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Actress and activist Jurnee Smollett on mom guilt and changing the narrative

Liz speaks with actress and activist Jurnee Smollett -- star of Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn, Eve's Bayou, the hotly anticipated HBO show Lovecraft Country -- about mom guilt, why she chooses stories that re-examine the legacy we've all inherited, and how growing up in a big and unconventional family influenced her approach to motherhood.

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Liz Tenety: Jurnee Smollett welcome to the Motherly podcasts.

Jurnee Smollett: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Liz Tenety: Alright. Our theme this season is motherhood your way. So, what do you think makes your approach to motherhood unique?

Jurnee Smollett: I think my approach is kind of a mashup. A combination of examples I've seen in my life of these really amazing strong women who mother so fiercely.

My mother, obviously being my first example. She raised six kids as a single mother. Raised four boys. I mean, hello. Gosh. And you know, my sister became a mother before I became one. I have a lot of friends. A lot of my friends became mothers before me. But my situation is so unique, you know, and being an actor and artist with such a crazy schedule, most things that I looked to in life, like my mother, for instance, she never let a nanny watch us one time. I mean, she prided herself on the fact that no one ever watched us.

Liz Tenety: That's a lot of pressure for you as a mom to hear that,

Jurnee Smollett: listen, let's not even begin to talk about the standard. My mother, as a mom, it was like just out of this world. Right. For her, she would joke and say, listen, if y'all turn out crazy, I don't want it to, because I'm suspicious that someone dropped you in your heads. I want to know that you crazy on your own.

[00:02:00] Liz Tenety: Well, that was her choice. And, and sounds like, you know, from what I've read, that, that she found so much fulfillment and find so much fulfillment and like just fully embracing motherhood in her way.

Jurnee Smollett: She did and, and what I'm learning, I haven't mastered this yet, but what I am learning is how important it is to customize my own approach to motherhood.

Not compare myself to anyone, but rather learn and observe and keep what works for me and discard what doesn't. My situation's not my mother's situation. And it's been a learning process, in just kind of being kind to myself in that way. But yeah, I think my [00:03:00] approach is kind of, it's kind of wacky, honestly.

It's like, you know, I subscribe to attachment parenting, but then also I'm over here doing this. I mean, it's just like I read books and a friend, a mentor of mine gave me this awesome book, whole parent, whole child, which talks about the importance of really becoming a whole person. And that's the best gift you can give to your child.

Liz Tenety: I love that.

Jurnee Smollett: I do too. I do too. And it helps me out a lot in my struggle with mom guilt and just kind of knowing that it's okay. To take time for yourself. It's okay. To give yourself time for self care. That will really help your bandwidth in the long run with your children.

Liz Tenety: Has your mother talked to you at all about, you know, you're her [00:04:00] little girl and you're choosing to mother your way, which is different. What does she say to you about the way that you've chosen to do it?

Jurnee Smollett: She's been incredibly helpful because I can call her all the time and say, okay, Hunter is having these symptoms or what do I do and, and she can give them the best advice.

But she's been really amazing and kind of just kind of encouraging me to find my own [00:05:00] way. I'm a working mom, that's, that's a, that's a different situation then what I witnessed growing up. And so, she's been very encouraging just in little ways of like, she calls me, she'll be like booby, you're doing such a great job, you know? She calls me Booby… And especially with the breastfeeding, cause I struggled with it at first, almost quit.

Liz Tenety: But you ended up going over three years, feeding

Jurnee Smollett: Girl. I did. I did.

Liz Tenety: That's amazing. That's amazing. I mean, that's a commitment.

Jurnee Smollett: Yes, it's, it's, it's a commitment. It really is. I struggled with it initially early on. We had a lot of issues with latching. I'm sure there's a lot of moms who have struggled with that too.

Liz Tenety: I was one of them.

Jurnee Smollett: It totally [00:06:00] sucks. Listen, when the latching -- when you have problems with it, in my experience, I was just so sore all the time and it can be so discouraging. And when you really just want to quit, because I just remember feeling like I have to feed my child but every single time he wants to feed it hurts.

Right. I think I just should have gotten help sooner, sooner as in like the first day. Like I had had a lactation consultant the first day cause I delivered at home. and so my lactation consultant came like on the fourth day. And by then I was just hella sore.

Liz Tenety: When you mentioned that you come from what certainly today would be considered a huge family. And, um, I do have four children [00:08:00] and I honestly. I don't know if I'm done. II never, I've never felt that like off switch or that feeling of completeness that some women say, like, I just never felt that. So, tell us, what is it really like to grow up in a large family and how do you think it shaped your view of family life and of motherhood?

