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Breastfeeding Women in Canadian Film & Television

We’re honoured to share insight into the world of motherhood from some of our favourite homegrown talent. To salute World Breastfeeding Week, these women, who we’re used to seeing rock a red carpet for a film or television premiere, share with us photos of the tender moments feeding their babies to help break the stigma of breastfeeding, be it in public, the workplace, on a train, in a plane! (Or in this case, often a makeup chair or green room!)

They also weigh in on the specific challenges faced by mothers working in the Canadian film and television industry, and how being a mom drastically changes the way they will do/not do the Toronto International Film Festival circuit.

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Liane Balaban (The Grand Seduction, Man Seeking Woman)

1. MOTHERHOOD.What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having a baby?

How binary the situation is. I was a working actor, then I was a pregnant non-working actor, then I was a full time care-giver. I went from feeling professionally engaged and relevant to 24/7 childcare, which made me feel irrelevant and isolated. There is no balance or flexibility for families. Either you work full time and use day care, or you are the day care.

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

It is an opportunity to shine a light on an issue involving women’s health. Women’s health is still viewed by society as “other,” so these issues are often not deemed relevant or newsworthy (from research, to funding, to outreach). Events or initiatives specifically about women’s health create a platform for public conversation and attention that is otherwise lacking.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

The high cost of childcare – especially for auditions. Lack of access to subsidized breast pumps, which are necessary if you are returning to work while still nursing. (Let’s remember that actors and freelancers don’t get mat leave, making low and irregular income earners the most vulnerable segment when they start a family, despite the fact that these women pay taxes, too.)

4. What, in your opinion, are the biggest shifts that need to happen in Canadian society?

A federal program of affordable early childhood care, beginning at age six months (or younger). Low- and middle-income families need access to safe, inexpensive, regulated day cares. One of the main setbacks for women professionally is how difficult it is to reintegrate into the workplace after having children. I believe the main cause is the prohibitive cost of childcare.

5. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How will you manage, now that you have a little one?

I can’t stay out past 7 pm!

Photo of Liane by Eva Michon.

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Rebecca Singh (Flashpoint, Fries With That?)

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

How natural it all is, how you can choose to lean back into it, read your baby and let your intuition carry you (to a point, I often look for Google’s blessing).

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

WAY BETTER than a banana! Breast milk is truly nature’s most perfect food – no wrapper even! A true miracle superfood – and yet it’s a travesty that sometimes babies go hungry because stigmas around breastfeeding prevent women from doing it all over the world. Mothers are discriminated against and shunned for this most natural, loving and nurturing act. Shunning breastfeeding is an attack on women, which is dangerous and damaging, especially in developing countries that deal with issues of food insecurity. Its important to celebrate breastfeeding, and women in general, and to raise each other up.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

Sadly for unionized actors, our member-driven insurance provider, ACTRA Fraternal Benefit Society, has failed to keep up with its US counterpart, which offers at least some parental benefit. Here in Canada, there’s no parental benefit. The best we can do right now is use a “total disability” clause. So as a woman you become “totally disabled” by your labour and delivery and then you can get a doctor’s note and claim. It’s sad. Not to mention, as a father, you get nothing, not even one day off. Adopting? Fergetabboutit.

4. What, in your opinion, are the biggest shifts that need to happen in Canadian society?

People say it takes a village. Well then I say villages have babies. For Pete’s sake, who are we kidding? Mothers need support!

5. What is your favourite thing to do with your little one right now?

I have the Olympics playing in the background, and I coach him as he tries to find the balance to stand on his own. I act as though he is going for a gold medal and I cheer when he makes it. Then we both collapse in a fit of giggles. I will never forget these days and I feel so grateful to be a mother.

6. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How will you manage, now that you have a little one?

Last year I was “the pregnant lady.” I’ll admit I got some serious looks of respect. This year I haven’t figured it out yet. The festival has really upped its programming of female directors (EXCITING!) so I’d really like to, but…bedtime. I will have to see.

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Freya Ravensbergen (Covert Affairs, A Brand New You and Co-Chair of the Toronto ACTRA Women’s Committee [TAWC]):

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

How incredibly hard and time consuming it is to do pretty much nothing.

