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THE POWER OF A MOM
LMKWYT Paula James Martinez
In today's LMKWYT, I had the pleasure of speaking with the immensely talented Paula James-Martinez, a former Fashion Editor turned filmmaker, mother to 6-year-old daughter, Luna, and founder of “The Mother Lovers”. From her beginnings in the fashion industry to her inspiring journey into filmmaking, Paula's passion for storytelling shines through in everything she does. Her debut documentary, "Born Free - Birth in America," is a powerful exploration of the maternal healthcare system in the United States and is set to release on Mother's Day. Scroll down to learn more about her journey from the UK to LA, surviving the toddler trenches, driving change through small actions, and the importance of Bath time. Get ready to be inspired!
Tell us a bit about your journey from Fashion Editor to filmmaker.
PJM: Haha I feel like such a cliche, a girl moves to LA and starts making films. I’m slightly disappointed in myself for being so obvious. But the path to filmmaking was sort of less than obvious. I left my role as Fashion Director at Refinery29 in sort of a stage of existential crisis, both on a personal level but also with the industry. Fashion has given me so much and I wouldn’t change a thing, but it’s exhausting and all-consuming being an editor and I needed to take a step back.
I ended up coming to the West Coast for love, both for my now husband and love for California. As a child in the rainy UK, I dreamed of this 70’s version of the place with the redwoods that meet the ocean, and Joni Mitchell, hippies, and Hollywood. I didn’t however really come with a plan. When I arrived I consulted for brands on this coast, art direction, and branding. I made a coffee table book about the magical stories I’d collected on my travels in the US which were sold in Barnes and Noble. We lived in hotels for a big chunk of time going where jobs were. I was very untethered and it was sort of what was needed.
Then I got pregnant. Which is really where my filmmaking journey started. I’d made fashion films before, I understood light, very basic editing but my documentary “Born Free - Birth in America” was the first “real” film I had undertaken. It will be out on Tubi, Roku and Amazon on Mother’s Day.
Changing paths/ careers can be nerve-racking. Did you have to deal with impostor syndrome? If so, how did you conquer it?
PJM: My first real job was as an assistant to the Publisher at Dazed and Confused magazine in London. The magazine's motto was “making it up as we go along”. I think working for a title that was led by youth culture in a moment where publishing was taking its first steps online made me feel like, sure I didn’t know much but no one really did - this was a brave new world. I was 23 when I was asked to be Digital Director of French style bible Purple Fashion, I hired developers, worked out business plans, read and read and read about SEO and ad servers and code - I didn’t exactly know what I was doing but I had total confidence that I could learn and I did, I was asked to talk at conferences about the future of publishing, I joined a short-lived start-up for the 1st iPad magazine, I experimented with everything, I had some incredibly talented people around me making it possible to actually execute things. Moving into film felt similar, I knew I could tell stories, I knew I had a strong sense of how things should look, and I knew a lot of very talented people who could help me. And damn did they help me, one of my biggest takeaways from making Born Free was just how many people stepped up, held my hand, asked favors, and took the time to teach me. I was lucky enough to work with an all-femme crew on all aspects of the film which I think gave this additional sense of built-in trust that we all had each other's backs on uplifting these very woman-centered stories of struggle.
What drove you to direct ”Born Free “?
PJM: During my pregnancy, my OBGYN wanted to induce me 10 days early as she was going out of town on my due date. I wanted to try for an unmedicated birth, so as we left the appointment I told my husband - this is how it starts, somewhere in the deep recesses of my mind I remembered intervention from watching Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein’s film the business of being born. So I left the hospital system and ended up having a fantastic midwife birth at a birth center here in LA.
Around the same time I had a friend who wasn’t able to switch care providers have the same induction scenario, she ended up having an emergency c-section, bleeding out, and almost dying. In the wake of these very different experiences sitting bored at 3 am with a newborn I started to google to try and answer my question was I just very lucky? Was it privileges I had in access, race, not cultural fear of birth? And if so which ones most impacted my birth?
In that rabbit hole, I uncovered the horrific data around birth in the US this was in 2017 when no one was really talking about maternal mortality beyond those communities and organizations who had been doing the work and trying to sound the alarm for years. I needed to do something, my husband who is a producer was like the best way to share a story in a big way. So make a movie. That’s sort of how it was born - how do I make a film that educates people about the issues in a tone that’s approachable that of a women’s magazine journalist
The US is the most dangerous place to give birth in the developed world. That’s an overwhelming reality. What are some actionable steps we can do to change things?
PJM: It feels incredibly overwhelming, but I recently had a conversation with Sarah Lavonne, one of the founders of Bundle Birth, a program that supports and offers additional education to labor and delivery nurses. She told me a story about starfish that if there is a beach full of starfish drying on the beach it feels impossible to save them all but if each of us takes a starfish and pushes towards the same goal eventually we can collectively move them all back into the ocean. 80% of maternal mortality is preventable and change comes from many corners, one easy thing everyone can do is to encourage their senators and reps to pass the Momnibus a series of bills that are about to be reintroduced to tackle Black maternal mortality crisis in many different ways. Another is to watch Born Free: understand we have a problem, speak to your family and friends about the issue, and make it too loud to ignore. Support local doula programs that serve families facing inequality and bias in care, they are the full fix but their support is vital. Ask your employer to push for insurance that includes choice in care including home birth midwives for families that makes sense for.