Jurnee Smollett: You know, I always say, growing up in such a large family, having five other siblings was the greatest gift my parents could have ever given us.

Liz Tenety: Oh, really?

Jurnee Smollett: I mean, I have five best friends. We are so close. I mean, the bond that I have with my siblings is unlike anything I've I think I will ever experience in my life. And it's [00:11:00] different. We all have different relationships with each other, but just incredibly close.

But yeah, and it just was, you know, poor. We grew up in poverty, honestly. You know, even though we were like, some of us were on TV -- some of us were in commercials.

[00:12:00] Those were like hobbies for us. My mom wasn't a stage mom. She wasn't the type of mother who was constantly pushing us in, um, In work, you know, trying to make a buck and stuff. So for us, we were just very creative and artsy. And, um, my mom put on the sound of music all the time. We would sing songs. I mean, really it was, we were all we had.

Um, and we were just incredibly close and, um, even now being adults. Going through the ups and downs of life. It's a blessing to have so many people that I can lean upon and it's a curse too, right?

Because you have all, you, [00:13:00] you experience the highs and lows with. So many people that you're invested in, right? And so the highs and lows in their lives inevitably become the highest loads of your own life. But I'm incredibly grateful to have them truly.

Liz Tenety: Did growing up in a large family make you want to have a lot of kids or did it make you not want to have a lot of kids or, or to borrow some, some of the essence of what you experienced growing up

Jurnee Smollett: It definitely made me want to have kids.

And it made me want to have a big family. My mom would pack us in the car and we. She couldn't afford flights. So we would drive everywhere. Um, she couldn't afford furniture, so she would build all of our furniture. All of our furniture growing up, my mom built from our beds to the kitchen table.

I mean, still the table and my home. Now I have a seven foot table that I built with my mother. [00:14:00] and carpentry was a gift like she passed on to me and cooking was a big thing. And eating healthy was a big thing. Exercising together was a big thing. But so, it made me want to have that sort of tribe in my life as well.

Now that I've had a child and trying to balance having a career. I really do love my work. Um, I realized that I probably won't have as large of a family as my mother had. Um, the debate is still out as to whether I'll have more children, I would like to, but I don't know. It is quite a task if I had respect for my mother before I have an insane amount of respect now, I don't know how she did it six times over.

So. Yeah, [00:15:00] it made me want to have a big family. I don't know that I will. We will see.

Liz Tenety: Yeah. At every stage for me, like when I had one kid that was really hard, like really hard. Yeah. Um, going from not having a child to having a child was for me the biggest transformation.

Jurnee Smollett: So, now that you have four children? Is there, does it get easier having more or?

Liz Tenety: It does. you know, it's so counterintuitive. It's certainly my story. It's not true to everyone, but you know, I've, I've gotten better at knowing how to. Had a mother, right? Like I have, I took a parenting class that helped give me child psychology strategies. My husband and I really worked out how to be partners in this. Right. And that was like, not at all clear in the beginning.

Um, [00:16:00] we got our support community, our nannies and babysitters and teachers. Like we, we built that up. We built routines and also the kids get older and, you know, I know your son's three and a half. My oldest is now eight and it is so different when you are not worried about them constantly. My son gets himself dressed. He can take his own shower, he can make his own food. You know, it's, it's really, really different. For me, in some ways, motherhood has never been. I don't want to say easier because it's hard, but it's not as much of a struggle right now as it has been at various seasons in the past.

And honestly, to be totally candid, you know, there were seasons where we were earlier in our careers. We weren't making as much money and like, I couldn't afford [00:17:00] any extra help back then. You know, when I first started out and like just being able to afford, um, you know, having someone. Watch your kids to go out on the weekend.

In the beginning, I was working full time from home, but I only could really pay for part time childcare. We are past that season of life now, but. It was, it was a lot harder in the beginning for me than it is now.

And I think partly also, I know you've talked a lot about mom guilt. Our babysitter makes dinner for the family. I used to feel super, super guilty about that. Like, I was a bad mom because she cooks dinner. cooks dinner and I just decided, a few years ago, like I am just not going to feel guilty about that anymore.

So the things I feel guilty about [00:18:00] you recently wrote in Refinery29, a reflection on mom, guilt that you've experienced and also processing your guilt during this pandemic and quarantine. Can you talk a little bit about it?

