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Elisa Donovan’s Blog: Parenting Is Not an Elective Sport

04/18/2013 at 08:30 PM ET

Thanks for welcoming our celebrity blogger, Elisa Donovan!

Best known for her roles as Amber in Clueless and Morgan on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, Donovan recently starred in the ABC Family franchise The Dog Who Saved Christmas. She is the narrator of the audiobook for Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller, Lean In.

Donovan, 42, is also a writer and yogi. A recovered anorexic, she assists in counseling and supporting young women struggling with eating disorders.

She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Charlie Bigelow, and their 11-month-old daughter Scarlett Avery.

She can be found on Facebook, as well as Twitter @RedDonovan.

Elisa Donovan Blog
Scarlett’s 10-month celebration dinner – Courtesy Elisa Donovan

Somewhere around the seven month mark, I started to get antsy. Having successfully made it through the boot camp haze of the first few months of motherhood — and no longer wandering around drooling wondering where I left my toothbrush (check the refrigerator) — I started to get my bearings back.

Scarlett was sleeping through the night and the high of our wedding was wearing off. Oh, did I mention that we also got married in those first few months? (If you’d like a fast and furious lesson in how to prioritize, just try planning a wedding with a newborn.)

The blinders came off and I started to recall the rest of my life. I felt the distinct pull to go back to work, and be back in a stimulating and adult environment.

Then felicitously in January, thanks to my dear friend Nell Scovell, I had the great fortune of being asked to be the voice for the audiobook of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. I was ecstatic to be a part of what I consider to be an extremely important book.

This meant that I would need to go to L.A. for a week to record. I had had a few scattered days of work-related events over the prior months — a Clueless reunion photo shoot for Entertainment Weekly (if you think I was stoked to squeeze myself into a skin tight cocktail dress and stilettos to be photographed for the world to see two months after giving birth, let me say — you would be wrong), a post-production ADR session for a movie, a couple of charity events and a screening.

But since these were all isolated and/or child-friendly events, I was able to bring Scarlett with me to each of them.

Working on Lean In would be the first time that I was officially working for a consecutive week since I had become a mom. And working in L.A. meant leaving Scarlett behind in San Francisco.

This particular project felt like a divine way to dive back in. It was meaningful to me on many levels. The ideals proposed by the book — encouraging women to not hold ourselves back, to make ourselves be heard and to ask for what we deserve, to be unafraid to aspire to the highest positions of power, and know that one can be powerful and still be likeable — are things I believe in and was proud to be condoning.

Getting to know Sheryl and witnessing her genuineness, curiosity and intelligence in person only further ignited my excitement to be a part of this movement. I couldn’t wait to get started. Additionally, I felt like I needed the time away — the time to myself. I was getting restless, going a little stir-crazy being home all of the time.

Elisa Donovan Blog
Post-swim class – Courtesy Elisa Donovan

All of the logistical organization that needed to happen was the first hurdle. Since Charlie is in the office by 4 a.m. daily (an otherworldly hour to ask a sitter to show up at your house), he had to rearrange his schedule to work from home until 6 a.m., when our sitter could arrive to look after Scarlett.

He also had to arrange to leave the office early in the afternoons so he could get home to relieve the sitter and spend some time with Scarlett.

(FYI, when I was trying to decide on a title for this blog entry, Charlie suggested calling it, “I Have the Greatest Husband Ever” or “I Have the Greatest Husband Ever, and He’s So Handsome.” I then reminded him that last night, when he was supposed to be watching Scarlett, he let her eat a magazine. Literally, she had chewed up a page into tiny pieces in her mouth. To which he responded, “I’m still handsome.”)

Although making these arrangements required compromises for everyone, this was not the hardest part. The bigger, more unexpected challenge, was … ME.

I’m packed and ready to go. Charlie and Scarlett take me to the airport and on the drive, I slowly start to feel this impending doom.

We arrive at SFO, I get out and hug Charlie. He puts my bags on the sidewalk and I almost start to cry. What’s wrong with me? I will only be gone a week. I’m just going to L.A.! It’s an hour flight, I could even drive there in less than six hours for God’s sake!

It’s nothing. Plus, I need the space to cultivate my creativity again, to activate my intellectual life, to have a sense of accomplishment outside the home. I can’t wait to go!

I open the back door to say goodbye to Scarlett. She’s in her car seat hanging out, eating her feet. She’s totally fine. I’ve already given her an excessive amount of hugs before I put her in the car seat less than a half an hour ago.

