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Momma Doc: The Filmmaker as Homemaker

By Nina Gilden Seavey

Nina Gilden Seavey (back row, second from right) with her family: Back row, left to right-Husband Ormond, daughter Eleanor, Seavey, son Aaron. Front row: son Caleb.

In January 1999, The New York Times ran an article in its Arts and Leisure section entitled ''Female Directors Battle the Indie Boys Club,'' about the dearth of women film directors in Sundance. I wrote a letter to the editor that was published a few weeks later, in which I said the following:

"Making films involves a kind of all-consuming passion. My own experience in being a film director...and a mother of three is that there are times when a woman really can't do both well. But at the end of my life, I'm certain I won't regret not having made a few more films knowing that I had been there for my children. If that's bad for the statistics about the number of women directors at Sundance this year, maybe they're counting the wrong things."

Ever since I wrote that, I've been thinking about what being a mom and being a filmmaker have really meant to me and other women who I've observed go through the radical transformation to fatigue, guilt and worry that is motherhood.

So here are a few reflections:

The Realization That Something Has Changed

It was September 1986 and Aaron, my oldest, was only one month old. I got a phone call from a guy who said, "Hi! I work for a filmmaker named Ken Burns and he got a lot of money to make a series for PBS about the Civil War. We need some help in the research in Washington, DC, and we heard about you and were wondering if you'd like to come on board with us."

Now, those of us who'd been around for a while had heard about the Burns brothers and all of this money they'd raised to make this series. I looked at my baby boy I was holding and rocking (a pose I'd assumed 30 days prior and had been unable to abandon since) and wailed, "I just had a baby! I can barely find the time to brush my teeth, much less find the 5,000 perfect photographs it will take to make this film." So he responded generously, "Well, what about in a month?" I shook my head and thought, "This may be a mistake, but I'm going to say, 'No' and hope I have a career sometime in the future when I get more than two hours of sleep in a row."

Fast-forward to September 1990. I'm watching PBS during the much-publicized broadcast premiere of The Civil War. I'm like a beached whale on the bed, in my last trimester of pregnancy, with that same little boy (now four) and a two-year-old little girl named Eleanor bouncing around while I desperately try to watch the long list of credits streaming past that doesn't include my name. I'm thinking to myself, "The world of documentary has changed. I missed the boat. I'm screwed. I'll never work again."

Getting Traction

Of course my reaction to The Civil War was just hormones talking. But the world of documentary indeed had changed. All of a sudden, docs were cool. Docs weren't the old "educational films," with that big God-like voice, that you saw in school. Docs were now films filled with passion, with characters, with emotion and truth that frequently superseded fiction films.

The following month, I waddled up to the podium at George Washington University and welcomed 250 guests who had come to hear Henry Hampton give the inaugural address for the center I had created in order to teach documentary film. The Center for History in the Media (now the Documentary Center) was an act of desperation. "Do something to make yourself viable in your profession," I told myself. So, having successfully finished a master's degree in history at GW (it took me five years to complete a two-year program), I convinced the university's administration that I should teach a five-week summer course in historical documentary filmmaking. I could handle that.

I realized that everything now had become about "what I could handle." The problem with filmmaking is that you have to go to where the film is being made. So, if you've got a great story to tell in India, then that's where you go. Which is a problem if you have children...and you want to raise them.

The Choices

And that's the catch: "And you want to raise them." Mothers in all professions have this conundrum: how much time to spend at work and how much time to spend at home? You can always leave your children with the nanny. And you can convince yourself that you are spending "quality time" with them.

Then one day you get honest with yourself and confess that you are gone for more of your children's waking hours than you are at home with them. That they are tired, you are tired, everyone is cranky and no one is having much fun at all. That the day-care lady is watching your kids do all of the cool things that, as a mother, you don't want to miss--like walking for the first time, speaking their first words, painting their first picture.

But it's worse for filmmakers--especially independent filmmakers. A friend once observed that being an independent filmmaker really meant one of two things: "independently wealthy" filmmaker or "independently married to someone who has a job" filmmaker. I am in the latter category. But my husband is a college professor, so the job doesn't come with much money attached. So I have to work. And I did--on other people's projects and on my little five-week summer program. I worked at home. I had part-time help and a prohibition: "When mommy is working and the door is closed, you can't interrupt or I won't be finished by story time."

