A movement for moms in film.
In early February, I redesigned my website. I wanted it to give off an “approachable and friendly” vibe, to reflect my personality more “authentically.” I asked my friends and colleagues for feedback. My teacher and mentor, Ela Thier, commented, “my only suggested tweak: in the ‘about’ section where you say everything that you do, you don’t mention being a parent. I know it’s not ‘film related’ — but neither is chocolate.”
She’s referring to the first paragraph of my bio:
“Something of a nomad, I’ve lived and worked in France, England, Spain, Russia, Sri Lanka and the United States — but I’m originally from Belgium, producer of the world’s finest chocolate. Which explains a lot. When I’m not eating chocolate, I’m usually making a film, writing a play, or teaching.”
Ela was right. If I was going for “authentic,” why was I so reluctant to include my most life-defining event? A week came and went. A month. I hadn’t forgotten Ela’s feedback, but I was pretending to have forgotten it.
I love Rainn Wilson’s twitter handle:
I am an actor and a writer and I co-created @SoulPancake and my son, Walter. Los Angeles-ish…twitter.com
With his usual charm and levity, he tells us that he’s excited and proud of being a dad. He’s not afraid of saying so publicly. Why was I, as a mom?
Parenting is the hardest, most inspiring, most creative, most fun and most challenging work that I’ll ever do. I will never make a film or write a play that is as important as my son. But I still hope to make films and write plays.
I remember how terrified I was when I peed on a stick, my husband waiting just outside the bathroom. Would I ever work again? I don’t mean the stuff I do for money — and I’m lucky: I love my job. (I’m a teaching artist and I get to work with young people. I “bring the arts to New York city classrooms.” I get to play for a living.)
But my other work — the stuff that I make — hasn’t brought in a lot of money. The self-funded short films and web series I’ve created, calling in favors and asking friends to work for free, have actually cost me more than what I’ve made producing animated videos. Would I make stuff again? Where would I find the time, let alone the money, when a small human was living with us?
I had naively thought I’d be able to write a feature screenplay within the year when my son was born. My son is not even six months yet, but already I know I was wrong. I was told to delegate household chores to loyal friends and family, to order in and keep cardboard plates around so I wouldn’t have to deal with doing the dishes. I did all that. And I’m lucky: I took three full months off before going back to teaching part time. My husband works from home and shares in all the parenting responsibilities (except breastfeeding). Still, I couldn’t find time to write. I went on walks and to singalongs. I played endless hours of peekaboo. When I was lucky, I slept.
That’s when I realized: there will never be enough time.
Moms need time.
Having named the problem, I immediately tried to solve it. Residencies, I reasoned, offer the gift of time — so I researched a whole bunch of them. A surprising number will say things like:
“No accommodations for spouses, partners, children or pets are available.”
I knew I wasn’t ready to leave my baby, so I looked for programs that allowed writers to bring their children along. I stumbled upon the very valuable Sustainable Arts Foundation, which lists residencies that cater to artists with families. There are not many.
Allow me a brief tangent here. Last week, I taught a screenwriting class in which I asked my high school students to write a scene with no dialogue. A character wants something. There are obstacles. Nobody speaks. (I don’t take credit for this exercise, I stole it from a teacher who stole it from her teacher, who probably stole it too.)
Four days after teaching the class — I’m not taking artistic license; that’s really how it happened — I was sitting on the sofa with my son on my lap. He fell asleep. My son’s an irregular napper. Finally, I thought, he was sleeping while I was home, instead of outside in the stroller. I would have time to look through the list of residencies I might apply to. Those wonderful places that accept artists with children.
I stretched out my hand to grab my computer. I couldn’t reach it. There it was, on the sofa next to me, about an inch away from my fingers. I cried. I cried big, silent crocodile tears. I cried like my son cries when he’s hungry, and tired, and gassy all at once… But unlike my son, I cried silently, so I wouldn’t wake him. And then, suddenly, I realized I was the perfect example of a character in my writing exercise. I had a concrete goal (my laptop). There were obstacles (the distance between me and it, the sleeping baby). There were stakes. There was no dialogue. It would have been the perfect scene to describe to my students four days earlier.
The second I realized this, I started laughing. If you’ve never gone from crying to laughing in a millisecond, let me tell you: it’s not pretty. It begins with a gulp — not quite a hiccup, not quite a giggle — that makes its way down your esophagus and ends up in your belly, where it grows and growls. Still trying my best to stay silent, my entire body began shaking. But the more I tried to hold the sound in, the more I shook, until the inevitable happened: my baby’s eyelids opened and his wide, curious blue eyes looked up at me. His mother: silently shaking, smiling dementedly, cheeks still wet.
The moment was so ridiculous, and his expression so priceless, that I immediately looked around for someone to share it with. I wanted so desperately to tell someone what had just happened. Because come on. You can’t make this shit up.
There was nobody to tell. And just like that, I was crying again. And that’s when it hit me:
Moms are lonely. Moms are lonely in a very specific, strange way. New moms especially. They’re rarely alone, but they spend long hours with their babies for sole company. And babies are delightful. They are small growing wonders. They are endlessly entertaining.
