Maternity leave, or the lack of it, has increasingly been a part of public discourse in the American workforce. As one of four countries in the world that does not guarantee paid time off for a working woman to have a baby, new parents – mothers in particular – struggle to find ways to stay home after giving birth, both for the sake of bonding with their newborn, and simply allowing their bodies to heal.
This is particularly tough in fields that rely heavily on freelancers in the workforce. Working in Hollywood, for example, is notoriously unstable, with or without kids. There is a lot of freedom in building a freelance career, but that freedom comes with a noticeable lack of security.
For freelancers in California, the news isn’t all bad: the state’s Employment Development Department offers a paid family leave insurance program, which allows workers who pay into the state’s disability insurance to get 55% of their pay for up to six weeks in order to care for a new baby. Additionally, the LA Times recently reported that Governor Jerry Brown recently signed legislation increasing the amount to 60% for middle and upper class workers and 70% for those earning close to minimum wage. It’s not much, but it’s more than can be said for other states, and the discussion around maternity leave is much more prevalent now than it has been in the past; the Writers Guild of America, for instance, is currently putting pressure on production companies to provide an industry-wide family leave policy.
But with progress slow to catch up with the needs of workers in the industry, women who actively work in freelance fields find ways to make it work – some of them obvious, and some much more creative.
“I started a fake management company, because I knew I would need some kind of income if I couldn’t work for awhile,” said actor Rene Ashton. “Actors aren’t supposed to be agents or managers, so I used a fake name. I had a business representing actors and I actually did pretty well at it – I ended up doing it for six years! It gave me a lot of flexibility with a newborn at home. But it was a 24 hour job. I remember I was about to give birth and taking calls and making appointments,” she says.
After giving birth, Rene continued to push on with her acting career, with or without any available resources.
“I started working right away and I would bring my daughter with me. I don’t know if you’re supposed to or not, but I didn’t care, because I needed to work. So I would just bring her. There’s a community of actors that you build over the years, so I would just ask people to hold her when I went in. Or, what I would do, if it was a car commercial for example: any mom could be buying a car with a baby on her hip, so I would take her in with me, and she ended up getting six or seven commercials before she could even speak. They’d say ‘oh, can your kid work with you?’ and I’d say ‘Oh, sure, yeah,’ as if I didn’t plan it.”
Though it was mostly a positive experience, bringing her daughter with her on auditions did create the occasional complication:
“Once I was in an audition, and it was a callback, so the producers and clients from the ad agency were in the room. I could hear my baby crying out in the lobby and my breasts started filling with milk and my shirt was getting wetter and wetter, and finally I said “I have to go outside, I’ll be back!”
Funny stories aside, the issue of having kids in tow is still a very real one. “It needs to be acceptable to bring a child to set,” Rene says. Any of the studios having daycare would be great. One studio provides it for their employees, but as an actor, you don’t get to use that service.”
Writer/Director Mathilde Dratwa and Producer/Actor Christy Lamb agree. Both were actively working in the industry – Mathilde in New York, and Christy in Los Angeles – when each decided to embark on parenthood for the first time.
Christy was five months pregnant when she moved to Los Angeles from New York, and immediately found herself at a crossroads in her career.
“My day rate for producing wasn’t going to cover childcare,” Christy says. “I’ve had an interesting time of it. I remember saying it would be hard for me to figure out what I’m going to be after I had the baby, because I felt like I was going to be a different person.”
Meanwhile, on the East coast, Mathilde was going through similar experiences as new mom.
“I had my little boy and wrote a blog post afterwards about the realization that it was really, really difficult. My worst fears were confirmed when my son was born and I realized it was incredibly difficult to juggle motherhood and filmmaking,” says Mathilde.
Christy also read the post and reached out to Mathilde – and took the conversation a step further. Together, they decided to launch a nonprofit, Moms In Film, to tackle the issue.
“In the middle of the night I read Matilde’s writing and contacted her and said “this is really resonating with me, I don’t know what I’m doing next, and I want to know if you want to make this bi-coastal,” Christy says.
Born and raised in Belgium, the lack of resources in the United States was particularly striking to Mathilde. “In Belgium you get paid maternity leave no matter what, and there are provisions in place if you’re a freelancer,” she explains. “There’s all kinds of child care services available that are affordable or free, all things that are not available here.”
At SXSW this year, Mathilde and Christy launched a mobile child care unit called the Wee Wagon, after winning the 2017 SXSW Community Grant.
“The Wee Wagon idea stood out as a great advocacy tool and a practical solution, and something we could apply to festivals as well as on set,” Mathilde explains. “We were already applying to SXSW to present a panel on parenthood and filmmaking, and through that process we learned about the $10,000 grant to community driven projects. So we thought, what better place to launch it than at SXSW?”
Having a mobile unit was a crucial decision, since it proved easy and practical enough to be used at festivals or on set, and proves to be as much of an asset to fathers and it is to mothers.
“We showed it was possible, when a lot of people didn’t think it was,” Mathilde says. “Now we want to get this onto productions.”
It may sound simple, but just having child care available nearby can make all the difference when it comes to supporting parents in the industry – and keeping women in the workforce after having kids.
“There is a push right now to hire women, but a lot of that is happening with women under 30,” Mathilde continues. “What we’re seeing is the rates of women over 30 and over 40 working in the industry are very low, so if we want to get these women back in the industry after they’ve dropped out to have a baby, then we need to provide for them. As filmmakers, we’re very accommodating – if someone is right for the job, we make it work, even if there are certain specifics to be taken care of.”
Fortunately, those who support working parents in the industry are speaking out more and more.
“Something right now is shifting in terms of women’s advocacy and childcare being a part of the broader conversation. At Tribeca this year, one of the award winners accepted her award with her six month old baby onstage, and another accepted the award via video call from the hospital, having given birth the day before. It’s really shifting, and I think women who were not able to claim motherhood as publicly and vocally as they would have liked are now claiming it and saying ‘I’m a filmmaker and a mom and I need to talk about it so that others know it’s possible too,’” says Mathilde.
Christy agrees. “It’s an awesome experience to be a parent, and it’s an awesome experience to have a career, and you should be able to have both of them.”