I am always in awe of you superheroes, who start new projects while their kids are small. Tell us a bit about the process, the challenges, and the learnings.
PJM: My best advice is to be ready to let some balls drop and be ok with it. When I’m pushing for a huge work project my daughter probably has more screen time than I’d like, when she has a big school event I’ll push something that’s work-related and have to rush it. House gets messy sometimes, the dogs miss a walk, and I forget to text people back. I give myself the grace to say I’m doing my best and I also tell people as much as possible heads up right now my bandwidth is very small, hold please I will come back to you but I need to take a breath.
How has being a mother impacted your personal and professional life, and how have you found a balance between the two?
PJM: I was very lucky that my husband had 6 months of paternity leave and he took all of it. Year one: we really were a weird cocoon and I’m so incredibly grateful for that privilege. Then we both threw ourselves into work and it was really really hard. I’d also recently moved cross country and my world suddenly felt scarily small, party invites dried up I had a big self-identity crisis. But then the pandemic - everyone's worlds contracted and I felt less of the only one at home. 6 years later I think have finally found my footing, working out what works for us. We are luckily both remote workers and can pick up a lot of childcare slack, between each other and afterschool care we don’t have a nanny, but also I’m more creative than ever, I’m less scared like I’m just going to ask - worst case scenario they ignore me and coming out of a few years of feeling irrelevant being ignored doesn’t dent my ego the way it did when I was a big pile of fashion editor insecurity
What has your experience been like building a support system in a new country, and how did you go about finding a community of people you could rely on as a mother?
PJM: I have always been pretty self-sufficient, I left home at 16 my father passed when I was 19, I sort of always forged my own path with no safety net. Moved to the States alone at 25. I definitely felt a little similar in my approach to motherhood, year one I was pretty insular, I didn’t have guests until she was about 2 months old because I needed to feel like I had my own footing first. However, as Luna got older I quickly realized that being my own island is not sustainable, my friend Johanna and I met about the same time - she’s also an ex-pat and has a child of a similar age, we are each other, friends, weird sisters and emergency contacts. In fact, during Covid, I moved into her guesthouse with my family and we created a weird little commune. Honestly, it was a really special time for all of us and created a sort of unbreakable bond. Also, I love women, I have so many female friends these days I lean on them more and more, I love my work community, my film collaborators are family and show up as much for emotional support as professional I hope I do the same back. The “village” can come in many forms but even through all my stubborn independence, I realized I needed one.
Luna, your daughter, is 6 now. Can you share some tips to survive the toddler trenches?
IPJM: used to repeat “the only way out is through”, “no one in this grocery store knows who you are” and “just when you can’t take this stage anymore, a new part of their brain flicks on and it changes.”
Toddler parenting is hard but it’s also hilarious, I’m pretty firm on rules and boundaries but also sometimes toddlers are just going to lose their minds and there's nothing you can do. Usually, I’d just leave, but then go out to a restaurant three days later and try again, eventually things start to become more predictable. Recognize your particular child. Luna from a baby hated people, her first word was no to grannies waving at her in the grocery store. I learned to respect her boundaries and not force her to engage when she was very young, as she got older I would say so we don’t hurt the other person’s feelings if they say hi, say hi back, make eye contact, and then we can move on because that’s polite but you don’t have to engage further if you don’t want. These days she orders her own meals in restaurants and apparently “making friends” is her top school skill, for toddlerdom as much as you can teaching two-way respect is vital for the future even if at the moment sometimes you need to go scream in a cupboard which is also showing self-respect for your mental health.
What are the 7 products you and Luna can’t live without?
I love my Retrouve skincare given I’ve aged 50 years in the last 6.
My Ugg cloud sandals - they look so ugly I believe they are cool again but also so incredibly unbearably comfy.
Luna loves her Cath Kidson backpacks because they are “so cute and British”
She also is a huge fan of her Cybex booster seat which apparently makes the car feel “business class.” Yes, I’m aware I’ve created a monster.
Next up is my Silverlake Denim jeans because I basically live in the LA mom jeans and shirt uniform but at least they are still passable amongst fashion people.
Luna also uses Pipette baby lotion every day and if I have any weird allergies with my skin it also fixes them.
Finally, Luna has asked me to include an awful ride on unicorn because I won’t buy her one but maybe someone will see her tragic plight and send one to our house.
What have you learned about yourself as a mother, and how has that impacted your relationships with your child and your partner?
PJM: I need my bath - my bath is my meditation and if I can’t carve out that 20 minutes my mental health really suffers. I’m also trying to leave my phone in the other room more and be more present when I’m not “working”
What’s your parenting motto?
PJM: She’s going to talk about something about me in therapy when she grows up. I’m going to aim for that thing to be as small and petty as possible. Also don’t parent by committee ask for advice sure but at the end of the day you know your family and your child so you do you.