I always thought I’d be one of those women who work throughout their pregnancies. You know, the ones who work right up until their due date, the ones who you don’t even know are pregnant until they are 7-8 months in, who do it because they can and want to, and because, as the saying goes, they’re pregnant not ill, or who do it because they’re frightened that they’ll lose work if they kick up a fuss or seem to be less capable because they’re pregnant. Whatever the reason, I was sure I’d be one of them, one of these women, if ever I got pregnant. Maybe not one of the ones who hides it, because I never thought I could do that, and I was pretty huge at five months so it would never even have been an option for me. But I’d work until I popped, wear this ultimate symbol of working motherhood like a badge of honour. I love work, so I was quietly sure that I’d trot off a few jobs before baby, then have six months off to bond with said baby and then I’d return to work and no one would notice.
Alas, it was not to be. In my first trimester, I lay in bed sobbing, my hands shaking as I constructed an email to a producer and director saying that I couldn’t do the play I’d signed up for with them because I was so sick. I was mortified, and I remained sick and mainly bedridden for three months – the joys of hypergravidarum. Thankfully this lifted after the first trimester and I thought I was back in the ring in terms of returning to full time work…but then the pregnancy hormones really kicked in, and for the rest of my pregnancy I suffered crippling episodes of perinatal anxiety and depression. During these episodes I couldn’t work. I couldn’t even think of working. The thing I’d been accustomed to doing for the last fifteen years, going from one job to the next without a break, was suddenly not an option anymore. Pregnancy wasn’t rosy or fun. It was terrifying.
In the periods between those scary episodes, however, I was able to function and fortuitously I got a knock on my door from a director I’d worked with previously in Norway, who’d randomly read a draft of a script I’d worked on and he now offered me my first writing commission: to help develop a series and a script he and another writer were working on. I got a brief, and in between bouts of illness I worked on it and delivered it. It was possible. I also managed to get myself to audiobook readings a few times a week for a few months. The audiobook producers knew I might have to take it easy and might occasionally have a bad day, and they let me take breaks if I needed to. But I got the work done. That was a lesson: all it took was accommodating me ever so slightly and the work still got done.
Towards the end of my pregnancy, I got a call from the Norwegian director. The series I’d helped him develop had been green lit and they had a delivery date lined up. Would I play the female lead? It was a full on, awesome propostition: a two-hander, a great character pretty much in every scene, acting in Swedish and English, playing opposite an actor in Norway I admire hugely. The kicker: it would shoot in Oslo when my baby was three months old.
Bollocks. This completely flew in the face of my idea of spending six months bonding with my baby. I didn’t know what kind of mother I’d be yet; maybe I’d be desperate to get back to work as soon as I’d pushed him out. Maybe I’d want to stay glued to him until he was ready to leave for university. Either way, I wanted the opportunity to go with the flow of new motherhood, especially as suffering with perinatal depression makes the risks for developing postnatal depression that much higher, so I was totally unsure of what state I’d be propelled into by childbirth and a new baby.
I was completely upfront with the Norwegian director about all of this. I said that I just couldn’t give him an answer straightaway and that if this meant losing the job then so be it. To his credit he remained totally unfased by my mental health issues and impending first time motherhood. He said that I didn’t need to give him an answer now. Instead, he’d get back to me when my baby was a couple of months old and we’d see how I was feeling then. Secretly, I thought: I’m not going to be able to do this. I can’t. I felt fragile as it was, and I just couldn’t see how it would be possible.
Just to check and to make myself feel justified, I asked fellow actresses with babies what they thought — genuinely believing they would all confirm my feelings and say: You’re mad, don’t do it. But here’s what was interesting: none of them did. They all came back with stories of how hard first-time mothering was, but if I really wanted to do it, I could totally do this job, I just had to make sure I asked for things that would make the job possible: a trailer close to set for my baby to be in; a nanny; possibly a night nanny too. Basically a whole list of dos rather than a list of don’ts.
Their responses were overwhelming. Partly because the generosity pouring from these women was much more than I had ever expected when I reached out— all of them took time out of busy working and family schedules to send me long, personal responses about their own experiences, offering advice about how I could approach the job, how it was hard but possible. But, I was also flummoxed because without an outright cry of ‘You’re mad — it’s not possible’, I felt like a weakling for even contemplating not doing the job. Their responses, unwittingly of course, pushed my guilt buttons. If it was possible to work, I should.
I pushed the thoughts out of my head. I had a few months to make a decision.
Those months flew by. My wonderful boy arrived screaming into the world and I was swept into the whirlwind of first-time parenting. Less than a month into it, I decided I wouldn’t be doing the job. Luckily, there’d been no signs of depression so far, but the fourth trimester was proving hard for other reasons, and I knew the job would be demanding. With the demands of caring for my son thrown in too, I felt I wouldn’t be able to make a good fist of it, and that wasn’t going to be fair on anyone. Besides, I loved spending time with my little one. Why on earth would I want to give up these precious few months with him to be working?
