When my son was born I was 27. I was an actress. I was doing well. Now 20 years later I realize that 27 is the high point of many an actress’s career: whatever I had done, whether I had stuck to acting or, as is the case, if I had turned my mind to other things. it would have probably have gone downhill for my acting career from then on regardless of my choices.
I didn’t take to mothering easily. I suffer from hormone-induced depression: a lot of caring for a small baby whilst my hormones were also totally doollaly, set off in me a hard-to-cope-with low mood. Which was probably a contributing factor to the choice I made to go back to work when he was very tiny. I got three acting roles in a row and I took them. I hired a brilliant nanny (my son has had some totally brilliant nannies, people who definitely added to him as a person). Yes, he came on set visits and most of the time I got home for my days off etc. But sometimes I didn’t. Sometimes on a day off I did not go home. I would try to ignore the confused look on the AD’s face, who had thought I would be longing to get home, assured them I would pay for the night in the hotel, which they could be saving budget on, and there I would hide: bored and lonely and all the time knowing I should really be at home caring for my baby and instead I was letting someone else do it.
I ran away. I ran into my work.
But I could not run from the guilt. I felt guilty all the time. When I wasn’t employed I tried – I tried to parent and be a good mum and battle my moods and his. And sometimes I did OK and sometimes I did very badly. Myself and his dad spilt when my son was nine months old. He went back to work (also in the arts) two days after our son was born; we were constantly resentful of each other, naïve, young and not at all strong and we were both ambitious. We were on our career paths and had not even considered getting off them. I wanted to succeed. I wanted to do well. Mothering was hard, handling my own emotions was hard. In hindsight I realise I was constantly juggling: juggling my depression, my ambition, my love for my son, my fear of missing out on work, my desire to be in a new relationship, negotiating/warring with his dad about time and money.
It was tiring and chaotic and not great for any of us. And so it went on… By the time my son was 10, and I was 37, the acting had kind of dried up – as parts for women tend to do. By this time I had a boyfriend who was hugely judgmental of me “not working”. So, sadly or maybe luckily, I panicked. I had always written, short stories, scripts, plays, etc., but I had never had the guts to go public. But one day, and mainly to put him off the scent of judging me, I applied to the NFTS screenwriting course and got in.
For the next two years I drove my son to school, then rocketed up the motorway to Beaconsfield (where my fellow students were mostly aged about 25), gave being a good screenwriter my best shot, got inevitably caught up in being a rather embarrassingly middle aged “student” and all that entails, and at the end of the day drove home to put my son to bed. Again I had nannies. Again I felt guilty and yet again, it was a bit of a mess. Despite that, I graduated with a distinction, but two weeks before collecting that degree at the graduation ceremony and on the back of a fairly desperate affair with a younger student, I took an overdose. I was burnt out. I was not taking care of my son properly, my health, my work, or my self. I was a mess.
“Write an inspiring piece for other women filmmakers,” Sophie Mayer says to me, and I sit down to try to do that and this comes out… hmmm, bear with me.
I recovered from my suicide attempt as those lucky enough to recover often do, convinced it was a really rubbish idea and no matter how low things get there are better options! It slowed me down a bit. It made me focus on my son more. Three months after I had graduated and checked myself into a volunteer-run shelter for suicidal women (his aunt looked after my son for me during my weeks there, for which I am still so grateful), both his grandparents on his dad’s side died. My son really needed his mum now. I had to be OK and for the most part I was.
I mention his dad now and realise: so much of this is about me trying to juggle, feeling guilty, losing myself, unsure if I wanted to be a good mum or have a successful career, and nearly always feeling I was failing at both. But all the way through my son’s growing up his father’s career was never in question. It was non-negotiable. At first I earned more than him, so I was the breadwinner, which is without doubt a necessity in a family. Yet I felt bad for working then, and I felt bad when I was not working.
When my ex-husband started to earn and I stopped, I felt bad that I couldn’t contribute. Even the female judge in our divorce case sneered at me about the fact I did not earn as much as him. “Maybe this ‘wife’ needs to really work out whether she can afford to go and do this degree and should instead be working out how she can earn more of a living,” she said. I had just been offered my place at NFTS; they only accept six students a year. It was a vocational course – if you consider writing a vocation. Our son was 10 at the time. But I felt like I was damned if I looked after him and damned if I didn’t.
At this point, and especially because this is meant to help other female filmmakers, I want to say: I was supported by my son’s father until our son turned 18, negotiated via a truly horrendous divorce it was decided he could afford to support us and he did. Which definitely cemented the unspoken set-up between us that he was the bread winner and, even if I messed about trying to make films, in reality I was the main “available” parent. But it did mean I could at least try to “mess about” without having to totally worry about paying my bills.
I still had to earn money for myself and the money we received did come at an emotional price. Quite a high one. Plus I never felt I could relax because I knew the money was going to end when my son turned 18, and so I was terrified of that day coming and me not having started to earn a living from making films. (Which is exactly what did happen!) Rightly or wrongly I am very ashamed of this – I can imagine you writing me off, saying “What a twat, you mean she was financially supported and still hasn’t managed a linear success of a career?” Maybe I think that myself. But it feels important to not paint a picture that I was unsupported.
