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    Posted September 3, 2009

Mother. May I ?

By Sharon Wheatley

I grew up with a grandmother who dreamed of dancing on Broadway. Instead, her life went in a different direction. She was married at 15, had her first baby at 16, and her fifth baby by age 22. She was always insistent; she loved her children and had no regrets. But, when I came bouncing along with my big Broadway dreams, her message to me was clear. “Don’t let anyone get in the way of your career.” Yet it was the follow up advice that threw me for a loop, “And have your babies while you’re young.”

Also read Having It All in New York - Combining Parenting and Career is Not Easy! by Sharon Wheatley
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Bringing up Baby by Sharon Wheatley
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Wait. What?

What are we supposed to do when our “child bearing” years coincide with our “leading lady” years? Many Equity Mommies want to stay vibrant and competitive in this business, but is it possible?

Let’s look at the facts.

Equity’s policy about pregnancy varies from contract to contract, with the most specific language in the Production Contract (due to the nature of long running shows). It is recommended that you call your Equity business rep to confidentially discuss the specifics of the contract under which you are working. The first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the Federal Family and Medical Leave Act so you know your rights and responsibilities as well as a producer/employer’s obligations.

Beyond the law other decisions are made by the individual and have to do with the requirements of your job, how much your costume hides or hinders, and your relationship with management. One Business Rep at Equity said that she’s usually pleased with the accommodations producers make for pregnant actresses and the general rule is that Equity expects “reasonable accommodations,” such as altered shoes and costumes. It is between the actress and the management to mutually decide when the show is becoming “artistically compromised” by the altered appearance of the actress.

I polled Equity members to get a feel of how people handle this very personal issue and some of their answers might surprise you. This poll reflects answers from a mix of actresses and stage managers. Thanks to everyone who participated. (Since I'm an Equity parent, I also took the survey; my answers are the last answers to each question.)

1. It’s all in the timing. Was getting pregnant an easy or hard decision in regard to your career? Why?

Joanna: I found it hard to find the "right" time to get pregnant. I decided that I would probably get work the minute I got pregnant, because that was Murphy's Law, and indeed that happened.

Kim: Getting pregnant was a hard decision for me. I didn’t know if my body would come back, and as a dancer that meant my work!

Anonymous: Getting pregnant was a hard decision. Ideally I would have liked to have had a Production Contract where I could take a maternity leave and have a job to return to.

SW: I have an 11-year-old and a one-year-old and I think the ten-year gap has a lot to do with my fear that I couldn’t afford to take time off to get pregnant again.

2. How long did you wait to tell people in the business once you were pregnant (for example, your agent or your stage manager or producer)? (Most people polled said they waited until at least the end of their first trimester.)

Lisa: I waited as long as I possibly could. I wasn’t skinny to begin with, so I passed for bloated for quite a long time.

Gina: I was nervous to tell because I’d joined a new company and immediately got pregnant. I explained to the PSM that we had been trying for about 18 months, and he said that he and his wife tried for five years before having their baby, so he was also very understanding

Kim: I told them about my twelfth week. I needed to tell my dance partner and stage manager, I thought it only fair.

Rebecca: I brought in my ultrasound picture to soften the blow!

SW: I made a decision to tell the associate director prior to starting the job, and I told the wardrobe department at my costume fitting. They all kept quiet about it until I was ready to announce at 12 weeks, although I think people became suspicious when I ran to the bathroom during rehearsals….

3. If you are an actor, did you continue to audition? How far along were you when you stopped auditioning?

Renee: I have continued to audition. I actually plan on going to an audition next Tuesday and I'm about 33 weeks along right now!

Jennifer: I attended auditions semi-guiltily, as some of the jobs would be impossible to do. I remember having a flash that made me chuckle between contractions, "Oh well, I guess I missed my Paper Moon audition!"

Anonymous: I learned that I was passed over as an ASM because I was pregnant. When I asked the PSM if this was true, I was told that I was considered, but since rehearsals started a month after my due date, it was just not the right fit.