I was resolved. I didn’t want the decision looming over me. I called the Norwegian director to tell him. He’s a clever human being… Instead of just taking my decision, he convinced me to think about it for another week. No rush. Just another week. See how you feel then. You can’t say no to that. So I agreed, convinced I’d say no again in a week’s time.
In that week, I happened to do a photo shoot for a series I’d filmed before getting pregnant. We’d known for ages I was going to have to do this, so my husband, baby and I ferried ourselves off to the location, totally prepared for it all to be a bit hectic. But we had a ball. It was so much fun. I saw my baby loads, while still managing to do my job. Again, a revelation: all it took was for the team to make some slight adjustments to accommodate me and my baby, and I found I was able to do my job just as I’d done before.
Now, I don’t know if it was the hormones, or the sheer exhilaration of having achieved an outing like this as a family, and doing what amounted to my first post-birth job, but we were slightly high at the end of that day. As we sat in a restaurant halfway between the location and our home (we’d stopped because our baby hates being in car seats and wailed so much we thought breaking the journey up with a celebratory early supper would be a way to make the experience easier) we were still buzzing.
The buzz was still lingering a week later when the Norwegian director called and said: Look, whatever you need: nanny, trailer, breastfeeding breaks, an apartment not a hotel, flights for your husband, we’ll make it happen. We’ll shoot nine hour days. We want you to do it. It was written for you. We’ll make it fun.
Obviously, I was incredibly flattered. I mean, come on, that’s the kind of call you dream of getting your whole career as an actor. Normally we’re the ones tripping over ourselves doing anything it takes to get hired, so to be offered a job this good on a plate seemed like something I couldn’t pass up. But I’d also just had a baby, and didn’t feel ready to take on such a full-on part that would mean me being in every scene.
I was totally torn. Old habitual responses reared their head: I didn’t want to disappoint, I didn’t want to be weak. I didn’t want to let my baby down… My husband was unbelievably supportive, we talked about it over and over and ultimately felt it might just turn out to be an amazing adventure for our family. So I said, fuck it: let’s go to Oslo.
We landed in Norway’s capital bright-eyed and excited. The production couldn’t have been more welcoming. This was hands down one of my favourite ever productions to work on. It was low on budget, high on ambition and fraught in many of the usual ways that this combination brings about. But this was the nicest group of professionals you could hope to meet. I’ve never felt more valued as an actor, and love the director and producers like family now. On top of that, Oslo is an incredibly child-friendly city, seemingly ready to accommodate babies anywhere and everywhere, and the production knew about my inability to give my baby a bottle and that at just three months when he needed a feed he needed a feed. I was assured this wouldn’t be a problem. Happy days, here we come. I thought we had it all down.
As soon as we ran into the age-old habits and reality of a film set, though, things didn’t go quite so smoothly — at least not at the beginning. In hindsight, I realise why this was. As an industry, we’re just not used to having babies around a set. I certainly wasn’t.
It took us a week to realise, for example, that having a three-month-old baby sharing a small trailer with costume and makeup is far from ideal. Hairspray and baby lungs: not a happy mix. Neither is chattering actors and a small baby trying to nod off. But we resolved it, with my son moving into a camper van with our wonderful production manager. Much better than hairspray. But I still had another massive obstacle to overcome. Breastfeeding.
In theory, we’d already worked out how I was going to feed my son around shooting. Whenever my son stirred, the nanny would text the third AD, who’d then tell the first AD, who’d then tell me and the director, and off I’d go, back to the camper van parked round the corner from set, to breastfeed. This was roughly every three hours, and my son always fed quickly, in around ten minutes, so I’d only ever be away from set a maximum of twenty minutes. After each feed, we’d know we’d have about a two-to-three-hour uninterrupted window to shoot. What could go wrong?
Before I knew it, though, and despite everyone’s best intentions, that old on-set habit of whatever filming needs overriding everything had started to take over from the needs of my newborn. That first week, he’d sometimes be wailing for food for twenty minutes without me knowing, because the message wasn’t getting through to me. A baby crying because it can’t sleep I can live with. But a baby wailing for food for twenty minutes is, according to recent research, torture, as a baby has no concept of time. So this didn’t sit well with me. Nor did someone telling my husband that I was a first-time nervy mother and just needed to relax and let our hunger-tortured baby cry it out in a pram. Or being asked to make sure we gave a 15-minute warning to set before my baby needed to feed, my baby who had never operated to exact schedules.
