Documentary producer Laura Pacheco: to be disciplined is not to be unfree

by ParentCo. March 19, 2015

Laura Pacheco has produced documentary films for PBS, The National Geographic Channel, and Discovery. Her next film, East of Salinas, about migrant farm workers and their children, will be released later this year.

Parent Co spoke with Laura on a familiar-sounding "just trying to make it all work" kind of day.

Parents: Laura and Joe

Kids: daughter, Lark, 6.5; son, Nolan, 4.5

Laura Pacheco: My son’s school is closed for parent-teacher conferences today so now he’s binge-watching television and I’m being a bad parent.

Are you kidding? I joke all the time that my most-employed babysitter is Netflix. Do you work full-time or mainly on a project basis?

Well, I would say it’s project based, but the project lasts like, three years, then I have a big downtime of a few months or so.

And when you’re in the midst of a project and you’re not away filming, do you primarily work from home? How do you handle childcare?

I work about three-quarters time. I have an office outside of the house, like, 50 yards up our driveway. But sometimes I’m really busy and working 70 hours a week and I’m using Netflix or my 13-year-old neighbor or ignoring my kids. It’s hard.

How do you deal with Mom guilt - or rather, I should ask, do you have it?

No, I don’t really have any Mom guilt. I sort of feel like my kids’ life is so much more privileged than mine was. I mean yes, the other day my daughter had a fever and I thought, ‘can I send her to school?’ I feel fortunate that my schedule, for the most part, is relatively flexible, but it was one of those days when it wasn’t and I sent her to school. Obviously she wasn’t deathly ill, or I wouldn’t have sent her, but yeah, you sort of feel like, ‘am I making the best decision?’

I think you have to take a whole systems approach and decide what makes the whole family work better.

Besides childcare conundrums, how else has being a parent effected your work life?

It’s forced me to become more organized. I remember a long time ago, I read Ursula Le Guin’s book, “The Wave in the Mind,” and she had this one line that I didn’t understand until I had children. It was like, to be disciplined is not to be unfree. I loved it when I read it 15 years ago, but then I really “got it” because I feel like, especially if you’re someone who works in a creative space, sometimes it’s hard to conjure the creative juju at 9:15 when you’ve just dropped the two kids off at school and you’re looking at laundry and you’re thinking, ‘I just wish I could start at 4 and not worry about feeding my children and be in that space for five hours.’

But I guess I always liked that quote because it says ‘if you learn to work within these constraints, it doesn’t mean you’re not free. It doesn’t mean you’re not creative or can’t be in that free space to work or create art or do whatever it is that you do.’ So I think becoming a parent has forced me to become more disciplined.

I agree completely - though I certainly haven’t mastered the whole structure thing, I know that I crave it. And I know that I would have more time to be creative if I successfully implemented more structure in my life.

Well, it’s hard. My husband, Joe, also travels a lot and the amount of television goes up in my house exponentially the longer he’s gone. The first few days (he's away) we’ve made muffins and we’ve done art and by the end I’m like, ‘yes! You can watch my iPad, and you can use the television because I have some stuff I just have to get done.’

But I think for being a working parent, women still do so much more than men do. Not to bash on men, but women sort of intuitively know, like, ‘I have no food in my house,’ or ‘my child hasn’t eaten a vegetable in five days, so I’m gonna make this for dinner.’ Women have to balance themselves and their working life and being the root of the family life or the emotional life of the family. It’s another thing in the mix that’s hard for women.

Do you have any sort of family rituals or practices in place to feel close as a family when you are together?

Oh, that’s such a good idea! Actually, we’ve been doing family meetings on Sundays for the last six months. It sounds kind of cheesy but it’s been really helpful. I’ve been traveling a lot and Joe always travels a lot, and the general idea is that we’ve chosen this life. We tell that to our kids. We chose to live in Vermont, we chose to do a different kind of work so that we have flexible time during the day to go to your school or do other things, you know.

But we need to remember that we’re also a family, so we went out to our woods and chose a rock. We kind of use it as a speaking stone - whoever has the rock gets to speak - and we set the timer for 15 minutes so it’s short and sweet.

We all sit on our little pillow cushions and we talk about what’s going on for each of us for the week and what we need to be working on, either as a family or individually. I think we also started as a way for our kids to tune into the fact that other people have lives that are important to them; for them to realize ‘oh, Dad’s really busy this week,’ or ‘he’s going to be gone,’ or ‘Mommy’s really trying to get something done for work…’

We just try to pay attention to each other and I know our kids really like it. Sometimes Joe and I have forgotten and their like, ‘wait! We haven’t done family meeting yet!’

We travel a lot, too, as a family. We went to India last year - because we travel a lot individually we’ve tried to do one or two things as a family that remind us that we’re a family and we enjoy each other.

So what do you think about taking your kids out of school for extended periods of time for family travel?

I think it’s a great idea. Our daughter was in kindergarten when we went to India for five weeks last year… I guess it’s from having grown-up in a city and now living in Vermont, which is awesome and I don’t want to go anywhere, but it is a bubble. I feel like if you can let your kids know not everybody looks like you, not everybody eats the same kind of food as you, everybody has different economics, there’s different politics - if you can show them all of that it’s probably better than sitting in kindergarten learning colors or basic math.

Is there anything you’ve learned in the six and a half years you’ve been a parent that you like to share with other parents or new parents?

I think the most wonderful thing is when your kids get a bit older and you really start to appreciate them as people. Like now, it is really fun to have people over for dinner because the kids are engaging and suddenly your life feels really full in a beautiful way. Which isn't to say it doesn’t when they’re little, but when you’re just pushing a stroller around and cleaning up vomit, it’s not as exciting.

With a six- and four-year-old, doing stuff with them is fun. Skiing with them is actually fun, I enjoy talking to my daughter riding up the chairlift. Suddenly being a family is fun and not just work.

I’m always trying to just remind my children and myself that life is an adventure and try to find the adventure in every situation. What is new to be discovered? I just hope to pass on that love for learning, not book-learning, but learning for life and the excitement for that.

You mentioned that you talk to your kids about your work, and you tend to take on pretty substantial world problems in your films. How do you discuss those issues with your children?

Well, one lucky thing is that I often have video clips for them to look at, and they see things and we talk about it. Obviously it’s in the context of what a kid can understand.

So you’re not inclined to shield them from the grand negativity of the world or anything like that?

Noooo… I feel like that doesn’t do anybody any service. All of our kids are kids of great privilege, and we all want to be really great parents and really tuned in to their needs and hopefully we’re creating great future people. But I also think, like, people work really hard. I did a piece a while ago about child labor in India; my kids looked at these kids who were brick movers - that’s what they did all day - and they don’t really understand it, but they do say, ‘wow, Mom, we’re so lucky!’

busy day. Laura Pacheco has produced films for PBS, National Geographic Channel, and Discovery.



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