Published on November 13th, 2013 | by Jessica Phillips Lorenz4
STAGE MOM: Jessica Phillips Lorenz on Colic and Creativity
An ex-boyfriend once said a truly rotten thing to me. He was pouting because I wouldn’t go to the ocean with him. I had a rehearsal. I was playing Elektra in a small production in San Francisco. “Elektra doesn’t go to the beach,” I joked. He said “Actresses. You know what you’ll be someday?”
I wondered where this was going… a movie star? Tony winner? Waitress?
“A terrible mother,” he said. “Actresses can’t be good mothers.”
This was 9 years before I would eventually meet my husband and 14 years before I would eventually become a NOT AT ALL TERRIBLE MOTHER. Looking back now, it’s clear that he envisioned himself the child in the relationship, and I was denying his playtime. Waaaaah. Certainly, his comment was much more telling about him then it was about me. But it stung. Low blow. (The way I felt and most likely the reason he was being nasty to me. I was too naïve to notice the drugginess at the time.)
I filed his dig at me under “Things Assholes Say” and really didn’t think about it again. In fact that whole folder ended up getting lost under a much larger, heavier folder entitled “Things My Wonderful Husband Does.”
When my daughter was born, I hadn’t really been acting in years. I wasn’t auditioning regularly anymore and my day job had slowly shifted into a creative and playful career teaching yoga to babies and kids. But a little echo resonated somehow in the din… “Actresses can’t be good mothers.” Or, my own worse spin, “Mothers can’t be actresses.” Mostly, I was too tired to give a shit. But it was there.
You see, the primary way I have always understood myself has remained first as an actor. As a sensitive-storyteller type who identifies with the great tales of pain and suffering and passion and love and betrayal and gets the joke and has timing and is dying to get up on a stage and pour out every ounce of my stuff in the dark.
In NYC, if you are not fighting tooth and nail for opportunities to act, it doesn’t feel as though you really deserve to claim the identity. I got sick of waiting for people to give me a chance to be part of the story that they wanted to tell, so I began to write my own… I wrote a couple of short solo shows: Duty, about every New Yorker’s worst fear—receiving a juror summons; and Drawn, about my family connection to cartoon-icon Betty Boop. I became intrigued with the problems and challenges facing solo writers and performers. How does playwriting structure work, when there really are no rules? How do you create drama with out another actor to work off of? How will the audience know one character from another if the same person plays them all?
I dug these questions! And I began to help others to answer them by curating a one-woman show festival and hosting talk backs between the artists and the audience. Helping solo artists, particularly women, to tell their own tales all by themselves has been incredibly satisfying… but it’s not the same thing as getting a laugh and taking a bow.
When I was pregnant, I called my impending labor and delivery “show time.” I found a doula through a friend who in her non-doula life was a dresser for the Rockettes. I loved this. We would both understand the weight of the situation and our roles. At any moment I felt confident I could request either a birthing ball or a hemline. She would give me her full focus, as that’s what dressers do… tend to the egos and needs of the performers. Their satisfaction comes from making the star look good. Right? What could be more dramatic than a birth? There is a clear objective for the protagonist… sure to be obstacles along the way… and resolution. A happy ending, I was sure. Denouement.
Three weeks before my due date, my doula got a Broadway contract and bailed on me. “Fucking theatre people,” I thought.
From the time my daughter was 7-15 weeks old she went through a terrific round of intense-ass baby crying. It’s not that she cried all the time. There were things that I could do to appease her, but they required full-on physical tactics and actions.
And as long as we were ACTIVELY doing these she would be quiet and, maybe, even sometimes sleep. For instance, she was perfectly quiet as long as I had the hair dryer running 8 inches from her head. Or was bouncing her in my lap up and down on a yoga ball. Or doing these drop and suspend, modern-dance style squats with her strapped to my body, or shhssssshhhhing her so loudly my throat hurt. Did I mention it was August in Brooklyn in a walk-up apartment?
My husband was the only one working and he needed to be able to function in the real world, which was not easy considering his career in film editing means he spends his days in small, dark, cozy rooms watching the same thing over and over again. He is passionate about his work but with the sleep deprivation… more than once he caught himself dozing off. He works long hours, but he wanted to spend time with our daughter (why my The Things My Wonderful Husband Does folder is so fat) and since I was nursing her he often took the bouncing-her-to-sleep shifts. He said it improved his golf game.
“She’s usually out by the time I get to the back 9,” he would mutter as he collapsed into bed. Visualization. Ah ha.
