Backstage, half-hour has been called. We’re warmed-up, made-up, mostly clothed… and missing a cast member. The clock ticks. An expectant audience enters the theatre. Twenty minutes… fifteen… and in she gallops at top speed, shedding garments, grabbing her makeup kit, clearly upset. As we help her dress, the story comes out: her seven-year-old son was home from school with a fever all day, his illness threatening a trip the family was to take after closing night. He pried off a childproof cap and took a handful of acetaminophen in the theory that lots must be better than enough. His mother, frantic, called the poison-control center for reassurance, the family doctor just in case, her husband to come home early, a neighbor to take up the slack. While awaiting the neighbor’s arrival, she tried to comfort the distraught child.
And then she came to work, riddled with guilt for leaving him and torn with anxiety about his well-being.
In pre-maternal days, my reaction to these not-uncommon scenarios was sympathetic but blase. If Dad’s there, went the reasoning, what’s the problem? Or the smug certainty of my uninitiated self might sniff: Well. It was your choice. You didn’t have to have a child. You didn’t have to try to keep acting once you did.
Shame on me, for playing into the lamentable marginalization of actresses who also choose to be mothers. Many times I saw and did not argue when the label “Not Serious—Only a Mom” was attached indelibly to talented and dedicated theatre professionals. None of their struggles to prove deep commitment to their work could erase this prejudice. Not the best of their examples could remove our blindness to the terrific sacrifices they made to maintain their craft as well as their families, or the toll it took on their lives. Somehow we avoided looking at the fact that mothers in the theatre live with a level of stress that transcends that of our friends in a world framed by offices. You can take a day off from an office when a child is home ill. But most mothers don’t work in theatres that employ understudies, and even if we did, would we give up a hard-won show to nurse a non-life-threatening illness?
Well, would you?
I didn’t think so.
I got my comeuppance when I accidentally joined the maternal ranks. The first blow was the act of being pregnant at all. Being vain, I was so embarrassed by my extraordinary increase in girth that I could hardly bear to be seen in public. When I once ventured out to a party with my sister (also an actress), we were lovingly greeted by an old friend: “It’s the beautiful Vivian-a-a-and the Little Mo-other!” I didn’t know what to do first—burst into tears or throttle the lout.
Fortunately, I was working at the time as a puppeteer, so my size wasn’t much of an issue—until a producer friend called me, needing somebody to fill in as Mrs. Van Damm in The Diary of Anne Frank for a few matinees. “I’d love to,” I said enthusiastically. “Uhhh… there’s just one thing: I’m pregnant.”
“Ooh, you’re pregnant,” she squealed delightedly, like any woman anywhere. Then added more sepulchrally, “Hmmm. You’re pregnant,” with the vital question of The Welfare of the Show hanging in the air and the producer-wheels grinding away inside her skull. Deciding to give me the benefit of the doubt, she asked tentatively, “How large are you?” In that particular instance the news was good: I was still not as large as the woman playing the role.
Not long afterward, she called again, delighted that a commercial was being cast that required a very pregnant woman. I was on air. For once I knew without question that the role was mine. I have never been so relaxed and confident at an audition.
But I didn’t get it. With the inarguable logic of film producers the world over, it was decided that I looked too pregnant. They hired an 18-year-old co-ed from the local university to do the spot, padding her to look ju-u-st pregnant enough to be commercially attractive.
Naturally I was furious, and railed against the unfairness and stupidity of a creative world long supposed to be a haven for society’s artistic misfits. How could it leave out mothers, whose biological imperatives encompass both nurture and creation in one package? Should we, as Robert Graves suggested in The White Goddess, quench the fire-in-the-belly required to be Muse and allow ourselves to be cast on the dustheap of the Mother? No! I decided, in concert with Shakespeare’s Benedick. The world must be peopled! Having done our part to people it, our dedication to our craft still burns as fiercely as our love for our children. There are just a few more limitations to its scope.
This motherhood-versus-actress dilemma is hardly new. My grandmother raised two children as an actress and single mother in the ’30s and ’40s, long before it was an acceptable lifestyle. My great aunt supported her children, alcoholic husband and elderly mother likewise. The highest accolade either gave their fellow actors was to say simply, “She Works.” The translation: Is always professional, will accept any role, any time, anywhere—even a very small one if the cast is superb. They were strong women making difficult choices, though not, especially for their children, ultimately very happy ones. The hours of the theatre have everything to do with being gone, and little to do with being available. And actors, of all people, know the emotional cost of rejection and abandonment.
So the choice between The Play or The Child always carries a heavy pricetag. Choose the child and your lifework can go down the tube, leaving you with nothing to look forward to but the agony of getting started all over again when you’re older and less marketable. Choose the play, and what happens to the child? We may joke that our kids will need some reason to go into therapy later on, but it’s almost unbearable to think what our decisions mean to a tender individual who requires security, guidance, love and confidence to define the way it accepts the world and treats others for another generation.
