I went back to work a week after the caesarian.
It wasn’t by choice. The drafts were due. They were doing test shoots, two weeks later.
I was the sole writer, and the birth was so mind-bogglingly unexpected, that nobody really knew what to do. The two blokes at the helm of the project placated me: It won’t take you long. Just an hour of work on each scene, if you do it by next week you can forget about it for a while.
I couldn’t say no. There was no-one else to write them, and I didn’t want anyone else to write them. The project was mine.
I was still on transcendental painkillers, and we were waiting to hear if our child had had a brain bleed, and subsequent brain damage.
If my work involved going into an office, I would have been off the hook. But creativity can happen anywhere and anytime (right?), so I worked from the NICU.
Editing dramatic scenes about relationships between twenty-years olds, one week after the traumatic birth of my first child, was like drinking water with chopsticks. Climbing a tree with my hands behind my back.
But I did it, because part of me knew that motherhood was not an excuse.
In fact, if I wanted to be an actor or a writer, motherhood was a sign that I did not take my art particularly seriously.
As a pregnant (and therefore unemployed) artist, it had been communicated to me that motherhood was a secret super-hero persona I had taken on by choice, that I dare not let leak into my craft, lest I be excluded from my industry forever.
Three weeks after I gave birth, I had my first audition in nine months.
My baby was still in hospital.
I forgot my lines, pushed too hard in parts. Couldn’t summon the comedic timing.
They were kind, and forgiving. The casting director peered at me sideways as I forced an hysterical laugh.
Wait, didn’t you just have baby?
I nodded, a little too bright-eyed.
Yes! Yes! She almost died and they literally cut my body in half to get her out, but I am here because I don’t get to be a proper mother yet, and you wouldn’t let me be an actor until I got skinny again, and I have lost ten kilograms in a matter of days, and so here I am, desperately searching for an identity that I suspect has been put into a blender. Please, please, please don’t cast me in this.
Acting is a delicate, cathartic and humbling art – one that teaches you to dance with tension, paint with emotions, and carve out psychological complexity. It invites the actor to portray humanity unashamedly, and go through extraordinary experiences on behalf of their fellow man, to bear their burdens as a mirror and a guide. It’s not just about Logies. It’s about service.
But, acting has always been an effective means of escapism for me, too. And I don’t mean the roles. It’s the gamble. With auditions, you get thrown into this high stakes lottery a few times a month, year after year, and you usually lose, but sometimes you win, and the thought of getting that job is sometimes more potent than the story or character or work itself. The thought that life might change for a while, that you can reinvent yourself again, that it might be a hit, that you’ll get some money, or live overseas briefly, that you will have new colleagues and new costumes and new photos to post on the internet… it’s highly addictive. Creative crack.
I had been able to live without any challenge to my habit up until this point. The motherhood point. And though motherhood seemed to be a slight ‘interruption’ for most people, I assumed I was the exception to the rule.
It wasn’t that I pre-emptively chose my career over my baby consciously. I just thought I could keep up. And I think I knew, deep down where my inner goblin lived, that I would not be able to say no to work.
Not because I loved it, but because I was addicted to it.
In hindsight, the only person that had discussed career and parenting with me with any sort of realism, was the actor Nadine Garner. I was considering going back to work six weeks after my due date. Everyone applauded me for my bravery, and that felt nice, but it was Nadine who took me aside, kindly told me I was clueless, and begged me to reconsider.
I was forced to do this, and it was horrible.
You don’t understand what it will feel like to be with that baby.
You’ll still be bleeding, Anna.
Something in her tone got to me. It was the foreboding voice of a woman that has gone before, and suffered a blow so that I didn’t have to. Reluctantly, I said no to the project.
When I finally got to take home my tiny child – the most exquisite human being I have ever come into contact with –the most beautiful and brutal surprise was that Nadine was right.
All I wanted to do was be her mother.
I had been robbed of my first weeks as her care-giver, and there was nowhere else I wanted to be but with the child. No escapism was needed. No job exploring the human psyche could compare with being present in that moment.
For the first few months after the grief of daily hospital visits, the baby and I were a delicate and inseparable system, and I protected that like her life depended on it – because it did.
There was an ache to create that crept back, however, that couldn’t be put down to the addiction to actor-gambling. I was one with the child, but I missed myself. I missed my mind. The relentless crowdedness of parenting helped me appreciate that creative practice offered me a grounding sense of self, and a connection to God. Without the space to be with myself, I poured myself into my daughter, and had very little left.
My exhaustion was so overwhelming, that even seeing friends was becoming difficult. I found it hard to eat, clean my teeth, and get dressed each day. Every last bit of energy and every extra bite of food went straight into the baby.
I couldn’t even be myself, let alone create a new character – and yet I really missed acting.
So, when auditions came through, I kept saying yes.