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

Raising awareness supports women who make the choice to breastfeed and who have found obstacles while attempting to feed in public.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

Non-existent maternity benefits, challenges to finding childcare for last-minute auditions, fewer work opportunities for bodies with baby bumps or for post-baby body sizes, long hours that don’t allow for feeding or pumping…the list goes on…

4. What, in your opinion, are the biggest shifts in Canadian society that need to happen?

Seeing the woman’s body as something other than a sexual object! An openness to seeing women lift their top off in public in order to feed their children. Breastfeeding is beautiful, tender and necessary, but it isn’t sexual.

5. What is your favourite thing to do with your little one right now?

Playing airplane is now the most fun EVER!

6. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How will you manage, now that you have a little one?

I plan to still go, but certainly less than other years. I’ll be scheduling in breaks for snuggling and breastfeeding!

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Polly Shannon (Rookie Blue, Lie with Me, CSI: Miami):

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

What shocked me most with my first was how much I loved her and how little sleep mothers get! My second has just reminded me of both of these things!

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

It’s the most natural thing in the world and so healthy for Mama and Babe. We need people to get over their boobie shock! It’s ridiculous. I get irritated when I see breasts used to sell burgers but people are offended when they are used to feed an infant.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

I breastfed my first for a year. It’s not easy to keep going, try to work and do other things that take you away from your child. Especially if you are like me and HATE pumping; however, good pumps are an absolute necessity for moms, working or not. I am on hold to shoot in two weeks and I have no idea how it’s going to work with my five-month-old son. I am determined to make it work though. I will have to pump and have a safe space for him. I am insured in America and automatically get a hospital grade pump.

I think another issue is maternity and benefits. Very few people want to hire you when you are pregnant. For obvious reasons and the not-so-obvious insurance problems productions companies encounter with a pregnant actor. There isn’t great compensation for actors once they are too pregnant to work or postpartum. They get even less if they haven’t worked much in the last year. So it can be awful for some women.

4. What, in your opinion, are the biggest shifts that need to happen in Canadian society?

Normalizing breastfeeding needs to happen everywhere. On a recent visit in Toronto, I was told I had “no shame” with breastfeeding my son in pubic. I answered with, “You’re absolutely right. I have no shame about it.” I would also say there needs to be more access to pediatricians. I was shocked by how hard it was to find one and have my son seen.

5. What is your favourite thing to do with little ones right now?

I adore having my almost three year old and baby play together! It brings me so much joy. I see the lifelong bond building already. (I am feeding my son while I write this!)

Photo of Polly by Annie Vovan Photography.

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Nicole St Martin (Murdoch Mysteries and Co-Chair of the Toronto ACTRA Women’s Committee [TAWC]):

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

How people expect perfect parenting without expecting any change in your ability to handle all your other responsibilities. You’re either completely dismissed (because you can’t commit as much time to whatever endeavour) before even being asked, or you are simply expected to seem as though you don’t have a child who needs you.

Looking for work as a mother of a young child is very challenging, and childcare is exorbitant. This surprised me because either people didn’t used to talk about it openly before or the cost has changed so significantly in the last decade that this is a newer phenomenon. It is very much a taboo. Parents are expected to deal with it, as they chose to have a child, and not to complain. Family-work balance are still rife with prejudice.

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

Though having had few negative reactions to nursing my child, it is important that our society value mothers’ contributions (yes that means feeding their child) to our society as a whole. Nursing a baby isn’t only natural or beautiful, it is time-consuming work that requires energy and should be valued and supported, not scorned. How society values breastfeeding is probably a good indication as to how much they value mothers and their work.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

I was very lucky when I booked a commercial, my first on-camera gig after giving birth. During the wardrobe call the clients found out I was nursing while trying to select my top (breasts change in size after being pumped or nursed). I was concerned at first that this would somehow be seen as negative, but the three female clients congratulated me and told me they would make sure to give me time to pump (I hadn’t asked). The atypical positive experience extended to the set where I was able to pump in private in the wardrobe area when I needed to. Needless to say my treatment led me to feel valued, which led to me feeling comfortable and confident on set, which led to me doing a great job. Win/win!