Jurnee Smollett: Yeah, sure. It's interesting. Being in the quarantine and this pandemic, I mean, I'm sure, this is something a lot of people are experiencing this, this level of quiet, um, has made me become very reflective and I've been inspecting a lot of my emotions that I was housing and wasn't entirely aware of them.

And even if I wasn't aware of how it was impacting my everyday life and my sense of joy, that baseline sense of joy.

And just feeling that I had the standard in my head of what I was supposed to achieve as a mother, the kind of mother I was supposed to be. And throughout my pregnancy, I worked up until nine days before giving birth to Hunter and I'm going to do it all.

I mean, forget the world who says you can't have, or do it all, I'm going to do it. Right. Um, and in that attempt to do it all, I did it for everyone else, but myself. Because I just constantly felt, no, this is more important than taking a bath or journaling or joining things that made me feel good.

And I just consistently felt inadequate because when I was not at work, you know, I went back to work full time. When Hunter was 18 months, I shot the pilot of Lovecraft [00:20:00] country. Then went into training for birds of prey shot. That then went three weeks later to shoot Lovecraft for like another seven or eight months. And then after that wrap that and started promoting birds of prey back in December and January. Right. And then stop that and ditch Twilight zone.

I mean, literally I haven't stopped since Hunter was 18 months except for like Christmas or Thanksgiving. Um, and so. These feelings of, okay, I'm so tired. And when I did, did I get time off from working 16 hour days? I have to spend every single moment with Hunter trying to overcompensate for the moments that I was away. And even though I would bring him on set. And we'd have lunch or he would be there watching me rehearsing that he could watch, or, you know, I try to incorporate him as much as I could as a working mom and I'm very fortunate that I could afford [00:21:00] to have I'm a full time nanny to help.

Um, and yet. Even though I was trying to, you know, really incorporate him and he knew everyone on set and he was making friends and, you know, I've had him incorporate it into my work life as much as I could. I still felt like it was never enough. Right. It was never enough. And so I'm killing myself on weekends, even though I'm tired.

And we were shooting all night long and shot until six in the morning. I'm waking up to do breakfast and trying to like, you know, play these games with him. And yet I was so exhausted that I couldn't actually be present. I was depleted. I was running on empty. And so when I was spending time with him, I felt like this is not real, quality time because you're tired and you're not, you're not like making up all the games you're dragging yourself to play.

And so that only reinforced the feeling of. Being inadequate that I already had. Right. I was in a vicious circle, this vicious cycle, um, and this time has really forced me to confront that and really release it because it wasn't serving me, running on empty wasn't serving me or my family, you know?

Um, Hmm. And I am not gonna lie, you know, I'm not, I'm not working right now. And so maybe, you know, it's easier for me to confront this now because I'm able to just spend endless amount of time, mommy time. And it's something I know when I go back to work, I'll have to re confront and set certain boundaries that I wasn't setting before.

Liz Tenety: Yeah. I think a lot of us having gone through this time as parents, as people, we're re-imagining what we want our lives to look like. And of course there's like so much hardship and fear and anxiety, whether it's about our careers or health or family's mental health. But there's also in some ways an opportunity for a reset and for us to reimagine what we want our work life and our family lives to look like on the other side. So what, what are you, what are those boundaries? What are those changes?

Jurnee Smollett: For once, starting to really say no, I mean, I am a yes person.

Liz Tenety: So many women identify with that, wanting to make people happy.

Jurnee Smollett: Wanting to please people wanting to be there for people, and feeling that [00:24:00] we cannot just create a space in which we're there for ourselves first without apologizing for it. We'll do it maybe once in a while, but then we feel so bad and we apologize profusely and that. Requirement for our work that we couldn't fulfill, oh my gosh, I'm sorry. Or, You know, I do a lot of work in the nonprofit world and activism is a really massive part of my life.

So, going to every meeting and trying to be there for, these causes are so important, but sometimes it's also important to say, you know what, I've got to just kind of step back from this a little bit, or just simply saying no to that meeting or that coffee date, or, plugging in and plugging out, turning off social media.

I mean really inspecting things that are serving me in a [00:25:00] positive way. And things that are serving me in a negative way.Things that fuel me and things that deplete me.Trying to find the balance. I'm finding that making lists like to do lists for myself, you know, help me inspect, well, what on this list is absolutely necessary.

What on this list serves me, like categorizing it. And what on this list am I doing? Because I feel guilty if I don't do it. Is that shame actually serving me?

