sleep yourself. I think I was only half-awake for a few years. But somehow stuff got done.
L: Yes, there was also the phase when small babe would only fall asleep in a moving car, enabling naps to be taken in car parks until babe realised car had stopped. Sometimes I took things to read whilst parked up, but I usually fell asleep too. I heard a (possibly apocryphal) story about four tired parents who went out for a rare night out, stopped at a red traffic light, and all four of them fell asleep and had to be beeped awake by the car behind when they failed to move on green.
M: What’s amazing is how much you manage to get done despite being tired all the time. You managed to write a book around the edges of childcare before they started school, and I have no idea how that happened. Somehow you just adjust. You get used to it. And everything else carries on around you, and you have to keep up. There isn’t any choice.
L: This was also the phase when I would go into work with baby-sick stains on shoulder (don’t know why they specifically got called ‘new dad badges’). I recall a very good friend looking me in the eye and saying ‘You really do need to change that shirt now’. But I think what enabled us to do more flexible parenting was having some access to flexible working some of the time. You had and have your fixed days in London, I had and have my term-time teaching timetable and immovable meetings, but round the edges of writing and research and marking and broadcasts and screenings, we managed to be with the kids a lot also.
M: Being self-employed definitely made a difference. Your term-time timetable is determined by the University; sometimes they can be flexible up to a point, but there are certain parameters which can’t be changed. I’ve always been freelancer, so I’ve always had more freedom to dictate my hours. I think it would have been a lot harder to make it work if I had regular employment. I know people manage to do it, and I’m really impressed because I don’t know how they manage. This was before the time that a lot of films were available on screener links; I did have to go to London for all the screenings, and I’ve always made it my business to see (nearly) all the films released every week. But even with that, I still think it was easier for me to work out the childcare days than it would have been if I had a job with more regular hours.
L: Also, having your mum around the corner was brilliant – I don’t think we could have done it without grandparent help. Very sad that my mum and dad passed on so young, and couldn’t take part in that; very hard to lose both of my parents either side of, and within months of, having our first baby. That was hard – life and death coming face to face – perhaps the hardest thing I’ve gone through.
M: Yes, and a lifelong sadness that our kids never knew your mum and dad.
L: I know it. But family life is also about keeping the whole of your family, whether they are there or not, in the frame, and keeping them alive for the kids. And we have brilliant friends nearby, who feel like family, and they have been part of our kids’ extended world and helped a huge amount also – the Dodge Brothers and their families; our lovely neighbours. Because we are lucky enough to live in a place – Narnia as you call it – where people actually talk to each other! But it was particularly brilliant that throughout the kids’ childhoods they had a willing and loving relative right there – your mum was such a star. I guess that’s how lots of families across the world cope.
M: My mum, who retired near us after a long life as a GP, basically became an on-tap emergency service. If either of the kids got hurt, we called mum first. She really took the pressure off, particularly for me. That said, I remember one of the kids hurting themselves in the swimming pool changing room when they were very young. They banged their head on the floor. I was in a total state of panic. I rushed straight to A&E in a frenzy, and ran in, completely freaked out. I said ‘Are they ok? Are they ok?’ And they said that the most dangerous thing that had happened to them that day was being driven to casualty by a man in a state of meltdown. They told me to just calm down – in general!
L: Yes. Funny that. Calm down, Mark – in general!
M: But the most important thing is that, looking back, I don’t regret any of the time we spent with them when they were very young. I wish there had been more. I wish we could have been with them all the time.
L: And we have tried to take them with us when we have worked away. I remember the first academic conference I went to abroad after having the kids, in Atlanta, was awful. Not the conference – that was fine. But the going away. The minute I got on the plane at Heathrow I burst into tears at the prospect of the plane going down and my children being motherless for ever more! Sounds pretty narcissistic doesn’t it, but I really felt I had no right to go off by myself on a professional trip. I don’t know what the poor bloke next to me must have thought. I watched Love, Actually on hard-rotation all the way across the Atlantic. I don’t know if that helped or made it worse, but it enabled me to prove to you that you were wrong about that film! I think I watched it nearly five times – I don’t think I got to the end of the final round – but I guess that has set me up for watching it in snatches every Christmas, when it’s there every TV-channel-surfing moment. Many a present has been wrapped in front of Love, Actually.
M: Some years later, Mark Lawson wrote a profile piece about me in The Guardian, and he specifically blamed you for my love of Love, Actually! He thought that film was terrible, and said that my total lapse of judgement about it was entirely down to how much my wife loved it! Which, incidentally, is rubbish. I’ve always loved Love, Actually!
L: Well, the true story is on record I believe…. But I still find it hard to go away anywhere significant without the kids. Sometimes we’ve been able to work it that I can have you and them nearby if I go to a conference. I think it’s good that they see what I do, and good that families are not alien to working life. For too long working parents denied the other sides of their lives. I know of lots of women who have deliberately not mentioned that they have kids at job interviews for fear of not getting the gig. And sometimes at these conferences you have also joined in with the panels and papers, to see what happens on the other side of the film studies desk.
M: I’ve got to see loads of academic papers that I would never have encountered otherwise, and that’s been really helpful for me. I think the kids really like participating, and I think it’s really important for them to see what you do. I think they’re really proud of it. On the other hand, I think they’d rather keep their relationship with me entirely secret – it’s just embarrassing having a dad who pops up on television talking rubbish for a living. Which is a phrase which both of them have used to describe what I do.
L: Now they’re older teenagers all the dramas of small-child care seem so remote. There are new dramas. I never believed older parents who told me, when I was grappling three-year-olds, that the intensity never stops, and you just trade one kind of worry for another. But it’s true.
M: I don’t think it ever stops, it just changes. You never stop worrying. Or at least, I haven’t stopped worrying. But I also think that we wouldn’t have done half the things we have done if it weren’t for the kids. Yes, being a parent eats up your time and makes you tired all the time. But it also gives you a reason and an inspiration to do what you do. I have learned more about films from the kids than I have from anything else. Watching the kids watch movies changed the way I think about movies. It really has had a profound effect on me. And I see that in your work and writing too. For the better!