Presumed Cesareans to Lost Backend: Why Hollywood Is So Hard on Pregnant Women

Illustration by Hanna Barczyk

When mothers go back to work after giving birth over a weekend or fear for their jobs ("Am I going to get fired?"), what's the solution? "Matriarchy!" says Shonda Rhimes.

There's never a truly convenient time to be pregnant, not even for Wonder Woman. Gal Gadot learned she was carrying her second child while shooting Justice League last summer, and hid it from her co-workers to avoid being treated differently. "I had terrible migraines," she told W. "I would show up in dark glasses, and they all thought I was going Hollywood." Then five months later, she was called back to Wonder Woman for reshoots, where production had to cut a hole in her superhero costume and cover her baby bump with green fabric in order to CGI it out later.

Such are the work-arounds that women in Hollywood make in order to juggle exceptionally demanding careers with the equally urgent calls of maternity. "My career has been built around really being present. It's a 24-hour-a-day job, or at least a 17- to 19-hour-a-day job when you're in production," Captain Fantastic producer Lynette Howell Taylor tells THR. "As soon as I got pregnant, I realized how important it was for me to be present as a parent as well. The balance will always be the greatest challenge of my life."

Many executives attempt to mitigate the disruption by timing their pregnancies to deliver toward the end of the year, in order to take advantage of the industry slowdown over the holidays. "There are a bunch of women executives who have babies right now because you get more of a pass basically between Thanksgiving and the end of Sundance" in January, says Michael De Luca Productions exec Lucy Kitada. "But your body doesn't necessarily listen to your job."

In those cases, to speed the process along, some productions expect their actresses to undergo cesarean sections to accommodate shooting schedules; other women in Hollywood opt to be induced. As her due date approached, one production exec was spending 45 minutes every night drawing up emergency notes for her colleagues in the event she went into labor. "That was so much stress," she says, adding that she was keeping towels at work just in case. When her doctor informed her that she could just pick a date to give birth, it came as a relief.

This exec also had been advised by her lawyer (who herself was pregnant at the time) to write a maternity leave clause into her re-upped deal. She received three months of paid leave but "had to drop something else that I deserved, which is shitty because if I'd been a dude, I'd have had better backend," she says. Although the big studios have established policies — Warner Bros.' HR department walked vp production Chantal Nong through its entire paid leave process and even advised her to sign up immediately for the on-site daycare's waitlist — outside the studio system, it's not unusual for pregnant executives to find themselves navigating uncharted waters with their employers. "A maternity policy was something they hadn't considered until there was reason to," producer Jessica Malanaphy says of her last company. Says the exec who followed her lawyer's advice, "There is now a whole culture of women putting [maternity leave] into their contracts."

Many women fear pregnancy can stall their hard-charging showbiz careers. "I was more worried about my projects — these other kinds of babies you've poured your blood, sweat and tears into — losing momentum than how my office would take [my pregnancy]," says Amazon Prime Original Movies exec Brie Oh. "As we're a big company, I was worried that perhaps they wouldn't get attention and that creators would come to know other executives as their point and not me." But the risk is just one of many that successful women contemplating motherhood have to consider. "What if you waited [for a movie to come together] and then it didn't happen, and you've put your personal life on hold?" Nong says. "If there's anything I've learned, it's that I can't let the industry govern my personal choices. It's just too unstable, and there are real repercussions to waiting to have a baby." Malanaphy was in the middle of contract negotiations at her last company when she got pregnant: "Do I stay another year or do I start interviewing as a pregnant person? I was concerned that I'd be discriminated against." Another exec admits that she stopped going to agencies at six months "because I didn't want anyone to 'unconscious bias' me out of getting material."

Malanaphy had left her vp production job at Blumhouse — "an amazing company to be at in terms of career trajectory" — for a more desk-bound role in development elsewhere in anticipation of starting a family. "When you're in production, the hours are just so unpredictable. I was on set sometimes seven days a week, 18-hour days. It wasn't the lifestyle I wanted with my first kid," she says, noting that there were other women who managed pregnancy under those conditions, like her friend Robyn Marshall, a senior executive at Awesomeness Films. "There were a lot of, 'Maybe I can sneak back to the trailer for lunch and put my feet up,' moments," says Marshall of spending her second trimester this summer on the Vancouver shoot of To All the Boys I've Loved Before.

Chandra Wilson assumed she'd be written out of Grey's Anatomy when she told creator Shonda Rhimes of her pregnancy early in the series' run (it was instead written into season two). Adds Scandal's Katie Lowes, "Even though Kerry [Washington] had babies on the show, it's ingrained — 'Am I going to get fired?'"

Instead, Rhimes encouraged Lowes to make her important life decision while the show — whose current seventh season is its last — was still on the air: "I think you should get it done on my watch." Lowes heeded the advice, and during her pregnancy earlier this year, an obstetrician was on hand during physical scenes, drivers took her to and from set in her third trimester and her trailer steps were replaced with a wooden deck. "It was this incredible porch that the transpo team had made. That call came from the top," says Lowes. She sent a photo to Rhimes, who responded with a single word: "Matriarchy!!!!"

The solution to making a balance more achievable for working mothers likely lies in having more of them flood the ranks. Nong credits her direct boss, Warners president of production Courtenay Valenti, with showing her what's possible, while TriStar president Hannah Minghella praises then-Sony Pictures chair Amy Pascal for being fully supportive during both of her pregnancies. "In turn, I've felt a responsibility to model my parenting in a way that has made the women coming up behind me feel comfortable about having their own children," Minghella says. "I have discreetly nursed my babies in front of some pretty high-profile executives and filmmakers. I never saw a female executive do that before me so at first I was concerned about people's reactions, but it wasn't a distraction and in some cases even brought a more relaxed energy to the room."

Minghella is one of many industry moms in a private Facebook group started by Taylor, who makes an effort to hire mothers "because I feel like I can provide a work environment that is more tolerant and understanding of what it takes to [be present in both career and family]," she says. "There is incredible talent that shouldn't be wasted."

Lowes says that because the Scandal set was populated with directors, assistant directors and line producers who were moms, "when I had to run to the bathroom every half-hour, it's not a frustration like, 'We don't have time for your biological needs,' " she says. "I have a lot of friends in this business who had a baby on a Thursday and went back on a Monday, otherwise they wouldn't get paid. But my only regret is that I didn't have a second child on the show."

A version of this story first appeared in the 2017 Women in Entertainment Power 100 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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