Maggie Gyllenhaal stepped out from brother Jake’s shadow when she starred in the 2002 sadomasochistic comedy Secretary. The 31-year-old mom-of-one went on to become a Hollywood star in such films as Sherrybaby, Trust the Man and The Dark Knight. Maggie wrote a thoughtful article for Working Mother, focusing on how she juggles her love for working with her love for her 2 1/2-year-old daughter Ramona.
“Growing up in Los Angeles, I was surrounded by plenty of working moms, including my grandmother, a pediatrician, and my mother, a writer and producer. This seemed very natural to me. I just thought, Well, that’s what moms do. They work and raise their kids. I was brought up to believe I could do anything I wanted professionally and, of course, be a mother at the same time—but I’m finding that it’s complicated. It requires a lot of thought and planning, and I haven’t figured it out yet.
Now that I have my own daughter, there are definitely times I think, Why do I have a job? Sometimes I fantasize about staying home with Ramona all day, so that I don’t miss a thing in this amazing 2-year-old’s life. But I’m an artist; I love my job. And I work on projects that inspire me. I feel very, very lucky to be in the position where going to work means I’m feeding myself. As a mother, you have to make sure you do that, because that will nourish your child, too.
I am happy that Ramona has a real, strong, deep connection with me. But it’s difficult to keep this up when I’m making a movie and working 14 hours a day—managing both isn’t easy. So the best I can do is to try to figure it out on a project-by-project basis. Since Ramona was born, I’ve searched for scripts that justify being away from her all day. Although in the past I may have accepted roles that I found kind of interesting, now the role has to be amazing to be worth being away from my daughter. Lately, when I consider a role, I ask myself: Is this good for my child as well as good for me? Sometimes it’s not. And so what do you do? Do you do it anyway? It’s very difficult for me to say yes to a project if it’s not going to be a good experience for Ramona, too.
She’s in the phase of being very attached to me, and that makes me wonder all the more whether the inconsistency of my job is difficult for her. I think that if she were able to know, for example, that every day after breakfast I will leave for work, and every day after her nap I will be home from work, it would be a lot easier for her.
Instead, I’m here all the time, every day, for long stretches of time, and then I disappear completely for four days. That’s something that her dad [actor Peter Sarsgaard] and I struggle with.
I find that the older Ramona gets, the more comfortable she is when she’s in her own bed, when she has a more consistent schedule and when she sees the same people every day. To help her have more consistency, we started her in a preschool program. I’d say I spent all of last fall researching which schools I wanted to apply to for her. I put more energy into that than almost anything I can think of recently.
While her dad was doing a play on Broadway, we had a routine going. We were all home here in Brooklyn, which was really wonderful. But this kind of consistency is fleeting for actors, and I haven’t found balance in my life yet. I’m still struggling to find it. It’s incredibly difficult. I continue to make lots of sacrifices to make sure my daughter feels comfortable, or at least as comfortable as she can. But I can’t and don’t pretend I have it down.
One huge help has been my mother. She came to take care of Ramona while I worked on a movie recently. She stayed for a couple of weeks, and she was unbelievable, an absolute lifesaver. She told me: “I want to give you something I never had. I want to give you the luxury of knowing that your child is absolutely safe and being cared for and loved so that you can go do what you need to do and be totally free.” She gave me that for that couple of weeks, and I needed it so badly. I needed to go and do something for myself.
It’s important for children to know that their parents are fulfilled, expressing themselves and happy in their own lives. I want to give my daughter the same gift that my mom and my grandmother gave to me, which is the knowledge that, as a woman, I can do anything professionally and personally. I have everything open to me. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”