When she got pregnant, writer Hannah Khalil worried it would stymie her creative juices. Did it? Nah.
Did I worry that becoming a mum would stop me writing? Yes. But then I am a worrier. I worry about what to cook for dinner; I worry about being in other people’s space on the Tube; I worry about forgetting my friends’ birthdays. I tend not to worry about writing though. It’s something I feel confident about. I can do it. I love doing it.
But then I got pregnant. A whole new set of worries: morning (all-day) sickness, placenta in the wrong place, labour. But most importantly I worried it might change me, fundamentally, as a person. And that might affect my relationships and my ability to write.
When I was about eight months pregnant (so very visible for all to see) I went to a play with a friend. I was introduced to the (male, same age as me) author in the interval as a fellow (if not as wildly successful) writer. He pointed to my bump and grimaced.
“What?” I asked naively.
“Didn’t someone once say a pram in the hall is the death of creativity?” he remarked, and then swanned off to chat to younger, less pregnant people than me.
“Without actual money to prove the value of what you are doing, how can you explain it to people? People who look at you handing over your child in order to go and sit in a room typing in isolation.”
I started to feel sweaty. Anxious. Right, I’ve less than two months ’til the baby comes, I’d better write all I can before then – just in case…
As it turns out, the silly writer was wrong (he’s probably learned that himself as the rumour mill tells me he is now a father). Becoming a mum made me MORE, not less creative. This was not necessarily a good thing.
You see, at the time of my pregnancy, I was under commission to Radio 4 for a play. It was my first radio commission and I wanted it to be brilliant. My first draft deadline was six weeks after my daughter was born and everyone kept telling me I needed to accept I wouldn’t meet that deadline. Of course that made me all the more determined. And meet it I did. I typed while my daughter slept in my lap.
But as she grew older and needed more attention carving out time became more complicated, more of a negotiation. I needed to justify my writing time to myself.
You see, so much writing is speculative. You – the writer – have an idea, you write it up either as a script or a treatment (basically a summary idea), and then you send it to people, pitch it to people, bore for Britain about it until someone else gets a spark in their eyes about it too. You do not usually get paid until later down the line.
Without actual money to prove the value of what you are doing, how can you explain it to people? People who look at you handing over your child in order to go and sit in a room typing in isolation. I became convinced everyone thought I was selfish, narcissistic, deluded. Maybe I was. I became fixated with how far other writers had got at my age, and what awards they had won. Awards are good – they’re like cash, a form of validation the world understands.
“My first draft deadline was six weeks after my daughter was born and everyone kept telling me I needed to accept I wouldn’t meet that deadline. Of course that made me all the more determined.”
To be honest, it all became a bit much and I went to talk to a counsellor. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done, although I was very reluctant at first. She helped me see that I needed to justify time away from my daughter with quantifiable things. It’s obvious now. It wasn’t then. It was all about an adjustment of roles that took me longer than I ever thought it would. This new role of ‘mother’ meant renegotiating all the others.
Apart from the actual writing side of things, the other thing a writer does is meet people and chat a lot. And it’s always a toss-up whether to mention you have a child or not.
I remember one of my first meetings post-baby was with a director whose work I really liked. We started talking and I was trying to avoid mentioning mini-me – until she slipped into conversation that she had three children. I could have kissed her. I felt so relieved. A very frank tete-a-tete followed about the difficulties of working in theatre with a child.
At least writers can do their thing any time and at home; directors and actors have to show up in rehearsals for three or four weeks and then there’s the performances. Sadly, as far as I can tell most (female) actors with young children have to stop working for a few years – there’s simply not the support nor will to help them continue.
That said, there are some very encouraging things happening: PIPA (Parents in the Performing Arts) has been set up to raise awareness and to campaign to make it possible for people with children to continue to work in the field.
As for me, I’m very lucky – I have huge support from my husband, mother, in-laws and friends who all respect my need to go and scribble to retain my sanity. And when my new play opens in April I have an army of babysitters on standby to make sure I can be there to see it. So if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that, although having a child will change your life, it doesn’t need to mean the end of your creative life. Not a bit.
Hannah Khalil’s new play Scenes from 68* Years is at the Arcola Theatre, London, until 30 April.4400 Views
Hannah Khalil is an actress turned award-winning writer based in London. She writes for stage, screen and radio.