The Roles We Play: Between Acting and Motherhood

Three years ago, I got a voicemail congratulating me on winning a role in a play. The director told me when rehearsals were to begin. I was so thrilled I started throwing up. Then I fell asleep on a pile of laundry. Realization dawned.

EPT sticks were on sale at Rite Aid. I didn’t wear my wedding ring and my husband was out of town for work so when I walked up to the counter alone, I was certain I noted sympathy on the cashier’s face.

We had been trying to conceive for three months. I had been peeing non-stop all week, falling asleep on piles of unfolded laundry, and aching in all my old dance injuries. I began counting as I trudged home from Rite Aid. Five days. Five days late.

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I carried the still full Dixie cup and the wet stick to the phone and called my husband in his Maryland hotel room.

“I can’t do the play,” I told him.

“Why not?” he asked.

“Because I will be enormous in six months. Congratulations!”

“I miss you,” my husband said.

“I’ll see you this weekend. Don’t look at my belly, there’s nothing to see yet.”

I kissed the role goodbye over brunch at a diner with the playwright. I balanced a matzoh ball on my spoon and tried to ignore its texture and scent. I made apologies for my body being the only place to house a growing embryo. I hoped he would remember me for the future, I said.

My knees buckled on the walk home. Seven months later, when I’d grown from 90 pounds to 130 pounds, a casting director called about an audition for an HBO TV series. I’d been trying to get a guest spot on the show for two years.

I hoped she would remember me for the future, I said. I hung up and cried.

My daughter is now two-and-a-half. I’ve had small gigs: films shoots and play readings that keep me away from the “baby” for one day at most. I’m always home by evening to nurse her to sleep. My husband works late into the night to make up for the hours he has to watch our child when I dress up and run to auditions.

The hill looks mighty steep from here. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t trade a minute of the time I’ve shared with my daughter for any opportunity I’ve missed. Not even all the opportunities combined. It’s a cliché, and no doubt many people question whether it’s true when a parent utters it. Even the parent questions it. But when I think of any moment I might have missed, I’m glad I have so many to recall.

A writer asked me to participate in his play reading today.

The dress from Marshall’s shows off my legs. Whatever might have changed about my self-conception since becoming a mother, my opinion of my legs is about the same. I like having dancer’s legs. I think what the hell, they are always hidden under Old Navy leggings and I always have leaves in my hair. Today I’m going to paint my face and wear the dress that’s too small and towering high heels, too.

I have another reason I want to dress up this time. I remember a beautiful blond actress…

I feel dizzy at the Dramatists’ Guild today. We are lined up with our scripts in front of an audience. The playwright has never heard his play aloud. He needs to hear actors interpret these words.

I’m disoriented in my tiny dress and red lipstick and brushed hair. Everyone else is in the loop, out there pounding that well-trod pavement. I have been a mother for nearly three years, and before that, a pregnant lady.

Like a loyal puppy, training leaps to my side. I’m alert to cues from stage directions and fellow actors. I cringe when other actors miss the point of a line. I wonder if the playwright is wincing. It’s worse when I flub a line and I wish I could reverse time, read it correctly and prove I understand it.

For two hours, I’m an actor.

My little girl dances in the margins. Before I rushed out the door, I had brushed her hair into a ponytail. As I read my lines I see her soft halo of curls and the oatmeal on her face. She had asked me why I had to go and I told her that sometimes I worked.

She told me that was “terrible.”

There is time enough for her to understand. For now, Mommy is always there and I don’t mind her taking my presence as a given.

I promised her a surprise on my return. I bribed her so that she wouldn’t hate me for leaving.

I’m a dreadful small-talker. Everything comes out wrong, I reveal too much about myself or I ask the wrong questions. In all these years of being an actor, since the age of 12, I have never learned how to be casual, how to chitchat with show business people. I’m allergic to small talk. My body calcifies when I hear pleasantries. They ring false, always. Sometimes I talk too much to compensate for my discomfort and then reverse course and grow mute.

A blond was starring in the last play reading I did. She had dewy skin and she was nine feet tall. If she wore makeup, I couldn’t detect it. She sat next to the director, who happened to be famous, and nudged him with her impossible sexuality. She also did the chitchat samba with the other actors. She twirled her silky locks into a bun as her face flushed from expelling long monologues.

When the reading was over, she started to chat about presidential history. I saw what she was doing. She wanted the director to know she was not only beautiful, but nerdy. Is there anything more tantalizing to a dorky heavyset director in his 50’s than a 20-something blond who is a presidential trivia nerd? I watched her twirl him round her finger as she twirled her satin tresses.

Was I cynical to assume it was an act? Was I merely envious? I was so tired—the baby had been up all night vomiting and I could barely remember three presidents back while she tossed her knowledge around like a beach ball.

I was an out-of-shape actor just getting back in the ring. I had a toddler. I was surrounded by kids who hadn’t even begun the serious dating phase of their lives. My world had grown hugely and shrunk rapidly in three years. I remembered little about Calvin Coolidge

In the bathroom, an older actress asked the blond about her pants. Where had she gotten all her clothing? The blond rattled off a lot of names: Banana Republic, Monaco, J.Crew. The nerdy historian vanished and a label-conscious shopping expert filled her platform shoes.

When we left the read-through, I tried to talk to Satin Tresses. Her head was buried in her cell phone as we entered the elevator. Her manner gave her away. She had no use for me, and therefore no reason to talk. Maybe she knew a lot about Calvin Coolidge, but that was a rabbit she pulled out of a hat. She did not give her warmth, her grin, her nerdy chat freely. She was a fraud.

I wondered what the famous director would think of the conversation in the bathroom. Would a man see the dropping of the manic-pixie-dream-girl routine, because no one important was watching? She’d been so sweet to everyone at the table-read, and so deadly cold in the elevator afterward.

Her acting had been adequate, but it lacked something. I knew now what it was. She was canny, but she was not the intellectual she had pretended to be. Whatever “the real thing” is, she wasn’t it.

Today I decide to wear a dress. It is too short and my heels are too high. My lips are painted red and my hair is brushed out large. I don’t look anything like a “mother.” No one has to know. I want to play the game.

The chitchat swirls. A hip young actor is talking about a book about building motorcycles and how it is really a guide to life. Everyone nods in agreement.

I find my book and quietly open it under the table until the reading begins.

Today there are no famous directors to twirl round anyone’s fingertips. I’m grateful for that. We do our work and I go home.

I love racing down the subway steps in heels. It’s been so long.

I stop at a little shop and buy a music box for my daughter. It plays Swan Lake when you open it, and a tiny ballet dancer twirls next to a mirror. She’d admired it a few days ago. I want to come home with a treat because I don’t want my daughter to be angry with me for leaving. For working.

“It’s from the antique shop, Mama!”

The shop also sells knock-offs. Her music box is no antique.

She thrills to brown paper tied with string and the reveal and the lovely pink box that itself contains a surprise: music! She dances to Swan Lake.

Then she throws it across the room. It is violent, as though someone lobbed a rock through our living room window.

Has she decided in a flash that a music box doesn’t buy a mother two hours off? Nice try, but you can’t buy me. I hide the box in my closet. I feel the contours of my blunder. I rub the grooves of shame.

She has picked up fraudulence in the wind. She understands the difference between a bribe and a pure token of love.

Neither of us has patience for casual exchanges. We want the truth, always. We say the truth, always. I vow never to be the blond in my daughter’s life. I will never twirl my daughter round my finger the way the blond twirls salivating directors around hers. I will never lie.

I’ve thought about being the easy-talker with the ready-made persona. But even if I wanted to be, I have no gift for it.

To thine own self be true, little lamb. Learn your craft in life. Study hard and rise honestly by your talents and by the tide of luck. Ride the storms in a sturdy ship made of your own sweat and tears.

I save the music box for her birthday. I will give it as a token of love that bears no other meaning. I hope to rub off the tarnish. I hope the music will still sound sweet. In a few years, I’ll tell her about the blond, and of my desire to be a mother and an actor in one day, seamlessly.

I’ll tell her about the lies we tell ourselves in order to achieve our goals.

I forgive myself the bribe.

I forgive the blond too. Maybe I underestimate her and she is plenty introspective.

I’ll never know, but I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.

Someday I’ll be asking my daughter for the very same thing.


Leslie Kendall Dye is an actress, dancer, and mother of one terrific two year old. Her writing has been featured on The Huffington Post, Tipsy Lit, Mamapedia, Erma Bombeck Humor Writers, Off the Shelf, Nanny Magazine, BLUNT Moms, Mamalode and others. She writes about acting, her experiences as a Manhattan nanny, parenting, books, and anything else that crosses her mind at Hungry Little Animal. Originally published on