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How She Does It Series

How She Does It: Emma Griffin


How She Does It: Emma Griffin

This is the very first article in a series I’m calling How She Does It.  It’s real talk with women who are doing a hell of a job balancing this delicate, exhilarating, and gritty act of raising humans while also doing some pretty amazing work.

Before you start thinking “Great.  Another reason to feel like a failure today,” let me just say that the idea is NOT to put these moms on pedestals.  

I want to hear from them what’s working, what’s not, what’s hard, what’s they deal with life.  We can all learn together.  Take what resonates with you, tuck it away in your toolbelt, and leave the rest.  Really - this is a no judgement space.  

I want us mamas to know and taste that it can be done.  It ain’t always pretty.  It ain’t always easy.  It’s definitely *never* perfect. But it can be done.  You can be a good mom, and do work that fuels your soul.  

Now, on to Emma!

When I first met Emma Griffin and her husband, Mark Barton, I was struck by how incredibly open and friendly they are.  Their calm, open-hearted, bursting-with-creativity way of being is evident not only in their Design*Sponge-worthy home, but also their two adorable, funny and inquisitive twins.  We started out as colleagues, and I was thrilled when they moved onto our block here in Cincinnati.

Emma is a successful director and a professor of Opera Stage Direction.  Mark is a sought-after lighting designer.  In addition to their delightful children, the other thing about them that impresses me is how they balance both their busy theatre careers - and all that travel -  with parenting.  

One sunny morning, Emma hung out with me in my kitchen and talked about it all over cappuccino.

On just plain getting things done when you have twins, and a job with crazy hours, and travel

Sara: I know you talk to your students a lot about balancing work, family and travel.

Emma: Yes!. Both my husband and I have jobs that require travel.  Before you have kids, you can't conceive of what's about to hit your life. And twins on top of it! That first year or so was about figuring out how this is gonna work. When they were six months old, I went and lived with them by myself in a hotel in Philadelphia and directed an opera. I do not know how that happened.  

Sara: How did you do that?!

Emma: I don't know! We did have a friend come for tech week, and then I did hire a nanny for three nights of tech week, but the rest was babysitters, and I just did it.

We're really inventing it whole cloth. Those in theatre who are a couple generations up from us, almost all of them have a partner who is not in the arts. There was always a stay-at-home parent. Mark and I don't have that in our lives.

Because Mark's a lighting designer, when he is out of town, he's working 18-hour days. So it's not so practical for him to have the children along, 'cause he's never gonna see them anyway. Whereas if I'm in rehearsal, that is technically a six to eight-hour day, even though, of course, there’s really all this other work, but I can do that when they're asleep.

So the challenges are enormous. But it's one of the reasons why I talk about it, and I bring the twins along with me, is because I feel like these young artists need to know. They say they want a family and everything that goes with it, and so it's really important to me that they understand what that actually looks like.

On the give and take of marriage

Emma: I think that Sheryl Sandberg is correct, as is Anne-Marie Slaughter. When Lean In hit, and Anne-Marie Slaughter’s articles, the thing that both of them talked about - that I felt like the media didn't pick up on - is partner choice.

The reason those two women were able to do what they did, was partner choice, and buy-in from their partners.

When we moved to Cincinnati, Mark took the hit for that first year, and he was full time parent. He was full time everything. He did all the grocery shopping, all the cooking, all the parenting, while I tried to figure out this job.

So that's also something I'm really clear about, especially with the women students. But with the guys too, 'cause I'm like, "This is what it looks like."

On not being so hard on ourselves, and creating our own villages.  Plus: shit happens to you after you have a baby.  And it's okay.

Emma: The other thing is, and this is a hard one...we can have partner choice, gender equality, parental leave...but pregnancy and infancy is not a gender-neutral event.

Sara: No, it's not!

Emma: It's just not, and that is a fact. I feel like no one really talks about it. I couldn't work for the last six months of my pregnancy, which was most of my pregnancy.  And up against that, culture really supports this idea of, "You're gonna be a yoga mom and you're gonna do this and that and, and...”

We are programmed for survival. Your body kicks in, in these ways that you might not be prepared for.

Sara: Well, and then mental and hormonal changes, too. It's so hard.  It’s not horrible...

Emma: It's not horrible, but it's life-changing.

It's a huge adjustment.  We are programmed for survival. Your body kicks in, in these ways that you may not be prepared for.  It's not this fantasy that is marketed to women.

Sara: No, you're right.  And then you feel like a failure.

Emma: And you feel like a failure. But this is actually something the performing arts counters beautifully: this idea of the nuclear family and you're supposed to just do this all yourselves, and you're supposed to parent by yourself, which is insane.

Sara: I think that's partly an American thing though.  My brother is expecting, and he was asking what the challenges are. And I said, "I think probably the biggest challenge has been isolation."

Emma: Isolation, yes.  One of the great things about being in the performing arts is that you do get a break, and it doesn't feel isolated. And that's the other reason why I haul the kids everywhere.

Sara: Yeah, it's totally kosher.

Emma: Yes - no one cares that the kids are running around. I'm in a really good situation, which is that I can show up with the kids and everyone's like "Yay!"

