The challenges of parenting while working in the film industry are complex and at times over-whelming. It is a subject often considered personal and therefore not widely discussed. We've asked four female designers to share their stories about motherhood and career.
“Do not give up your career when you have children, even if you think you are financially secure.”
“I knew what kind of designer I was, so I approached parenting like a design project.”
“I realize that there’s truly no real way to “balance” being a mother and a designer, but having this incredible life experience has enriched how I design.“
“I'm sure I will miss out on a few projects due to motherhood, be it discrimination or feasibility. That's just the reality of our industry and our current political climate.“
March 12, 2016
How do you balance parenting and career? Part One - Motherhood
Hilda Stark is an Emmy award winning Production Designer for film and television, with a background in fine arts and theater. Her work includes the TV shows “Crime Story“ and “Crash,“ the films “Robo Cop 3,“ “Fluke,“ “If These Walls Could Talk“ and the HBO movie “The Rat Pack.“ Most recently she designed the Cinemax TV show “Banshee.“
It is with considerable angst that I write this because it stirs up that nagging question - Did I make the right choice? Designing and raising my daughter Ellie was not a question of balance; at the time it felt like an either/or situation. She had two parents in the business and while I was working nonstop, her father was focused on his writing/producing career. He was not a stay-at-home kind of guy to say the least. Ellie was getting shortchanged and I was frustrated - feeling guilty when I was at work and exhausted when I would finally get home. A defining moment for me came when my daughter got my name mixed up with the nanny’s name. So I made the choice to scale way back, not working for long periods of time, to the consternation of my agent. Because I am also a fine artist, I had a creative outlet and that helped a lot. But I also truly loved being a full time mom and all that came with it. I was already in my forties and wanted to enjoy that chapter of my life.
But things didn’t turn out as I had scripted and that decision naturally affected my career. A costly divorce and three moves later I was trying to get my career back on track and still be an involved single mom to a teenager. Out of town work was especially difficult to manage and I found I could no longer pick and choose projects. I was spending all of my earnings to just keep the home fires burning. It has not been an easy transition.
My daughter is now in college and the advice I give to her is this: Do not give up your career when you have children, even if you think you are financially secure. Life throws curveballs so you need to maintain your autonomy. Make a plan that works for you and your family. And have a backup plan in case that fails. If you do drop out of the workforce for a while, stay involved in your professional community and try to find some work that keeps you engaged in your field in some capacity. Don’t isolate yourself from work colleagues. They are a great touchstone.
People often ask me if I regret my decision to stay home with Ellie for so long. It’s a hard question to answer. I have an amazing daughter but I wonder if I underestimated her. Kids love you unconditionally. Certainly I wish I had found a better balance. The life of a Production Designer mom is still as difficult as it was in the 90s, perhaps even more so in that location work is more prevalent. The hours are long and the work unpredictable. Some kids adapt and others need you to be present. It’s a judgment call. If you are lucky you’ll have a partner who can pick up the slack.
Working in the entertainment business will never be easy, but perhaps more logistical and emotional support is needed for moms trying to find that elusive balance. Of course that would mean more women in positions of power to effect change. Now that’s something to strive for…
Dina Goldman has collaborated with such well-known directors as Robert Altman, for whom she designed the TV show “Tanner on Tanner“ and the film “Prairie Home Companion,“ Edward Burns in his film “The Groomsmen“ and TV show “Public Morals,“ Lawrence Kasdan and Tim Blake-Nelson, among others.
Having my son Rafael in 2007 was one of the most wonderful things that ever happened in my life, but it caused seismic shifts in my work, and how I choose jobs. As I consider the topic here, I realize that there’s truly no real way to “balance” being a mother and a designer, but having this incredible life experience has enriched how I design and intensified my appreciation for the craft.
Before I get into any more detail, I ought to mention that both my son and I are blessed to have a magnificent partner/father whose own career in the industry (as a production sound mixer) enabled me to take extended time off when Rafa was an infant. Having a support system, is the most crucial factor in the work-life equation. Being in the same industry, and experiencing what it was like to go back to work as a new parent also gave my husband an understanding of how important it was going to be for me get back to designing. Mostly as a result of our son refusing to take a bottle, he was initially the primary working-in-film parent and I was the take-care-of-infant parent (with a disquieting fear that I’d never work again). In the ensuing years we’ve done our best to try and stagger ourselves, so that one person can be home with our son. As free-lancers, that intention is rarely seamless, but we’ve been fairly accurate at maintaining it for a number of years. That’s the closest I can come to addressing “balance.“
Motherhood has certainly altered the way I work, on both a practical and conceptual level. I had all sorts of crazy ideas before Rafa was born that I’d take him into work with me, park him in a playpen in my office, and head off to my meeting/scout/etc. Thankfully, I was able to figure out how absurd this was before actually attempting anything vaguely along these lines. In reality, my son was prohibitively attached to me, so bringing him into the office would have been much more than just a distraction, even if taking him with me had been a possibility. Thankfully, my first job back was a commercial, so there was less time away to arrange. Our shooting day was one of those outrageously long 16-hour extravaganzas. All around me people were grumbling, but all I kept thinking was, “This is the easiest day I’ve had in MONTHS! My hands are my own! I can move around at will! I can look at my computer! Give me more!”.
