Wonder Woman: How Sharon Spiegel Wagner Does it All

I was asked to write this piece months ago and in the craziness of life’s demanding pace, I just couldn’t seem to find the time. What was I doing? I was performing, writing, teaching, directing, and I was being a mom to two young kids. Theatre ZA asked me to write about being an actress and a mom and write about how I manage to juggle so many things at the same time without dropping the ball. But, as you can see with the delay in writing this, I dropped the ball. And I drop plenty all the time. I’m amazed that people look at me and say “But how do you do it? How do you do it with two young kids?” This question always baffles me. How do I do it? I just do. I don’t always do it well. I drop balls. I pick them up and carry on.

You simply can’t pass every subject of life with flying colors. Especially when its about being a mom and a career woman. I told Theatre ZA I would be as authentic as possible, because I believe that being authentic is what has rewarded me with the opportunities I’ve received in my career. Recently, I was headlining a new South African piece, The Dead Tinder Society, a tragicomedy about divorce and dating online. I then created a piece that was performed at the Auto & General Theatre on the Square called Loving You: Love Songs From the Musicals, and I was set to begin an Agatha Christie courtroom drama with Pieter Toerien Productions, and then start a return season of The Dead Tinder Society at Montecasino with VR Theatrical. I audition, constantly, wherever I can. I’ve done some exciting international film stuff this past year, and I’ve still been able to write and direct school productions and carry on teaching.

From L to R: Drew Bakker, Sharon Spiegel-Wagner, Lance Maron, Lorri Srauss, and Musanete Sakupwanya from the Auto & General Theatre on the Square’s “Loving You”

My day starts at 5:30am with two little girls calling me for cuddles. I switch to my drill sergeant voice to get them ready for school, packing lunches and school bags for the day. In the morning, while kids are at school, I go to gym. It’s vital to be fit for my work. I use yoga to access good breathing technique and I have to sing at some point in the day so I usually come home and do some scales on my piano. In the mornings, I also have time for a rehearsal, a production meeting or a casting. 12:30 comes and it’s the school run.

I fetch the kids from school; give them lunch; take them to ballet, swimming, drama; or art. While I wait to pick them up, I’m reading; going to a class or chatting to a colleague about a production. I then fetch them from these activities; do homework; bath them; feed them; and put them to bed. So where is the time to fit in a production or any other work? Somewhere in between it all. My life exists in the in-betweens of my kids’ lives. Of course, being a performer requires 100% attention. So, when I’m lucky enough to get work, I start to make plans that allow me the freedom to fully invest in my creative inner child. And the only way to achieve working full days on set and full days in rehearsal or perform in the evening is: ask for help, and let go.

There is no true balancing act. There simply can’t be. When I’m performing, I sacrifice time with my family and my children. I don’t get to put on the ballet shoes, the swimming costumes or read the bedtime stories. On the other hand, when I’m only being a mom, I sacrifice sitting in my dressing room; putting on makeup and warming up to sing or make someone laugh. Both of these roles require total devotion and commitment. When I’m doing one, I need help with the other. Asking for help can elicit feelings of guilt for a mom. I’ve felt terribly guilty lots of times being at work and not being physically there with my children. But when I wasn’t working, I found myself being with my children and mentally being far away dreaming about what I love to do – perform; be on set; act etc. So, there was no winning. When I was at home with my kids, I felt I was missing something and when I was out working, I missed my children so much. So, what was the solution? I suppose the solution was finding this ‘balance’ people refer to.

