Rearing a newborn and sustaining a career can be a difficult balance for any mother, particularly for those working in the Canadian arts industries. Breast pumps, for instance, which can cost hundreds of dollars, are not subsidized, nor is lactation consultation covered under the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists's insurance plan. This led Toronto actresses Liane Balaban, Rebecca Singh and Freya Ravensbergen to help launch a new online ACTRA forum aimed at highlighting performer-parent needs, which will launch on Mother's Day. The Globe spoke with the performers about seeking change within the industry.
What is the core of the issue here?
Liane Balaban: The larger issue is the marginalization of motherhood from the workplace. Parenthood is never top of mind when it comes to work-life balance. For both Rebecca and I, this experience has been eye-opening because we're both first-time mothers. For my experience, there's a blind spot when it comes to maternity issues and parental needs in the workplace. It was first apparent when I was looking into my private insurance benefits and saw that none of my health needs as a mother were covered in terms of medical devices.
How did it make you feel when you were turned away from work while you were pregnant?
Balaban: I lost out on four jobs due to my pregnancy. I was either not able to fly there to do the job or, in another case, I was actually told by a director that it made him too nervous that I would be seven months pregnant while shooting his project, even though I physically felt great and would have been happy to work. Pregnant women are mostly invisible onscreen.
Rebecca Singh: There are many women all over the place doing many types of jobs. Why can't they be onscreen in a scene? What's the challenge or barrier there? It's a problem of lack of diversity.
What types of benefits do you have access to right now?
Singh: It's not adequate. There's nothing to draw on right now. We're at the mercy of whatever unions or guilds and their policies have to offer and that's usually six to eight weeks of disability pay. It's not in favour of the recipient. It also excludes adoptive parents and fathers, so it's not a parental benefit.
How does it differ for performers in the United States?
Balaban: Breast pumps are covered and lactation consultation is covered. Also parental benefits are clearly delineated in the insurance documents – there's an entire pamphlet devoted to what your benefits are when you have a family. We would love to see something like that in place for us.
Rebecca, you had your newborn on-set with you during one of your films.
Singh: It was new and challenging. Beyond that, I do go through the experience of going to auditions and trying to figure out how to deal with child care. There's a lack of child care in Toronto as is, and as a working actress you get notices of auditions the day before sometimes. It's a really short time frame to book child care. You have situations where moms bring their kids to the audition hoping there's going to be somebody there who can watch their child for a few minutes.
What is the goal of this initiative?
Balaban: For us, we'd like to see some changing around the language to turn it into more of a maternity benefit, so that it's more clear in the insurance documents. Many actors who are entitled to the benefit don't even know it exists because it's framed as a disability, not a maternity issue. It needs to be legislated. We need to see physical changes to our insurance policy.
Singh: We are identifying a need to deal with child care in this day and age so that it doesn't become a barrier to getting auditions and booking work. We're hoping with this new energy coming out of Ottawa that they will consult more with the ACTRA Fraternal Benefit Society [the insurer], and that the input we're currently giving them will find its way to the ears on Parliament Hill who can actually cause systemic change to affect not only actors but all self-employed people.
This interview has been condensed and edited.