At what point does a mother’s professional duties end and her role as a parent begin and vice versa? If you choose a life in camera with its notoriously unpredictable schedules and long hours, does that mean that any hopes to start or expand a family must be tabled? Or handled by a caregiver or the other parent who does not work in the industry? Can a woman work in the camera department while still breastfeeding? When you choose to prioritize parenting over professional duties, even temporarily, do you face professional repercussions?
Local 600 members routinely face these questions and many others as they become new parents and seek to balance life in the industry with family responsibilities. Nearly 50 members and Guild staff from across the country came together on a recent ICG-sponsored Zoom conference call where they talked about their own experiences, about paid family leave and legislative efforts to give working parents in the industry time to bond with their children.
It was the pandemic, and the subsequent industry shutdown, that really shone a light on the issue, many acknowledged on the call, especially now that parents are returning to work after being at home with their children for the last year.
Ironically, noted Western Region Director of Photography Rachel Morrison over email with 600LIVE!, progress that working parents had made towards a work/life balance on set came to a grinding halt because of the pandemic.
“Suddenly productions that would have supported family travel and family visiting on set had to pivot because of increased risk associated with COVID,” said Morrison, a mother of two. “This year, more than any other, parents were forced to choose between work or family because if one was offered a job on the road, chances are that they had to leave family at home and couldn’t even travel home on weekends to visit.”
“It has been brutal for working parents,” Morrison continued. “I went six weeks without seeing my kids on two separate occasions in 2020. Hopefully, this year teaches us how unacceptable that is and pushes the needle further once we reach herd immunity and can travel safely again.”
600LIVE! spoke to a variety of other moms about their experiences working in the industry while starting or maintaining a family.
Camera Assistant, Eastern Region
Children: Siena (age 10), Amelia (6)
Working while pregnant: My husband is in the industry. With my first daughter, I worked up until I was six-and-a-half months pregnant, mostly day playing. Then I took some time off after she was born to take care of her because I didn’t have any help.
Returning to work: For six years I could only day play because it was just too overwhelming to be able to work out babysitters Then I got this incredible idea: I needed more babysitters so I hired one for the morning and one for the evening. I only see the light at the end of the tunnel once my daughter is old enough to walk to school by herself. The erratic schedule is not conducive to having kids especially if you’re in the same business with your partner.
Current schedule: I’m on a show right now that’s mostly nights and that becomes interesting. I could probably walk the kids to school but I wouldn’t get any sleep. I see them in the morning, but never at night. I feel like this will be tough, but it’s a short run so I’m not that worried.
Industry perception of working moms: It’s hard. As a mom, you don’t want to be talking about this all the time because then you become “the mom” on set. There’s a little bit of stigmatizing. There’s definitely a lot more understanding than there used to be. I came up during a time when if you were even a minute late twice, your job was in jeopardy.
Camera Operator, Central Region
Children: Evie (16 months), 17 weeks pregnant with her second child
Working while pregnant: I remember at six months it was getting uncomfortable to place a camera all the way on the ground. We had a quick turnaround, so I didn’t want to rest the camera on my stomach, there wasn’t really anybody to grab it so I put it on my head and rested against a sink in the bathroom wherever I was. Everybody was saying “Oh my God, You’re a super woman!” Well, I’d rather put it on my head than on the baby’s head. People were pretty admiring of my continuing to work and were pretty helpful. All of a sudden, there was an apple box everywhere.
Returning to work: There were times when I was working when I got used to the idea, “OK I’m a nursing mom.” You go up to someone and say, “Where can I nurse?” and it was, “Go to your car.” I would set up a little mobile pumping station. Several times, especially when you’re on jobs on location and you’re moving around, people would say, “I don’t want to deal with this. Figure it out on your own.”
Hope for the future: One of the saddest things from the ICG panel was the amount of women who said they hid their pregnancy. My goal is to build enough support and awareness so that will never happen again. For me, it took seven years to get pregnant the first time, so I was shouting “I’m pregnant!” to the rooftops! I wasn’t about to sacrifice that for any job.