A scene from Emma's recent production of  La Fanciulla del West  with Opera Colorado |

A scene from Emma's recent production of La Fanciulla del West with Opera Colorado |

HOW the kids benefit when they travel with you

Sara: I know you and Mark are very pro-travel when it comes to your kids...

Emma: I think [travel] shifts your brain synapses. It makes you even going to Atlanta for a month, you just have new experiences. You think about new things. You meet new people. That change and that constantly being pushed out of your comfort zone, I think, is really good.

I remember talking to one of my best friends, who is a lighting designer and has to travel for work, and also has two kids. She said, "I have a hard time with change. I don't like sleeping in new beds. If I had traveled as a kid, I do not think I would have these issues as an adult."

Sara: I talked to my pediatrician about that. She said, "The more you travel with your kids, the more they'll learn how to do it.”

I think knowing it’s ultimately good for them could be freeing for a lot of parents, who either want to travel with their kids or have to travel. I mean, I had a lot of guilt just pulling the kids and taking them over to Italy for awhile.

Emma: Oh, my God. And it's so hard. No one sleeps. But I think it's so worth it. The change in the kids is astronomical, in a good way.

And, when you're traveling with kids for long stretches, while working (!!!)

Sara: Well, just traveling with children is a feat unto itself, but most of the time you’re doing it for work.  So you're traveling with twins and doing a major job: how do you keep them happy, do your work and even just enjoy yourself a little bit?

Emma: It's hard, it's getting easier the older they get, but it's definitely hard. I remember getting to Boston for a show and unpacking and I was like, "I did not bring any underwear for myself. I have no underwear." I had packed all the kids’ stuff and they had everything they needed. And I forgot to bring an outfit for opening night. I had nothing!

But there are a couple things that I feel like I have figured out. One, for sure, we now have road trip rules. In hotels, they can jump on the bed, they can watch videos. They get to eat junk food.  They get to do things that we wouldn't normally do. Everything gets relaxed, and they know it.

The other thing I do is with the out-of-town babysitters, or nannies, I say, "Listen, I'll be the hard-ass. Let me be the one to enforce rules, you get to be the fun person. They're spending so much time with you, you can be the softie.” And I'm really clear about that dynamic from the beginning.

Sara: So what do you do to keep them occupied when you're working on the road?

Emma: There are usually zoos and aquariums and museums and all that kind of stuff. There is also an organization called Bright Horizons, which is national.  It's a drop-in daycare center and they are in most major cities.  You can often set up three or four weeks of daycare, if you're in a town that has it.  I've used it in Boston and Atlanta.  But generally it’s the same stuff as when we’re at home. It's, "Where's the pool? Where's the library?"

And then, this is also because this is how our kids live their life anyway: they just have a lot of free play.  So free play in the hotel room or free play in the apartment versus free play at home, it's all kinda the same thing.

Sara: What kinds of things do you bring on the road for play time?

Emma: We bring art supplies, that’s the big one. Construction paper, markers, coloring books, scissors, tape.  I would also say books on tape have been massive for us. We do lots of car trips, because not only is the cost of flying four people now beginning to be really prohibitive, but on the other end, I need a car with two car seats.

And, I need all their stuff. So I would be shipping things, I'd be renting a car, renting two car seats, and flying four people. I will take the two-day car trip. It's just easier.

Sara: Plus it gives you flexibility.

Emma: And we get to see the country. The other thing is good housing. That is huge. If your kids are not happy in the housing, you're not going to be.  If you’re bringing your kids to your gig, negotiating good housing is a must.

Sara: Do you find that when you're not traveling, you’re home bodies?

Emma: Yes.  Our work is not steady, our work is really, rollercoaster-y, so we crash; we’re exhausted when we finally get a break.

Sara: I had the same thing when I was running the festival.  I would be out every night for two or three months.  And then when I got home I just didn't wanna go anywhere.

Emma: It's like, I wanna lie on my couch and I want no one to talk to me. So that's also hard: figuring out how to give ourselves downtime.

It's a process.  And it gets easier.  Deep Breath.

Sara: Any final survival tips on traveling with kids?

Emma: I think it's sort of like sleep training.  When you're in it, you're like, "Oh I'm failing, because I have not sleep trained these children."

It's not about achievement. It is about this goal and you're working towards it. And you're just constantly in flux. And there are good nights and bad nights. And it's all process. I feel like traveling with kids is the same thing. You cannot fixate on an experience. You have to be like, "We're doing this thing. And this is the night that everybody's up all night. And that means tomorrow is gonna be really crazy. But, hey, maybe we'll get naps."

You have to get yourself out of that pre-children mindset of, "I'm gonna go to this place and have an *amazing* time."

But it gets better, and easier.  I can now put my kids to bed, together in a hotel room, and they fall asleep. And that took work. That took lots of hotel rooms for me to get to that point. And lots of times of like, "Oh my God, the kids have to go to sleep. But we are not asleep. But we can't leave them in the hotel room and someone has to eat dinner. How does this work?!"

And you just figure it out and it gets better.

Sara: Just like having children in general.

Emma: Yeah, totally. “How do we eat?!” :)

Sara: Well, thank you so much.  This has been so great!

Emma: Oh, my gosh, you're so welcome!

Where to find Emma:

Emma’s website

Emma’s profile at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music

Emma’s upcoming shows