‘So when are you due?’ asked the young actor stood before me, politely. He was handsome and sweet and barely out of drama school. It was probably one of his first auditions, maybe his first ever audition. He compulsively adjusted the strap of his messenger bag for the fifth time since arriving whilst I checked his name off on my clipboard and patted the wriggling elastic-clad bulge between us. My belly button jutted out prominently above the waistband of my maternity jeans, and every now and again a small elbow or foot would ripple under my stretched skin.
‘Yesterday’, I smiled.
His eyes widened as he tried to form his next sentence without causing any offence or accidentally calling me fat or mad or something. He’d been about the tenth person to ask me that morning, and I was still enjoying everyone’s response at my answer.
I was stage managing the auditions for a huge 18 month international tour. Hordes of hopeful actors and actresses had been streaming in and out of the doors all day, either for acting auditions or a movement workshop. And every single one of them was being greeted by me; a slightly breathless woman who looked as if she had recently ingested a well inflated beach ball.
‘There’s two people before you’, I said. ‘Just take a seat.’
The fresh-faced hopeful warily cast a glance over my slightly animated bump one more time before sitting on the bench and reading his crumpled script. And as he did so I discreetly looked over at him and thought for the fiftieth time that day that my son or daughter would be almost a year old by the time this tour finished.
The chaotic nature of the weeks surrounding my due date meant that my usually tight schedule was in freefall. I could barely plan the next fortnight, never mind think about this time next year. Would I be back at these rehearsal studios tomorrow? Would I be holding a baby in my arms by tonight? Would I be able to meet a friend for lunch next Thursday? My life was full of wait-and-sees. Whereas if the actor sat across from me did actually get this job, his entire life would be planned out for him over the next year and a half.
Call times, meal breaks, trains, flights, check out times.
Months and months of schedules and rigid theatrical time keeping. And I couldn’t even fully commit to a cup of tea with a friend the following morning.
The day before, on the morning of my due date I had woken up so hopeful and certain that this baby would adhere to the same approach towards time keeping as his or her mother. But there was no sign whatsoever.
(Except for the previous and rather fraught weekend when, during a shopping trip in Ikea, I thought that my waters had finally broken. But it transpired that the pressure from the baby teamed with the excitement of meatballs at 11am had simply caused me to unceremoniously piss myself in the glassware section.)
So when the theatre company called and said they were still a person short to run these auditions, I waddled in and carried on as normal.
‘You’re crazy!!’ my friends cried. ‘Chill out!! Watch Netflix!! Rest up!!’ The people in my friendship circle who were already mothers helpfully suggested that I slept, before rising an eyebrow and darkly adding ‘WHILE YOU STILL CAN.’ But I just couldn’t. I was so terrified that once this baby came I would have to abruptly end my career entirely. So I stubbornly and steadfastly continued to stage manage, until I literally couldn’t stage manage any more.
Another week passed by and even the theatre company wouldn’t let me run auditions anymore. My impending labour was making everyone a little nervous, and auditions are generally considered nerve-wracking enough without the looming threat of a stage manager suddenly bringing a new life into the mix. So I accepted an offer to go and do admin work at the Stage Management Association. For several days I sat at a desk looking out over Borough Market and working on spreadsheets. I spent my time processing joining fees and chasing late subs whilst my very late baby kicked the edge of the desk in front of me. The days after my due date kept passing and passing, until finally myself and my midwife couldn’t wait any longer, and the decision was made to get him or her out by any means necessary. Like when those hostage movies ultimately end with the FBI storming into the overtaken building to heroically retrieve and rescue the innocent. Except it wasn’t beefcakes with guns breaking down a reinforced door, but NHS staff workers putting entire hands into my vagina in a rather unromantic bid to birth my baby.
But despite prods and pokes and pills and drips, my baby remained firmly tucked up far beyond my birthing canal. So on a cloudy and otherwise uneventful April evening, I found myself lying on an operating table with a numbed body and a racing mind whilst I waited for the medical professionals surrounding me to physically pull another human being out from deep within my body.
The world’s greatest magic trick.
I looked up into the brightness of the overhead lights above me before scrutinizing the masked faces for expressions of alarm or worry. And before I knew it, the light was briefly blocked by the small body of a tiny girl as she was passed from surgeon to nurse and finally to me. Grey and wrinkled and beautiful and already screaming furiously at the injustice of the world.
Not even 24 hours passed before I was back at home with this new bundle of flesh and bones, which finally filled out all of those freshly washed and folded baby-gros. She screamed waterless tears if she wasn’t fed every ninety minutes, and when she did feed she fed for at least an hour. But then sometimes she would sleep for four hours at a time and then feed for twenty minutes. On her first weigh in, the health visitor informed me she had lost just over ten percent of her body weight and that I needed to ‘take it up a notch’.
So I did.
We entered this relentless cycle of breast feeding and barely sleeping. And during those dry-mouthed hours of endless sofa time, I found I had a lot of time to think.
And the thing I thought most of all was,
I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing.
