In January 1996, I was working as an intern at New York Women In Film, when I decided to attend a workshop called “Adapting Your Story for the Stage or Screen.” The main guest speaker and draw of the event was Aaron Sorkin, before he became enormously famous with the “West Wing”. I was a young wife, seeking a career in filmmaking, and excited to be part of Women in Film. I was ecstatic that my internship allowed me free entry into this industry event.
But I was harboring a secret.
I nervously sat in the swanky Times Square Hilton surrounded by real-live women filmmakers, and waited for Aaron Sorkin to make his appearance (he canceled last minute). I could barely suppress the silly grimace on my face or resist the urge to pee every three minutes. My secret was that I was pregnant. And even though I hadn’t yet taken a pregnancy test or missed a period, I intuitively knew it was so.
Seven years later, I remember very little about the guest speakers that night. But I do remember the woman who sat in the back of the room. She was a new mother. I could tell by the tiny, fuzzy baby she held snug against her body in one of those baby sling contraptions. She nursed the baby discreetly and quietly from the back of the room. A week before, I wouldn’t have noticed her — but that night she was my hero.
“If she could do it, then so could I,” I mused. I would start a family, as planned, although I couldn’t believe it would happen on the first try (it did). I would continue to work (intern) throughout my pregnancy here in NYC. And perhaps after the baby was born, I would take some time off (a short break)and write screenplays from home in my free time, while the baby slept. By the time the baby was one-year-old, I imagined that I would be back into the swing of things on a full-time basis. I had it all mapped out — or so I thought.
Seven years later, I’d like to believe that I was simply naive, and not just stupid. But as I quickly found out then, having a baby wasn’t a “minor” obstruction or a speed bump in the road of life. Having a baby was a full-scale detour.
How could I, an educated, modern woman, not know this? I truly had no idea about the maternal road ahead — full of bumps, blind corners, dips, and other treacherous and wondrous obstructions. Nobody had provided me with a map for motherhood. It would have been immensely helpful if somebody had posted a warning sign that read “Sharp Curves Ahead.”
Gloria Steinem and the other Second Wave Feminists had paved certain highways; bestowing privileges on my gender and generation that were hard won. But Gloria, and many of the successful women before us, had done so by eschewing motherhood and fleeing the home.
And so we found ourselves pioneers of sorts; determined to combine a career with motherhood. But I think that we were blind-sided. As college-educated, career-driven, creative and ambitious women, we had been convinced that we could do anything and “have it all”. For a while, it seemed like we could — at least as long as we followed the course charted previously by men. Perhaps, someone should have told us that “having it all” was a fantasy — like a 1940’s technicolor musical extravaganza —- an entertaining, illusion of light and sound, nothing more.
Just for the record, motherhood derailed my filmmaking career quickly and almost completely. In the beginning, it was my own euphoria about motherhood that side-tracked me. I no longer cared about creating art, when in my own mind I had already created the ultimate masterpiece with the birth of my daughter. After the birth of my second baby, I was further side-tracked by the responsibilities of my increasingly complicated life. I struggled with the full-time task of managing two young children and a home, while my husband enjoyed several promotions at his work. Meanwhile, I barely had time to see a movie, let alone make a movie.
In the last couple of years, as my babies have grown into kids (now 7 and 4) and have become less dependent on me, I have begun to re-enter the world of independent filmmaking slowly, on a part-time basis, and with a new perspective – inspired and transformed by motherhood. But without many role models, and no map in hand, I am charting my own course. And it is a rocky road ahead for sure – statistically, women are woefully under-employed in the filmmaking industry. In 1998, a report commissioned by the Writers Guild of America indicated that a mere 16-18% of writers hired on theatrical films were women and there had been “virtually no change in women’s share of total employment since the early 1980’s.”
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised that we were totally unprepared for motherhood. In the fantasy world of college we were shown the routes to financial success, not personal success. We also live in a society that devalues motherhood; a place where the unpaid labor of nurturers (mostly woman’s work) remains uncompensated and underappreciated. But worst of all, mothers remain almost invisible in our culture — our pop culture. There are few movies, TV shows, books, music, magazines, or anything else in pop culture, that realistically portray, acknowledge, or explore the complexities of motherhood.
And so, in this column, “MOM & Pop Culture” I will observe the world — especially the pop cultural world — through mom-colored glasses. I will critique and explore the portrayals or non-portrayals of moms in all media. And ultimately, I hope to contribute to an understanding about motherhood, so that future young women will not find themselves lost; stumbling around on unknown territory or blind-sided by the unmarked roads and the “Sharp Curves Ahead”.