I will never forget turning up to shoot an audition – one I considered pivotal for getting my American agents back on side – my tiny baby under one arm, makeup already smudged from finding a carpark.
She’s so good, she’ll sleep right through it – I told my friend Emily, who ran the self-tape studio.
She did not, of course, and protested much.
I had one hour with Em, in which I had twelve pages to put down, and had to play a blind woman giving birth.
So, with great determination, I set my eyes to soft focus, gritted my teeth like I was bearing down, and delivered my lines about a husband in battle, whilst breastfeeding an 8 week old. The scene was littered with the discontented meows from my child as I rearranged my nipples, and sprayed milk in her face just out of shot, but I thought the work was pretty good.
In addition to the US self-tapes, for the first time in my career my (incredibly patient and parenthood-affirming) agent was sending me auditions for ads, in the hope of helping out our family financially.
Jonathan would film me traipsing through our courtyard with a whimsical smile on my face, smelling flowers and flirting with the camera, while the baby screamed, strapped to his chest. Then we would edit out the sound, and replace it with a moody backing track.
I went in for a callback for one of them, and left the baby with a friend for the first time – utterly overwhelmed at being separated from her, made up like a single woman in her early twenties.
Don’t mention the baby, Anna, don’t mention the baby.
Everything went perfectly, before they got me to introduce myself to camera, to share with the ‘client’ what I’d been up to recently, whilst posing coquettishly.
I stared down the lens blankly. Well, I had a baby.
I made relentless efforts to sneak my child into work events, simply so I could go – such as the night I bounced her in a carrier in a cinema doorway for 90 minutes, so I could watch the ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ screening.
Then there was the time I agreed to be an ambassador for MIFF (because FOMO). I lasted ten minutes at opening night, dolled up in a borrowed dress, before I had to return to the hotel room to feed her to sleep and eat Maccas with our babysitter. The same thing happened at the Queensland Theatre launch. And the speech I was supposed to give at my friend’s book launch. And the creative ministry events I was supposed to run. And yet, every time my child called me home early, needing my love, I buried the truth I did not want to face:
Continuing to work in the industry as if my baby did not exist, was not working.
Of course, there were moments I thought I could pull it off.
I did a theatre audition I was desperately invested in, driving ninety minutes for childcare to make the three-minute monologue at MTC happen. The room went really well, and afterwards I went to order some lunch at a café to reward myself. I felt poised and capable. I was wearing my favourite green silk dress and felt young and beautiful for the first time in a long while. I’d parented, learned my lines, delivered them with gusto and would hopefully get back in time for the next breastfeed.
But as I waited for my toasted sandwich, my breasts started to leak – not little circles of warning – but jet streams, pooling then flooding out from underneath my waterproof stick-on bra, and through the silk dress. I was soaked, and dripping milk onto the café floor.
I’m lactating! I cried to the café girl giving me shady looks, and ran back to the theatre toilets past other auditioning actors, trying not to cry.
The final straw was a chemistry test callback for a job. It would have meant four months of full time shooting, and it tempted me. I wanted that work – that glory and adventure. My husband reminded me gently that my baby still refused a bottle, and I still refused to be apart from her for any longer than three hours, so it would require some steep adjustments, but I shrugged him off.
The callbacks were rigorous and awkward – four hours in a waiting room with other actors, being paired off with the opposite gender to see who would fit the leads best.
I ducked out every now and then to surreptitiously breastfeed, having made Jonathan take the morning off work in order to walk the baby around the casting agent’s block over and over again. After my final turn in the room, I was forty-five minutes late for a feed but I was almost convinced I had the job. I walked excitedly out into the waiting room to find Jonathan there, surrounded by the other actors, trying to calm and distract my sobbing six month old.
It was a burst bubble. She suddenly penetrated the environment I had tried so hard to exclude her from.
Even before I heard I didn’t get it, I knew I hadn’t. I knew we weren’t ready.
I was living a double life that nobody was benefiting from, and it forced a hard question:
Are acting and motherhood actually compatible?
Was I just being selfish and impatient, wanting to work?
Was I being selfish, wanting to be with my child so much?
If I had taught my child a routine, or put her in childcare, could I have had my cake and eaten it too?
I don’t have the energy to make a cake. Babies can’t eat cake, right?
I could not keep up the façade of a baby-proof career.
So when another audition came my way that same week, for a small role on a show, I was too exhausted to pretend I wasn’t a mother.
I went to the audition, did the work, and spoke about my child freely. I explained that she was still breastfed, and I didn’t apologise for it. The three (fairly badass) women in the room heard me out, and didn’t bat an eyelid.
When I was cast in that role a couple of weeks later, I explained to my agent that I could only do it if I went back to my child every three hours to breastfeed.
I thought I would lose the contract.
The production said ‘Of course’.
So began my first real attempt at being a ‘working’ mother-actor.
We had no idea what we were doing.
