My daughter Morgan York was a child actor. I never thought I would have a kid in “the business” and it scared the crap out of me. Mostly because I thought she would be exposed to things she wasn’t emotionally ready for, but also because the last thing I wanted to be was a “stage mom.”

My ex-husband’s acting career did not pan out the way he’d hoped and he began pushing for Morgan to get an agent. I think he was the one auditioning for the role of stage mom.

More than three years after I left him, communications with him had not improved and his continued disparagement of me was a constant challenge for my kids. At this point, our custody arrangement was to trade off weeks and let’s just say that time spent with their dad was not what I would characterize as hygienic.

During one of his weeks, Morgan came to me with what I referred to as the “rat’s nest” in her hair, which was basically one huge dreadlock covered with a thin layer of top hair. My rat’s-nest repair kit included a bathtub, a half-bottle of conditioner, a ton of patience and my secret weapon, my Mason Pearson hairbrush. (The price is TOTALLY worth it, you guys, I’m SERIOUS.)  During these sessions, I learned things about my daughter I might never have known and I secretly loved them.

 

My ex and I had recently engaged in arguments over his lack of transparency regarding Morgan’s bank accounts and financial documents. At the age of 12 and after three years in the business, she did not have a business manager and her dad had taken it upon himself to act as her “manager,” which included control of her income and expenses. He also paid himself a salary of ten percent off the top of every dollar she earned and I didn’t trust him. I wanted every penny she earned to be put away for her for when she was older.

I worked hard at protecting my children from my conflicts with their father. But as Morgan climbed in the tub, she looked at me and said, “So, why the sudden interest in my career?”

I said, “Morgan, I am interested in everything you do. Why do you ask that?”

She looked pained and said, “Daddy said you’re bugging him for all my stuff. Daddy said you weren’t interested in my career because you didn’t have faith in me.  He said you thought I couldn’t do it and that you were jealous of me.”

It was true that Morgan and I hadn’t spoken a whole lot about her acting career. I spent a lot of time trying to ensure a normal childhood and performing damage control by keeping her from inappropriate auditions and trying to protect her money.  His comments were typical and not surprising.

I dumped conditioner into her hair, began putting my magic hairbrush to work and said, “Morgan, I’m going to tell you the whole story.”

I started with when she was a baby and she got a Braun ear thermometer commercial through an advertising account her dad had worked on, and how I took her to audition after audition after audition after that, until I realized it wasn’t fun for her, so I stopped.

I told her I used to watch her make up plays, write scripts and direct her sister, Wendy. Then when we moved to New York and took her to shows, I watched her re-enact them over and over and I was amazed. I told her how she started asking if she could be up on a stage like those kids in “The Lion King” and how impressed I was with the way she became the characters in our living room.

A neighbor asked if she and Wendy could record some short segments for “Sesame Street” and when the director saw her, he asked if she would audition for his short film. I watched her audition for that film and was choked up because I knew she had something special and again, I was amazed at who this incredible little person was in my life.

I enrolled her in a 7-week acting-for-the-camera workshop because I thought it would be fun for her. But I also told her how damaging I thought the industry could be to children and how scared I was that once you grow up too quickly, you’ve done it and there’s no turning back.

When we moved back to California, she started asking for an agent and I still wasn’t ready to let her out into the real world. She was only 7 years old. Eventually, I bought her a video camera to see if that would “get it out of her system” and, once again, she amazed me.

I watched her write more scripts, memorize lines, teach them to Wendy and her brother Thomas, edit the footage herself and make these incredible little films that had plots and action and meaning in her world and I was blown away.

 

It was at that point I realized it was in her blood and that this was something she absolutely loved and was truly passionate about, so I finally agreed to let her get an agent.

I told her that, given how competitive the industry is, I thought she would probably go on a few auditions without getting a job and get frustrated and quit.  I told her I wanted to protect her from all the rejection. I had asked for advice from actor friends in the business and they all advised me against it, given what they’d witnessed on television and film sets, but Morgan persisted.

Once she got an agent (which is a rejection process in itself) I didn’t dream that on her first audition, she would go all the way to meeting the director (Ron Howard). And I couldn’t have predicted that on her second audition she would get the part and, once again, I was amazed.

The first time I went to the set of “Cheaper by the Dozen,” I again got choked up, watching her work. I had worked with extremely disciplined world-class musicians and I had never seen anyone (child or adult) so focused on anything in my whole life as she was on her character. And I knew I would never stand in the way of something my child so clearly loved doing.

On the set of “The Pacifier” I watched her go into a table reading of the script where the writers and producers asked the actors for feedback. They didn’t expect to hear from the 11-year-old, but she gave them her notes and they did a re-write based on those notes and I was so impressed.

I watched her focus on her character at an even higher level than before and I was in awe of her. As I watched her interviews with the press, I couldn’t believe how well she handled herself. A little adult, but still a child.

I told her that I would be proud of her if she decided she never wanted to be in another movie or be an actor ever again.  I was proud of what a good student she was and how much she read books and how well she wrote and drew pictures and laughed at herself. And I would be proud of her for doing anything she loved and was passionate about. But mostly I was proud of her for the beautiful and compassionate person she was. I felt the same way about Wendy and Thomas. I could not be more proud.

I never said a word about her dad. I didn’t have to. It was just a mother-daughter conversation where I shared my thoughts and feelings about the growth and beauty I was witnessing in her and it was all positive.

Other parents have often asked me, “How do I get my kid into show business?” I have always said the same thing: “This always comes back to the individual child. If it is not totally driven by the child, don’t even think about it.” I fought it for as long as I did because the most important thing to me was to protect my child’s authenticity. But if you see a true gift and desire in your child, and your child understands the amount of scrutiny and rejection they will face and they are prepared for that, then by all means, pursue it. But please keep your child’s best interests directly in front of you and never put your child in the position of taking care of you or your family. A child should never assume physical, financial or emotional responsibility for a parent.

Morgan didn’t win parts in movies and television because she wanted to be famous. She has been creating characters since before she could talk. When she began talking, she started to direct everyone around her. She has this incredible ability to completely immerse herself in a character and present it to her audience in the most authentic ways. I now realize her desire to act was the writer in her that so desperately wanted to set her characters free.

Morgan is a college graduate living in New York City where she is pursuing a career in publishing and where she also writes books. She began writing her first book at the age of 14 and is now working on her fifth novel. Being a child actor just happened to be part of her growth process to becoming the writer she always was and will be.

The point of all of this is not how to get your kid on the inside track in Hollywood, but about recognizing your child’s authenticity, their true gifts and their passions. Because they’re not going to be truly great at something that isn’t really theirs. Some people want to be famous, and that isn’t enough. Being successful at anything includes a combination of talent, timing and very hard work. I always felt it was my job as a mom to help cultivate the talent, encourage the work ethic and to never stop listening or paying attention to the needs of my children.

Figuring out the timing is tough. Nothing in life is guaranteed and unexpected disappointment is a part of it. Recognizing our children for exactly who they are will encourage them to live the lives they want in spite of those disappointments. Having faith that things work out the way they are supposed to, helps.

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