On we go…
After the overdose I settled on trying to write and trying to be there for my son. It was slightly less chaotic but not ideal. He hit teenage years and, having been a surprisingly easygoing boy given his less than stable upbringing, emotions in him came to the surface. There was a price to pay for the years he had gone through when he was little and I was determined to let him feel what he needed to feel, to be there for him, not to run away this time.
If offered acting jobs (which I occasionally did for money if they came in… which they didn’t often but sometimes did…) I would say no to anything that was not in London. Ironic that when he was eight months old I was running to Sweden, Liverpool, Manchester, anywhere, hiding in hotels to avoid parenting, and now he was 14 I was turning down work to be with him. Better late than never, and it was better. We had our ups and downs but I stayed as still as I could to be there with him. We got through GCSEs, and we got through him walking out of his A levels and giving up on school, and we got through another beloved grandparent dying. Whereas my work and son had possibly shared focus when he was little, I knew now that when it really came down to it, he was more important. He had to be.
I did work a bit: wrote various scripts that died slow painful deaths in endless development, and three times directed my own writing, twice for TV and one short film. But they weren’t easy. On two out of the three occasions directing, there were serious things going on in my home life as well as just parenting a teenager. During one I found I was miscarrying during the edit, and ended up being put on medication to stop the depression which was coming with the hormones linked to losing a pregnancy, but, due to the meds, ended up having severe anxiety attacks. During the second, my mum’s husband died, a very sudden and painful death which we all helped him through, and then helped my mother after.
These sound like excuses and they are. I lost my temper during both jobs. Shouted at people who I shouldn’t have shouted at and didn’t mange to “contain” my emotions as we are so often told women need to in order to succeed. I cried and leaked and was not a model of restraint. Don’t get me wrong: I was not weeping my way through out the shoots, sobbing into a tissue in between takes and yelling at anyone who crossed my path. Most of the time I was doing my job, vigilantly, thoughtfully and professionally. But here and there – and not entirely unprovoked – home and work couldn’t be kept separate and I wasn’t neat.
Writer-director Jill Soloway recently said in a speech that she wants more directors to bring their tears to set: she thinks there should be more emotion at work. For the most part women are told if they want to be working in the film industry they must be really strong and not lose their tempers or cry at work. They need to do everything they can to prove wrong the clichéd idea that women are too emotional and cannot separate their feelings from their day jobs.
Well, I failed there! I directed the films well, they went on to be critically-acclaimed and get into prestigious festivals. I am very conscientious about working hours on set, I schedule well, and I get on really well with actors and crew. I work hard and I know my job. But I blew my cool. I couldn’t juggle. Some of this was me being messy, naïve, tempestuous. Some was my hormones and depression playing up. A chunk was working with the wrong producers. On top of that there was the juggling, the constant, endless mind-boggling juggling: not a great combination of ingredients in which to sail a smooth trail through your career perhaps. I have not sailed smoothly.
But this is my new thinking: I am currently 47 – is sailing smoothly really what would enable me to make the kinds of films I still want to make?
Two years ago, having just bust my non-existent balls writing and directing a film for TV – whilst also dealing with another death in the family and all the emotional and practical fall out that came with that – I decided enough was enough and I stepped back from trying to write and direct, again! Yet again, I simply could not find a way to be the daughter I wanted to be, the mum I wanted to be, to care for my own emotional needs, and to be the kind of woman I felt the industry needed me to be. I regretted my flare-ups and mistakes. I could see where I had got stuff wrong. I always apologised for any bit of “emotional behavior” that had meant I had treated another person in a way they didn’t deserve.
But this industry is not a huge forgiver of emotions at work, however intermittent or, in fact, justified. I think Jill Soloway is really onto something very wise about this. The idea of the film industry wanting its emotions and feelings on screen, but being fucking terrified when they are in the room, is something I have thought about a lot. Her opinion that maybe we all need to be a bit braver about this – that maybe one might actually be integral to the other – feels radical and inspiring to me. So many producers I meet these days love Soloway’s work, saying “It’s so raw, so real, so full of compassion and feeling.” Yes, well, it is coming from a real, raw, compassionate, full-of-feeling human being, isn’t it? This isn’t to say, I think work should be a free-for-all of unboundaried outpourings. I am just sure there is a better balance to be struck.
Anyway, I had hit the buffers again. I had made work I was proud of and that did well. But I had not done it without mess. My son still needed support and I needed to step back. In that two years, I have supported and encouraged my son’s re-entry into education. It’s a totally different thing being a good mum to a teenager, a more covert kind of operation: you have to give love and support almost as if you are not even there! And I have managed this pretty well, I think. He would probably say I have been there too much, but I think teenagers need someone to resent for being around and I gave him that! He went back to college and did a foundation year, and a month from now he starts a four-year course at Glasgow School of Art. There have been serious times of stress for him. Times I had to stay strong, be available to listen and advise, and provide a full fridge! It’s been a time I have treasured and I am so deeply proud of him. I am aware he really did need me to help him get where he is right now.