During the day my tiny one could usually tolerate being awake for about 45 minutes and then she’d nurse, poop, nurse again and then eventually sleep. The whole sine curve shaped routine was between 2-4 hours. Did I mention that she was crying the whole time? Um. Because she was. At night she might sleep for a slightly longer stretch—maybe 4 hours at a time.
Sidenote: I’ve spent many years as a mom and baby yoga instructor. Every time a new mom shares her pride and delight about the miracle of her infant naturally sleeping through the night, I bite the inside of my cheek as I smile. I can barely muster a “Wow.”
The rub was getting our baby to actually fall asleep. It would take… I was going to say hours? But what are hours? Time was just absolutely meaningless. It was real-life existential chaos. It was Waiting for Godot meets the Tennessee Williams canon meets Nora Ephron. I was moved by the humility and beauty and ridiculousness and tenderness of my darling newborn and all I could think was: Man, this would make a great solo show.
Script analysis saved me. By pretending I was in a play… and that the darkness of our shared bedroom was actually the darkness of the theatre… and because I think in words and they were sharp and clear, I realized, “This is actually drama. I have an objective (I must get this baby to sleep); A super-objective (I must be a good mother); and countless obstacles to that objective…. the re-snapping of the nursing bra would wake her up and I’d have to try something else: tactics (of course), actions (voila).”
And in the dark buzzing lost moments, I became convinced of two things: 1) this would actually work well in performance and 2) if I didn’t write and perform this story I might be forever lost.
This wasn’t a joke. It was do or die. A battleground night after night unfolded in my rocking chair. It was the most isolating and beautiful experience of my life. I felt completely alone and, yet, knew that I wasn’t… I wasn’t the first woman in the history of mothers to have this experience! This was universal! Mass-market, Broadway appeal!
“Everyone goes through this,” my husband said with comfort in his voice, “We’re earning our stripes.”
I wasn’t sleeping anyway…. So, I wrote. I can’t remember when I actually did the writing.… early morning blocks? When she napped, I think? At least one hour a day on the script for a month.
While I didn’t feel the guilty tug of my sweetnik, who wouldn’t take a bottle, when she sat in her bouncy seat a few feet from my laptop, I did feel it when I really got down to work in rehearsal. Was my little hobby worth leaving my daughter? What if she needs me?
“Actresses can’t be good mothers.” Why did that bother me so much? Because being an actress is selfish? Self-involved, I guess? Though I hadn’t really left my baby much (she wouldn’t take a bottle, remember?) I hired a babysitter and rented studio spaces sometimes my own time was costing me $50 an hour. Fifty an hour that hadn’t been budgeted into my unpaid maternity leave. We made it work somehow. Brought on a wonderful friend to direct.
When it came time to get off book (my own book), I would feed the baby at 5 am and instead of crumpling back into bed, I’d get up and drink decaf (stupid decaf—still nursing) and force myself to say things over and over again, adding little bits at a time until I held 30 minutes of my own thoughts in my mouth. And I’d say them. All. Out loud. A couple times. And then she’d be up and the day would be on. And I would really love it. We’d go for walks in Prospect Park and meet up with new mommy friends for tea or storytimes. We snuggled into a schedule. I relaxed. I was front and center for every ‘first’ my daughter was welcoming. We were in sync. A great buddy act.
I would love motherhood more because I carved out some time to tell my story. And my story really was about how much I loved this little person and how I would do anything to keep her happy, but how I still had to be myself in the process or we would all be screwed.
There are still challenges. Tonight, after putting my now two-year-old daughter down to bed, I sat down write this essay. Minutes later, I heard her scream/cry a question from her nursery through her crib slats, “Mommy Mommy! What’s on my HANDS!? What’s ON MY HANDS?”
I knew that the answer to this question wasn’t going to be good.
After scraping a yogurt-spaghetti-puke combo out of her hair, giving her a bath, changing the sheets, reading storybooks, singing to her in the rocking chair, and giving her bunny tickles (it’s a long story) again, I was spent. I just wanted to watch the Jim Gaffigan comedy special on Netflix.
I really don’t need one more reason not to write. Not to create. Not to act. I’m great at coming up them on my own.
When it came time to finally perform the piece in front of an audience, I literally stood back stage and pressed the palms of my hands into the wall of the theatre, holding the wall up. Just in case. I hadn’t performed in so long–certainly since before pregnancy and this story was so personal. I always had stage fright and feared the audience would think I sucked. But this time if I sucked, I would suck as a writer, an actor AND A MOTHER.
Walking onstage in the blackout felt like stepping off a cliff. But as soon as everyone laughed at the words that I wrote and the way that I said them, I knew it was going to be OK. Not just the show. I knew I was going to be a great mom. Becoming a mom made me a better actress and by being an actress I was able to be the best mom I could be.