4. What, in your opinion, are the biggest shifts that need to happen in Canadian society?

Right now, childcare is so expensive I cannot even consider having another child. It is also created for jobs that fit the 9-5 paradigm. Our work does not fit that paradigm. As our children grow from babies to toddlers and then to kids, they require more of our time and their lives/schedules become more complex. Trying to find childcare support that meets both our bizarre schedules as well as our children’s schedules is only available to those who are wealthy enough to have nannies or lucky enough to have family available and interested in stepping in. It actually does take a village to raise a child in a healthy way, but we are currently forced to cope as best we can and sometimes those ways compromise children’s and parents’ well being, which inevitably affects our community at large. We, as a society, will only benefit from providing quality, flexible and affordable childcare for parents and their children.

5. What is your favourite thing to do with baby right now?

Wrestle on the bed. Go exploring. Snuggle on the couch to watch a cartoon.

6. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How will you manage, now that you have a little one?

As I am away this year (husband is in school, so I’ve chosen to uproot and keep our family together at this crucial time in my child’s development), I sadly won’t be attending. In the recent past, I only chose a couple of screenings to attend and had to secure childcare, whereas before having a child I was able to go practically every day to at least one screening and would choose what might be available at the last minute.

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Liz Whitmere (UnREAL, Clown, The Last Hit Man):

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

When my American rep dropped me after learning I was pregnant. That was surprising. I also had the misguided idea that I would be back to my old self (physically and mentally) within a few months. I had no idea how drastically my perspective would shift. I became aware of the privilege of youth and thinness and visible abs I’d been unconsciously enjoying prior to becoming pregnant. I have yet to meet my old self again, but frankly I think if I met her now I’d find her a little annoying. She was pretty oblivious.

2. Why is World Breastfeeding Week important?

Moms need support in all things, and we can become socially invisible so fast. International Breastfeeding Week helps raise awareness in people who might otherwise not notice all the breastfeeding moms in their sphere.

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

Arranging childcare is huge. Childcare for auditions is almost always on incredibly short notice. Childcare for working days often starts and finishes very early/late and is difficult to schedule. I am lucky to have a partner who freelances and is available to accommodate my weird hours. Even with older kids, taking a seven-week contract out of town meant lots of logistical gymnastics, and that was with the support of my parents who flew in to help. I know several single moms in the business and I have absolutely no idea how they do it.

4. What is your favourite thing to do with your little ones right now?

My kids are finally big enough to run lines with me and join me at auditions without creating chaos!

5. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How do you do the fest differently since having children?

I managed to attend TIFF last year for the first time in a very long time. It was great! I’m not sure about this year, as I have some work conflicts. While I was still breastfeeding I certainly felt very limited in where I could go/what events I could attend. Time becomes much more rigid when there’s a baby involved!

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Lauren Lee Smith (This Life, How To Plan An Orgy In A Small Town)

1. MOTHERHOOD: What’s the biggest thing that shocked you since having your first child?

So many things have shocked and surprised me! Everyone always tells you about the lack of sleep, but honestly nothing can really prepare you for it. It’s amazing what the body and mind are actually capable of with so little zzz’s, and how we somehow miraculously rally and tap into strength that I didn’t know I was capable of.

2.Why is International Breastfeeding Week important?

International Breastfeeding Week is so important because women are STILL, in 2016, being shamed for doing it and made to feel like it is something that should be done privately and not out and about in public! It is absurd. The list is very long for me as to why it’s is so important, but ultimately I want women to feel proud and not ashamed for doing the most natural thing in the world…feeding your baby!

3. Mothers everywhere face challenges. What are the specific challenges faced by moms working in Canadian film and television?

I would love to see more support. In regards to film and television, I understand in Canada we rely heavily on the US market. I would love to see more Canadians getting hired on the projects that are being shot in Canada. I would like to see our union step up and protect us a bit more, like they do in the US.

4. What is your favourite thing to do with your baby right now?

Everything. Watching her learn new skills every day is amazing: figuring out how to roll over, grab her toes, giggle. We particularly love hanging out in the park staring up at the leaves in the trees. So far that’s one of her favourite things!

5. Will you be attending TIFF this year? How will you do it differently?

I am not are if I will be attending this year. I will be working in Montreal, and it would be a whole new ball game in regards to time management! Gone are the days of having hours to get ready, gone are the days of having those “few too many cocktails ” (for now anyways 😉 !) And finding childcare is becoming increasingly difficult, so perhaps I would need to be much more selective about what I would attend! That being said, there are so many wonderful films this year. I really do hope to see a few!

Motherhood: it’s one intense, beautiful journey with unfathomable challenges at every turn. Learn more about World Breastfeeding Week.

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