And here’s a thing, for others worried about their young children needing only sanity, consistency and calm (all things I know are of huge value but that can at times be hard to keep hold of!): how has my son turned out? My son is a brilliant young man. Kind, sensitive, funny, feminist and forgiving. He amazes me every day. He has ridden the storms of being in a messy, creative family with huge style and masses of courage. He’s a creative himself but now his wisdom, groundedness and clarity about it blow my mind. I don’t know what he’d have been like had I handled things the way mums do in textbooks about being really good mums. I do know he’s pretty damn wonderful as he is!
But what of my work?
Just as my son got his place at university my 83 year old mother had a fall. She broke her femur, a huge integral bone in the leg. Over night she went from being a pretty able-bodied, active, independent woman to not being able to walk unaided. Her whole life turned upside down. It has been huge. Just when my son is about to go, just when I have spent a few years contemplating my emotions in relation to work, when I have taken a long hard look at this industry and was just about thinking that maybe I could tackle my place in it all again, my mum really needed my help.
Unlike when I was 27, and felt a kind of claustrophobia about parenthood and all it asked of me, when fighting to keep my career on track felt so vital, I don’t feel like that anymore. Faced with being needed now I sort of give up and think, fuck it! Yes, of course I still have to do things to earn money; and I do: I teach, I do voice overs, I write articles, I sell stupid unwanted items of clothing on eBay! But today it isn’t so much about juggling ambition and family. I know I want to be there for my mum, I want to be there for my son. I want my relationship. I have to be more careful about my emotions.
Exhaustion is a permanent issue, but it is not one I can afford to ignore anymore. I realise now that often I was asking too much of myself. Thinking I could write and direct a film whilst my son was having a really hard time, my mum was grieving, and my hormones were all over the shop. I was turning up to work exhausted, drained, stretched. I was working with people who were not a good fit for me and I was pretending I was totally focused on “making a film” when of course I wasn’t. I was a mum, a daughter, I have my own human things going on that mean I turn up to work, and of course I will give it all I can, which is a lot. But I cannot give it all I am!
This is not as coherent as I would like it to be. I want it to be clean and linear. It is not. I am not.
I could write for days about what I think women tackle whilst also trying to be creative. I could argue with the best of them that Jill Soloway is right and we ask too much of people when we ask them to give all they have emotionally to making great drama, but instead of celebrating and accepting they are emotional complex human beings, we so often ask that they display nothing at work.
I think so much about the idea of linear careers. All I am as a woman adds to my work. All the hours I have spent trying to understand and moderate myself, caring for my son, dealing with my huge regrets about the way I parented him, laughing with him, facing up to who I am and have been, my years battling depression and hormones. Currently: helping my mum, helping her practically, being around to try to support her in not getting too despondent, creating moments of joy for her in amongst the terrible shyte that is involved in getting properly old! All these things, I now believe, rather than take away from my work, in actuality make me a better writer, a better director. Perhaps I am like a cheese: mature and full of holes but all the better for it!
So what can I offer to other female filmmakers?
These days there are things I think I know. I know I cannot work with certain people: they maybe super cool, really powerful, the “right” people to work with in this industry, but I am not for them and they are not for me – and that is OK. I don’t come to the table all squeaky clean: director for hire, no tears at work. I come with baggage; it is baggage I can’t put down. It’s part of me, and if I handle it right and I am realistic about how much I can cope with, I truly think it adds to what I do. I have stepped sideways from ambition a bit. Or perhaps my ambition has changed its shape. I still want to direct and to write but not at any cost.
This year whilst caring for mum I have also been writing about it. I am writing a feature about a mum and daughter, a black comedy about caring and role reversal, female ageing and death! I have set myself a deadline and I have come up with a better way of juggling: I write for a couple of hours a day and the rest of the day I can be around if my mum needs. I know that my son will need help getting sorted for his move to university; I want to be around for that and I will be. I have sort of accepted I have multiple roles. I know the pecking order on my list.
I hope to make the film. I have a brilliant female producer and it is very different from past experiences. We talk a lot about all that is going on in both our lives, not just our work. We support and recognise the fact we are not just filmmaking robots. If she has to cancel something because something comes up in her family she needs to deal with it is respected, and visa versa. If she is a bit snappy or I am a bit tearful we deal with it. We don’t accept abuse from each other but we know we will leak sometimes, that life over laps with work and it feels much safer than past experiences for that and I truly belive better work will come from it.
My mum knows I am writing the film using me and her and all that is going on as a kind of familial muse, and a couple of weeks ago we made a teaser for it together! Taking so much from what we have been through, we made a little film. I thought it might be really awkward, but it was great fun: honest, creative and invigorating, for both of us. Who knows what I will be saying about all this in another ten years’ time. I will have the menopause to add to it all by then eh? No doubt more deaths. More times of rallying round family and keeping an eye on myself, more being available to care. For sure, a lot more juggling.
But I know I want to make films about human life: messy, complex, funny and dark human life, about being a woman, about being a mum and a daughter and ageing and depression and all that stuff. Living can only add to that, can’t it?
Kate Hardie programmes A Woman’s Work at Arthouse Crouch End, a film series dedicated to celebrating the careers of female filmmakers.