IWD Blog Series: The Chimera in the Room

In the lead up to International Women’s Day 2022, we’ll be releasing a series of blog posts around this year’s theme, #BreaktheBias.

The first blog in the series is from our wonderful Bish Bosh Bash cast member Marie Ellis. Marie’s moving and powerful piece reframes the narrative of giving up the things you enjoy when you become a mother and explores her journey through being a mother and artist.

I sometimes think of performing improv as a series of tiny births and ends. You send a fresh new idea out into the world in a unique moment of creation, it lives and breathes for the length of the scene, and then, as quickly as it was formed, it vanishes.

As a performer and mother, I was asked to write a blog about International Women’s Day. The theme is #BreakTheBias, asking us “to imagine a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination.” To celebrate this day, I’ll be performing in the Bristol Improv Theatre’s (BIT) all-female production of the Bish Bosh Bash, an improv game show where two teams go head-to-head to compete for the audience’s love. 

My first love has always been performing. I’ve been acting since I was 8 years old, and while pregnant with both of my children, I continued performing in front of live audiences. My first pregnancy, about 8 years ago, involved hiding my nausea and sickness from my cast mates while performing in a touring theatre production. And during my second pregnancy, I performed regularly at the BIT while VERY pregnant with my daughter, who is now 2.

I remember one particular improvised scene in which Cat Murphy, in character, placed her hand on my huge pregnant belly. My daughter kicked, upstaging the show, as Cat had to break character and tell the audience that “The baby kicked!” It was such a heartwarming moment for us as performers, and a joy which the audience shared with us.

But here I am, talking about my children when I should be talking about myself. For this blog, I was asked to write about how I’ve overcome the stereotype of giving up everything you enjoy when you become a mother. 

The truth is, I’ve had to fight to retain my identity as an individual human being, and not “just collapse into the identity of merely mother.”

I imagined that I’d write about how I still have an agent in London and attend auditions. That I perform improv every month. That I have a successful career as Editorial Director of a start-up. That I still go swimming once a week, meet friends for drinks, and even still, occasionally, earn some pretty epic hangovers.

To the outside world, I really do still “have it all.” And, truly, inside my world, I feel like one lucky woman. The truth is, I’ve had to fight to retain my identity as an individual human being, and not “just collapse into the identity of merely mother.” 

I put that last part in quotes because I can tell you that of all the jobs I’ve ever had in my life, that of mother is the hardest I’ve ever inhabited — a universal truth that society is only just lifting its head to recognise, in the wake of mothers holding everything together during the pandemic.

But I can’t “write about the stereotype of giving up everything you enjoy when you become a mother” without acknowledging that when you become a mother, a part of you does come to an end. 

It’s true. 

I can remember performing while pregnant with my daughter and feeling as I was onstage that I was a totally different person during that time. I was like a chimera. I was neither myself, nor my daughter, but rather some third person who existed for 9 months. 

And did you know that cells from a baby stay in their mother’s body for the rest of her life, even mixing with subsequent babies? So, I’m walking around with cells left over in my body from both my son and my daughter (and the other babies I carried that didn’t make it into the world).

I want to talk about this because I think it’s important — more important than encouraging women to try to be the same person they were before they had children. I know that’s not what I was asked to write about, but I think it’s a common trap that new mothers fall prey to: How can I maintain the life I had before children? Because if I don’t, I’ve somehow failed.

I tried that, for sure, for many years after my son was born. I resisted the series of tiny ends that occur when you change. I vowed to not be “one of those mums” who only talks about their children.

I pushed back against my body changing. I was one of those magical unicorns whose body “bounced back” straight away. But that was a mask I wore. One that I suspect is actually rooted in my feminism. I felt that to admit I had changed and that priorities had shifted meant I wasn’t being the strong woman I felt I should be.

To women who are artists, creators, AND ALSO mothers, I say: Bring on the tiny ends

I now know that strength comes in many forms, and being malleable is my new superpower. (Well, sort of…I think my husband would strongly disagree with this, but it’s my blog, so I’ll write what I want to.)

Change is scary, but it can be beautiful. To women who are artists, creators, AND ALSO mothers, I say: Bring on the tiny ends. Bring on the little so-called failures. Bring in the element of a “happy fail” — which we hold so dearly in improv — and give yourself that gift of enjoying where your life is taking you, even if it’s a path you hadn’t planned.

I do still follow my joys. But the reality is that I can’t follow them in the same way I could before I was a mother. When your 7-year-old is melting down because all his friends know about Pokemon but he doesn’t, and your 2-year-old is about to jump down the stairs, you can’t just f&ck off to rehearsal. You have to stay and ensure the situation is under control and then apologise to your castmates when you show up 10 minutes late (which I almost ALWAYS do now).

I was supposed to write about smashing the stereotype that becoming a mother means you have to give up the things you enjoy. I hope I’ve reframed that as: Becoming a mother means being open to changing the way you experience the things that bring you joy.

I will end this blog by inviting you to listen to the song, “Closing Time” by Semisonic. Aside from being an absolute 90s pop classic, this song is secretly about the birth of the lead singer’s daughter. Halfway through writing the song, Dan Wilson realized he was actually writing about birth, and I think the ending lyrics are apropos for women who are mothers, artists, and creators:

Closing time, every new beginning

Comes from some other beginning’s end

The Bish Bosh Bash International Women’s Day Special is on at the Bristol Improv Theatre on Friday 4th March