Liz Tenety: You know, at motherly, we're like radically prioritizing. Like if this meeting can be an email, it should be an email. If this one hour meeting can be 15 minutes, make it 15 minutes, and then we're realizing why aren't we doing this all the time? Yeah, like [00:26:00] let's make this, the new normal,

Jurnee Smollett: So true. I mean, if, if we can have a conference call versus us all,to drive an hour to a meeting, have the meeting and then drive an hour home in LA traffic.

Like, why are we doing ourselves? You know, those are the boundaries where we can start to inspect. How can we just start to take care of ourselves? Look, it's, it's, it's a work in progress. I, I'm not going to lie and say that I'm there, there, you know, I think this will be something I constantly have to, um, Walk out. I have to constantly exercise it. It's going to because I'm, I am a yes person. I'm a people pleaser. It's gonna, it's a part of my walk in life, I think, to just constantly, um, relearn this lesson.

Liz Tenety: You brought up your activism [00:27:00] and you have been an activist for a long time, really since childhood working with causes, that really matter to you. And we are speaking today when our public conversation is rightly focused on racially motivated violence, police brutality, and a real reckoning in our country. How are you processing this? Particularly as a mother and a mother of a son?

Jurnee Smollett: I mean, yeah, raising a black son, I remember years ago before I became a mother. And then the situation with Trayvon Martin happened. I remember being so outraged when the verdict, um, with Zimmerman happened and just, I think I was [00:28:00] on Twitter, just like ranting about it and ranting to everyone I could talk to and group text messages about the actual fear I had in raising a black son.

I hadn't become a mother yet, but I was internalizing these situations and look, growing up, you know, I have four brothers, right? So I've witnessed things. I've witnessed them being targeted. I've witnessed them being put in the back of police cars when they're pulled over for a ticket for speeding or something like that.

I've personally been, I've experienced that with a friend of mine, Questlove and I years ago we left a fundraiser for Obama. we were in Marina Del Rey. He was driving a mini Cooper and literally was pulled over for nothing. For no reason. It was a rental car because he doesn't live in Los Angeles.

And he and I both were taken out. They searched us, searched my purse, patted me and him down, put us in the back of the [00:29:00] cop car for no reason. And then let us go. This is a world, you know, that we all live in and it's maddening, man. One of the things that frustrates me the most is like, well, why does there need to be a video?

You know, like, why do we need a video in order to believe it? And what would have happened if there hadn't been a video, right. You know, how many videos have not been taken, um, or how many videos have cut out or, you know, I mean, it's, it's a problem that can no longer just be our problem. That's really what it's going to be about.

Like, we can't fight this on our own. We need allies. And you know, we need people like yourself creating these conversations.Because unfortunately you're never going to have to have the kind of conversation with your children that I'll have to have with my [00:30:00] son, you know, just because he has a different complexion, like that's the hard reality of it all, that I will have to train him on how to deal with police when he's pulled over.

It's a conversation that I will not want to have, but I will have to train him differently than, you know, my white female counterparts.

Liz Tenety: What do you want the mothers who are listening to know about that hard reality.

Jurnee Smollett: I mean, I think I talk with my sister about this a lot, um, because it's, it's not just one area it's in all the areas, you know, my, my niece goes to school.

Right. And so, um, representation in the schools are important on the teacher level, but other kids, you know, her hair is different or, you know, we have so many different things we have to explain to our children, right. It's [00:31:00] maddening to find, to try to find books, right, that represent books just for story time at night.

To find, I mean, a friend of mine, Gabrielle union sent me a book recently that I love and Hunter loves it and it's called "You're Invited to the Party" and she didn't pay me to talk about this book. Okay. But I'd love, you know, I mean, because you, as a mother, woman of color, you are just desperate to find books that you can read to your children that have more inclusive representation so they can see themselves, right. Because how many cartoons are they seeing themselves in? I mean, look, they, they love all the Disney cartoons, right? Just like every other kid, but. Yeah, they love all the Nickelodeon cartoons, just like every other kid. They love watching, you know, I try not to let them watch kids' YouTube too much, but I mean, [00:32:00] really like, are we aware of the, of inclusion, the lack of representation.

If you're not a mom of color, are you, you know, are you having the conversation about how different kids. Have different hair types, different hair textures, different complexions, like, so that your kids don't say something ignorant to our kids, right? Like, Oh, why is your hair not like that? Why does your hair not fall down?

Or why does your hair? So, you know, like, They are so young. And at these ages, they're not, if we are not having these conversations with them and not training them up to be aware of all of our differences and embracing them and celebrating them, then they're just a part of the problem.

