Soapbox - The High Wire Act: Working Mother

Article by Andrea Gross
Costume Designer:

By now, Costume Designer Andrea Gross should need no introduction. For this issue, she shifts from the technical to the reflective and gives us an important essay on the importance of the performing arts, her life in the field and the changes that have come with parenthood and time. This is an essay for all of us.

The days grow shorter, and we snuggle into the end of the year. It’s wise to look back at the year with both gratitude and a critical eye to how our artistic practice can continue to evolve.

This past calendar year I designed costumes for five productions, and served as shop manager on a sixth. In August, I marked a decade of living and designing in Minnesota, and in October I opened my 75th professional costume design. It wasn’t a particularly record-breaking year of design by the numbers, even with those milestones.

In January 2016, our child will turn two. As I constructed that last sentence about design by the numbers, I first had to delete some versions of “it wasn’t the busiest year” or “it wasn’t the most work in a year” because it definitely was some version of both those things. I did work I am deeply proud of. I also did work I was not fully engaged or invested in. (In some moments, either of those things could be true of the same project). Above all, I tried very hard to remain connected to how the process on each of those productions was going so that I could learn from it.

I have always considered my process as a designer (meetings, conversations, note-taking techniques, research, organizing information for a show, communicating design choices, executing the costumes, working with actors and the director and other designers through tech to create a whole image) to be something that requires both flexibility and the potential to change, and a certain rigidity of principle to keep me from overloading myself or losing sight of what I’m doing. But in the past two years I’ve felt that almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways.

That’s not an entirely “full picture” view, obviously. First of all, I am profoundly privileged to have full time daycare for our son. My partner is able to confidently parent our kid while I’m in tech. I have a remarkable support system. But frankly, there are ways in which that just makes me feel like I’m being ungrateful when I acknowledge that it’s still hard. Many things seem unchanged: I can use the library and the Internet to collect images, I can communicate what I like about those things verbally and with shared Pinterest boards and sketches, and I can shop and conduct fittings.

But here are a few examples of things have changed for me:

I am aware of my capacities, both in the ways in which becoming a mother made them limitless, and in the ways in which there are very hard edges to what I can accomplish in the face of other responsibilities.

In some ways, feeling like I have more limited personal resources means I am better about hiring people to help me, and better about explaining to producers that labor budgets are as important as materials budgets. In other ways, I feel so much less free to really submerge myself in a script and the research for unconstrained amounts of time.

I don’t seem to have access to the mental dexterity of letting one problem marinate while solving another. On the other hand, some decisions just get made a lot faster because of those limited personal resources.

There’s been an exponential increase in the number of things requiring my focus and attention, but no corollary increase in the resources I have to devote. Even when I’m not actively parenting, some part of my brain is aware of what I need to be doing, what I “should” be doing, or what I’m not going to have enough energy for at the end of the day.

As I’ve reflected on this, I recognize that one thing I mean by “almost nothing I used to rely on to do my job is available to me in the same ways” is that I can’t do it the same way I used to. When I was single, I could design three or four shows at a time, and tech them concurrently or sequentially, as long as I had enough coffee and toilet paper in the house. The option to just let go and free-fall from one item on the to-do list to the other was available to me. Now I’m learning how to compartmentalize tasks to figure out where things are going to fit in the calendar in order to get it all done.  I require more time on the calendar to think about things as well as to execute things. I frequently remind myself that I can’t make those decisions in a vacuum, and while I need to think about design elements early, I also have to keep options open for things other designers, the director and the actors are learning from the process. That balancing act has not always been successful this year.

There’s an added piece... I can’t speak to what it’s like to have a 40hr/week job that you are interested and engaged with, but which ends at 5pm. I can only say that the added pressures of feeling like you don’t have enough energy to prioritize work you do “for love” or because it’s “your passion” is brutal.  This work has always taken more out of us than we have to give, but for years I’ve given it gladly because the return is so high. Now I’m tired (profoundly tired: because I haven’t slept through the night in two years; because I can’t be available for the work I miss doing; because the friendships that came with it have shifted and can’t always be recognized from where I am now; because I can’t think a thought through from inception to completion without an interruption about excavator trucks or buying broccoli for dinner). I’m tired pretty much all the time, but I’m also struggling to come to terms with the ways my priorities have shifted. And I struggle to accept the fact that my priorities couldn’t help but shift.

I’ve never been more certain of the importance of artistic storytelling to the health of our culture. I want my child to grow in a place where the kind of perspective and wonder afforded an audience by live theater is an integral part of his development. In the past year, I’ve become more aware than ever of how exclusive the stories we tell are, and how desperate the need is to crack our narratives open to make them broader and more inclusive. I’m eager to hear points of view that have been overlooked or ignored for centuries, and for my family to learn how to build a better world through that experience. I have no doubts of the importance of theater in my life and in the life of my family. And yet, it remains true that I don’t have the same focus and endless reserves to give to the medium that’s been the most important form of expression in my adult life. This circumstance is uncomfortable at best.

I wouldn’t change my life for anything. I miss my old life every day. Those two notions in tension are one definition of “parent.” The ways it impacts my life as a freelance costume designer have continued to be surprising this year. In the end, everything is a moving target, and all this will be different again in another year. Which is the closest thing to comfort I’ve found on the topic.

(Special thanks to Ursula Bowden, Anissa Gooch, George Miller, and Lacey Zeiler for their insight and help writing this essay.)