Firstly, I didn’t make the kid on my own. I was noticing that moms treat the father of their children as babysitters and not as parents. Fathering a child is not baby-sitting. It entails the same requirements and responsibilities that a mother has. My girls have the most amazing father and when he can, he does it all. I was a bit amazed to hear that some dads just don’t do bath time or can’t change nappies or can’t make a bottle for feeding. They can. And they should embark on these tasks because it heightens the bond between father and child. My husband, however, has a desk job, so it’s tough for him to be around in the day. So I am primary guardian in the days because my job is infrequent, unstable, and has unconventional hours. But when I’m at work, he is the first point of call in an emergency and because he is not performing in front of people, if he needs to leave the office, he can. Second, finding the best nanny in the world is vital. I found out Mary Poppins does not exist and if she did, I couldn’t ever afford her. But a nanny who enjoys children and tries to connect with them is crucial and not too hard to find. Third, using grannies and grandpas as much as possible is really helpful. Its lovely to see the kids’ bond with their grandparents. Yes, even the in-laws! And I found that working moms have some kind of kid-helping secret code – a camaraderie or like a sisterhood of moms. I have a group of moms that all work as well and we offer to help each other all the time with a lift or a playdate. Sure, I’ve had moms say to me “How could you leave your child?” As if I leave the child completely alone or in danger while I go work. I plan. I put things in place so that my kids are safe and looked after and I can come home after work and tell them about my day or completely be with them because I’ve missed them so much. I have plan A, B, C, and all the way up to plan Z because my kids’ safety is the most important thing to me. With the support of my husband and my family, I can feel free to invest in my creative and professional life which is also like another child to me. I think I’ve been really lucky recently with work because my priorities are so clear to me. I have an identity that is so vitally important, that anything else is a bonus. I’m a mom first and foremost, up until my kids can look after themselves a bit more. They are still very young.

Mpho Osei-Tutu and Sharon Spiegel-Wagner in the Pieter Toerien Theatre’s “The Dead Tinder Society”

Before I had kids, it was all about me and my aspirations at work. Which is great. I miss that sometimes. But I found that one focus was actually doing me more harm than good. It was consuming me which made me feel like whenever I didn’t get a job, I was a failure. I let all the power reside in other people’s belief in my abilities and that was a recipe for a low self-esteem and feeling perpetually insecure. At this phase of my life, it’s simply not about me anymore. And while I was terrified to compromise my freedom and availability, I gained something much more worthwhile: accountability. I redefined success according to my new role as a mom and this anchored me, and gave me a clearer direction in my life. Ironically, I’m working much more than I used to. I’m getting better opportunities. Because I’ve lived. I’ve experienced things that the stage can’t offer me but can enrich me as an actress. And the greatest gift my kids have given me is perspective. I’m helping them grow up but really, they showed me what being grown up is all about.

So, fuzzy wuzzy stuff aside, the only way to ‘do it all’ is to quickly do your makeup in the car before a casting or read your sides to your baby as a bedtime story. Sometimes reading a script whilst watching a Grade 1 assembly waiting for your kid to be called up is the only way. I drop the kids off at school in my pajamas because I’ve performed the night before and I didn’t sleep because my baby had a nightmare. One time I forgot to pack lunch for my daughter so I phoned a friend and she so selflessly dropped off another sandwich for her. The guilt consumed me but hey, you know what? My kid was so chuffed she had the same lunch as her best friend. I missed a swimming gala because I was in rehearsal. This was not as punishing. I hated swimming galas at school. I sent my mom. My mom cheered my girl on. Sometimes when there are rehearsals and I know something important is coming up for my kids, I ask my producers and directors in advance if I can be there for my child. None of them ever say no. I don’t abuse these requests. I want to work and I know it’s difficult in business to accept that your employees have other priorities. When all is said and done, I am exhausted, drained, and I feel some sense of guilt, but one thing I never feel is regret. You regret more the things you don’t do, than the things you do choose to do.

I look at the title of the email I was sent by Theatre ZA – “Wonder Woman” – and I giggle. I wonder if Wonder Woman even feels wonderful. I feel like I’ve achieved. I don’t feel accomplished quite yet because there is so much I still want to do. And I get to try while having the most beautiful gifts: my girls. And if I can get my daughters to keep loving life the way they do, I’m not doing too badly.

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