Managing the juggle of parenting and a screen career

Almost three quarters of parents and carers who responded to a 2018 Raising Films Australia survey reported their caring responsibilities have had a negative impact on their career in the screen industry. Of those, 86 per cent were women.

As a result, many were hiding the fact they have kids or care for a loved one. Others simply left the industry altogether.

The juggle of parenting and a screen career isn’t discussed enough, according to cinematographer Lucas Tomoana and colourist Angela Cerasi.

They recently co-hosted a Cinemapodgrapher podcast episode on the topic. In the extract below, they chat to other working parents – cinematographers Tania Lambert ACS and Sky Davies, and director Hailey Bartholomew – to discuss how they manage the balance.

What stage of your career were you at when you had your kids?

Hailey: I didn’t have a career when I had my kids. I was very young, 20, when I had my first. I had planned to go to film school but got pregnant. My oldest girl is Zahli (20) and there’s Poppy (17). At that point, I was just dreaming of having a career
and feeling very frustrated that I was now parenting.

Sky: I have one child, Pixie Willow (six). I had her when I was still focus pulling.

Tania: I have a son, Javier (two). I had already been shooting for about eight years so I was well into my career but still felt like I hadn’t really cracked it. I had only just started to dip my toes into my drama career.

Angela: I’ve got two kids, Ruby (five) and Joe (three). I was living in Sydney when I had them both, and I was a freelance colourist.

Tania Lambert.

Tell us about the juggle of work and personal life.

Sky: We don’t have any support in Melbourne so what has absolutely saved us is live-in au pairs. You get the phone call at 9:30 the night before going “We need you on set tomorrow, so-and-so is sick. Can you come in and shoot?” and you’re like, “Yes, I actually can.”

It’s also choosing how long a period of time we can be apart. If I’ve got an away job, it’s four weeks then we need to have a visit together. The other thing that helps keep the connection when I’m away is sending little video messages with your child – we tell each other stories.

Hailey: We didn’t have family around to babysit so it was either my husband or I. We didn’t send them to school – we homeschooled them around the belief that we learn the best when we want to learn. You find out what makes them curious and excited and do more of that. It takes you all on this really fun journey and I loved so many aspects of it. It made our family quite adventurous. It also meant that when I was on the jobs, we all went.

Tania: My partner is a director and he’s been working commercials for the last 10 years, but he’s recently moved into doing drama. Every day is juggle. On the weekend we work out the week ahead. We’ve got three or four different childcare options, including grandparents or babysitters.

The main thing is we’ve decided we’re not purely going to do long-form for the sake of our son, who’s still only two. In between I do commercials, which is a lighter load.

Sky: For all of us that are creatives, part of your soul is in your work and if you are not working, then part of your soul is denied. It’s finding a way to make work fit into your family. I’m a big believer in quality rather than quantity. If you know you’re about to go away for three weeks to work, it makes the time you have together in your relationships so special and precious.

Angela: When my second baby was nine months old, I went though postnatal depression. I was only working now and again, doing the odd commercial colour grade. But basically, I was a stay-at-home mum. My husband, who is not in the industry, hated his job at the time. One day we decided, “Why don’t we flip it up? You hate your job; I love my job. Why don’t you quit work, you stay home with him and I go to work?” We also had a three-year-old at the time. So, we flipped it. I went freelancing full-time and he became a stay-at-home dad, and it was the best thing we’ve ever done. I got my spark back and I was a better parent. My partner had a completely new outlook on life. You don’t have to go the same road that everyone else does, you do whatever you need to do to thrive as a family.

Angela Cerasi.

How soon did you return to work after having your child and what was it like?

Sky: My first job back was a short film when my baby was four months old. That’s the one that I won the ACS Golden Tripod for so maybe there is something in that!

One thing that has changed is the level of patience I’ve developed. Once I remember dealing with this really grumpy gaffer, and in my mind I’m thinking, “I’ve dealt with a three-year-old dropping her naps. There’s no tantrum that’s anything like what I’ve seen at home.” You have this level of patience and understanding; I don’t get triggered in the way I would have been triggered before.

