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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Après-ski reading in Tahoe – Courtesy Elisa Donovan
– Elisa Donovan