Change can’t come quick enough to rid us of outdated ideas about marriage and motherhood

The attitude that either will hinder your career belongs in the 1950s – audiences appreciate all kinds of material, not just what mirrors their own life

Shaparak Khorsandi
Friday 22 October 2021 20:00
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<p>‘In my 20 years in the business, I’ve never heard an agent express concerns that a male stand-up might not be able to make the commitment needed to this consuming career because of his parental status’ </p>

‘In my 20 years in the business, I’ve never heard an agent express concerns that a male stand-up might not be able to make the commitment needed to this consuming career because of his parental status’

If you are any kind of performer, reading reviews, any reviews is bad for you. I certainly never read my own. If it’s a bad one, and you are consoled by friends with “it’s just one person’s opinion”, surely that rule must also apply when you have a glowing one?

Criticism I value does not come from reviewers. The best advice given early on in my career, was from my father: “If you get a bad review, ignore it, and if you get a good review... ignore it.”

Reviewers sometimes unwittingly reveal more about themselves than what they have watched. This week, a review of an Ellie Goulding concert appeared to reveal the reviewer to be living in the 1950s and using some time-bending sorcery to channel a review of a singer/songwriter some 70 years in the future. The line which revealed his extraordinary powers was that Goulding was “emerging from a fallow period of marriage and motherhood”.

These days, some words still go inextricably together: “cheese and onion”, “fish and chips” and “Ant and Dec” are just a few examples. “Marriage and motherhood” in the UK in 2021, do not to me. I remember as a teen in the 1980s hearing a young woman asked by the dentist’s receptionist, “do you have children?” and the woman replied, “No, I’m not married yet.” Even then I thought the acceptance that the two must go together sounded utterly dinosaur..

Being an artist is very different to being a quantity surveyor or a lumberjack. You don’t really have a “fallow period” in the way you might think. Ideas are always percolating in the minds of creative people. Fair enough, a newborn baby might set your studio time back a bit but you certainly can’t call the seismic change parenthood brings a “fallow period”.

Neither do you have a fallow period because you have to spend time getting the hang of being a wife.

“New album in the pipeline, Ellie?”

“New album? When do you imagine I’ll have time to do that then? In between darning his socks, cooking his favourite meal, scrubbing the house top to bottom and finding time to make myself look fresh as a daisy for when he comes home from work in case he feels like ravishing me? New album indeed! I am a MARRIED woman now!”

I have no idea how all the male pop stars have coped without mention of how marriage and fatherhood may have impacted their output. Ed Sheeran must be fuming. Hardly a mention in his reviews about how his baby has meant he has turned for a while into a creative vacuum.

When I had my babies, I had no maternity leave other than what was physically necessary. I took my babies to every comedy gig and festival with me. They have been left in the care of other comics in dressing rooms while I’ve been on stage and they have sat colouring in in the wings while I was performing and more than a few times. My breasts have frequently leaked milk in the middle of a routine.

Apart from needing to keep the wolf from the door, my return to work so quickly after having babies was partly my insistence that nursing mothers should be accommodated (no “confinement” for me thank you very much) and partly because in such a male-dominated industry and not being a household name, I felt in danger of being written off because I had a baby. I wanted bookers, promoters, producers, everybody see that I was still in the game and this tiny little human was along for the ride.

Things are changing, slowly. A “bigwig” agent called me a few weeks ago to get my advice on how to support his client who was a single mum. It was touching to hear how much he cared. Katherine Ryan’s tweets about breastfeeding her baby in the green rooms of TV shows, her fellow performers understandingly accepting any delays, delight me and change things for the better. A baby is never a problem, people’s attitudes are.

A fellow stand-up friend of mine started in this business a few years ago, when her children were very small. She was asked by an agent, “How are you going to manage a career in stand up if you have babies?!” The meeting had been set up to discuss her career, not for her to splay out her childcare plans to him or justify her ambition.

Bizarrely, in my 20 years in the business, I’ve never heard an agent express concerns that a male stand-up might not be able to make the commitment needed to this consuming career because of his parental status. Like me, on certain shows, this same friend has been told to “steer clear of material about being a mum, the audience are young so they won’t relate”.

If the audience are not parents, they will almost certainly have had parents at some point. Fair enough if they feel alienated if you force them into an antenatal class, but you don’t have to have the same life experience as the comic to enjoy the jokes. I’ve never been a Glaswegian docker but I love Billy Connolly.

An old-fashioned prejudice still exists among many who would never consider that their attitudes are from a bygone age – that if a woman talks about her children, it’s because she has nothing else to talk about, but if a man talks about his children he has an abundance of things to talk about but is CHOOSING to talk about his children.

Those who insinuate motherhood is a hindrance to a career, should watch the The At The Apollo recording I attended recently, which will be aired soon. The producers booked two brilliant comedians, back to back... Jen Brister and Esther Manito, both with “mother-heavy” material and both completely and utterly taking the roof off the packed venue of 3,000 people of all ages.

Everyone else needs to catch up. Fallow period indeed!

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