Yet, I suddenly feel like, “Should I take her out, and just, I don’t know, make sure she’s okay? Maybe I’ll just give her another quick hug. Yeah, it’s no big deal to unbuckle her out of her seat and unzip the blanket and grab her out of there real quick.”

Elisa Donovan Blog
Charlie and Scarlett – Courtesy Elisa Donovan

I watch them drive away — my family — and then it envelops me like an old, wet, moldy blanket: why am I doing this? Do I really need to be leaving? Do I really need to be doing this job? Is it that important? How important IS important?

And therein lies the rub. Or as a friend of mine says, “Here’s the crux of the biscuit.” You are dying to get back to work, to have a more well-rounded existence, you move mini mountains to make it happen … and the second you’re gone you can think of nothing but your kid.

This seems colossally unfair. Like the sickest joke in the book. I mean, am I basically screwed for the rest of my life? Can I never leave my daughter in completely loving and capable hands for a few days without developing an enormous hole in my belly? Now that it feels like my heart is outside of my body, how do I thrive without it with me all of the time?

I used to think those women who couldn’t get away from their kids for one second were totally crazy. Now I’m starting to understand that I’m totally nuts, too. That most likely all of us moms are and those of us who do manage to separate ourselves from our kids, do so only with a healthy dose of internal kicking and screaming the whole way.

I did get on the plane and I did go through with the job. And we all survived the time apart. My incessant requests for photos and videos of Scarlett were graciously indulged by our godsend of a sitter — who happens to not only be one of the best humans on the planet, but also a terrific photographer. (I’d tell you all who she is, but then I’d have to kill you. I don’t want any of you sneaky mommies trying to steal her from us! But you know who you are Haley and we love you!!)

The thing is — for me — in order to be the best mom that I can be, I know I need to be a whole person. And part of me being whole is working. I know this is not for everyone.

I know there are women that are meant to be stay-at-home moms. They thrive at this and don’t have career desires that extend outside of raising their children. I applaud and am in awe of these women.

And if I were that kind of woman, I would be writing this piece about something else entirely. But I’m not. And this makes me conflicted. This constant push and pull. This brings me guilt and it brings me confusion.

I need to tend to this part of myself that creates things and produces things because it is a huge part of who I am. I want Scarlett to know who I am. I want her to grow up following her instincts and her heart, pursuing her goals. I want her to believe that she can do and be anything she wants, that there are no limitations. I want her to know that to pursue one’s passions does not have to be at the expense of being loved. That just because I have a job, does not mean I love her any less.

Elisa Donovan Blog
Feels like flying – Courtesy Haley

Anyone who is an actor or artist of any kind can attest that our existence falls very short of predictable perfection. And the somewhat cacophonous and sporadic nature of our work has its detriments: there is no linear path to success, zero reliability or consistency, zero security which can lead to an abundance of insecurities, neediness, narcissism … need I go on?

But as far as I can see, as far as working moms go, I have it easy. There are a lot of women who work full-time and don’t have the luxury of having extended periods of time off where they can spend all day with their kids. I applaud these women too, for their endurance and courage and commitment to providing for their children.

I see how fortunate I am that I can go and work for a period of time and know that pretty soon, I will be right back to spending my days singing nursery rhymes and repeating, “Is that YUMMY??? YUMMY?? YUMMY!” over and over while smiling maniacally.

But this doesn’t mean that the leaving is any easier for me. Having a child is the great equalizer. Time becomes more precious than ever. I’m forced to distill each thing I do that doesn’t involve Scarlett down to its core and then decide whether or not that core is something that is worth spending time away from her for.

This is a major question for me: how will I balance this new life? This life as a mom. How do I shape it into the existence that both fulfills me as a human and fulfills my job as a mother?

Parenting is not an elective sport. It isn’t a recreational activity that we decide to engage in occasionally, when we feel like it. When Charlie and I made the choice to bring a child into the world, we were also inherently agreeing to the responsibility to actually introduce her to it. To love and take care of her, to help her understand and assimilate.

I did not take on this task lightly. Of course, Scarlett comes first. But I also believe that part of my commitment to her is to bring my full self to the table. And in order to help her grow and expand, I want to be able to share accomplishments and experiences with her. I want to have something new to tell her.

This job was just the first of many over the years to come. And I’m sure these feelings will continue to come up. So I know that my life will now be this eternal dance of balances — of having faith in the ebb and flow, trusting the going away and the coming back, and believing that my daughter will be better off because of it.

I am definitely not doing it perfectly. But I am committed to consciously continuing to practice.