It wasn't much professionally, but at least I wasn't missing the benefits of having become a mom. Amidst the thousands of dirty diapers, the mountain of empty juice boxes, the hours of mind-numbing recitations of "One Thumb, One Thumb, Drumming on a Drum," I was watching my children grow. The first few years seemed really, really long. I spent 50 out of 60 consecutive months pregnant or nursing. After I finally finished this unending reproductive merry-go-round, time started moving faster than I could catch up with it.

As time passed and the kids went to school, I had more time to devote to filmmaking. I could travel more. They became more independent and could work to keep the household together if I had a shoot or was in an edit session. From the middle of nowhere in Russia I have called into a soccer game at half time to find out the score. What is remarkable is not that I could make the call from half a planet away, but that I was aware of what time it was back home, I knew what any one of my kids was doing at that particular moment and that they (and I) needed to make a connection.

Now they are teenagers (17, 15 and 13), and I am really in the thick of it. But I am not alone.

Husband of...Filmmaker...Mom

As husbands go, Ormond is spot on. Because he is a college professor, he has lots of time when he doesn't have to be in his office. Plus, he is very patient. Plus, he likes coaching little kids' team sports and he is a sucker for my daughter's plaintive cry, "Oh Daddy, can you drive me and my friends to the movies? Please? This immediately transforms a perfectly cogent six-foot man into a puddle of Jell-O. So he's usually good to help for whatever comes up with the kids.

But that's what it is: help. No matter how good he is, Dad is not Mom. When the baby would cry, he'd say, "Are you going to feed the baby?" I'd say, "The baby's not hungry." "How do you know?" "That's not the 'hungry cry.' It's the 'I want to be picked up' cry. So, will you please pick up the baby?" He'd look at me as if I had either cracked some ancient code or I was just trying to shirk my maternal nursing duties.

As the kids got older, there were clearly things they wanted from me and things they wanted from him. He is more patient with their unending homework. I am good at figuring out school problems, emotional crises, camps, Hebrew lessons, music teachers, driving routes to and from sports practices, our finances, home expansion and the unforgiving matrix of schedules that keeps the whole ship afloat. I know what the kids are thinking, frequently before they've even thought it. When they're sick, they always want Mom. When they want money, they go to Dad. When they've got something on their minds, they will inevitably come into my room while I'm reading and spread out on the bed with the leading question, "Mom, can we talk for a minute?"

The Lessons

All of this presumes being at home, not being where the film is being made. So I've made some choices. Sometimes they're Solomonic choices that split the difference between the creative and difficult work of filmmaking and my family. But out of these choices have come some insights:

  1. When possible, make films that the kids can relate to.

When the kids were little and watched Discovery Channel, I made a special on the Alamo for the network. When the kids got older and turned to MTV, I made a film about a band who came from Russia to become country music stars. The kids are somewhat more forgiving of my being gone if they think I am doing something "cool."

  1. Involve the kids, as much as they can legitimately be involved, in what you're doing.

At the appropriate ages, I've taken the kids with me on shoots. Aaron watched me interview doctors who had treated children his own age who had had polio. Eleanor shot her own version of The Making of the Making of the Music Video for the band Bering Strait. Caleb flew by himself to Nashville and was backstage at the Grand Ole Opry when Bering Strait made its first American appearance. The issue here is to not ask the kids to do too much, too early. In general, film shoots are boring and having a crabby kid on location could be a disaster for all involved.

Especially as teenagers, it's good to have your children come to the premieres of your films. It will prove to them that you're not such a dweeb after all.

  1. Work with other people who have kids.

My most successful work relationships--cinematographers, editors, producers, writers, executives, etc.--have been with people who are in the same boat as I am. It drives me crazy when a person without kids tells me how busy they are. They have no clue what busy even begins to look like. The people I work with who have children understand the need to be efficient with their time, incisive in their work and focused on the best job possible with the least amount of BS. When I'm on the road or in an edit session with someone who has kids, we all know that this work is important, but what's really important is waiting at home for us; so we get on with what we have to do. We love it, but we're ready to leave it as soon as possible to get back to the real business of life.

  1. Consider your work "my time."

The books always tell mothers to "take time for yourself." This is ridiculous advice. There is no time. Filmmakers are lucky; we love what we do. I love every minute of the filmmaking process (except fundraising). That is my time for myself. Everything else is "family time."