I had been on the NCT course and I had read the books and scoured the internet and been told about the dangers of putting your baby in a microwave. But now she was here.
I was a parent.
And I didn’t have a fucking clue.
I have been a stage manager since I was nineteen years old. It’s all I’ve ever done. All I’ve ever known. I used to be bad at it and then I worked at it and got better. And then suddenly I just wasn’t a stage manager anymore. And I was having to learn how to do and be something completely different. I know it sounds completely and utterly batshit mental, but I felt like nobody had really warned me of this. I had been told about sleepless nights and sandpapered nipples and crying for no reason at ‘Neighbours’. But I felt strangely angry that no one had sat me down and said ‘so you know that thing you’ve done for sixteen years? You’re just going to wake up one morning and not do it anymore.’
I had even refused to let my pregnancy get in the way of work. And for the latter part of those nine months, I had worked as a CSM on a busy West End show. Every single day from 9am until midnight I composed emails and looked after the cast and sorted out tickets and made unplanned visits to hospitals and answered phone calls and reassured and planned and scheduled and soothed and then
It just stopped.
I wasn’t needed.
At least I wasn’t needed by that particular company of actors. My new tiny baby needed me for literally everything. How we ever survived as a human race always baffles you once you’ve had a baby, because they are completely fucking useless by themselves. I now watch nature programmes about baby animals with fascination, and marvel at baby lizards being born and instantly knowing how to make their way to their parents at the shore. Human babies know how to make a noise so loud and irritating that you would rather slice off your own ears with a blunt pair of nail scissors than listen to it anymore. But that’s about it.
So of course I was needed. And needed by the most important human being in my life. But without a strict daily schedule to adhere too, or any kind of rehearsal or performance call to send out, I felt completely and utterly lost.
Now this is a hard thing to admit. And a very complex issue to publish on the internet. But motherhood didn’t come to me very naturally, and I didn’t relish being the centre of attention immediately after the birth. I felt fat and hot and inadequate, and I struggled with the fact that I had to get my boobs out whenever my daughter needed to eat. Which just seemed to be all the bloody time. I was not prepared for this whole section of Keeping a Baby Alive and had no breastfeeding clothes or nursing bras. In fact I didn’t really have any clothes at all. My maternity clothes were instantly useless, and I was still too round, too circular, too chubby, for any of my old stuff. For the first week I lived in my husbands t-shirts and some trackie bottoms and tried to shy away from iPhone cameras which seemed to be pointing at me so much at a time when I desperately wanted to hide away.
During this time of working out how to parent and breastfeed and soothe, I really wanted to shut the door and just work it all out with my husband and my daughter and no one else. I wanted some rehearsal. A workshop. A warm up. I needed time to go over my lines and ready myself in the wings. But I was just out there. On stage. Feeling naked and vulnerable and like every bad dream that every actor has ever had. There was this whole whirlwind of joy and excitement about the arrival of this incredible new person, created by myself and the love of my life. And right in the centre of it was me. Exposed and nervous and vulnerable and feeling like I just wasn’t doing ‘It’ right.
An unprepared and clumsy novice.
A press night without a technical rehearsal.
And whilst I tried to work out how to parent and breastfeed and pack a baby bag correctly, I also tried to understand exactly what I was meant to be doing in the day. I was so baffled by my lack of timetable and structure. As someone who doesn’t really binge watch TV I didn’t see why I should start now. And other than cooking and cleaning and general housework, I struggled to find stuff to do.
Of course I did go out and meet up with other mums. I did baby sensory. Which I loved. And baby massage. Which I didn’t. I found leaving the house scary and anxiety inducing and I always seemed to forget some vital piece of baby equipment. Baby classes felt like a test, not an activity. I developed an unhealthy obsession with my Fitbit as a way of giving myself some purpose. And actually it kind of helped. If I could get my 10,000 steps in every single day, I was doing alright. If the number on my wrist hit the jackpot and buzzed and showed me a tiny little fireworks display, it meant that I was doing fine. That I had achieved something. That I had not just stayed indoors all day languishing in my own breastmilk.
‘I DID 17,000 STEPS TODAY’ I would proudly bellow at my husband as he walked through the door in the evening. And then I would stand there, flushed with pride and achievement, and wait for him to praise the fact that I had literally Just Walked Around A Bit.
And sometimes I just made up completely bizarre reasons to walk, simply so I could get in those steps and see that number on my wrist. One morning my husband said he wanted some really good bacon as he was going to make breakfast for some friends the following weekend So I walked three full miles from Walthamstow to the Ginger Pig in Victoria Park to buy some bacon. And then I walked three full miles back. I walked a six-mile round trip pilgrimage for some independent artisanal pork. Just so that my Wednesday afternoon could have some purpose.
