By Jessica Duffield
2021 was a big year for me - in the early hours of 16th October, little Poppy Jane arrived in the world, ahead of schedule and after a dramatic breaking of my waters - actually like in the films!
People tell you that having a baby will change your life, but I don’t think anything quite prepares you for it - from the severe sleep deprivation to the long-gone luxury of having a shower at your leisure – your day to day isn’t as you knew it! But you have this tiny little human that is solely dependent on you - the most precious, incredible miracle that you love with all of your being and you can’t quite imagine what life was like before she existed. Apart from the fact that you were probably cleaner and more coherent!
The first few months were a whirlwind of feeding, changing, walking, worrying - days I felt on top of the world paired with days I felt totally overwhelmed, staring at her beautiful face, trying to read books about how best to look after her and how to get that all-important sleep. Powering through the “witching hours” and facing the seemingly impossible task of writing thank you letters for the utterly humbling generosity of others.
Fast forward 8 months (somehow she had been out of the womb as long as in it) and my maternity leave was coming to an end. Although I had tried to keep up with the company goings on by joining our weekly meetings where possible, this was a whole new level as I now had the chance to direct our first live show back in the East Riding Theatre since the pandemic: Beverley Does Broadway 2022.
I felt all the emotions. Excitement that I would be in a theatre again - it had been so long! Anticipation and joy at the thought of thinking creatively! And then anxiety, fear and guilt at the prospect of leaving my exclusively breastfed baby for hours on end, having never been away from her for longer than a trip to the hairdresser. I was also concerned at how I would function after 8 months of such a lack of sleep (I have a baby who is towards the more extreme end of the scale of not sleeping!) Some days I barely make sense when talking about the mundane; how would I cope when brain power was required?
However, I knew that when Poppy wasn’t in the room with me she would be spending time with her daddy or her grandparents (for which I am so grateful), and would be having lots of fun, love and attention, which made it so much easier. I had made the decision that for me, it was important to work, so I embarked on the journey.
The Return to Work: thoughts I had before having a baby...
1. “Oh the Arts are really accepting - I’ll just take my baby into the rehearsal room with me.”
2. “I’ll write/work during her long afternoon naps”
The Reality: I was VERY naïve!
1. Whilst it might work for some, having your baby in the room can mean your brain is taken over entirely by every little sound they make, and you are constantly concerned with ensuring that they are ok, and also that they don’t disturb others, which can leave very little brain space for focusing on anything else. We are wired to respond to their every murmur – it’s nature.
2. The nap idea really only works if your baby will sleep for hours on end in their cot; it’s not quite so effective if you are walking relentlessly to get them to sleep in the pushchair or sling. However, Voice Notes is a very useful app, even if you do seem slightly strange when using it to dictate ideas walking around town!
So what was it like?
It was wonderful and challenging in equal measure. I think I’m realising that that’s parenthood in a nutshell!
The main challenges:
Turning up each day feeling focused and with energy, after waking to breastfeed every hour throughout the night
Being away from my baby for hours
Having my baby in the room
The discomfort from the build-up of breast milk if I didn’t express during the day (another challenge when you need also to eat, go to the toilet, even get fresh air during a lunch break…)
The lack of evening. Before having a baby, when I was working on a show, I would finish rehearsals and go home and the evening was mine to do what I thought would best prepare me for the next day, be that working more on the script, going to bed early or doing something entirely different, to clear my head.
After having a baby, post-rehearsals is all go! It’s tea time, then bath time, then bedtime…which can stretch the entire evening, in my experience! I had to prep for the next day whilst feeding, and do my thinking whilst walking. Then I would ‘go to bed’, but be woken at least hourly as Poppy was ‘reverse-cycling’ (feeding more overnight to make up for missing time with me during the day). Then it was time to get up and be ready for the day…. thank goodness for coffee! Lots and lots of coffee!
It was a joy! The team were a dream – collaborative, kind and creative, and I sort of made sense (I hope!). We overcame the obstacles of rehearsing with a cast member on Zoom and only having just over a week to rehearse, combined with cramming choreography and props in at every opportunity!
It was fun, uplifting and empowering, and gave us the chance to welcome audience members back into the theatre and to remember why we are addicted to live performance.
In the nick of time, everyone was in the rehearsal room together and before we knew it it was Opening Night… and what an opening night it was! To see the auditorium filled with warm, responsive and laughing audience members was so special. With only a week’s run, it seemed to fly by.
One of the highlights was our Parent and Baby performance, which saw the auditorium filled with the under-ones! Having experienced how difficult it can be to get to the theatre when you have a baby, offering parents the chance to enjoy a show in a relaxed environment in which their babies can make a noise, move around and be fed, is huge!
It was a wonderful experience to see all of the parents and prams descending upon the theatre – so much so that the café is encouraging them to come for a drink and a chat on a weekly basis, to enjoy the space and the atmosphere.
The babies were enthralled or soothed, on the whole, meaning that the adults could sit back and have two hours of entertainment and socialising with other parents and babies. It was also particularly useful to have had Poppy in rehearsals, to test her reaction to the show!
Returning home to my lovely family made me so grateful for doing what I love during the day, and seeing those I love in the evening - when put that way, it’s win-win.
Going back to work after having a baby definitely poses new challenges to overcome, and life is not as straightforward as it was (even if it didn’t seem that way at the time!), but I am determined to make better use of my time and to be more focused during the working hours that I do have, because they are limited.
Here’s a huge shout out to all the parents, carers and childcare providers out there - you are doing a brilliant job!
Jessica Duffield, 31st July 2022
Photo of the Parent and Baby Performance of 'Beverley Does Broadway 2022