Angela: Going on maternity leave twice in the space of three years was like falling off the edge of the earth… twice. You work really hard to get to a point in your career; leave, and then have to work really hard to get back in again… twice. After my first child I dipped back in again when she was around six months old.

I’d have to say that kids changed me so dramatically as a person. Not just physically, but mentally the fact I had just birthed a child. I did not have time for bitching. I did not have time to waste. I don’t care for the little things that are not important. I just have too much to do and that’s what has changed in me. I’m ninja efficient.

Tania: Five months felt like a decent amount of time to get back to a place where I felt confident to get back on to set. Having a child has really honed my decision-making skills around which projects to take on. Everything has become a little bit clearer in terms of why and what your purpose is. When you’ve got a child screaming at your legs not wanting to be let go as you drop them off to a carer, you need to know why you’re leaving them. For me, that is doing my creative work. It is really important and that is why I have gone back into long-form because that is what drives me more creatively and that is where my heart is.

Sky Davies.

Let’s talk about Rachel Morrison, who has two kids and was the first female
to be nominated for an Oscar for cinematography for Mudbound. I read a
quote where she was lamenting about turning down high-profile job offers
because she doesn’t want to spend time away from her family. She said:
“How do I keep pace with my male counterparts, who by and large, leave
their families for months on end to do exciting jobs all over the world?” It’s a
real conundrum. What are your thoughts on this?

Tania: I counted up to eight long-form dramas or features that I have declined over the course of being pregnant to over the first year of my son’s life. It is sad because you don’t know where those jobs could have also led you. I feel it is one of the things that people don’t really discuss because it’s so hard to really quantify work that you never get.

A year out of your career trajectory does affect where you end up and you do take a dip after you come back. It was hard to emotionally deal with seeing other people flying further and further ahead when they didn’t have to deal with those sorts of compromises. But at the same time I was so in love with my son that I could definitely deal with the ramifications.

You don’t know how other people see you, but you don’t want people to not offer someone a job because they’ve got a small child or is pregnant. If somebody I know has a small baby, I’m going to still offer them the assistant camera role, for example, because I want them to have that option. That is a really important thing overall – even though I might decline things I’m still really grateful for people asking.

Every relationship is different, but I’d like to see more guys considering that it could be their career that takes a hit rather than their partner’s, if they’re in a heterosexual relationship. I’d say 80 per cent of the time in the couples that I know the woman still does take the hit when it comes to that decision of who is going to return to work or take the job opportunities.

Angela: It’s easy to look at people doing high profile jobs and think, “They’re successful. They’ve made it.” To think that success is when you’re shooting or colour grading high-end feature films. Personally, I have come to the conclusion I do not think I can be the mother that I want to be and work at that level. I don’t think our industry will let me do that. I’m constantly frustrated when I turn down a high-profile opportunity. But I know what it entails to work on something of that level, especially for an American studio, and what sacrifices you are forced to make. I have had to find a new definition of success for myself. It’s definitely an interesting topic, “What is success? Can you be a successful parent and have a successful career?”

Tania: I really like what you’re saying about success and defining that for yourself because for me it is about not looking outwards but more about, “Who am I as a mum? Who am I as a human?” I feel like I’ve had to do that – to define success for
myself – and keep that in mind in the decisions and the things I’ve turned down. Will they still allow me to be the person I want to be? Will that still allow me to be the mum I want to be and have the marriage I want to have too? All the relationships in your life come into play.

Sky: I feel a little strange about Rachel’s quote there because she’s saying women are the only ones that have to make that choice. I don’t agree with that because I know that there’s a lot of male cinematographers out there that also are facing the same choices and doing the same things. Sometimes your obstacles are how you frame them, and as women are stepping forward, men are stepping forward into the parental role a lot more. It becomes a much broader question. How many broken marriages do we see in our industry? It’s just part of the culture around us.