Eventually, I booked another film. And it was out of town. We’d worked out that my husband would stay home with Rafael while I was there, but they’d visit me for a week in the middle. That arrangement took the pressure off of things, but I was still nagged by feelings that I was a negligent and uncaring mother. I managed to shift my thinking by reminding myself of how proud I always was to tell friends about my mother's job (special education teacher) when I was a kid, and how important it would be for my son to have a role model who exemplified the possibilities available to women. Once I allowed myself to let go of the guilt I’d been feeling, I was energized, so thankful to be back doing the job that I love so much.
Parenting an infant and toddler can be fairly isolating, so it was also a thrill to be back among peers. As a mother, just about my entire day was consumed with taking care of this person (who, for the first year, is really similar to an exotic pet you’re trying not to kill). The amount of focus and endurance needed can cause one to go into autopilot. Being without my son highlighted just how much of my day I must have been squandering as a single person. All of a sudden, I noticed breaks in between scheduled appointments when I could push my creativity further. I especially loved coming home after work, having time to myself, sitting in my hotel room to fine-tune breakdowns, research additional references, or plan the following day.
In the years that have followed, it's only become clearer to me that motherhood has afforded me an appreciation of my job and given me insight into a larger picture of what's important. Having my practically-absolute life of freedom compromised in such a way made me acutely aware of time and how to make the most of it. There are certainly periods, most often when I'm on a project at home in NYC, that shifting from one to the other causes me to feel as though I'm shortchanging my son or the job. The best way I’ve found to combat this is to be committed to the one I'm doing at that moment. It’s a lot easier when I'm on location, although I need to organize a considerable amount before I take off to ensure that my son will be looked after while I’m away.
One other way to interpret the balance is balance itself. I’m sure every one of my peers will agree that we often have to become the champions of a certain idea or design concept, and then occasionally we’re asked to change or abandon that same thing due to budget or schedule. There's an intense dichotomy where you put all your focus into something, and then, have to let it go and move on. Parenting is similar, so, bizarrely, I think having to be pulled in different directions at once has made me more centered and direct. Everything is important and not so important, if that makes any sense.
Our son has been to tons of film shoots in his almost nine-years, and, aside from the craft service table, doesn't seem to care all that much for spending time on set. That said, we've instilled in him a love of art and sculpture, and he's even taken a sketch-up class at his school, so I think he now may have some small understanding of what I do. So, while it’s true that you have to sacrifice so much to be a parent (I certainly experienced a lull in my career once I tried to start working again, and I’m still having to turn good jobs down because they don’t time out well for my family), the emotional rewards are so completely worth it.
Mary Frederickson is a production deisgner of music videos, commericials and indepedent films, including “Homework,“ “Losers Take All,“ “Boy Wonder“ and “All is Bright.“
You never truly know what kind of parent you will be until you become one. On the other hand, I knew what kind of designer I was, so I approached parenting like a design project: all in, hands on, and completely immersed. This project has proved to be challenging and complex and will definitely come in over budget. The DP of the last film I worked on, a seasoned father, proclaimed, without a trace of irony, that I would need two nannies and a live in au-pair in order to continue as a working Production Designer with small children. Three years later, I now have two young boys, and I have pressed pause on my film career.
I convinced myself I would return to work when our first son was 3 months old. My lack of traditional “success” initially propelled my choice to turn down job offers. What would the cost/benefit be if I hired someone to care for my child while I designed a web series for a first time director? The economics not withstanding, the film production schedule was the largest deterrent. Why would I leave before my baby woke up for the day and return after he had gone to bed? Missing out on the entirety of my new baby’s day just was not palatable to me. To be able to care for your own children in a way that you feel appropriate should not be considered a luxury. My income would barely offset the cost of childcare. I was still in denial. I continued to look for work. At six months post partum, I was shopping for agents in Los Angeles and was “jokingly” told that I would have to promise to only have one child!
