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How to live your life as a single mother, raise a daughter — and record it all for podcast

Sophie Harper, host and producer of the Not by Accident podcast series, offers tips and tricks for how to have a life, record it, and turn it into a podcast — all at the same time.
Sophie Harper records her daughter, Astrid for the Not By Accident documentary podcast series.

In 2012 I was 37, an Australian living alone in Denmark. I was teaching documentary filmmaking, grieving a failed love affair, and getting ready to make the biggest decision of my life.

I bought an audio recorder and started to capture working through this decision. The idea was simple. I wanted to tell my story of choosing single motherhood, somehow, in some form. There wasn't much out there.

Not by accident

A documentary podcast series by Sophie Harper about choosing to become a single mother. Listen →

I was inspired by documentary films that are recorded over years, like the Seven-Up series and Hoop Dreams, and by the films of Ross McElwee, but I found recording video too intrusive and confrontational. It didn't come naturally, but recording audio did.  

A year later, still single, I had my first insemination and fell pregnant ... and I got the whole thing on tape. Before my daughter turned three, I left my job, we moved home, and with hundreds of hours of recordings — five years worth — I decided now was the time to tell our story. Not By Accident, an audio documentary podcast series about choosing to become a single mother and coping with being one, is the result.

I don't record all the time; I often go months without recording anything. There are times I want to record and I decide against it, not to break the moment. Life is always more important than the story. I don't want my life, and more importantly my daughter's life, to be shaped by the telling of it. We must live life first.

Getting started, the scatter recording days

I was living alone, away from my family and friends, so I spent a lot of time on the phone. I made it a habit to record the end of the calls as I talked through all my concerns and worked out the practicalities of my plan. I didn't feel the need to ask permission when the only voice that could be heard was mine, so it was as passive as could be.

Sophie with baby Astrid.
I'd sit the mic on a table, turn it on, forget about it and get on with my life. I wasn't self-conscious making these recordings. I didn't self-censor, because I knew nobody would ever hear it unless I made the decision to share. I would be the editor and I would control exactly what was made public and what stayed private.

I gained confidence and began recording family get-togethers and conversations with friends when the topic of my plan came up. Sometimes I'd ask a small crowd, my family usually, and then just sit my recorder on the table and let it run. I didn't check the sound. This is unconventional and definitely risky, but instinctively I knew that pulling out the headphones, carefully making adjustments, would make everybody too aware to be themselves.

I just hoped for the best.

I captured myself arriving at appointments, for the insemination, the scan, the midwife. I'd either shyly put my recorder away before we began, or ask permission and sometimes, disappointingly, be told 'no'. Occasionally a compromise: I could record the baby's heartbeat, but nothing more. I'd take what I could get.

I recorded Skype calls with friends announcing I was pregnant without their knowledge, to get real reactions. It felt a bit like theft to me, but I couldn't ask without spoiling the surprise. I did mostly let them know afterwards, and I always ask permission before using the clips, all these years later.

These events were emotional, overwhelming, and sometimes I was so consumed by them I forgot to record. I'd lie in bed feeling regret, knowing I couldn't recreate an important moment, so next time I'd try harder.

I forgot to record telling my mother my waters had broken, but remembered to record the whole nervous drive to the hospital. Then from the start of labour to having a one-year-old baby, almost nothing! I was consumed. There were some iPhone videos though, and the sound from those filled the gaps in telling the story of my daughter's first year. When you miss it, you just have to get creative.

Recording with purpose

Once I released my first episodes, my recording had clearer purpose. I went after material to specifically connect themes and tell the story.

Sophie with Astrid at age 3.
I began setting things up: like taking my daughter, Astrid, to the dinosaur museum so I could connect the material back to her talking about her love of dinosaurs, or asking her about not having a Dad in order to use the conversation in an episode on that theme.

These are natural events in our lives, but don't usually happen when I'm recording, so I initiated them specifically to record. I have boundaries though.

Asking Astrid about not having a Dad explicitly for the podcast, bringing up something she only occasionally brings up herself and isn't sure how to feel about, felt exploitative. She's only three. She can't give informed consent and as her mother it's my job to protect her. This can be in conflict with my job as a storyteller. Obviously she comes first.

I constantly monitor myself and the impact of this work on her, and make adjustments. I hope I'm making good choices.

Maintaining friendships in the midst of recording

I'm trying hard to limit the effect of the podcast on my relationships. I offer veto rights to people on things said by or about them. Sometimes they are happy to be included as long as they're not named. This is fine. I do want to tell the truth, but not at anybody else's expense. Nobody should be forced to be a part of this simply because they know me.

I procrastinate over getting in touch with people I haven't spoken to for ages, of initiating difficult conversations, rehashing past conflicts. I try to be brave and offer them the chance to speak, and when I am not brave, or they don't want to, I write around it, find other ways to tell the story and leave out things that might damage my relationships, could cause hurt or invade others' privacy.

Astrid and Sophie.
A friend asked me not to record some atmosphere over dinner, so I didn't. I missed having that material but might well feel the same if the tables were turned. I'm surprised people don't ask me not to record more often.

Another friend happily allowed me to record intimate conversations between us, but panicked a few days later! I assured her I wouldn't use anything without her knowledge and consent, and when I asked to use a clip months later, she happily agreed. It's a matter of respect on my part, of trust on their part, and it's a dance.

Recording busy events

At my nephew's recent birthday party, I tried out my new recording set up: a Tascam DR100 MKIII, a Rode shotgun mic, and serious-looking headphones. I was amazed to be completely ignored by my family and the audio was technically very good, but it was immediately clear to me that I'd become an observer rather than a participant.

This wasn't going to work. My amateurish setup of a reorder sitting on a mini-tripod, forgotten, is the best way to capture the reality of events in my life even though sometimes levels are wrong, there's terrible wind noise, or the kids fiddle and turn it off without me noticing.

My daughter Astrid was upset by something during the party and looked to me for comfort, but ran away when she saw all my gear. It was intimidating and I felt I'd let her down.

This was such a contrast to a trip to the pool with the smaller recorder in my pocket. She knew it was there but happily ignored it. She doesn't mind me recording like this, but as she gets older I'm sure that will change, and I will stop before it does.

About the author

Sophie Harper
Sophie Harper is the host and producer of Not by Accident — a documentary podcast series about becoming a single mother by choice. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from the Australian National University with a Film Studies major, and has worked as a documentary producer, director & editor.

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