Liz Tenety: A lot of white people have a hard time hearing that, that they're a part of the problem, right? They'll say, [00:33:00] you know, Oh, I'm not racist. You know, I never beat someone because of the color of their skin. But you're asking for more than that, you're asking to be a part of the solution, not just to not be a part of it.

Jurnee Smollett: Absolutely. And I think honestly, silence is arguably just as deadly. And listen, it's not even about, um, overt racism. Like we're not even talking about the situations that we're seeing in the news. We're talking about how to start on just a foundational level. With kids who actually could be allies who could grow up to, to see the world differently.

That's what I'm talking about. You know, I'm talking about the people who -- your children are going to have inevitably a different level of privilege. [00:34:00] That it's inherent because of the way our nation was built. And I think we all have a certain level of privilege.

Look, I have a certain level of privilege that I have to walk around being aware of as well. I have access to a certain lifestyle, right? I mean, I can go on and on about my privilege within my community. Like colorism is real. So that's something that I have to be aware of as well. Like I think we all just have to be aware of what is the privilege that we walk around with and what is the responsibility that we then hold to be accountable to that privilege. And that's really what I'm asking for an allyship, you know, just being aware of your privilege.

And I know these conversations are so uncomfortable to have, but I think it's important for us to have it. Like just become aware of it, hold it to your heart, the way we hold it to our hearts.

Liz Tenety: And I do think that. You know, as mothers, I know speaking for myself that the vulnerability of motherhood just can crack [00:36:00] you open to the suffering and injustice against other children. You know, even adults, adults are still someone's child as well. Um, in a way that I hope that our listeners can just reflect on and really think about what that could mean in their daily lives.

Jurnee Smollett: Absolutely. Like I'm on the board of an organization called the children's defense fund and, Marian Wright, Edelman, you know, the founder of it has just done such incredible work in the space of, you know, advocating for children. Children do not have a voice in this nation.

They don't have voting power.And there are so many children who have an inherent disadvantage, just because of the location they were born and to whom they were born and it's to no fault of their own, but they will have a [00:37:00] disadvantage in having access to the same amount of opportunities that other kids have access to.

And what can we do as mothers to just equal the playing field? Like, what can we do to Just be aware of that, to raise our children up with that awareness.

Liz Tenety: I love the passion. Another area you've been really outspoken about is, you know, why you've wanted to work on female directed female focused projects. And we are, we are like just starting to [00:40:00] put women at the center of the story as like half of humanity. This whole movement is just kind of at the beginning of what is possible and how much needs to get done.

So can you tell us why. It is so important to you to work on female focused projects. And, um, especially you have a son, you know, um, what do you tell him about that work? Or what would you want him to know? Maybe when he's a little older.

Jurnee Smollett: So yeah, it's interesting. So I'm a part of time's up and a lot of the women in times that we joke about how as mothers, we're like a lot of us mothers and times up are mothers of sons.

And how badly, we just want them to grow up in a world that looks different. Right. And for me, one of my weapons, one of my tools is my art and I've, you [00:41:00] know, I grew up doing this. And so I see the importance of storytelling. I see the impact it has on us as a society when you see things, you can be things.

And sometimes if you don't see it, you can't even dream it because you don't know to dream it. So representation, inclusion is something that's so important to me and being a part of the change that's happening in our industry is something I've really made a mission of mine. One of those missions are yet to work with female filmmakers, female creatives, female storytellers.

And I've been really fortunate over the past few years to work with people like Misha green. First on underground. Now again with Lovecraft country, the HBO project that comes out in August, and then like with birds of prey, working with Margot Robbie as a producer and Sue Kroll as a producer, [00:42:00] Kathy Yen as the director.

You know, asking ourselves, what kind of stories do we want to see? I'm loving this time that I'm in, in my career, I feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to play characters that I've been able to play of recent,flawed women, you know, not perfect who do questionable things who can kick ass, who can feel frustrated, who can wear their heart on their sleeves, you know?

It's an opportunity for me to just kind of explore the different views of who we are as women. We're not just the girlfriend.

Liz: Real women, real women, real women that they can recognize on the screen.

Jurnee: So I, and also I think, it serves a bigger purpose because it's for young girls [00:43:00] to see real women and for women to see real women.

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Hosted by Liz Tenety

Liz is an award-winning journalist and editor, and the co-founder of Motherly. A former Washington Post editor, she thrives on all things digital community + social media strategy. She's passionate about helping to provide women with more support, (and way less judgment), on the journey through motherhood. This podcast is an extension of her commitment to hosting honest conversations about modern motherhood. Liz resides outside NYC with her husband, two sons, one daughter and one amazing au pair.

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