With the ability to work in both theatre and television, many gifted writers who become mothers encounter the gaps in our artist support systems two-fold. For one screenwriter and dramaturg mom, pouring the truth about motherhood into her work opened up professional doors – and exposed the need for professional overhaul in how we treat mother artists in both industries. Screenwriter Rebecca Phillips Epstein talks writing pilots, PPD, and what it’s like to pump in the car during LA traffic.
Rebecca’s call for better representation and support for mothers throughout this interview (and her final story) illustrate the power of transparent motherhood – and why we need more of it in the professional world.
Name: Rebecca Phillips Epstein
Profession: Screewriter, Essayist, and Dramaturg
Status: Mom to Sam, who will be 4 in March
WHAT SURPRISED AND EXCITED YOU
When I had my son Sam, I was still an assistant, and I had only really just started writing my own scripts. Even though I had the most incredible, supportive boss at the time, I was terrified that having a baby was going to take me out of the game and that my career would be over before it ever had a chance to really get going.
And the truth is, things did slow down for me for a while. I had to slow down so that I could adjust to my new reality and recover from some pretty severe postpartum depression. But then, as I got well and started sharing my story with friends, I decided that instead of hiding the fact that I was struggling as a new mother, I would double down and let that be an even bigger part of my identity as an artist. So I wound up writing a half hour comedy about my experience with postpartum depression (I know, hilarious!), and it was the best thing I had ever done.
So I wound up writing a half hour comedy about my experience with postpartum depression (I know, hilarious!), and it was the best thing I had ever done.
That script got me my agent, it got me a ton of meetings, and eventually it got me my first job in a writers’ room. The experience of becoming a mother broke me open and helped me find my voice. I realized that my identity as a writer has nothing to do with being funny, but actually it’s the fact that I’m willing to say stuff out loud that other people aren’t, even if it makes me look bad, as long as it makes someone else feel less alone (and yes, hopefully makes them laugh too). So now, I look at everything I’ve been through as this huge gift that I get to use to tell my story. And that is thrilling.
WHAT CHALLENGED YOU
Scheduling is always rough, particularly balancing “primary parenting” duties with my husband, who is also a working artist (he’s a stills photographer for film and television). Neither of us have regular 9-5 schedules, which is all fine as long as one of us isn’t on a project and can do most of the parenting while the other is on set until 2 in the morning, but it gets really hairy if we both happen to be working long hours at the same time.
We don’t have any family nearby to help out, and we can’t afford full-time nannies and babysitters, so we have to get pretty creative when there are gaps in childcare. It usually works out, and we’ve been very lucky to have found a reliable army of awesome (and flexible) babysitters, but there are definitely days when Sam gets sick, or the preschool closes early, or the sitter can’t stay as late as we need her, when one of us just has to take the hit and say to our colleagues “I’m sorry, I can’t be there, I have to take care of my son.”
Everyone always understands (or claims to understand), but it doesn’t feel great to feel like I’m putting my career second (especially when you’re already fighting against the stigma that working moms are somehow less committed to their careers). We try to split up household responsibilities in a way that feels somewhat fair, and to take turns being “on duty” whenever we can, but at the end of the day we’re both aware that nothing will ever really be 50-50, and that’s just kind of the deal.
We try to split up household responsibilities in a way that feels somewhat fair, and to take turns being “on duty” whenever we can, but at the end of the day we’re both aware that nothing will ever really be 50-50, and that’s just kind of the deal.
WHAT YOU LOOK FORWARD TO
I look forward to more women rising to positions of power within the industry, and using that power to create parent-friendly spaces with onsite childcare, better working hours, and an understanding that in certain, rare instances, kids just need to come first. And with more mothers in writers rooms and behind the scenes, I’m looking forward to watching (and contributing to) a much wider range of stories about motherhood and what it means to be a “good” parent. These shows (like my favorites “Catastrophe,” “I’m Sorry,” and “The Letdown”) are more than just funny, they’re shaping cultural attitudes around motherhood, and letting women know that we are each entitled to move through it in our own weird, wonderful way.
WHAT YOU THINK PEOPLE SHOULD KNOW
First off–and this will come as no surprise to the moms out there–that it is expensive to be a working mother in show business, particularly if you aren’t commanding big bucks yet. When I was the writers’ assistant on a network TV comedy, my son was in full-day daycare and had an evening babysitter 3 nights a week when I had to work late. After paying for all that childcare, I was left with maybe $100-$150 a week from my paycheck. That put a lot of financial pressure on my husband to make up the difference, and it put a lot of pressure on my job to be really, truly worth the commitment and sacrifice (luckily, it was).
The financial reality (and logistical nightmare) of arranging that much childcare means you might have to say “no” to certain opportunities that you’d otherwise be interested in, “no” to gigs that require a lot of traveling, and “no” to insanely long hours with difficult showrunners who don’t respect their writers’ time. As a result, you might be looking at longer stretches of unemployment between gigs, which can be really disheartening, and possibly bad for your career.
And this brings me to the second thing I wish everyone knew: a mother-artist is more committed to her career than anyone, otherwise she would not still be doing it.
And this brings me to the second thing I wish everyone knew: a mother-artist is more committed to her career than anyone, otherwise she would not still be doing it. No one—with or without children—chooses a life in the performing arts on a whim. And we sure as hell didn’t choose it for the financial reward or job security. We do it because we can’t imagine ourselves being happy doing anything else. So when a working artist has a baby, the assumption should not be that she’ll never “be the same,” but rather that this woman is more of a beast than ever, and we should all bow down at how much determination it takes to be there for your kids and your collaborators and yourself at the same time. If anything, we should welcome her back with champagne and confetti and a big fat raise.
YOUR FAVORITE MOMMY-ARTIST STORY
When Sam was ten or eleven months old, and I was still breastfeeding, I was in the thick of pre-production on my boss’s CBS pilot. We’d had a production meeting that morning at Sony, and then we had less than an hour to get to a casting session in Burbank (for those of you who don’t know LA, that is a long drive across basically the whole city that takes anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half depending on traffic). To save time, I decided to pump in my car, which I’d done before. I got all hooked up and hit the road. Traffic wasn’t too bad, and everything was working well…until I started driving up over the hill into Burbank. The altitude shift was just enough to cause a pressure change in my pump, and all this milk started backing up into the tubing and leaking out all over me, and all over the car. I pulled over to the side of the road and cleaned up the best I could, but by the time I arrived, I was still pretty damp–and pretty mortified.
I pulled over to the side of the road and cleaned up the best I could, but by the time I arrived, I was still pretty damp–and pretty mortified…It was one of those mommy village magic moments…
I explained to my boss and the two casting directors why I was all wet and discombobulated, but instead of being grossed out, they were mostly just concerned that I hadn’t lost everything I’d pumped (which would have been a real tragedy). My boss gave me a quick once over and reassured me that she couldn’t tell anything had happened, and I didn’t need to worry. One of the casting directors offered me her cardigan to cover up until my blouse dried. Then we got back to casting the pilot.
It was one of those mommy village magic moments where this thing that anywhere else would have been a record-scratch moment of humiliation was just no big deal because of our shared experience as moms and our shared commitment to the work we were there to do.
The series “What She Looks Like” was originally hosted on AuditioningMom.com and is now published exclusively here on the PAAL Blog with permission. If you would like to submit your story for What She Looks Like as a mother and artist in the performing arts – working, seeking work, or stepped away – submit an interview through the form here!