Elisa Donovan Blog
Après-ski reading in Tahoe – Courtesy Elisa Donovan

– Elisa Donovan

More from Elisa’s PEOPLE.com blog series:

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Showing 35 comments

JCoolie123 on

This is totally me at the moment with my 4 month old. I love my work and have the privilege to work per diem. I want to get out and be an adult and enjoy my job, but once I am at work all I think about is getting home to my DD.

I think whether you are a full-time working mom, part-time working mom, or SAHM, we ALL feel the push and pull of balancing parenthood with adulthood.

blessedwithboys on

Working is one thing but upsetting the attachment process by disappearing from an infant’s life for seven days is permanently damaging. This blog made me sad.

klutzy_girl on

Oh, blessedwithboys give it a rest. Being such a judgmental parent will be more damaging to a child than having one that works.

BeebeeMommy on

Elisa, I am a working mother and I completely understand the mixed feeling regarding going to work and traveling away from your baby.

I have to work. Not because of finances, but because it’s part of who I am. Does it make me a bad mother by wanting to work? No. I don’t believe that for a second. By denying that, I’m denying a part of myself.

I have a one year old little girl and I work full time. Luckily I have a great husband and support network. But, there will come a time that I have to travel for my job. Again, does that make me a bad mom? No. Not ever.

Jen DC on

i think you’re being a bit overdramatic, BWB. what about important bonding time with her father? whom she had for EXTRA time (between 4 and 6 AM; and early in the afternoons) when she would not have otherwise had him? Plus Scarlett was what? 8 months old at the time? Where’s the science that says a week without Mommy is “permanently damaging” to the “attachment process” for an 8 month old? I mean… by 8 months, I think Scarlett’s pretty well attached to her parents.

I’m not even a Mom and I get that this is BS. If you’re happy spending all your time with your boys and have the perception that they cannot thrive out of your sight, then do what’s best for YOUR family. I hate to disabuse you, but not every child is a requires that. Plus, maybe the kids’ father might like a few minutes without you hovering; I don’t know. Maybe the kids themselves would prefer some privacy. BACK OFF.

thefflady on

I think this blog post is totally relate-able, and what’s sad to me is how easily women get extremely judgmental, especially when it comes to parenting. Being a parent requires making an infinite number of decisions, many of which have no right or wrong answers and are a personal choice. What works for one family may not work for another. Personally, I enjoy having an occasional trip away from my kids–I think it makes me a happier (and therefore better) parent. But I have friends who feel differently, and that’s their decision. I don’t think I’m any better or worse a mom for it.

Leaving your infant for a one-week business trip in the hands of her capable and loving father is not neglect. Sounds to me like Scarlett is very lucky to have two great parents who are at the same time very involved with her and active with their own lives.

Annie on

That is one CUTE baby!!! Love her rosy cheeks :)

Brooke on

REALLY BlessedWithBoys??? Every comment your EVER post has to do with some archaic view of what mothers are supposed to do.

PERMANENTLY DAMAGING??? Yes – I have no doubt that one day Scarlett will say to Elisa, “But, But….I got pregnant at 16 because you left me for seven days when I was one”

sarah on

I laughed out loud with the comment of her husband watching the baby and he let her eat a magazine… that is hilarious… I love reading her blogs… I can totally relate to most being a mommy to a 2.5 almost 3 year old and a almost 5 month old.

Jennifer on

Thank you so much for this post! You articulated my sentiments about being back to work after 14 months off with our boy…I am also much more present when we’re together. You are bang on about appreciating our partners and husbands too. I love mine more everyday (despite our examples of magazine eating, haha!). Everyone’s journey is different and we should be respectful of all the different paths.

Marie on

Such a cute little girl!

April20 on

to “blessedwithboys”: Where is the research and evidence to support your claim? I’d love to see it as your comment about attachment damage appears substantially baseless, but am open to be proven wrong.

That being said, I respectfully and whole heartedly disagree with part of this blog, the bit about parents carefully weighing every decision to make sure it’s extremely important before spending it away from their child. While I agree with this for extended periods of time such as a work trip etc, I certainly don’t in terms of leisure in moderation.

I think there is absolutely nothing wrong with NOT carefully weighing how much more Kid Rock is important to you than your own child before spending time away from them to attend a concert with your friends. I find that somewhat guilt-mongering and pointless. Sometimes, it’s just fun and good for your soul and needn’t be so analyzed. In the hands of a reliable and responsible person, have some fun once in a while. And JUST BECAUSE.

Marky on

Elisa”s blog is interesting and talks about something many of us either have dealt with or may have to deal with. My children are adults now and I have grands, but I have lived long enough to see that moms make different choices due to their children’s personalities and needs, as well as their own personalities and needs. Judgment should be reserved for those who actually ask for it, and otherwise, a comment should be just that–a comment.