Before beginning to write this post, I cycled through all of the articles and books I had read about being a working mom prior to the birth of my first child. In retrospect, I find humor looking at them now after painstakingly over-analyzing my decision making over the past few years. These publications sell an idea that balance can be achieved within your career and family if you follow a list of rules that are impossible to apply to working as a Production Designer. Consider the definition of balance: a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. When you are working on a film it would be impossible to achieve equilibrium between family and work mathematically. The scale would always be tipped toward work. 12 hours on and 12 hours off may work when you are operating as a single entity.
Furthermore, I do not think I ever worked less than a 16 hour day with the assumption that I was on call 24/7. In every example written about in books and newspaper articles and the blogosphere about this mythical balance, you require a certain flexibility in the workplace that the film industry does not offer. What women seem to tout as the determiner of their continued success in the workplace after having children is flexible hours, part-time options and the ability to work from home. You also must have an amazing partner to share the domestic workload and you absolutely have to be home for family dinner.
My parenting journey has only just begun but I already recognize the importance of consistency with young children and this is really at the heart of my extended hiatus from filmmaking. Where I first grappled with my feminist ideals I now realize that choosing to stay home to grow my young children is a choice: a choice offered me by the feminist cause. I am looking at this from an idea of life long work family integration now. I may be part of the workforce well in to my 70’s and that’s why I initially chose a field I was so passionate about. Having children so late in life also makes you recognize your own mortality. I want to be present for developmental milestones now because I may not be alive for certain key events in the lives of my children in the future. I now plan to raise my children at home until they are preschoolers. After that point, I might choose to tip the scale toward work. I envision the village will take care of more of my children's needs in the form of education and extracurricular activities. My eldest also now understands and takes interest in the fact that I was/am other things than just a mommy. It may finally be the correct time for me to further introduce my passions outside of the home. I want to be a strong role model for my children.
Do I think I would be a better Production Designer now that I’m a mother? Hell Yeah! Experiencing both life and death has had a profound effect on my understanding of the human experience. I would certainly be more exacting, but at the same time I would advocate harder for my crew. Becoming a parent is the most humbling experience. You think you know something and then two little fresh perspectives come along and remind you that you do not know anything about anything. In a lot of ways, I am surrounded by more design and storytelling now, which was at the heart of my love of filmmaking in the first place. I am fascinated by the purity of children’s creativity. I find my little sponges highly stimulating to be with; exhausting, but stimulating nonetheless.
Creatively, I continue to reinvent myself as a designer. I am concurrently designing a children’s toy line and pursuing other avenues of storytelling with my writing partner whose many talents included being in the art department in her past family-free life. We are currently working on a pitch for an educational children’s show.
My family story is just a microcosm of what the conversation should be in the film industry. We need a revolution in the way we make films so that the adults that work in it can simultaneously build a career and family life if they choose to do so. For now, I will hold on tight to the flexibility of designing my own schedule.
Amy Williams has collaborated with director Ira Sacks on award-winning films “Keep the Lights On“ and “Love is Strange,“ as well as designing “Hungry Hearts“ and “Sleeping with Other People“ among others. She won an Emmy for the TV show “A Crime to Remember“ and recently designed the Netflix TV series “Master of None.“
I'm only seven months in to this whole parenting thing so I really have no idea about how this will all go down, but I'm optimistic. I love what I do and it's my hope that I can do both and hopefully, do both well. I'm sure I will miss out on a few projects due to motherhood, be it discrimination or feasibility. That's just the reality of our industry and our current political climate.
The cons to being a working Production Designing mum are challenging. Our industry isn't exactly family friendly given the hours and various environments. When I found out I was pregnant I was concerned about how to break the news to my producers, I was afraid the news would hinder future job prospects and I was concerned about discrimination. I worked right up until I was 9 months pregnant and it went pretty well despite a few months of morning sickness. After that, there's really is no such thing as maternity leave in our biz. When I phoned our union to ask about how this would affect my insurance coverage, I was told there were no benefits, and that I should just "file for unemployment". Ouch.
I made the decision to ease back into work slowly with a short project here and there. My first job back was a commercial and it was brutal. Day one had me in a scout minivan for 10 hours with an all male crew. I'm nursing and need to take three to four 15-20 minute "pumping" breaks. It was pretty horrifying and a terribly awkward situation to navigate, but I did it. I made it through that day, the next and even the whole week. It wasn't easy, but I found a way and everyone was surprisingly cool about the whole breast pumping situation in the scout van.
I start a series next month which will have me working full time until November. We hired a nanny, a dog walker has been booked and luckily I have a partner that does NOT work in the industry. I know it won't be easy. I know the hours and the whole scouting thing will suck, but I wouldn't trade working in this industry or having my son Roman for anything. I feel overly lucky. I have a really cool job and I got to meet the most amazing person I will ever know.