Camera Operator, Eastern Region
Child: Joaquim (3)
Working while pregnant: I am grateful to every DP or every producer who was willing to hire me at the time. They understood that being pregnant, I could be a liability to the production, but they believed in me anyhow and kept me close to a hospital. I’m grateful for those who gave me those chances. Everybody, from the key grips to the dolly grips and the focus pullers, everybody across the board was absolutely lovely. I couldn’t have asked for more.
Returning to work: At the time, New York state would grant you $175 in disability for recovering from pregnancy. I had a complication after my pregnancy, but I forced myself to go back to work because of the financial burden of having to collect disability for 10 weeks. And I had to continue to have the 40 hours with MPI because I was insuring my whole family. My first job back was a commercial and it was fabulous. The director recalled being breast fed until he was a toddler, so he found it important for us to be able to implement that into our schedule and give me time to pump in a sanitary place. I think it opened my eyes to what the possibilities are out there.
I was lucky. I wrote down all my concerns and spoke about my medical complications and put it in a letter to Rebecca Rhine and the union granted me a hardship grant of $5,000. I’m very grateful for that.
Hope for the future: I was already over my disability and I couldn’t afford lactation services. The MPI could definitely help facilitate that if they understood how difficult it is to get that off the ground. I had heard several years ago that some on-set day care had popped up around California which is a phenomenal idea. You always walk down the street and see those trucks and think one of them could be dedicated to childcare services. The possibilities are endless as long as we open the door.
DIT, Western Region
Child: Luna (15 months)
Working while pregnant: I was on a TV show when I found out I was pregnant and I worked up until a month before my daughter was born, but I’ve surrounded myself with really amazing people who have helped me make it an easy transition. I’m very thankful. Some people figured when I was working while I was pregnant, they were like ‘Oh, you can’t do this. You should take time off.’ It’s a physically demanding job and it’s hard to juggle both. But mentally, I thought, ‘No, I can do this.’ For me it’s showing her that you can do this job and be a good mom, be a good example of chasing those dreams and not letting anything stand in the way.
Returning to work: I went back to work three months after giving birth. I worked a week and then the shutdown happened. A lot of people responded, “Awesome! Working mom on set!” While other people say, “You should be at home with your daughter.” With all the crazy hours in this industry, it’s actually been pretty nice to navigate around. Maybe it’s just the timing of the pandemic. Those 17-hour days have been cut to 10, so that’s been a silver lining.
Current schedule: I’m gone between 6:30 am to 7:30 pm. My daughter is in daycare from 6:30 to 4 when my husband picks her up. It’s hard, but it’s the new norm and I ask the daycare to send photos during the day and little updates. When I get home from work, she’s usually sleeping, but she’ll wake up and we’ll play for an hour before she goes back to sleep.
Industry perception of working moms: A lot of the concern I felt was because this is such a hard industry to get into. But there are actually a lot of caring and understanding people who help working mothers to make sure it’s not just one or the other, your career or your family. You can do both. There are some sacrifices, but it’s 100 percent doable and very rewarding.
1st Assistant, Central Region
Child: Melody (17 months)
Working while pregnant: When I first found out I was pregnant, I didn’t put it out there. I was afraid it would prevent me from getting work that someone would see me as too fragile and not respect that I know what’s best for me as far as going to work. Once people found out and were hiring me, they were pretty cool about it. I worked up until a month before my due date. As I got further along, I did have some limitations to what I could do. For the most part, it was actually really easy to work out.
Returning to work: I was still breastfeeding. I would have to pump when I could on the camera truck. Everyone on my team was very understanding and very supportive. I never once felt like I was being discriminated against. It was just exhausting because, it’s like you have two full time jobs, I wake up and I’m with her breastfeeding her, getting her ready and everything set up and then I go to set and do everything in my job title and I come home and I leave camera assistant at work, but then I come back and be a mom.
Future projects: It’s harder being available because I can’t just say yes. There are so many factors now if someone asks can I work next week. I have to figure out what the schedule is, who’s going to watch her? Can I be gone for this long? Can we both be gone?