COVID has really shown us that there is a point of recalibration that has occurred and we are thinking, “Actually, the demands that we’ve placed on ourselves within this work space are not okay.”

The fact that the entertainment sector within Australia has the worst mental health of any sector and the highest rate of suicide, is also something that we need to look at. Honestly, I think it’s productions, long-form in particular, who need to have a good look at themselves and go, “Okay, we do not need to do three hours overtime on a Friday night. Friday nights, you go home to your family. You go home to your partner. You go home to your tennis team or whatever the hell it is.”

Angela: I would love to see a production company in Australia step up to that. Not only would it be immense for their marketing and PR, but to actually trail blaze and be the instigator for real change in working conditions.

There’s an organisation in LA and New York called Moms in Film, and their goal is to advocate and lobby for parents in the film industry for shorter working hours and innovative solutions like job sharing. They’re particularly passionate about
below-the-line crew because sometimes on a big job there might be a crèche, or a nanny for the director but below-the line-crew get left behind.

Hailey Bartholomew.

Do you think this is something that could realistically work in Australia?

Sky: US working hours are way worse than ours; their standard day is 12 hours. The context of that is really important in the discussion. In Australia, the ten-hour day plus lunch is what we need. If we try to shorten it anymore, we won’t attract any international projects.

If I had my six year old on set, I’d be way too distracted. I need to know that I’d approved the person that was looking after her and that she has a continuity of care – which is why we went with au pairs as well. For me, that model of having a crèche /nanny for wouldn’t work.

I have done job-sharing though. Katie Milwright ACS and I have job-shared documentaries. It wasn’t so much to do with parenthood; it was more about it being a low budget documentary so if one of us got a commercial, the other one would step in to the documentary. That is something very much active within the industry. Productions should 100 per cent get on board with it.

Tania: On long-form series, the US model divides up the shoot between two DOPs. Maybe if you apply that model across the board, job sharing could totally work.

I’m about to shoot day/nights for a feature film. I’m not going to get home for bedtime at all for the next five weeks. That’s difficult. I think it’s about stricter hours around overtime. There’s pressure surrounding overtime in this industry. The 1st AD kind of mentions it a couple hours beforehand. There’s almost a group pressure of who’s going to say something or who’s not. Some crews are better at putting their foot down than others.

Hailey: I’ve got editors who are about to start having children and they’re on that cusp of, “Do I? Don’t I?”. I am going to make as much effort as possible to get these women back to work. Maybe it’ll take them twice as long on the editor job but I feel like it’s important to keep these talented, amazing women in the industry and not make their career have to suffer.

Sky: I actually was very quiet about having had a child, for fear of losing work, for the first two to three years of Pixie’s life. If I had met a new director, I just wouldn’t tell them because I was so concerned that it would mean they’d be like, “No, don’t… she’s got a young child, don’t worry about it.” But now I’m just like, “This is ridiculous. This is insane.”

What would your advice to people thinking about having kids and working in this industry?

Hailey: Pick your partner well.

Tania: There is never a good time. Don’t think that your whole life isn’t going to change because it is. Don’t try to make plans about what it’s going to be when that happens because I swear, whatever you think it’s going to be, it’s going to be the total opposite.

Just know that you can juggle it. If you’ve made it this far in the industry, it means
that you’re a confident person that can deal with whatever is thrown at you. You’re going to be able to deal with parenting. It is some of the most important work you can do in your life. Don’t give that up to have a career because if it’s in your soul
to have a child then your career will fit in and you’ll make that work.

Hailey: This is a fricking interesting journey. It’s going to stir up so much within you but it’s beautiful and amazing and so interesting and creatively interesting. Maybe don’t miss out if you’re on the cusp and not sure, maybe just jump in.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story originally appeared in IF Magazine #197. Subscribe to the magazine here, and take advantage our digital intro offer, which will see you get your first two issues for $2 and access to 30 back issues.