I am fatter than I'd like to be, I get less exercise than I would like, I've read fewer books than I'd like to have read, and for years my husband and I saw no movies in a theater. Oh, well. No big deal. I get to make films and have a family. It doesn't get any better than that.

  1. When something comes up that is important, drop everything and tend to family..

I was recently on a shoot in the Rocky Mountains at 10,000 feet in a blizzard. It was stunningly beautiful and reminded me again of why I engage in this cockeyed profession to begin with. Later that evening, when we were back in the hotel, my daughter called and was crying: "Mom, I don't know what's wrong with me. I feel really sick." I did the best checking I could as Dr. Mom and discerned that she didn't have to be taken to the hospital. She definitely had a fever and I had my husband give her some ibuprofen. She wanted me to come home. I told her I couldn't leave that minute but that we were scheduled to fly out the next day. I'd be there for her as soon as I could. I hung up, feeling horrible--and guilty that I wasn't there that minute for her...and hating that beautiful shoot at 10,000 feet in the snow-covered Rockies.

By the next night I was home and she was no better. And she didn't get better for a while. After weeks of illness and tests, it finally turned out that she had mononucleosis, which was a relief to me. At least it wasn't something worse. I stopped production on the film and stayed home with her and home-schooled her while she missed several months of high school. My attitude was, "If the funder wants me to make this film, I'll make it on my terms. Fire me if you don't like it." It's amazing how accepting people will be when you give them no choice.

  1. Get perspective on your work.

The reason that we are filmmakers is because we care passionately. We believe our work is going to be seen by thousands, maybe millions, of people and that we can make a difference. We are willing to sacrifice so much in terms of job security, income and daily life stability in hopes that we will be able to have our say in a manner that can inspire, inform and change people's lives. All of that is true, and noble, and is our calling.

But those people are strangers to us. We don't want to trade off the immediate importance of getting a film out to the public while ignoring the needs right in front of us. It's funny: Kids will generally accept what you offer to them; frequently, they don't know anything different--until they get older. A long time ago, I decided to try to not do anything that I could not bear to hear repeated on the analyst's couch. That has been a good barometer for keeping the exigencies of my work in perspective with the true requirements of motherhood.

  1. Judge time carefully. Your kids will only be at home for a relatively short period in their lives. Your career is longer than their need for you will be.

I make films. But I make far fewer films than my professional counterparts. I try to extend my abilities in a variety of ways to keep myself fresh. I teach to fill in the income gap (that five-week summer class is now a six-month certificate program). I provide advice and counsel on other people's films to keep my creative juices flowing. In 2003, I took eight months out to run the SILVERDOCS Documentary Festival, just to see what that was like. I come out with a new film only every few years. I try to weigh the time I spend making a film and the time it takes me away from home. It's an odd calculus.

Even as the kids grow, they need you in greater and lesser degrees at varying times. I have never spent more time at home as I do now that they are teenagers. They would never admit it, nor do they even know it, but their lives are more volatile and they need more stability at home in their teens than they did when they were toddlers.

You have to take the long view. Not long ago, I was having a lunch with a good friend of mine who is an executive at National Geographic. Her three children are all in their 20s. I was fretting over what film I was going to make next and how I was going to finance it, make it, get it distributed, etc. She said, "Just think about it, Nina. In five years, your children will all be out of the house and you will be able to devote yourself to this issue full-time. In the meantime, cut yourself some slack." Five years actually didn't seem like such a long time at all. Had someone said to me 18 years ago, "Nina, in 23 years, your children will be gone and out of the house, so just wait until then to really delve into your career," I would have reacted as if she had lost her mind. Now, five years to go seemed a frighteningly short period of time.

Maybe that's why the reporter at The New York Times who bemoaned the lack of women filmmakers at Sundance seemed like such a novice to me. Life is about choices and some women make choices that make getting to Sundance a whole lot less important than it might otherwise appear to the outsider.

I would feel a failure if I looked back on my life and said, "I made many great films, but I wish I had spent more time with my kids." I don't want that regret. Being a filmmaker is a blessing, a great, unbelievable gift. Being a mom, though a much more common occupation, is definitely even better.


Nina Gilden Seavey is currently completing The Open Road: America Looks at Aging for PBS and has her first dramatic feature, Evening Light, in pre-production. She continues to serve as executive producer of SILVERDOCS and still teaches documentary filmmaking at George Washington University.