This was all upsetting, stressful, and incredibly frustrating. I thought I’d put in all the systems needed to ensure my newborn could be fed whenever he needed, without disrupting filming too much. I thought I’d been crystal clear about how important this all was to me, and how as long as I could feed my baby, then I’d do anything, be anywhere, and do it all gladly. But for those first weeks, good intentions and the old habits of a film set kept clashing. My baby didn’t work to a schedule. Stopping filming whenever he woke might have seemed fine in principle, but in the daily reality of a shoot, with everyone under their own pressures, I saw how quickly the on-set routine was starting to push my baby’s needs down the list of priorities. That was agonising for me. Because I had promised myself that the only condition on which I was going to do this job was that it didn’t harm my little boy.
So, yes, I admit it, my sense of humour failed when runners would come knocking on the door of the camper van just five minutes into me feeding my son and say that they were ready for me on set. At first, I’d feel that old actor’s guilt — desperately not wanting to be a reason why things were held up and knowing well the stress everyone was feeling on set to complete days, and I would pull my suckling boy off my boob, run frantically back on to set, shoving myself back into my maternity bra, and arrive all flustered, only to find that everyone was still waiting for a light filter. As with the message not getting to me that my baby needed a feed, miscommunication seemed to be a major culprit. I didn’t want to create problems. I didn’t want to be a pain. But I had to stick to my guns for the sake of my little boy. So, day after day, I insisted that if we just let this little three-month-old get his feeds when he needed, then everything else would slot into place.
Gradually, we all adapted. I knew it wasn’t an ideal situation, not for the other actors or the crew or the director and the producers. But it was the situation we all found ourselves in. And bit by bit, with small adjustments of attitude and logistics, things got better, and over nine weeks, my boy got fed when he needed, and we got the job done, shooting up to ten pages of dialogue a day — sometimes in a single take — and shooting it all in two languages, with me playing opposite two different actors, one in English, one in Swedish. It was hard at first but we all made it work.
After a while, almost by instinct, everyone started improvising and working around the little interruptions from the three-month-old on set. Instead of just hanging around while I breastfed, the crew would set up another shot, or do a pick-up. And whenever the call came through that my little boy was stirring for a feed, if we were already in the middle of a shot we’d always try and get it in the can before I dashed back to the camper van to feed my boy. We’re adaptable, all of us. Even on a set.
For me the personal challenges didn’t stop there, however. Simply finding and choosing a nanny, for instance, and adapting to someone else taking care of my baby when he was still so little, was something I found unexpectedly complex. I really thought child care would be straightforward and was entirely unprepared for quite how vulnerable it would leave me feeling. One of the things I struggled with most was being told that my natural instincts were wrong — about everything from bed time routines, to bottle feeding. I was told by many a prospective child carer that getting my boy on the bottle was the only way I was going to be able to get through this job. Well, they were all wrong. Still today, at eight months, he’s not great with a bottle, and I’m still not an advocate for any kind of cry-it-out method. I have no judgment when it comes to how others do it, but it doesn’t and didn’t work for me and now finally I feel okay about the fact that that’s simply what suits me and my son. So breast feeding it was and breast feeding it still is, along with solids. The breast pump sits gathering dust in a corner.
Despite everything, I came to understand why those kind actresses had encouraged me to do this job. In the end, I had a ball. The job was challenging and full-on and difficult in so many ways, but it was hands-down the most rewarding professional thing I have ever done. So when in the middle of the shoot the director asked if I would direct a section for him, I said yes.
Suddenly, there I was, in the pouring rain, directing nine actors, including myself, plus a dog, and a crew, while breastfeeding my baby boy. I returned home from work that day and, as I always did, fed my son, played with him, bathed him, put him to bed, and then I stood in our apartment, looking out over the Oslo skyline, adrenalin still pumping through my veins, and I felt like I was Superwoman. A few months before that, I’d been in such a hard place that I’d thought I might never work again, or indeed do anything ever again. But because of this director’s belief in me, and the support I got from him, and from everyone on the production who helped accommodate my basic needs as a new mum, I was able to work more and harder than ever, and it was exhilarating.
I know how unbelievably lucky I am compared to the countless parents who have to leave their babies at only a few weeks old to go and work long days. Even on our set, I saw parents looking wistfully at my boy whenever he was around. There were two fathers on set who weren’t seeing their babies at all during the week in order to work.
Having had this experience, I now feel that it doesn’t have to be like that. We’re not used to considering the needs of families on set, or indeed considering anything other than what we’re filming or delivering on stage. Our industry has never tended to accommodate for families. Until now. A movement seems to be gathering momentum, and I’m willing it forward. Because with slight adjustments, we’re able to care for and have quality time with our families at the same time as doing our jobs and delivering work, in a way that doesn’t have to interfere catastrophically with filming schedules, production values, or our productivity. It’s possible. I know it is. Because I did it.