Lisa: When I was five months along, I booked a TV show as a crazy lady who tries to steal a child. The casting director didn't know I was pregnant, but I did look crazy, I guess. I think my auditions actually improved while I was pregnant -- talk about instant high stakes!

Joanna: I was called back many times for the original Jersey Boys while six months pregnant.

SW: One of the worst moments of my life was auditioning ten days after giving birth. I was standing in a hallway with a bunch of ingénues and I looked like…well…I looked like I’d just given birth. I was sore and sweaty and totally miserable. I do not recommend it at all. On the flip side, my friend Sarah auditioned for a show four days after giving birth and booked the job. She walked in with a photo of herself in a bikini, put it on the table, and said, “I usually look like this.” Five months later she was in a flesh colored unitard on Broadway. Atta girl.

4. Once you were pregnant, if you were working, how far into your pregnancy did you work and when did you return? Were you and the management of the show in agreement?

Heather: I rehearsed Company (Barrymore 2006) the last month of my pregnancy, then gave birth during tech and re-joined the cast with my newborn for the last week of previews. She lived in my dressing room for the entire eight months of our run. I am pretty sure the only reason that this was "allowed" was due to our incredibly human director, John Doyle. He just kept saying, "It will work." During rehearsal I used to nap (black out) on a little couch in the lunchroom at 42nd Street Studios.

Mary: I worked until my show closed, and I was almost seven months pregnant. I had planned to work at least another month.

Rebecca: They kind of encouraged me to leave around four months. I tried to get Workers’ Comp because of the hazards of the job (fog and stairs), but my midwife wouldn't go to bat for me. She refused to see pregnancy as an illness and didn’t understand how I couldn't stay at my job until I was ready to deliver!

Anonymous: I continued to sub stage-manage until I was a month away from my due date.

Gina: I had some pressure from the company management to give them a date of return and I remember they said something like I needed to give them a date, or they would have to replace me. I had to educate company management about the law stating that they have to hold my job for a year from when I left.

5. In auditions and or at work, was the response to your pregnancy positive or negative?

Lisa: I have been asked in a stage manager interview if there is anything or anyone that would keep me from doing my job, implying do I have children. This still makes me mad.

Joanna: My agent was very supportive during my pregnancy and still is when I turn down auditions due to childcare issues or just being with my kids.

Renee: At auditions I feel like everyone thinks it's great that I'm pregnant and auditioning, but they are cautious, because they don't know if I'm going to have this baby and then change my mind about pursuing this career.

SW: I had an audition for something when I was eight months pregnant and my agent told them I was pregnant. I auditioned and later was told that the casting director called and said, “You didn’t tell me she was so huge.” Ouch.

6. Any advice for others?

Kim: We can do anything we set our minds to. My husband and I would meet at the 42nd Street turnstile and passed our baby over while I was in rehearsals and he was doing a show in the evening to save on child care!

Vanessa: I just keep coming back to the image of being 90 years old - am I cuddling my grandkids, or my Tony? For me, the choice was indisputable.

Rebecca: It's never the right time to have a baby. You never have enough money and your career is never at that perfect place. If we all waited for the perfect circumstances we would never have children!

Mary: Get pregnant when it feels right and know your rights in terms of your job situation.

Lisa: If you want a baby, then try for one. There will never, I repeat, never, be the ideal time to get (or be) pregnant, but you will deal. There will be other shows, other auditions.

Trust me, it gets you out of your head and having this little person who relies on you for everything makes you realize what's really important, and those little actor-y things you thought were so important all go out the window.

We will take on one AEA parenting challenge per issue and we’d love your feedback and questions. Please email me directly at Sharon@Sharon with any questions and build our community by joining the Actors’ Equity Association Parents’ Group on Facebook.

Sharon Wheatley and family

Sharon Wheatley is a cast member of AVENUE Q on Broadway, and the author of ‘til the Fat Girl Sings: From an Overweight Nobody to a Broadway Somebody. She has two children: Charlotte (age 11) and Beatrix (age 1).

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