Babes in arms: Hats off to the single mothers who grace our stages and screens

Actress Jean Yoon, multidisciplinary artist Jani Lauzon and musical theatre star Ma-Anne Dionisio share their misadventures in motherhood and performance.

Three women share their misadventures in motherhood and performance

Arden hiking up a mountain in Colombia where Catherine taught theatre to ex-child soldiers with Aluna Theatre. (Catherine Hernandez)

"This is what's going to happen," Jean Yoon told me when she and her baby son, Anand, visited me and my then newborn baby, Arden. I had just informed her I'd earned a gig writing a column in a national newspaper a week after giving birth. "You think of all the words while you're rocking the baby to sleep, while you're breastfeeding, while you're folding the laundry. Then when Arden is asleep, you write and write and write."

That was then. Before we both became single mothers. Before we even had a clue what a poop show/magic show the next 13 years would be. Between our irregular schedules and our irregular paycheques, how did we even manage?

"Physically, emotionally, mentally and financially, I was completely depleted. I was falling apart. I felt like a Jenga game. I felt like the wind could blow through me. I felt incredibly fragile," says Jean to me over brunch. "If something wasn't absolutely essential I had to cut it because I couldn't afford it."

Jean at Anand’s grade six graduation party. (Catherine Hernandez)

She proudly shows me the knee-high boots she bought herself after receiving a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her role as Umma in Kim's Convenience. My heart skips a beat when she points to them and says, "I bought!" I've watched her put Anand first for so long — and after becoming one of Canada's most recognizable faces on television, she can finally treat herself.

Renowned multidisciplinary artist Jani Lauzon knows this hustle well.

"I have a better understanding of the word sacrifice...My commitment is a balance between being a parent to Tara and my career," Jani tells me with a quiet calm. It seems like yesterday that our daughters were running through Buddies in Bad Times Theatre searching for hiding spots. Back then, we did not have quiet nor calm.

"I wasn't perceived as being competent as a single parent. I had male directors tell me I shouldn't be in the industry...By hearing those things, it spurred me into advocating for women to be recognized as viable artists."

She sought relationships with theatre companies that would be willing to learn how to support single mothers during production. It was a hit and miss.

I had male directors tell me I shouldn't be in the industry...By hearing those things, it spurred me into advocating for women to be recognized as viable artists.- Jani Lauzon

Once, while rehearsing in Ottawa, Tara developed a fever of 104 degrees. No caregiver could step in with that high a fever and the rehearsal process would not stop for a sick child. Jani had to troubleshoot. Thankfully, their hotel room was adjacent to the theatre; Tara was old enough to nurse herself and to text her mother updates every five minutes. Despite the impressive juggling act, Jani was still criticized for not being fully present for the rehearsal process.

Tara giving her mother Jani a necklace as an opening night present for her role as Shylock in Shakespeare in the Rough's production of The Merchant of Venice. (Keith Barker)

"I have been blessed. Most of the producers and directors know that I'm a mom and are very supportive," says Ma-Anne Dionisio of Miss Saigon fame, who is a single parent to three children. "Whenever budget allows [the producers] pay for their travel. They always know that I'm going to travel with my children. That said, it's been really tricky." "Tricky" as in breastfeeding during tech rehearsals and checking math homework between songs.

"When we were touring Europe, the show would finish at 11. You go back to the hotel and settle all the kids down — they're so tired they fall asleep immediately. That's when I pack everything up because in the morning we have to be on the bus at 6 to catch a train to catch a plane to catch another bus. On the bus I'm already eyeing what restaurants are around because I'm going to have to feed them as soon as they get to the next hotel. Meanwhile the other cast members are unpacked in their hotel rooms and unwinding. But I'm trying to get everyone ready because in an hour we're getting back onto the bus to get to the theatre and perform."

Ma-Anne Dionisio with her three children. (Catherine Hernandez)

This partnership between producer, child and mother is a delicate dance all four of us know well. "Some producers get it," says Ma-Anne. "They provide assistance, childcare, travel — and then they see your best work because they treated you well."

The payoff for us as single mamas?

Anand telling Jean, "That was a good one!" after stage performances of Kim's Convenience.

Ma-Anne's kids' awareness and respect of their mother's work.

My daughter, Arden, developing into a brilliant and funny writer.

"Parenting, to me, is like the birthing process of a play, of something creative. It comes from the same seed," says Jani, whose daughter is now embarking on a journey in theatre. "I look at my child Tara and the life that she is creating for herself as the most beautiful creative endeavours I have ever engaged with."

This is part of a series of personal essays celebrating women in the arts that CBC Arts is publishing in the lead-up to International Women's Day on March 8.


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