When Sarah Joy Bennett first became a mother, she was entirely unprepared for the amount of isolation that she suddenly felt. She figured this whole motherhood thing would come to her more naturally. “I didn’t realize how lonely I would feel,” she explains, “and also that my relationship to this very new, very tiny, very weak and sort of alien-looking creature that I was now responsible for would not be an easy relationship right out of the gate.”
Slipping into a mix of shame, failure and guilt, she wondered if she had made a mistake, or if she misjudged herself. It was in this dark head space—this middle-of-the-night, sleep-deprived state—that spawned the idea for Night Feed: A Puppet Play About Motherhood.
In the play, the inanimate objects of early parenthood (a breast pump, parenting books, dust bunnies) spring to life and start talking to her. Created in collaboration with innovative puppet designer and director Shawna Reiter, as well as guest puppet director Mike Peterson (The Jim Henson Company), Night Feed is a post-natal fever dream brought to life.
We asked Sarah about the play this week.
SDTC: What was going through your mind in those early days of new motherhood?
SJB: My family lives far away. My husband and I are both freelancers; he had to go back to work right away. It was just me and this little creature trying to figure things out.
If I’m alone a lot, and if I don’t do something constructive and creative, my imagination will start to terrify me. It will come up with the most messed up and frightening things. What if when she’s fifteen THIS happens? I was spiralling.
What memory stands out to you most?
I think I met possibly an angel. I remember, I managed to get out of the house after psyching myself up; I’m getting out of this house! It’s finally going to happen! I’m going to figure out this baby carrier! Because I was getting unbelievably claustrophobic. I managed to get outside; I got to the cross street. This woman came up to me, and she put her hand on my shoulder and said, “Wow. You made it out of the house.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah I did.” And she said, “You know, the first 100 days are literally hell.” And I started crying because I was so happy that someone else said that. I’m like, “Thank you, because I am so unhappy right now. And I’m supposed to be happy and I am miserable.” The first 100 days of Holly’s life were the worst. I got a little more head space after the first three months. But the first year is hard.
How are things harder for new mothers nowadays?
There are so many more opinions we have access to, and so many big opinions. Everybody’s got opinions on how to be a woman in general, but especially about how to be a mother. I felt like the parenting books were kind of leaning off my bookshelf and staring at me and contradicting each other. It’s very hard to find your path and trust yourself. You’re not in a great position physically and emotionally to say, “Screw you guys, I’m going to do it my own way. I’m capable!”
What was your favourite character in the play to create?
I loved writing the breast pump character; I’d never had such a complicated relationship with a machine in my life. You’re clasping it to your breast, it’s sucking, and painful, you feel like a cow, and I hated it, but I needed it. When I looked at it one day it looked like it had sort of a face. I started wondering what it would say to me if it could. It became this kind of hyper-cranked motivational speaker/aerobics instructor who had so much energy, it was exhausting. I called her Rhonda.
What did you lose when you became a mother?
I lost fearlessness. There is one character in the play, our sexiest character, the bike. He represents all the reckless decisions that I will now not make, and all the risks that I dare not take anymore. There’s a kind of freedom you have when you don’t feel so entirely responsible for another human being that you love with your whole heart. Once you have that other person, you become aware of your mortality in a big way. Your life and well-being affects this other’s little creature’s ability to live and thrive. You lose spontaneity, fearlessness, recklessness, and all that fun, sexy liberty you had before. And that is a hard thing to say goodbye to.
What do you miss?
I miss my focus. To be able to work on one thing alone and not have another very large part of my brain thinking about my child; even if she’s not here, there’s always a part of my brain tracking how she is, where she is, is she well. I think that’s a part of why a lot of the art we have is made by men or people who don’t have kids. It’s hard to shut the whole world out and devote yourself to the creation of this one thing—a piece of music, or novel or play—because there’s this large part of you that is elsewhere.
A professor in theatre school told me I wouldn’t be able to be a mother and an actress, and I would have to choose. In many ways, the working model for theatre creation is not conducive to family life. But we’re trying to work on a new model that allows for theatre creation and being the full human beings and parents we want to be. We need more flexibility; we don’t need to cling so hard to the idea of complete commitment and sacrifice to the show. But it also means we have to do things (dramaturgical sessions, video editing etc.) in the middle of the night.
What have you gained?
I eventually learned to trust myself and trust that I was capable. That sounds like a small thing, but actually it was an amazing thing to be. I wasn’t a serene, effortless, beautiful, sexy, wise, Warth-goddessy-breastfeeding with a gauzy robe and a flower crown, but I discovered I was capable of learning and figuring it out. I did have it in me to be a responsible, caring, capable and attentive mother. If you’re able to release yourself from the expectations you put on yourself and we feel that society puts on us, there’s a freedom.
At what point did you finally shed those expectations?
It’s easy to slip into the fears of not doing things right and not living up. It’s shocking how easily and how frequently mothers accuse themselves of being bad mothers. The tiny things like, “I made cupcakes for her entire preschool for her birthday, but I used a mix! I’m a bad mother.” We get messages constantly about how we’re not doing enough, so we need to remind ourselves to be kind to ourselves, and trust ourselves, and look at how far we’ve come.
What do you hope audiences take away from this play?
It’s a weird time in our life. I want us to have a nice release and laughter. It’s ridiculous; it’s actually a very funny play. You speak your truth through humour, so I want to use a sense of the bizarre and humour as tools to create empathy for this time in a person’s life that is usually hidden and private and experienced in isolation. I hope that it makes people who have experienced this feel a little less alone.
Night Feed comes to Fringe Toronto this July 5-14. Get tickets here.