We don’t have any family in Melbourne, Jonathan works full time, and childcare wasn’t something we’d broached before, so it was always going to be a bit of a farce. Jonathan was miraculously given unprecedented flexibility by his workplace, and took unpaid leave to be the primary parent for the days I was on set. This was a learning curve to say the least.
The production were incredibly accommodating. At the table read, the director cleared out her own office to create the baby’s room, complete with a change table.
Another actor in the cast came into ‘the baby room’ to pump milk for her twins in the lunch break, and we connected joyfully in our shared fear and adrenaline.
Lactating mothers sneaking off to be actors on a television set! Whatever next?
My family got through it the only way we knew how – winging it.
I took the baby to fittings, and the head of department let her gnaw on characters’ belts. Once we were filming, the makeup department let me breastfeed in the chair (which, with a seven month old, simply meant she took one suck then focused intently on pulling as much cool and expensive stuff off the bench as possible). Wardrobe let me get partly dressed, based on how easy it was to feed in costume – which again, did not stop my child from smearing avocado all over me five minutes before we went to set.
I was shooting a guest role, but it was majority night shoots – which meant 4pm to 4am. Not your usual maternity leave transition shift, to say the least. I kept quipping that I’d had half a year of sleep deprivation to train for it.
The production gave us a trailer to ourselves (which is MEAA standard, but they so readily and supportively provided it, which was awesome), in which Jonathan and Mercy slept peacefully all night battled it out in three-hour shifts.
They kept me up to date about my baby whilst on set, but my phone is an idiot and died every forty minutes, so the on-set nurse would charge it for me and give me little text updates from Jonathan, like This is the worst! Or She needs you, come back! Often, I’d get caught up in the work and would look up from a scene to see a very haggard looking husband and a wide-eyed child watching the video split in their pyjamas.
At one point, we were shooting in a bar, and I was released to go and feed my child, who happened to be on set (usually we would feed in the trailer). Jonathan and I have very differing views on breastfeeding in public – I am very into it and he is very protective of my breasts. Mercy doesn’t really care.
He took one look at the bar and all the crew and insisted that we find a private location to feed. The dude that owned the bar took us to the ‘only room at the inn’ – the toilet, with a seat covered in faeces. From that point, Jonathan relented and I got to feed wherever.
To the production’s credit, no-one batted an eyelid when I had to pause the shoot to feed. They were exceptionally supportive. In the night shoot dinner breaks, when my child and husband would emerge from their fiftieth lap in the pram, the director and producers took turns at holding her in their laps, teaching her little things, and neglecting their own dinners so we could eat ours.
The most complicated part was the day after the night shoots. I had been working all night, so needed to sleep, and couldn’t care for the baby. Jonathan, similarly, had been awake most of the night – apart from small bursts of sleep, often interrupted by the unit boys checking on the buses. The tension between us was thick. Who deserved sleep more? Whose job was harder?
I was excited for him to confess to me about how full-time parenting was extremely difficult, and apologise for thinking I did nothing but cuddle all day. He was hoping I’d realise the pain and burden of working away from the child, and apologise for hardly ever letting him have beers with the boys.
Neither of us came away with much more than the embodied revelation that sleep deprivation is horrific.
Ultimately, we are allies, and I think that man is walking the pram down the road to sainthood.
I felt guilty for having my baby, for a long time. I felt as if I had let people down, in my selfishness. Of course, only motherhood can teach you how unselfish parenting actually is.
I feel twice as strong, now – but I also understand my capacity is more than halved.
There is grace for that. It is okay.
I know my daughter has been held by me, when she needed me, and I value that.
My experience of parenting has been hard. My experience of being an actor, amidst this new role, has been completely disorienting, and humbling, and messy.
I don’t know how to be both – and yet to paraphrase the sage Anne Lamott– just as I realise it is impossible, I have already done it.
In the end, this is only the beginning of a much bigger story.
Perhaps motherhood will unlock some creative hormone juice in me that will make me a better actor?
Perhaps my ability to tell stories and understand human emotions will make me a better mother?
Or, perhaps Mercy will take this essay in to her therapist in twenty years time as evidence?
Only time – and a bit more sleep – will tell.
5 thoughts on “Performing the Role of the New Mother”
Bless you. 🙏
praise the Lord for Tamara Henderson x
You are amazing! X🙌
I found this page while sending my dear old dad some info about Hydra…he wants to know what I’m doing in Oz. Oh my dear. Your writing is so lovely, and struck so many chords. And resonated so many blog posts of my own! Looking forward to reading more. T xx
I have used your poems and reflections @ TEAR with students (in a K-12 school as Chaplain) over several years and I have been using this week (I hope it’s OK with you) your “holes in my hands” blog. Your sensitive, realistic and bold contributions are beautiful (where there is beauty, there is God and where there is God there is love – not a quote from but according to the spirit of Augustine’ views of beauty). Thank you for your reaching out to others and letting us into your ‘inner room’.