'Becoming A Mother Broke Me Open.' Audra McDonald Explains How Parenthood Affected Her Career
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Audra McDonald, winner of a record six Tonys, two Grammys and an Emmy, has starred in everything from Carousel and The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess on Broadway, to major TV roles in Private Practice and The Gilded Age. During her decades-long career as a lioness of American theater, McDonald has also become a mother twice, to children born almost 16 years apart.
She opened up in an interview about how her two difficult pregnancies impacted her packed performance schedule, how the arts need to change to accommodate mothers, and how she almost lost a pregnancy in the middle of a Broadway performance.
You were already a three-time Tony winner by the time your daughter Zoe was born. Did you feel as if you were at a point where you could pause your career, or did you feel like you just had to kind of keep going?
Finding out that I was pregnant was a surprise. There certainly hadn’t been a plan in place for how I would manage a pregnancy with a career. So it was a matter of, Oh, gosh, I hope I can still do everything. Naively, at the time, I thought: ‘I’m just gonna plug this pregnancy into the schedule.’ I had an entire fall concert tour planned, and I had to cancel the whole thing. It was my first foray into what parenthood is, and how priorities absolutely must shift.
I went into preterm labor at five-and-a-half months pregnant. I thought it was just Braxton Hicks, but turns out I was three-and-a-half centimeters dilated. And you’re not supposed to be dilated at all. It was scary. I remember them saying, “You can’t do this concert that you’re supposed to go do.” And I was like, “So, okay, so I’ll cancel the one concert,” and they’re like, “No, this is serious. We have to stop everything and you have to go get in bed.” I’m like, “Okay, for like a week?” They’re like, “No, until you’re far enough along that the baby will be viable if you deliver early.” It was frightening and sobering. And it bonded me to Zoe in a way that I wasn’t expecting that early.
Did you experience motherhood as a transformation?
Oh, hell yeah. You can’t help but be a different person. It’s almost mystical in a way. Even just the process of giving birth. You go in this room with a certain amount of people and when you leave there is another soul that has come in. You are a portal bringing a soul onto the planet. I was no longer living just for me anymore.
Can you tell me a little bit about the person you were before Zoe was born, and then the person you were after Zoe was born?
The person I was before Zoe was born was someone who could be self-centered, a little more closed-minded. Probably more judgmental. And the depths of my soul weren’t fully plumbed and explored before I had Zoe. Becoming a mother broke me open in a way that I hadn’t been before.
Did it change anything about the roles you were drawn to?
I wanted to still be able to pursue my career. And I wanted to model for my child that you can have a career, and you don’t have to give up everything. It’s difficult, but you can have all of it. I took her out on the road with me when I was concertizing. That little girl saw much of this country.
Did you have a nanny with you? Bedtime and showtime are often the same time.
It was Patti LuPone who taught me that you can do that. She’s like, ‘Honey, they’re potatoes when they’re little. They’re just like a sack of potatoes, you can just bring the potato with you.’
When she was little, I had my mother-in-law who would come from time to time and help. Sometimes my mom could help. And then, at other times, I had a babysitter. So I’d leave the hotel, go to the theater, do the show, and they’d put them to bed. I’d pump so there was milk to put her to bed, or I’d rush right back after the concert. Sometimes I would have her backstage at the concert when she was really, really little and I needed to nurse her more often. I could nurse her right before I went onstage and then as soon as I got off stage for concerts. I was lucky that I had the financial ability to bring the help that I needed.
There are some women who, once they become a mother, want a job that’s a little easier, that won’t make them travel as much. Did you ever have that feeling?
The perfect example of that is Private Practice. I took Private Practice, even though it was filming in California. I was going through a divorce at the time, and my father had just been killed in a plane crash. And so I thought ‘I need this change of scenery,’ but I also knew that I didn’t want to upset Zoe’s life. So I was like, ‘You’ll stay here with your dad. I’ll fly home every weekend, and then on offseason, and you can come out.’ I didn’t want to uproot her life, especially not knowing if the television show will be successful or not.
After almost four years of doing that, I realized the toll it was taking on me, and the toll it was taking on Zoe. She was getting ready to go into her adolescent years. And I realized, I can’t do this anymore. I have to be home for her. Even if it’s at the time when they become teenagers and they start ignoring you and they don’t want you around. That’s when I need to be around even more.