Recently I heard it said of a friend that she was so professional “you’d never know she had a child,” as if this were a compliment and not a source of heartbreak. She, at least, hired sitters while she worked. A relative of mine was less fortunate and to this day remembers her terror on being left in their apartment with nothing but the TV for company at age four while her mother performed elsewhere. She can still recite every jingle from every TV show and commercial spanning the period of her solitude.
But I would not do that to my son, I swore. With a reasonably supportive partner and a pool of willing Alex-holders to press into occasional service in return for lunch, I reasoned that I would easily juggle my day job, puppet-theatre tours and regular auditions in far-flung locations with a nursing infant in train.
I was hallucinating, of course. The inevitable train-wreck occurred six months into this insanity, at a film audition on a blistering hot, muggy day. Having collected the Alex-holder-du-jour, parked in the heart of the heat, changed and fed my son, climbed into a shirt that didn’t have circular milk stains identifying the exact location of my nipples, packed Alex in his backpack and walked a mile, we arrived at the audition soaked and broiling to find it predictably running two hours late. I tried to work while Alex lay on his mat, cranky and hot. He didn’t like his toys, my friend or the scenery. He wanted Mama, but I was tense and asking the heavens for the nth time: Why is this so hard? Why did I want to be a mother?
A fellow auditioner observed this unhappy tableau, and on her hands and knees entered into one of those endless dialogues that babies and baby-lovers have about the perfection of baby’s face and hands, his size, the creative and intelligent way he kicks and waves his arms and sings. My Alex turned himself inside out to entrap this woman, and she was in his spell. I grew more resentful: Not only do I not know why I am a mother, this baby prefers a total stranger to me!
Needless to say, the audition was a disaster. As I dejectedly collected my offspring and belongings, the object of Alex’s infant desire sat back on her heels and looked at me. “You know,” she said reflectively, “today is my daughter’s 13th birthday. I thought it would be so important to audition for this role today, important enough to miss my daughter’s birthday. But I was wrong. This,” and she took Alex’s fat little hand lovingly, “is what’s important. Not this audition. This baby is only going to be little for a very short time. It’s so easy to forget that.”
I think this woman was an angel, planted by the gods to show me something I needed to see. And maybe I was an angel planted for her, too, because she left without ever reading and took part, I assume, in her daughter’s 13th birthday.
Now, if you’re a member of the Christian Right, you’re probably thinking I saw the error of my ways, gave up My Brilliant Career and became a full-time mother. But I didn’t. I prioritized. First, in a quixotic move common to all artists when the chips are down, I quit my day job. Then I scaled back my auditions to what seemed a skeletal level, dejectedly feeling that I had surely earned the epithet “Not Serious—Only a Mom.”
But an odd thing happened. I got cast just as often as before, and in better roles. In the time not spent putting thousands of fruitless miles on my car, I found I could write 1,000 words during each of my son’s naps. I wrote a book. I continued touring in puppet theatre, took Alex and a sitter with me and gave the sitter a third of my pay. Alex, who could assemble a light pole by the time he was two, throve on this lifestyle. Although I wondered what kind of stories he would tell his psychologist in years to come, at least I was working. I was spending a great deal of time with my son. And for the first time in my life, what paltry living I made came entirely from the arts.
So the transformative and daunting act of having a child did not make me less serious about my career. It actually enforced and made possible a greater commitment to it.
It hasn’t come without tears, guilt or difficult choices. But there are rewards, and even moments of hilarity. At an audition for a production of Our Town, Alex, forced by circumstances to accompany me, sat next to the director and regaled her with his high-decibel version of “Frere Jacques” when my musings on mortality grew too long-winded. At an audition for Oedipus Rex, he gigglingly informed the director that there was a Bad Word in my piece and kept him apprised of its imminence, until both of them fell around laughing when I finally said “shit.” I like to think that the frisson of not quite knowing what he might do next gave my pieces a spontaneity that helped me be cast both times. (But these directors were friends, with families of their own. I wouldn’t want to test the theory on strangers.)
My son has also proven an excellent dramatic ego-adjuster. Last spring he saw firsthand the sort of wide-eyed hero-worship performers get to accept from time to time. He grew more and more thoughtful as the day wore on, watching his mother and her friends being touched, questioned and applauded by several thousand young students for whom live theatre was a rare, magical treat. “Wow, Mom,” he said wonderingly on our second day. “You’re an actress.”
“Right,” I said, gratified.
“And you’re also my mom.”
“Exactly.” I swelled with pride.
“So you’re an actress and My Mom.”
“You got it,” I said, feeling godlike.
“Wow, Mom. You’re a celebrity,” he breathed. And then, with stand-up timing and the brutal naivete of childhood, he added, “What the heck is a celebrity?”
“Every mother in this business,” I said, after I’d picked myself up off the floor.
Caroline Nesbitt is artistic director of Advice to the Players, a fledgling Shakespeare troupe in New Hampshire.