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Soapbox: Juggling ambition with motherhood

13 Apr 2019
Director Alexandra McKellar plays a few roles - mother, teacher, performing artist, partner and long distance driver.

A day in the life

It is Thursday, sometime around 4pm I close my laptop and throw it and several unmarked assignments in my bag, race out the door of the school where I teach drama and head to collect my son from daycare. He is eight months old and has been there since I dropped him off just after 8am this morning.

He crawled today I’m told – if I’m lucky there will be video shot on the phone of one the amazing people that work there to show the family. There are kisses and cuddles and then the all too familiar click of that car seat harness.

My husband calls and I spend the drive to my parents’ place relaying the baby statistics I’ve just learned: sleep times, feedings, soiled nappies - the conversations that all new parents suddenly find dominate their air waves. After dropping our son at my mother’s I am off to direct another rehearsal, or teach a class, or pack in a show. My husband will collect our son from my parents’ and take him home for dinner, bath, and bed. I will be home after both of them have gone to bed.

I think often on these drives how privileged and lucky I am. I remember at our baby shower feeling the love and support of our friends and family and I think of that cliché about how “it takes a village…” I am lucky that I have the women at daycare and that I have a partner with whom I can share the load. I know not everyone raising children and juggling their career has this.

Most of all, I think of my parents, my childhood, and how these experiences offer a new appreciation.

In the genes

My parents are both actors who live permanently in New Zealand. This means throughout my childhood they were also teachers, floor crew, writers, directors, grips, casting agents, dramaturges and a plethora of other creative vocations. As a child I never felt the uncertainty they must have experienced between contracts, and I wonder if they felt the same guilt that I do about it.   

The last piece of the puzzle also falls into place as I see the sacrifice and stress that must have been there for my mother.  Even if it was kept from my sisters and me. There’s a nagging, recurring monologue that criticises well before others get the chance: ‘I’m not the mother I should be because I don’t do the things that mothers should do; my child will suffer for my selfishness’.

I went back to work because I had to. My husband took the rest of the paid parental leave which is somehow both amazing and guilt-inducing. Thank god for my parents. Their example taught me the resilience and the adaptability needed to survive working in a creative field, but perhaps more importantly, they taught me it’s a fallacy that the sacrifices we make for our children should include our own fulfilment and happiness.

Sustainability of a career in the arts

Many times I have questioned the sustainability and the stability of my career. When I graduated drama school, freshly on the books, I auditioned for anything and everything that was going. I have been paid with “good exposure” so many times that the majority of the world’s population should really know my name by now. I worked at a call centre by day and rehearsed by night. Flipping between these two was never going to work for me though.  I felt mediocrity on both sides, and the coin had to fall one way eventually. So I quit my job and followed my passion into teaching and directing, setting up my own after-school drama classes.

Pretending it’s easy

Looking back on it, that is how I think we – with the help once again of my parents – bought land in rural Northland. We wanted a house but couldn’t get ahead in Auckland and we naively thought we could shift our lives out of the city along with our possessions. But it is where my friends are, where my career is, and where opportunity resides. So I drive and I think. I also switch to a phone plan with unlimited minutes!

I’ve directed seven shows with this commute, occasionally crashing in spare rooms, on couches, and in hotel rooms. I have sat my son on my knee while giving notes. I have performed a cabaret with him in the front row. My husband likes to say that the secret he’s discovered about raising children is that everyone is pretending it’s easy: it’s supposed to be joyous and awe-inspiring, and while it is most definitely those things, we all pretend that it’s not horrendously hard and overwhelming at times as well. It’s okay to be overwhelmed by it all. I try to remind myself of that. When I found out I was pregnant, before the reality our son’s existence was fully apparent to us, I found myself mourning for my career. I had worked incredibly hard and had built momentum and now did I have to give it up – or at the very least stall it?

Looping it home

Recently I have been invited to join a new venture, the Auckland Performing Arts Academy, where I am able to train and direct youth in musical theatre. Through classes in acting, singing, dance, and through performing in shows, students are able to grow their confidence and plant the seeds that will grow into the skills of their artistic expression. My son has often come to class with me; who knows one day he may choose to be a student? Here, I feel that the satisfaction of the circle.  I feel like I can offer my skills and contribute as a citizen of the village I was inducted into at that baby shower. My art, my family and my career bring me home.


APAA is a new musical theatre training organisation based in Takapuna, offering programmes for children and young people ages 7-21.
You can find out more about their events and training opportunities here.
Tickets for their new production, Beauty and the Beast (June 21-23), are on sale now through the ASB Waterfront Theatre and Ticketmaster.