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A Mother Lets The Balance Tip Toward Work—And Doesn’t Apologize

Work and parenting are rarely separate in the life of Austin Film Festival founder Barbara Morgan.

A Mother Lets The Balance Tip Toward Work—And Doesn’t Apologize

Just after the birth of her daughter, Barbara Morgan held a staff meeting in the maternity ward. The hospital wasn’t happy about it, and others may have questioned it later, but Morgan didn’t care.

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It was 2005, and about six weeks before the Austin Film Festival—which Morgan cofounded in 1993 and runs to this day—was to begin. “I didn’t plan well,” says Morgan wryly, who knew the frenzy that kicks in during the run-up to each year’s festival. (It didn’t help that the baby was three weeks late.) That year, the festival was honoring Harold Ramis, and Morgan had been working constantly. “I worked up until literally the moment she was born,” she says.

Barbara Morgan

And shortly after the C-section, she held the hospital staff meeting. “Everyone was happy I was drugged from the C-section,” she says with a laugh. “It was probably a good time to give me bad news.”

Weeks later, Morgan was running around the festival’s headquarters at Driskill Hotel in downtown Austin, shaking hands, running to meetings, and giving speeches. She sometimes forgot that she was carrying her infant, Hannah, in a Baby Bjorn. “Harold Ramis was one of the first people she met,” recalls Morgan. “He was so sweet to her.” Ultimately, Morgan feels that she was a calmer mother to Hannah in those first weeks than she would have been if she had forced herself to stay home, fretting about the festival. “I’m a calmer person if I know I’m taking care of things,” she says.

There’s not an ounce of apology or guilt in Morgan’s admission that the maternity leave she granted herself only lasted the duration of a C-section. It may have to do with the fact that she herself was the child of entrepreneurs. “We grew up literally in the business,” she says of her parents’ set of Atlanta bars, restaurants, and nightclubs. Growing up, she did a bit of it all: helping pick up liquor, do inventory, count receipts.

If it worked for Morgan, why not for her daughter? (As we speak in a makeshift press room in the Driskill, she notes that Hannah, now 10, is out wandering the hotel bar.) “If you want to teach your kid that they have to work and earn a living someday, then seeing parents in the process of doing that is good . . . unless you’re a crack dealer,” she quips. Also, by bringing Hannah to the office, Hannah has learned that her mom is one of many on a team, all working hard. “That’s a subtle way for her to get, ‘Oh, this isn’t personal.’”

Still, Morgan has had to acknowledge that not everything that worked for her growing up will work for Hannah. “I had a real short time being a kid,” she says. “Just from my personality, I was probably born 20.” But as for Hannah, “She’s a kid, and she loves being a kid. She’s not me, it’s clear. She loves kid parties, and after-school activities. And I want her to be a kid.”

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Recently, Morgan and Hannah went on a nine-day road trip through New Mexico and Colorado, together 24/7. That was wonderful, but coming off the trip was tough. Hannah’s school started simultaneously with festival-planning crunch time. “We went from a situation where we were together all the time, then back to normalcy. And that was hard for her,” Morgan admits. “It was hard for me, too.”

Ultimately, though, she keeps returning to the fact that her own parents marched to the beat of their own parenting drum, “and I don’t think it harmed any of us.” Her dad, a sometime pilot, would pick up and fly the kids to the Bahamas sometimes, leading them in deep diving without tanks. “People thought we were odd, but I wouldn’t trade any of those experiences. When you’re 12 years old and deep diving in the Bahamas, think about the level of independence you’ve just taught a kid. To me, all those experiences added up to me being able to say, ‘Fuck it, I can do a film festival, even though I’ve never been to one before.'”

“Maybe this will be good for her in the long run,” she says of Hannah having to cope with her mom’s devotion to the festival. “Maybe it won’t. I hope it will. Doing the math, I didn’t think it would be harmful. She seems to love it.”

To briefly fact-check this, we track down the 10-year-old in the throng of screenwriters and filmmakers in the nearby bar. Seemingly as shy as her mother is bold, Hannah makes for a tough interview subject. But she confirms that she knows the Driskill bartenders by name, that she’s about to go on a ghost tour of the hotel, and that she looks forward to the festival each year.

“It’s fun,” she says, and her mother smiles.

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About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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