Advice for new parents in the industry: I’m still trying to figure that out. I guess the advice I can give is if you want to try to have a career and a family, you just need to work it out with your significant other how you can schedule balancing your careers with your baby and finding someone that you trust to kind of help fill in the time gaps with watching them. That is something I wish we were able to have: someone we trust being able to come in and help with that. Find your group that you trust that can come in and basically help you and your partner balance this schedule.
2nd Assistant, Central Region
Child: Heka (17 months)
Working while pregnant: I worked until about two weeks before I gave birth and I think if I would have continued working, I would have given birth sooner. But I had a great experience being pregnant at work. The third trimester was brutal, because I was just tired all the time and really big, but I had a supportive team. I’ve been with the same team since I started in camera practically. They have seen me before pregnancy and they’ve seen me pregnant and they’ve seen me after, so it’s like a family.
Returning to work: She was only six months old when the industry shut down. Pumping and juggling my responsibilities would have been really challenging. I started back in January and thank god she can eat some solid foods. I do have my husband and my mother helping to take care of her, but my biggest concern is being able to pump. Whenever I can get a second, I go and pump to make sure I keep up the milk supply. There are so many things that can go wrong. The milk can dry up. I didn’t know any of this. I’m learning, and I’m just trying to adapt.
Advice for new parents in the industry: You definitely need to have a support system. Think about who will be there if you plan to return to work. And build your team within the camera world before you decide to have children if possible. You’re going to want to continue to have relationships with people who are going to hire you.
Camera Operator, Eastern Region
Children Robin (4), Greta (almost 2)
Working while pregnant: I’ve worked through both pregnancies almost right up until I gave birth in both circumstances and that was in part because I was concerned about being able to maintain insurance and be financially solvent when I did have my child. I was totally supported by productions when they found out I was pregnant. From the producers on down to catering, everybody really takes care of you when they find out that you’re pregnant. They don’t change your hours and they don’t change the expectations of what you can accomplish, and they shouldn’t, but I felt very supported.
Returning to work: I went back full time to Orange is the New Black as the first assistant. It’s a seven-month job and about two months into that production, I felt like I couldn’t keep up. I felt like I was missing him so much, that I was working such long hours, 60 or 70 hours a week on that show and I was trying to breastfeed him, and I was starting to get really frustrated. I went to my DP, Ludovic Littee, who is a parent, and I explained the situation and – to his great credit – he worked it out that I worked every other episode. So, I alternated episodes for the rest of that job and it was phenomenal.
Industry expectations for working parents: Within the camera department, the expectation is that you will be there every single day from when job starts until the job ends barring a death in the family or a doctor’s appointment. Until we get to a place where we have renegotiated that we have shorter daily hours, if we’re working a job that is 10 hours instead of 12 or 13, if you’re a new parent, [my shooting alternating episodes] was the best situation I could ask for.
Priorities for the future: I made clear choices to be able to bond with my children and have that time. Now that they are 4 and 2, I have to look at jobs and say, “Where is it located? How long is it going to be? What do the weekends look like?” I’m very proud of how hard I’ve worked to be with my children and maintain my career, and it has also taken up a lot of my mental space.
1st Assistant, Eastern Region
Child: Atticus (15)
Working while pregnant: I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant until I started showing and it was apparent. I was afraid I would stop getting phone calls. I always felt like well, if I’m doing this job, I have to do this job like a man. When I was first starting in the camera department, a DP told me, “You must do this job like a man or you shouldn’t do it.” I’m hoping that times have changed.
Returning to work: At the time, I was married to another camera assistant. We made the decision that one of us would work and the other would stay home. It didn’t make us rich going down to one salary, but that’s what we did to handle it. When my son started school, my husband was able to bring him to see me on weekends when I was away. I do feel kind of regretful about some of the things I missed when I wasn’t around – potty training, his first steps, first words, really significant things like that. I’ve missed some first days of school, a couple of birthdays.
Priorities for the future: As the time wore on, as he got older and I got older, I started to say, “I have to take this day off. I have to make sure I don’t take this job in another state so I can be there when my son does X.” I definitely started making those decisions more and I felt more comfortable that I could. I think I got it into my headspace where OK, I know I’m a good assistant. I can afford to put my career a little bit behind and put my son a little bit ahead.