And then came the tears. In the years that he has known me, my husband could probably count on one hand the number of times he has seen me cry. But once the baby came he was seeing it once, twice, three times a day. One evening he walked through the front door and was met by me; tear-streaked and breathless and panting ‘I’M NOT THE WOMAN YOU FELL IN LOVE WITH ANYMORE.’ Not only had motherhood taken its toll on my mental health but I was also behaving as if I was starring in a particularly badly written episode of ‘The Archers’. And as a response my amazing husband calmed and soothed me every single time and told me I was brilliant and wonderful and not that fat really. And I would stay relatively sane for the next few hours until I would just start crying again.
So in addition to my unfulfilling schedule of Walking And Crying, I experimented with my slow cooker and posted photos of my baby on Instagram and read other mummy blogs and somehow I felt like I was doing it all wrong. Like I was supposed to be getting something amazing and magical out of all of this free time.
But I didn’t.
I just wanted to get back to work.
So when the call came in offering me a job as a Deputy Stage Manager on a high profile show, I didn’t even think. My baby was seven months old and I was just so relieved that the Company Stage Manager, someone I had worked with several times before, hadn’t just written me off because I’d had a baby. So I said yes. I had put my baby on a nursery waiting list when I was four months pregnant because I’m a neurotic psychopath, and so after much discussion with my husband and the grandparents, who would also be caring for my daughter, we went in.
The play was three and a half hours long.
There were two intervals.
Over thirty scene changes.
All done by a large ensemble company.
So it wasn’t exactly a gig I could just phone in, and in hindsight was maybe not the best project for a woman who had just had a baby and spent the last few months slowing losing the plot. It was hard and relentless and there were evening rehearsals and Saturday rehearsals and hordes and hordes of children, so in addition to endless complex blocking I had to remember not to fucking swear. But I just absolutely loved it. I was tired and exhausted but simultaneously exhilarated and challenged. I sat on the tube each evening with a head full of scene orders and setting lists and baby-led weaning ideas and I just relished every moment. I think people were bewildered that I had accepted the position in the first place, and were then maybe more surprised that I enjoyed it so much. But I did. It wasn’t easy or without its complications and I would be lying if I said I never struggled. Early on in the process my daughter got sick and the nursery couldn’t take her, which resulted in me missing an afternoon of rehearsals. But the team covered me and supported me and helped me to understand it was ‘just one of those things.’ There were times when I sat in a rehearsal thinking I should be at home. And times when I was bathing my daughter and thinking that I should be working on a running list. And I still cried for no reason. Or many reasons. And I still had moments of feeling lost and adrift.
But I was reassured to be back in a world that I understood.
During the tech we moved intervals and entire scenes and we cut things and wrote new things. And I sat at the top of my perch with a printer at my feet literally throwing new scenes at actors and feeling almost breathless with how good it felt to be dealing with the usual pressures of a show and to have my mind racing again. In some stressful moments during the run I craved the smell of the top of my babies head, but I knew that she was safe with her father or one of her grandparents, who were all caring for her tirelessly so that I could work. And when I got home late at night, I would sneak in to see her and whisper that I loved her. And then almost crave the moment when she would wake at 2am, so that I could go in and feed her and mumble rubbish to her about understudy rehearsals and running times.
Working on a show of that scale with a baby that young did take its toll though. And by the end of it, we as a family were all exhausted. So I took a break from work and had a few weeks of being a full time mum again. Although this time something had shifted. The fear which had encompassed me several months before had passed, and I found it easier to enjoy the time I had with my baby, who was becoming more and more like a little girl by the day. Jobs came in, but experience taught me to examine each role more carefully, and work out whether it was good for me and for my family. I said many no’s and a couple of yes’s. And I am still finding my feet as a stage manager and a parent. My last project was an incredible play with a cast of just four and it fitted. It fitted me and my baby, and prompted a confidence within me that stage managing really was going to be a viable option.
When my little girl was just over a year old, I saw a tweet about how that large international tour was coming to a close. I looked at the accompanying photograph and saw faces I recognized from that audition process. During my first year as a parent, these men and women had formed friendships and relationships and travelled around the world. And of course it would be really easy for me to end this post by saying something like ‘AND OF COURSE I MYSELF HAVE BEEN ON AN IMPORTANT JOURNEY’.
But I haven’t really.
I mean, I’ve been to the Mothercare on the North Circular several times. And I’ve been to a Sports Bar with a soft play in Center Parcs and declared it paradise. But I haven’t really been on a journey. I’ve just become a mum, same as millions of other women around the world every single day. And I’ve done it in my own way and at my own pace and that’s all any of us can do. I don’t think any less of women who choose to stop working when they have a baby. And I would hope that they don’t think any less of me. And yeah, maybe working a job where you basically have to give a large proportion of your wage to a nursery is slightly daft. And maybe eventually I will have to throw in the towel and do something completely different.
But for now, I’m going to stage manage. And I’m going to parent. And there will be times when I am making mistakes and letting someone down and tripping up in front of my audience and wondering what my fucking lines are.
Sometimes it still feels just like a press night without a tech, and I don’t think that will ever change. But I’m slowing starting to learn how to care less about the critics.
And I’m trying hard not to be the worst critic of all.
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