When actress Nicole Whippy gave birth to her second daughter, Vida, two years ago, she was determined to stay at home and focus on her baby for as long as possible.
The first year was a “fairytale”, she says, but like many women, Nicole found herself struggling to retain her sense of identity and soon felt she’d lost her way.
“She was the most settled baby and we had an incredible bond, but by the time Vida was about 16 months old, I could feel I was heading for a breakdown. I kept thinking, ‘Remember you? Remember your life before kids?’ I felt like I needed to reclaim myself.”
For Nicole, that meant bravely returning to the craft she loves. First, she set up a drama school in her neighbourhood to inspire youngsters. While the bubbly star doesn’t care a jot if her young students go on to become actors, she’s passionate about nurturing and building the confidence of Kiwi kids.
But through her teaching, it was Nicole, 39, who learnt the biggest lesson of all.
“I couldn’t stand in front of my kids and say, ‘Do this,’ or, ‘Do that,’ if I wasn’t willing to ask the same of myself,” she says.
“I’ve always thought kids can either make you feel fearless or vulnerable, but in this case, they did both. They have this natural confidence and never second-guess themselves – they taught me how to be me.”
In fact, she credits the young people in her life – most of all her own children, Pearl, eight, and two-year-old Vida – with helping her overcome a 17-year fear of performing on stage.
As she prepares to tread the boards in A Streetcar Named Desire at Auckland’s Silo Theatre, she’s more confident than ever.
“When you’ve raised two kind, caring, headstrong girls and you’re still OK, you realise you can do just about anything – you have nothing to fear,” says the Fijian-born beauty, who’s playing three minor parts in the production, set in Donald Trump’s America.
“I’ve made a lot of excuses for myself in my career,” she tells. “Even before I was a mum, when I was doing TV, there were offers for theatre work but I always turned them down. I missed out on lots of opportunities because I was scared of the unknown.”
When Nicole, who had pivotal roles in TV shows Outrageous Fortune and Nothing Trivial, welcomed her first child, she returned to work when Pearl was just two months old.
But after learning she was pregnant with Vida, just weeks before her Niue nuptials to Tom Holden in 2014, she made a promise to herself to do things differently second time around.
“I had all the support in the world with Pearl,” says Nicole.
“Mum took time off work to look after her, and I would pump milk on set and someone would run it home. But I was still envious of other mums who stayed at home, fed on demand and enjoyed one-on-one time with their babies.”
While she loved her time with Vida, she was itching to re-enter the workforce when she was approached to audition for Streetcar.
“I haven’t done a play in 17 years, but returning to my roots has reignited the fire in my belly,” she tells. “The good thing about playing three smaller roles is I get to ease myself back into the world of theatre.
“I look at some of the other stars who are playing parts which would be the pinnacle of any actress’ career and I’m kind of glad I’m not them. It feels like the pressure is off. I can’t stop beaming, I love it so much.”
Her fear conquered, Nicole’s on a roll with two other plays in the works – The Mountaintop with David Fane, a fictional account of Martin Luther King’s last night on earth, and a political thriller.
While she’s relishing being back, she knows she couldn’t have done it without the support of her “very young, very wise toyboy” hubby.
“There’s not a lot of money in theatre, but Tommy only wants the best for me and our family, and he would never, ever hold me back.”
A Streetcar Named Desire is running from August 24 - September 16.