I had one child who would have done just fine with me working if I had been able to find a good sitter, or perhaps been able to change my work hours so his very capable father could have cared for him. I could not, and I chose to quit my job, and stay home. We adopted a child who came to us at 1 from another country, and we were her 4th home, so suffice it to say, I couldn’t leave her to go to the bathroom, let alone all day, so I surely didn’t work, but there again, she had specific needs and I thought that through before she came. #4 didn’t adjust to my being away with my job, though he had family galore around. He cried all the time and I ended up working in his school, so I was still working at a job I loved, but working around his needs. I think that’s all Elisa is saying; this works for them, it’s got some “corners” to it, but it works and personally, I think she’s to be congratulated for making certain she has lots of time with her child and doesn’t go mad from staying home and never being able to work again.

I ended up changing careers, and it was okay, but I always wondered if I could have figured something out to stay in my first career, which I loved, and still take good care of my children. It would be easier to do so now, than it was then. Life is sometimes hard to balance, and it’s all about choices we may have to make along the road. Women need to be less critical of each other, and more supportive of instead.

JR Jake on

Absolutely, the children are the one’s with the options. The parents have to be in tune knowing which one is the best to utilize at the moment. I would trade my parenting days for the world, because that was a time of personal growth and sacrifice you will never ENJOY just about anywhere else. Nice article and very well stated.

Sarah on

I liked the blog post and I agree that each mom has to make their own decision based on how they personally feel. I respect everyone’s choice.

I just have a little problem with the part about how she applauds stay at home moms who have no career desires outside of their children. I would venture to guess that most stay at home moms, myself being one, have many career desires and have had fulfilling careers. We are simply putting them on hold until our kids are at an age where we feel they are more independent and need our presence a little less.

That comment just feeds into the stereotype that SAHM’s are less ambitious or driven that working moms. Actually, we just prioritize our time differently.

Jenny on

Blessedwithboys-you are, literally, the worst.

Amanda on

Being a mother is amazing! Thank you for sharing part of your journey! However, I think it is unfair to state that stay at home moms do not have career desires outside of the home! I absolutely love being a SAHM and I do desire to have a career! I had to make a choice and I chose my top priority – family first!

Guest on

Brooke LMAO!!!!

Michelle on

I worked the first few years I had my children and it killed me to leave them and miss all the “firsts”. First words, steps, foods etc. Then when my oldest turned 5 and my youngest 2yrs I decided to try the stay at home mom thing. It too was hard at first but then I found my groove and it’s been the most wonderful part of my life. My oldest is turning 12 and my youngest is 9. I don’t miss my career ever… it is always there when I want to go back. My children are everything I ever wanted and I don’t regret my choice actually I wish I had done it sooner.

Linda on

So tired of SAHMs acting like all working moms choose to work. Most of us have to work to support our kids. “It’s too hard to leave.” Yeah, it is, but it’s much harder to not have health insurance and a roof over their head.

guest on

off course parenting is an elective sport. you can chose to have children or chose not to. Either way is fine, just pick one.

JJ on

What most SAHMs don’t understand (looking @ Amanda’s comment about putting family first), working mothers put their family first by getting out there and bringing in an income. My mother wished she could be home with me. She hated to leave me but she also wanted me to have a private education and other niceties so by her working she put me first. You don’t get a special prize for staying at home with kids, if that’s what you choose to do then fine, the same goes for those that work. It is your business after all.

ecl on

My question to SAHMs: If being at home is such a blessing and a privilege then why shouldn’t your husbands get the same opportunities? I like that my husband and I both balance work and family so that we both get lots of time with our son and both support our family and get careers. I wouldn’t want to keep that from my husband just so that I could stay at home all the time.

Ini on

@ blessedwithboys: You are a bully

farrell on

I agree with blessedwithboys… sorry but that is my opinion… being a stay at home mom is far more beneficial for the child than working all the time. Why have children if you are never see them.

Whi on

I enjoyed this post – I enjoy all of hers, actually. She really hits the nail on the head with this one, and it’s refreshing to see her be an advocate for ALL moms, whether they work full time, part time, or stay home. It’s a TOUGH JOB!!!

I work full time and have since my daughter was 8 weeks old. It killed me to go back, but I didnt have a choice. We need the income and I need adult interaction. I need to be around others and stimulate that part of myself in order to be a happy mommy at home. Yes, I have days where I just want to quit and stay home, days where dropping her off at daycare kills a tiny piece of my heart, but I also know that she is in good hands and she is also flourishing because she is with her friends, doing lessons, being on a good schedule (which has been proven a million times over that she does well on one), and she is smiling at the end of the day.

