Actress and activist Alyssa Milano on working mothers and modern activism

To kick-off Season 5 of the podcast, Liz speaks with actress, activist, and author Alyssa Milano about her #metoo tweet that helped to ignite a movement, how she learned to let things roll off her back, and why she's so passionate about helping working mothers. Alyssa also talked about her COVID-19 diagnosis in March and shared how her children's clear-eyed views of the world inspire her.

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Liz Tenety: We have some exciting news at motherly and have been hard at work behind the scenes on a big project. We recently launched the motherly shop. Curated must haves for motherhood, and you can use code motherly 10 to get 10% off. Any order. Our editors have worked really hard to bring together the best brands for every stage of motherhood.

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Liz Tenety: So, starting when I was in college, and then afterwards I started working at the Washington Post. That was my first full-time job. I was a religion reporter writer, editor. I helped run our religion section, which at the time was called "On Faith." And, I don't know if you've ever read the comment section of a major news outlet, but every day in this role, there would be hundreds of comments. And let me just tell you the overwhelming majority of them were really negative and as hard as it was to start my career, you know, trying to get my confidence about the work that I was doing and then knowing every day that hundreds of people were going to tell me I was the worst.

In a way, I see it now as such a positive and formative experience because not everyone is going to like what you do. And it taught me to really stay true to just doing the best possible job that I could do. I think that lesson also applies to motherhood because there's so many choices and decisions and paths. That we all choose along the way. And a lot of people have a lot of opinions and if we spend too much time taking in that feedback and taking it personally, it is exhausting and it really, really hurts. You have to stay true to your story, to doing the best that you can in your particular circumstances. And you're doing the best you can.

Liz Tenety: Hey mama. Welcome to the motherly podcast, honest conversations about modern motherhood. I am Liz Tenety, the Cofounder of Motherly, and I'm a mom of four myself. I am so excited to be launching Season Five of our podcast this week with actress, activist, producer, author podcaster, and mom of two Alyssa Milano.

I talked to Alyssa about her tweet, which ignited the #metoo movement, how she's learned to let things roll off her back and why she's so passionate about helping working mothers. Alyssa also talked about her COVID-19 diagnosis, which she got back in March and shared how her children's clear-eyed view of the world continues to inspire her.

Alyssa Milano. Welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Alyssa Milano: Thank you for having me.

Liz Tenety: So, I always like to start by asking people, what do you think makes your approach to motherhood unique?

Alyssa Milano: I think for me, it's very personal because, you know, my childhood was different because I was an actress at such a young age. And, you know, reflecting upon that time, as I, you know, became an adult, I realized how like, unconventional that was, but also how very unique it was that, I was okay. Right? Like that I didn't wind up having a drug habit or any of those things that you traps that you see a lot of child actors fall into. And so, the thing that I credit that to, is the love of my parents, which was so incredibly unconditional, but always, really allowed me to express myself, and remember what was important in life. You know, and I think right now, this is a really hard time for kids with the pandemic and being, you know, in quarantine and distance learning and all of that. And I find great solace in the idea that if you love your child and you allow them to be who they are, that they're going to be. Okay. No matter what.

Liz Tenety: I know you mentioned you had such an unconventional childhood. