WHO SHE IS: Kate McMahon, freelance documentary producer for PBS Frontline, Independent Film Channel,
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, HBO
SUCCESS STORY: Associate producer for the Oscar-nominated
film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room
WORK SCHEDULE: Dictated by deadlines that ebb and flow
when working on films.
KID(S) & AGE(S): Sabina (almost 4) and Charlie (4 months)
SANITY VICE: Getting a facial once a month!
How She Got Here (in her own words) and How a Working Mom Documentary Could Soon be in the Works
I grew up the daughter of a newspaper journalist, and went to college to become a journalist myself. Film captured my heart because it allows the filmmaker to go into worlds and stories of people’s lives and share it with others in words, picture and sound. The power and creativity of documentary storytelling rooted in journalism is what love most. I began my career in the traditional way: as an intern. I soon became an associate producer for The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, then moved to Washington, D.C. to work on a PBS series called Life 360. Afterward, I worked on Bill Moyers’ program and during that time got engaged.
We decided to get married and move back to Oregon – where I’m from. So two weeks before the wedding day we started the drive out west. We arrived seven days prior to our nuptials, and after our honeymoon I began looking for freelance work. The first job I got was at Nordstrom as a seasonal worker. As a freelancer, you can never be above taking pinch-hitter jobs! It was a struggle at first to get into a groove, and I had to take what came my way both in terms of interesting work and pay. But eventually I started learning about timing. The key is to cast your net for new projects before the current one has finished. The risk, however, is this can lead to overlap and crazy amounts of work! It’s true what they say about freelance – it’s feast or famine.
When our first baby came, I was thrown for a loop in terms of getting my work-life balance right. In fact, by the time she was 16 months old, life was so out of whack and my “mother’s guilt” so heavy that we used our tax refund to hide away for a month in the South of France where we could hit reset without the demands of regular life back home chipping away at us. Since then, I have perceived achieving equilibrium as THE goal, and when it happens, to recognize it and enjoy it while it lasts – because before I know it, something will tip.
MB: You work on such interesting topics for your films — Enron, Andrew Jackson, the Meth epidemic — to name a few. What are you working on right now?
KM: I am working on baby Charlie! He was born September 7, and I’ve done my best to ward away work during maternity leave until January. But no one is paying me to take time off, so for better or worse, I took some client work that only takes about 3-6 hours each week. It’s actually good brain exercise. I’m really prone to “baby brain,” meaning the inability to think like a grown-up because I’m so inside my baby’s world. In January, I start back on a film for HBO about aging and the human lifespan.
MB: If you were to do a documentary on working moms, what would you focus on?
KM: That IS the topic I want to develop next for a film: it would be the pitfalls in American childcare. So much focus is put on our health-care system, but almost zero attention goes toward publicly financing childcare before kindergarten. Other countries that provide childcare as a public service (along the lines of health care and schools) understand the wise investment it creates for the workforce and for early childhood development.
MB: What’s your biggest challenge as a working mom and what do you do to address it?
KM: It’s managing the feeling of a million grabbing hands. I feel like everyone is grabbing at me, wanting my attention. Whether it’s people from work calling, needing fact-checks on deadline, or my 3-year-old needing help getting a princess dress down from a hanger, or my baby crying to be fed or my husband needing me to run an errand or my mother…or my sister…or my best friend…you get the picture. So I guess my greatest challenge is keeping everyone happy and not keeling over from stress in the process. When things get too impossible and I need to vent them off, I turn to my mother. I complain and then I plan.
MB: What advice do you live by as a working mom?
KM: Work from home if you can. Mothers today are so lucky to have this option, thanks to technologies that enable virtual meetings and the delivery of information and material at rapid speed. Getting a smartphone in 2011 helped even more. Before, I felt like my computer at the home office was my home base. That I needed to go back and check email if too much time had passed. Now, I can be running an errand with my smartphone and never skip a beat. So work from home, if you can, and perceive home as more than just the place you live – it’s grand central station of your life.
MB: Anything else you would like to tell us?
KM: The other bit of advice is: seek out other working moms who can relate to you. One of the hard truths I encountered was realizing that some of my friends and I were going down diametrically different paths when I went back to work and they didn’t. Stay-at-home-moms and working moms have fundamentally different schedules and different priorities. It’s really hard to relate to each others stresses. I had to learn how to relate to old friends in new ways who became stay-at-home moms. And I had to make new friends who are working moms whose challenges are more like mine.
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