Tech week for a breastfeeding director

It’s international women’s day and as I sit on the toilet in the accessible loo of a theatre pumping milk at a snail’s pace from my breasts I’m wondering “how many other woman are doing this right now?” In toilets, cupboards, cars, train loos or if you’re lucky designated pumping rooms. I love breastfeeding, the connection with my baby, knowing she’s getting all those antibodies and just how bloody wonderful that I can fulfil all her needs with my own body. It is amazing… (once you get beyond cracked nipples and the occasionally engorged boob!) But… I hate pumping, I really hate it. It feels ungainly, undignified, uncomfortable and I find it just pretty weird. It also takes an incredibly long time. In 20 minutes I’m lucky to get 1 fl oz, definitely not as easy as milking a cow!

Today I have been apart from my baby girl for the longest time so far in her short life. She cried when I left her at nursery this morning as she’s teething and a bit snotty, that hurt, and it made me do a little cry too on the way in. She’s been in rehearsals a lot with me as assistant director and has been an absolute joy, bonding with the cast and crew, exploring the stage, eating the script and losing a few props! But now it’s getting serious, it’s tech time and I need to fully concentrate. Tech days, as we know, are 12 hour days and we’re here until 10pm tonight. I’m in my element, I’m back at work, I’m being a director again; the lights look bloody great, the PA with its sub is pumping the bass of our wonderful sound design and the actors are on it. Watching it all happen in the dark of the auditorium I am having a sly feel of my boobs as I’m aware of them beginning to fill up and get hard. So during the tea break, I secretly slip off to sit and extract milk with a strange rubbery device, conscious of the comical farting sounds it makes as it releases the suction.

During my pregnancy the questions that kept me awake at night were: How can you be an artistic director of a theatre company and be a new mum? How does that even work? How will rehearsals work? How will I be able to tour? How on earth will I be able to do a tech week? How can I work all the hours to make it all happen? What if I don’t even care about theatre anymore?

Letting go of control and perhaps my narcissism and  realising that other people are as capable as me at keeping things going was the first step. Allowing myself 4 months off, to getting the fear about going back and leaving my new love for even a moment, then extending that to 6 months… it all was fine without me. We decided not to do any massive projects or big productions until I was back from maternity. The good thing about being the director is you can make decisions about how it will work.

So when I finally started back to my full hours in January it was all systems go! A whirlwind… straight into an intensive international R and D project in South Africa (with 8 month old baby and partner in tow on 12 hour flights) and then 2 weeks later straight into rehearsals for our latest show. The complex childcare logistics stuck to the fridge with a magnet like a school timetable, covering time in rehearsals, time at nursery, time with dad, time to meet for feeds, time to schedule in production meetings, time for naps (to hopefully coincide with break time for buggy walks or intensive sling bouncing!). As a theatre maker who has never had a routine and mostly rebels against them, realising our baby loves routine and likes to nap, eat, shit at particularly times was a shock to the system! I wanted to be a care free, easy going, i’ll just ‘strap her on my back and carry on kind of mum’, which I guess I am to some extent. But when it’s nap time, it’s nap time! And if a nap doesn’t take we have a mental overtired grumster on our hands, which as we all know is the worst kind of person to have in the rehearsal room!

Our first preview is done and I’m outside trying to find the most cobbled or bumpy bit of pavement on the streets around the theatre pushing the pram over them to try to lull my baby to sleep. The app on my phone is playing the sound of a train in the bottom of the buggy (white noise has got too much for my head so I’ve moved on) I am now half an hour late to give notes after the preview. The actors and team are on stage waiting for me and she is on the edge of sleep but it just won’t take, I am feeling stressed! I think she’s gone as her babbling has faded so I sneak a look in the front of the pram. Her eyes are slits but not quite shut, we get eye contact…damn it… she smiles, opens her eyes and we’re back to square one. Do I take her in knowing she’ll be grumpy and clingy and over tired and probably very vocal about it, or do I keep circling the theatre one wheel on the thin bobbly bit of pavement I’ve found. I have no idea how long this might take.

I wanted to write this blog post as I’ve now managed to answer the question that was my biggest fear. Yes, it is possible to be an artistic director of a company and be a new mum. It’s brilliant and challenging and tiring and there are many women doing it who I massively admire. But it takes infinite patience from a supportive partner, a team of baby friendly actors who will attempt to concentrate on the notes I’m giving whilst I’m being climbed all over or I’m doing squats with my baby in a sling or chasing her across the room as she’s honed in and picked up some tiny thing from the floor she’s about to ingest. It takes a flexible timetable, a great assistant/associate director there to support me, it takes a large nursery bill, lots of late night/ after bedtime calls and planning, someone else to do the washing and make you a packed lunch, and a baby that does not fall ill at the wrong time and scupper all that planning.

So we did it, the show opened and we are all still alive and sane, the assistant director was a star member of the team and learned to crawl during the process, taking advantage of the open expanses of floor in the rehearsal room. So a huge thanks to the team who welcomed her and made her part of it and, of course to my partner for all that washing up (and the rest!). Bring on the tour! Here’s to many more baby friendly rehearsal rooms within our company and others and here’s to all those women who are secretly pumping away and missing their babies but making brilliant things happen despite the sleep deprivation and leaky boobs!

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