Except when they’re not. When they’re not, they’re boring at best, and infuriating at worst. Don’t get me wrong. I love my child. I love him in a way that I didn’t know I could love. When he smiles, it feels as if my ribs are going to split and leave me gaping open. But here’s the thing. Sometimes, he’s boring. Sometimes, he’s infuriating. And sometimes, I really, really want to share those feelings with someone. Preferably another mom, and even better — another mom in the arts, facing the same challenges.
Moms need community and mentorship.
I did finally make it through the list of residencies, I even applied to a few. A couple offer childcare while the parents work. But here’s what I discovered: not a single one that I could find had space for more than one family at a time. This was heartbreaking. Because if there was one thing I craved more than time, it was community. I wanted someone to look over at, with my demented smile and my wet cheeks. Someone who would understand.
I want to work alongside other moms. I want colleagues, collaborators, role models. I have so many questions I want to ask these people, and I don’t know where they are.
Connect with other moms in film on Facebook.
I want to know not only how moms find the time and the self-discipline needed to write, but also: do they direct? How does that work? Because here’s the other thing moms need: moms need shorter shoot days. They need a place to pump or nurse. They need childcare. Has anyone ever used a trailer dedicated solely to that purpose? (And don’t even get me started on healthcare.)
And here’s the thing moms need most of all: if they’re going to try and tackle any of these issues, moms need funding.
I started with my very own Facebook feed, because it is littered with articles and statistics and infographics and blogs and speeches and videos and videos and videos and videos and more videos about the challenges facing women in film (and in theater). There are articles in Variety, Forbes, Vanity Fair, The New York Times. Women are and their allies are working to change things. But motherhood remains the elephant in the room. I tried Google. Only one or two articles tackle the very real, very specific challenges of being a parent and a filmmaker, a parent and a playwright, a parent and an actor. And here’s the thing: if you want more women in film and in theater, you need to address these issues.
Moms need advocates.
I’m aware that I’m incredibly fortunate. I’m a white woman with a partner, one child and a sustainable income. There are plenty of moms worried about making ends meet — about feeding their children and paying rent. So it’s totally fair to ask, “why does this matter?”
It matters because we are the stories we tell.
Women don’t get to tell their stories very often. Moms even less so.
Some women haven’t had children yet. Others can’t, or choose not to. Some have children who are grown. But we can’t ignore the women who do have children, and who want to work in the arts. Moms have stories to tell. Those stories matter.
And moms think deeply about stories. They spend hours reading to their children, changing the gender of many protagonists in board books so that little girls and boys will grow up aware that women are strong, and interesting, and smart — not just pretty. They want diversity on stage, on their TVs and on the big screens. They want to see more young people, more old people, people of different races, of different religions, of different shapes and sizes and ability.
And they want to see more women. Films don’t all have to be about moms, but more of them certainly should be. Don’t get me wrong: women in film shouldn’t be reduced to being the mother of… any more than they should be the wife of… Women have been supporting characters for long enough. Women need to be at the center of stories. It’s time for others to be the husband of… and the son of… once in a while, so that women can tell their stories, whatever those stories may be. Some may be about motherhood, others may not.
But as long as the gatekeepers of storytelling remain the same, our stories will also stay the same. The change that so many of us want will be slow to come, if it ever does come. The often omitted and too-frequently two-dimensional representation of mothers in film will not evolve. Moms need to be writing, directing, producing. Moms need to be included in the storytelling. Stories are powerful. Stories are power. I’m in love with stories, and as a new mother, I’m living the most exciting one of my life. I should be able to share it.
I made the change to my bio. My fingers hovered over the keys until I finally hit “save.” Hitting “save” was saying, “I won’t work 12-hour days on set,” and “I should probably start a savings account.” Hitting “save” was saying, publicly, “the odds are stacked against me.”
Right after I made the change to my bio, I asked some colleagues to meet with me. We started an initiative for moms in film. It aims to address some of these issues.
If you want to be involved, or to commiserate, or laugh, or cry, we invite you to join us. We’ll send you updates about residencies, grants and other initiatives for moms. As a first step, we’ll be hosting a meet-up for moms in film during the Tribeca Film Festival. Writers, Directors, Producers and Editors, Sound Recordists and Mixers, Cinematographers, Makeup Artists, Actors, Gaffers and Grips, Costume Designers and Casting Directors, Colorists and Composers, Animators, ADs, ACs, PAs: everyone is welcome. It will take place during the daytime and children of all ages will be welcome too. To find out more, click here.
We are aware that all kinds of people parent. That you don’t have to identify as a “mom” to face the challenges of parenting. But right now, we’re focusing on moms, for a number of reasons we are happy to discuss. At some point, we hope that our program will be able to expand and cater to all caregivers. But here’s the thing: when moms benefit, we all benefit. Who wouldn’t want shorter work days?
(Thanks for reading. I’d appreciate it if you hit ‘recommend’ and share with any moms you think might be interested.)