The Inequity of Motherhood on Set

24 04 2018

With all the articles about actresses having their children on set with them, about production companies making room for actresses to still be mothers while working, it may be tempting to believe that the film and television business is quite progressive nowadays when it comes to supporting working mothers.  Recently, I was on set working in New York City, and the female director and I got into a conversation about this.  She said, “I think it is so wonderful how far we’ve come with productions accommodating mothers and their children on set.”  I paused, deciding if I was going to share some of my own experiences… I didn’t want to be seen as a complainer.  Have you heard “don’t want to be seen as a complainer” recently in another context?  Perhaps attached to the #metoo movement?  I am here to assert that #metoo isn’t just attached to sexual abuse on set, but also to sizeism and definitely to motherhood on set.  This director was astonished when I relayed some of my experiences.

There is a vast inequity in who is given space and accommodation to care for their children on set.  While I am absolutely thrilled for a name actress who “has her child’s playpen just off set to be able to nurse between takes,” there are millions of stories of actresses who are never afforded that opportunity.  I am one of them.  And I hear a new story every day about other actresses dealing with the same issue.  There is a reason I disappeared from acting for the first three years of my oldest child’s life – I knew no one cared about my baby, my nursing, or anything about my life outside of what I could offer them as an actress.  And with my son, we lived far from any familial help.  I wasn’t prepared to leave my 8 month-old with a stranger so I could seek out work.  Knowing if I booked said work, it would mean lots of time away from my newborn.  And in case you didn’t already know it, there is ZERO maternity leave for actors.  So when we take time off to care for children, we stop being paid.

It first happened once I was pregnant.  I had a very healthy pregnancies with both of my kids, no issues.  I booked a role on a film when I was about 4 months pregnant with my second child, so I already looked pregnant.  Filming was in a month, so I told them I would be showing more.  Producers initially liked the idea of my rather sexual and forward character being pregnant.  So I booked it, and started working.  This was not a leading role, but about 2 weeks of work, which I was excited to have.

I got my dates for shooting, and two days before – as I was preparing everything I needed to to leave my then 5 year old son with his Dad to go on the shoot – I got a call.  They had recast.  It was too much of a “risk” to have me on set while pregnant.  Huh?  I got no money.  I lost the work.  Keep in mind, I was simultaneously doing a two-woman DANCING AND SINGING MUSICAL onstage… so… double huh?  So you can imagine my dismay when I read all the gorgeous CGI stuff and camera angle stuff tv and film folks do to hide other actresses’ pregnancies, right?

My youngest child was a little over a year when I booked some work that would take me away from her for 9-14 days at a time.  I didn’t even ASK production if I could bring my infant.  In fact, an agent actually told me that I SHOULDN’T TELL CASTING DIRECTORS or PRODUCERS that I have children.  Because as a person who is NOT traditionally the lead actress or a series regular on a show, it would just cause me to lose work.

I gave up nursing my newborn daughter so that I could do that work on that project  It was a balance for me.  I could bring in money, or I could nurse my daughter.  Pumping wasn’t an option – unless I had pumped and then figured out how to freeze and mail my milk home – this was a far away from home project.  But when would I pump?  I had times on set when I had my period but I didn’t want to interrupt a take or a series of takes and be seen as “troublesome” or “a complainer” so I bled through everything.  So asking for breaks to pump so my milk supply wouldn’t dip?  Impossible.

The inequity of motherhood on set is that if you are FAMOUS ENOUGH, or IMPORTANT ENOUGH to the production they will gladly make any accommodations for you as a mom.  It is in their best interest to do so.  What would happen if they lost their lead actress because she didn’t want to give up nursing her baby?  Bad for business.  But that secondary character, that recurring character, that supporting character… she needs this work, she is expendable – so we aren’t even going to entertain that.  It isn’t overt.  No one says to you, “YOU, lead actress, you can gladly bring your baby to set and nurse her as you need to – but YOU secondary character, you CANNOT bring your baby to set.”  It is done much more subtly.  Which is why that one agent probably counseled me to not even REVEAL that I have children.

I was on set on another project with a new Mom, and I admired her for being back to work so quickly.  I admired her even more for taking breaks as needed to pump, and carrying her ice chest around with her to keep the milk cool till she could get to her trailer and feed her baby herself.  I admired the other new mom whose tireless partner showed up at all breaks and lunches to hand over her baby, so they could snuggle, and feed, and reconnect.  And my heart broke thinking that this was a luxury that was never afforded to me, and that the time has now passed where I need to do this anyway.

The inequity of motherhood, is that a series regular on a television show, for instance, who is already making anywhere from $25,000 to $100,00 dollars per episode on a show is also allowed to bring her child to set.  And if necessary, she might be asked to pay a nanny herself, but that is also covered sometimes by production.  A secondary actress on the same show, who is probably working for scale plus 10% (which is roughly $900/day or $3500/week) IF she dares to bring her child or children, will have to hire her own nanny and pay them out of that salary.  After taxes, and paying 10% to an agent and 10% to a manger.  Usually, the secondary characters will work a week at most on an episode. And KEEP IN MIND, that may be the only money that actress makes that month. SO… $25,000-$100,000/episode with childcare paid for, versus $3500 an episode paying for your own childcare, and usually travel.  That is IF you decided to bring your child at all.  Financially it might not be worth it.

This is not to mention all the “oh shit” moments that happen when you have children.  You may have to drag your kids into an audition when they are sick and home from school and your babysitter flakes out.  It happens.  I have only had one instance where the casting director was understanding about this.  It has happened three times in fifteen years of auditioning.  But it happens.  There is zero generosity of spirit afforded to secondary characters when it comes to us having any life outside of their life as an actress – who is available at all times under all circumstances.

I have had agents request that I spend a month away from home auditioning.  What?  Leave my kids for a solid month, move to another city, just so I can be available at the drop of a hat SHOULD anything come up?  I do this for a week at a time and go home on weekends, but a month solid away from home?  Not happening.  My children’s mental well-being is more important than the convenience of me being close to auditions.  That is why we have audition taping.

The only productions I have ever been a part of that were accommodating to me as a mother were two films I did last summer – both of which were shot by smaller production companies in New Orleans.  I cannot tell you how beautiful it was to have my children welcomed, with childcare PROVIDED, at a read-through.  To have an “oh shit” moment where my son HAD TO come to set with me, and the production easily making room for him.  This is how it should be.  I sure could have used this when my children were infants.

Here is the funny thing, I have been meaning to write this post for some time, but I was afraid to.  Why was I afraid?  Because I don’t “want to seem like I will be troublesome” or “be difficult”.  #metoo needs to extend to sizeism and mothers.  I am sure there are some folks already thinking, “You know what?  If you can’t make all the accommodations productions want then shut up and let actresses who will take your place.”  Maybe I will.