My whole life I wanted to be an actor—and a mom.
By my late thirties I’d pulled off the former, but not the latter. I couldn’t grow a houseplant, let alone a baby, and my one post-childhood pet, a goldfish named Steve, survived one weekend. The men in my life were like Steve. As it turned out, I had two obstacles to motherhood: ovarian insufficiency and long-term boyfriend insufficiency. I was researching Chinese orphan adoption when the impossible happened: I fell in love, got married, and had three babies, using donor eggs. And I more or less stopped acting.
I admire women who combine little kids with acting careers, but I couldn’t do it. My first pregnancy was an unwelcome surprise to the producers of a series I was on, and they paid me to sit out my contract as they recast my role and reshot the pilot. I did a few guest star gigs with the baby in my tummy, and a few more once she was out, but breastfeeding between scenes was stressful. Two years later, with twins, it was hopeless. I was writing novels by then, and surprisingly happy without acting. Plus, I was in my mid-40’s, so it wasn’t like Hollywood was banging on my door screaming, “come back!”
But then my kids hit middle school and could walk home alone, a small logistical miracle. I felt twinges of longing while driving past camera trucks and suddenly I heard the call of . . . call sheets. Scripts! Rehearsals! Craft services! Alas, while I was on my 15-year maternity leave my agent had died. My new agent pointed out that my new (old) age category meant fewer roles and smaller paychecks. He suggested I find an acting class, and one Saturday—my lucky day—I stumbled into the BGB Studio.
And discovered that parenthood had changed my work.
Not in the obvious ways—you don’t have to be a mother to play Mother Courage. Instead, parts lost, pilots not picked up, and scenes mangled aren’t that big a deal anymore. I have less vanity and “what are my hands doing?” self-consciousness, and more curiosity about my fellow actors. More generosity. Everyone under 30 reminds me of my kids. Love is closer to the surface, and so are fear, sorrow, and rage. Especially rage. Decades ago a costar called me “unflappable.” Nobody calls me unflappable now. My twins call me psychotic.
The flip side: I did a play called The Other Place about (among other things) a woman devastated by a conflict with her 15-year old daughter, at a time when my older daughter was 15. Playing that mother rearranged my molecules. I’ve always been somewhat bohemian in my parenting, and I used to feel sheepish about it. Not anymore: The Other Place played out my worst fears and left me with the courage of my convictions. For that matter, who needs parenting books when there are parenting plays? King Lear, The Seagull, Glass Menagerie—all the advice you need, right there. Buried Child! Long Day’s Journey Into Night! Oedipus! Yes, they’re cautionary tales. No, you won’t learn from Hamlet how to be a blended family, but you’ll get fabulous tips on what not to do.
With one kid off to college and two close behind, here’s what I’ve learned: Acting and parenting are essentially the same. They’re collaborative mediums, requiring other people. They’re nothing like you expect when you first sign up. They’re messy. Time-sucking. And expensive, the kind of expensive you can never entirely deduct from your taxes. There are late nights and lacerated egos and everyone’s a critic. But of course, they’re thrilling. Not necessarily on opening night or on Mother’s Day, but—over and over—when you least expect it and most need it.
Harley Jane Kozak: actor, mother, and author of five novels (and BGBer!)