It is so hard to make the choice to leave your child, and I totally understand the moment when you experience the switch-a-roo and can’t remember for the life of you why you decided to leave them, even if just for an hour, a day, a week. It’s called love.

WhiteLily30 on

Every woman is different. Instead of trying to justify our own decisions, we should be trying to see things from the other person’s point of view. I am a stay-at-home-mom and I believe I am doing the right thing for my family. I don’t want to miss any of the “firsts” or leave my son to be raised by others. BUT, I have that luxury because my husband works full time and is completely supportive of the arrangement. Not all families have that luxury. Some Mom’s simply have to work, to put a roof over their children’s heads and food in their bellies, and they are EXCELLENT Mom’s for doing so! It’s not fair to judge others and say they are damaging their children, simply because their choices are different from ours. Everyone has their reasons and everyone has to make sacrifices, once children are in the picture. I no longer work at a job I loved, but I’m happy being home with my son. Others are happiest while working, or simply have to work to provide, and they have to sacrifice time with their children. Both choices require sacrifice in different way, but ultimately bring happiness, so let’s try to support eachother through the trials instead of condemning eachother for them.

R Cortez on

People have to stop acting like motherhood is a “club”. It s a gift and a choice. I find that most people think they are mothers and fathers but they instead just had a baby. Being a mother and a father is earned, and anyone who makes some sort of comment like “you don’t understand, you’re not a mother” is not at all one, just someone treats their child a possession. Parenthood IS AN ELECTIVE choice. One day we will actually have people who are real mothers and fathers having children. Until then we are just stuck with 98% of people who are just “having/possessing” kids. I think a good lesson in taking care of another human is to meet someone taking care of someone with terminal cancer or paraplegia or a long term illness. That is what is truly not an elective sport, life or choice. Once you get to know someone like that or have that experience, all the complaining/matyrdom about elective motherhood will be thrown out with the bathwater

SG on

Personally, I think “your boys” being permanently around YOU would be damaging. Get off the Internet and go parent “your boys”…the 10 minutes you spent on the computer probably traumatized them.

Bringing home the bacon and driving the soccer taxi on

I absolutely love her blogs! I appreciate her honesty and openness with everything she’s feeling as a new mommy. Love she feels open enough to share her need to balance her job as a mommy and her continued desire to work and have a piece of herself. Realizing that you need to stay a whole person while balancing being a mom is a daily challenge and one (in my humble opinion) is what’s healthiest for everyone in the long run. I see so many of my friend’s marriages fall apart, so much unhappiness within themselves because they think they have to sacrifice everything else and make their kids their only priority….no thanks! I actually enjoy my job, am more present for my kids when I am home, and frankly I think my boys appreciate me working too. They both love having a roof over their heads, food in their bellies and money to enjoy family time.
Keep up the great work on this longest journey of motherhood!

Maggie on

I have three children and was a stay at home mom for the first two but unfortunaly due to circumstances beyond my control when my youngest daughter was only 7 months old I had to go back to work. It was hard on me, my daughter on the other hand loved being with a loving and doting grandmother who did nothing but cater to her every need. I see no difference in my two oldest children’s having mom at home and my youngest having a loving substitute. All three children are good, happy, and well rounded. They are capable of being independent when they need to be but also love hanging out with their family. They are now 16,11, and 4. My youngest will start kindergarten and I am positive she will be well adjusted unlike some kids who have never learned to have a little seperation from there mom.

Um on

Well said! Wish more people thought & acted this way. Always nice to know that kids are being raised by such reasonable, compassionate people as yourself.

Erin on

Very well said White Lily.

amandajaykay on

Meh, the comments turn it into working moms vs stay at home but no one has told Elisa that it gets better…the first two years with your first baby are totally emotionally intense and any separation is going to be tough whether you choose it or not. I worked full time (not by choice) with my first (she’s 5) and now I work one day a week, my son is 18 mos. Part- time work is a great compromise if you can swing it financially and if it is personally rewarding.

I am totally devoted to both my kids but I can say that after your baby is a little older, separation doesn’t suck so much. You obviously care a lot about your daughter that you are even worried about time away, and that is what counts. And we aren’t getting any younger ladies, those of us who want to advance a career still need facetime in the real world. Best of luck, momma.

Holly on

BWB, you appear to be “attached” to the point of scary with your kids, and that’s really too bad. YOU make me sad. For your children, because they are growing up stunted and believing that they can’t do anything without their mom. This will soon prove to be a bad thing, and very hard to fix.

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