Sundance Winner Tracy Droz Tragos Talks Balancing Movies and Motherhood

Here’s what I posted on Facebook a few days ago: Sweet P just lost her first tooth. And I missed it!

Here’s what I posted on Facebook a few days ago: Sweet P just lost her first tooth. And I missed it! In Raleigh on my way to Kansas City via Atlanta. I’d like to go to the bathroom and have a good cry, but we are about to take off…

Yes, my five-year-old daughter’s first tooth had come out – and I was in an airport, on a layover, between film festivals that are at opposite ends of the country. It’s been about three months since Rich Hill won the U.S. Grand Jury Prize for a Documentary at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. And lately, I spend way more time at festivals than I do with my family. Missing the lost tooth is just one in a series of misses, others more significant.

From mom friends, I’ve heard, “You are an inspiration” or even “You are superwoman.” From my filmmaking friends without kids, I hear, “I don’t know how you do it.” I don’t really know how I do it either. I muddle through my days, improvising, daydreaming of windows of time to do my work – just waiting until the kids are asleep. Jealous of those young dudes just out of film school.

Here’s a look behind my curtain: as a mother and filmmaker, I have to squeeze my business into snippets of downtime. That may mean folding the laundry when I’m on a conference call or letting my daughters, ages five and nine, watch TV while I finish that one important e-mail. I have the ability to make the most ugly “shut up” face to my kids when I’m on the phone – and can somehow have my voice sound like sweetness and light at the same time.

I have these on-again, off-again periods: when I’m in production and on a deadline – and then, with guilty heart, when I make up for it. At the moment, I’m in “mom mode,” spending the next eight days being on duty evenings and weekends, visiting doctors, packing lunches, washing hair, helping with homework and managing conflict.My husband, who also has a job and pays more than half of our family’s bills, gets to focus on HIS work for a change.

I wish I could write that I have found answers, that I have learned how to strike a perfect balance: professional success, happy family, classroom volunteer – personal peace. But that’s not the truth. Here’s what is true: to be a filmmaker and a mother means that my life is pretty much a mess – someone is always pissed off, neglected – and I’m always apologizing.

There is some part of me that naturally, perhaps even biologically, follows the example of my own mother, who has worked tirelessly all my life and missed a good part of my childhood. She went to law school when few women did. At 68, she has no plans to retire. She’s accomplished, respected. And the bonus is that it feeds her – in a way that I know our relationship never has.

When I became pregnant with my first, I wanted to be a different mother. I had worked before she was born. I had made an independent film that won awards on the festival circuit, was broadcast on television and then won the Emmy for Best Documentary. I had produced a pilot television show. I decided to give that all up to be a fully present mom.

But full-time motherhood proved not to be an easy choice. And while I’m not sure I was ever fully, FULLY present, I gave it my all. I approached raising my daughter with the same intensity I had given to my filmmaking. I read baby books, took Mommy & Me classes, nursed into toddlerhood. It was fulfilling and lovely at times – but there also were moments that were totally numbing and intensely sad. I hungered to use a different part of my brain, to move at a faster pace. I felt like I was losing my identity – and at times, and perhaps most importantly, my dignity. I had to ask my husband for walking around money; he would ask me if his socks had been laundered. I had gone “all in” – and it was a different kind of imbalance. When my second daughter turned three, I went back to making films.

From my personal window on the world, part of the reason there aren’t more women filmmakers has to do with children and math. Sure there are the gender stereotypes and misogynistic leanings of the film industry – but there are also the practicalities. At a certain point, if the choice is to have children and work outside the home, any woman has to calculate what childcare is going to cost and what her realistic earning potential is. For an independent filmmaker, that math can be a devastating reality.

And it’s not all about the money. There is the emotional math. Just as I must buck up when I am deep in work mode, clenching my jaw when I walk out the door anticipating some measure of suffering that I will cause and milestones I will miss, there’s also a little smile (inside). A little part of me is jumping for joy because I get to go out into the world and do something different and meaningful.

Would my daughters be happier if I didn’t work? I ask myself that a lot. Sometimes, I think the answer is “yes.” It’s a wonderful gift to have a fully focused, less stressed parent who is always around. Would I be happier if I didn’t have kids? I ask myself that, too. Sometimes, I think the answer here also is “yes.” I could focus without interruption and keep my sharpies in the pen jar.

I love making films – I might even be good at it. When I’m in “work mode,” I get obsessed, and I have a hard time letting go.If allowed, I get lost in the hours of writing, filming, editing. The irony is that my subject matter is often an exploration of family, fueled by my own experiences, challenges and failings. Often, it seems, I am a better person in the world of my films – more focused, altruistic and attuned – than in my real life. I can achieve in my films what I can’t at home. As my favorite street photographer, Helen Levitt, has said, “Since I’m inarticulate, I express myself with images.”Since I’m not so great at family life, I express my longing for it in my films, and find it easier to meet with success there. I develop strong relationships with the people in my films and those relationships endure. I have lists of those with whom I have a moral obligation to stay in touch – not my 88-year-old grandmother, mind you, or even my mother – but the families in Rich Hill.

Bottom line, a heartfelt connection with my work often takes away from the connection I’d want with my family. It’snota “more is more” kind of thing. I find you have to be willing to give away a part of yourself to make something real, to be willing to give something up – to give “it” to something else. Corny as it may sound, I am giving a part of my soul when I put a camera in front of someone else just as they give me theirs. And some days that feels like a part of me that doesn’t easily get renewed.And certainly not when I’m in the company of children who are screaming about who got the biggest piece of cake.

There is some notion out there that a woman can “have it all” if she simply strikes that perfect balance. Most days, I don’t even know what balance is. What I do know is that I have a wealth of material, and plenty of opportunities to re-do and re-examine, and with that comes insight and empathy. My daily onslaught of making pig-tails, demanding teeth-brushing, washing dishes, cringing at credit card bills, melting in my evening snuggle infuses my perspective and my storytelling. Yes, on the surface, my being a filmmaker is not even a break-even enterprise – I don’t make a lot of money, my family has to do without a caretaker, and it certainly takes an emotional toll.

So why do I do it? In part, because I get to call my own shots and tell the stories I think should be told in films that won’t be made unless I make them. But that’s not all. I’m giving myself the gift of work. I’m more like my mother than I think. As unsustainable and unsexy as it sometimes feels, I power through the guilt and drama with single-minded determination because ultimately the voice I am giving is to myself. I just hope that the loneliness I felt as a kid isn’t something my kids feel. While it’s probably worthwhile for my daughters to see their mother dedicated to something she is good at and their father as a caregiver, I long for them to know I value them too – not just in concept, but in real everyday moments.

Like today, my five-year-old got so mad at her sister she took a bite out of her shirt and in the process, she lost her second tooth – bloody and sequined. We laughed; we cried – I held her in my arms while she put ice up to her face. A milestone I did not miss, and it felt nice. And then their father took them away for a Saturday morning lesson and I got to write this. A balance as perfect as it gets.

Tracy Droz Tragos is an Emmy award-winning filmmaker who produced and directed Be Good, Smile Pretty, which aired on PBS. In collaboration with Andrew Droz Palermo, she directed and produced the 2014 Sundance-winner Rich Hill, which will open in theaters this summer and will broadcast on the PBS series “Independent Lens” in 2015.