Sometimes I feel like an Uber driver in Los Angeles. I’ve moved to a city where my skill is necessary and much valued, but comes with no job security. And definitely no tips. I’m a freelance Archive Producer, which involves footage and photo research and clearances for documentaries, commercials and the occasional drama.
Speaking of drama, I became a mum almost a year ago here in Downtown LA. It all went pretty well, which is fortunate, seeing as I’m spending $8,000 on health insurance every year. Just before the birth, I found a speck of financial hope when I read that California is one of the few US states that provides ‘disability’ allowance for new mothers. I naively completed the form, only to be told I wasn’t eligible for any benefits as a freelancer.
With my savings, I was able to take three months off. In fact, I’m one of the lucky ones. Most working mums in the US are back at six weeks. I couldn’t help thinking of my two friends in London who had babies at the same time. One works for the NHS and the other for the civil service; both were able to take a year’s maternity leave. What the heck was I thinking, going into this industry – and moving to this country?!
Well, it’s an industry I feel privileged to have found a niche role in. I get to work with some of the most creative, fun people and it’s an immensely satisfying feeling when you can see the collaborative efforts on screen. America is home to some of the most talented professional people in Film and TV, and it’s been fantastic to have the opportunity to work with them.
I hired a nanny three days a week, which was the most I could commit to because of the way my hours and pay fluctuate. A great benefit of my job is that I can work from home, which meant I was able to take breaks to breast feed.
I tend to work on productions in their early stages and then during the edit. Often the last weeks or days of the edit can be very demanding, when an oversight on one five-second clip could cost the production thousands of pounds.
What I found most challenging at first was juggling several short contract jobs. In the past it was never a problem, but with the new little person in my life it drove me mad not to be able to plan ahead. I wasn’t always sure I’d earn enough to pay the nanny, then as I got busier I worried about not having enough childcare.
Work crept into my baby’s bath and bedtime routine. Singing Frère Jacques while negotiating a budget change is very tricky. On one job, my mornings began with a stream of impatient e-mails on my phone from a client in New York. Not ideal when you’re changing that morning nappy. My journalist husband also has to work to tight, unpredictable deadlines, which doesn’t help.
It all came to a head when I had a day with no childcare and was intent on spending quality time with my daughter. During a playdate, I received a call about some tapes I’d been trying to access from a sensitive source. I should never have picked up the call, but I thought I had to be efficient. Instead, a little distracted, I said the wrong thing and almost blew it.
The situation turned out fine, but I found it very stressful – and it didn’t feel good to have that stress around my baby. I knew then I had to be clearer to myself and my employers about what I was capable of achieving in the hours I had available. I was going to have work differently.
I know there’s a shortage of people with my skillset in both the US and UK, so I believe I have the power to be clear about how many hours I can work. I’m confident the industry knows women are key talent it cannot afford to ignore when hiring, and it should do more to keep them – if not higher pay or less tax to cover childcare, then better benefits for freelancers
I’ve recently taken on a long term contract, where immediate responses are less crucial and the production team are very aware of my situation. It helps that there are two other parents on the team. I’m also commuting to an office, and no longer breast-feeding, which has given me a further freedom and ability to separate work from parenting.
I’ve definitely learnt the hard way, as an alien worker in the independent film and TV industry, thousands of miles from family support, but I still believe navigating the freelancer/mother balance is harder than it should be.