And so I had to ask Shonda [Rhimes] to let me go. I had to go home. And Shonda understood. She was lovely about the way she wrote me out of the show. She made it a point to say that my character was going to New York to be with her daughter, and she made it about a motherhood choice that she was making. And I thought that was very beautiful. And like sort of a sisterhood that Shonda put in there. I was always so grateful to her for that.
I don’t regret anything I’ve ever done. But in hindsight, if I had known what I knew after I’d taken the job, perhaps I wouldn’t have taken that job.
Some performers feel like they have to get their career launched before they can start a family. What would you say to those to those women who feel as if having a career in the performing arts and becoming a parent are incompatible?
As an industry, we need to make it easier for women to be able to be parents and be pregnant. And have this space to be pregnant without being punished for it or ostracized for it. And obviously I have to say ‘women,’ because women are the ones that have to have the baby, regardless of who ends up being the parent. So I think the question is, what can we as an industry do to make that a little easier, a little more viable and a little bit more equitable? On Broadway, wouldn’t it be amazing if there was some way to have child care in the theater district for theater parents? Parental leave and all that stuff without fear of losing your place in the show? More protections for pregnant women, and more grace for pregnant women?
I think about what happened with me in Shuffle Along, and you know, my pregnancy being blamed for the show ending. It was very interesting to have people in the business come up to me afterwards and say things like, ‘Oh, wow, your baby literally stopped that show.’ Or ‘oh, wow. Yours is the $11 million baby.’ What I had to go through during all that, that was really difficult and unnecessary. To have the whole burden of the entire show and everybody’s job all being placed on my shoulders was really horrific. I haven’t spoken out enough about it for many reasons. But that was not right.
I had been planning to ask about how your unexpected pregnancy affected your work in Shuffle Along, but I had meant to ask about what it was like to have to sing and dance while you were pregnant. What was it like to perform such a physically demanding role while you were pregnant at 46?
I had an incredible dresser backstage, who I’ve worked with since Porgy & Bess. She was wrapping my belly to secure it before I went on stage every night. I was having really bad water on the knee and issues like that, because of the swelling that happens with pregnancy. And there were nights that I just couldn’t do the show, you know, hopping up on the chair and tap dancing and all the quick changes.
I had a hemorrhage that happened on stage one night while I was singing my big number. And I thought I had lost the baby, but I had to finished the number. That was a really rough night.
We assumed that I’d lost the baby that night. I assumed I lost her. It literally happened while I was singing. I felt it happen. I felt that gush. And I thought, ‘I just lost my baby, and I’m still singing.’
And you finished the number?
I finished the number and then I ran offstage and called [my partner] Will, and called my doctor and she said, ‘Come in tomorrow, but it sounds like you’ve lost the baby.’ She asked how much blood. I’m like: ‘A lot of blood.’
It was devastating. It was quite a miracle when they looked the next day, and they said, ‘Oh, no, where we saw the sack before is no longer there. But wait, what’s that over there?” So I don’t know if it was twins or what, but Sally was there. And now she’s here.
There was another night that I was doing the final number and I started to have this incredible pain that felt like labor pains, shooting pain across my belly. This was about a month before the show closed. And I ran offstage and I was like, I gotta go to the hospital. Something’s not right. My wonderful understudy stepped in and she did the second act, and I was whisked off to my doctor’s office.
Your trajectory has been a little bit unusual, because you’ve had two girls roughly 16 years apart. How were those experiences different?
My second pregnancy, as we touched on before, ended up affecting a lot more people. And I was getting ready to do Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill in London, and and that had to get pushed back as well. I don’t want to say I didn’t care. But now that I was a mother, I was not naive. It was like: this baby comes first. I don’t care what’s happening with my career. If it means I never work again, I don’t care. This is first.
Zoe has been wonderful at helping me avoid some of the mistakes that I made with with her with Sally. Zoe is very much helping me to be a better parent to Sally than I was to Zoe. And that’s incredibly loving of Zoe to do, and that shows a lot of grace. I mean, I don’t think I was the world’s worst parent with Zoe, but you don’t know a lot. And so Zoe has been able to teach me about how things look in a child’s eyes.
How I talk about myself. She said, ‘Mom, you always talk so poorly about yourself and your body in front of me. I don’t want to hurt your feelings. But I learned that behavior. You were modeling that behavior for me. And so I do that to myself now.’
I used to teach Zoe little cute names for her body parts. And she’s like: ‘Teach Sally what it is. It’s her vagina. Don’t call it some cute name. She needs that to sort through her own bodily autonomy and be aware of what her body is where her boundaries are.’ So I’m learning in real time. Zoe is an amazing woman.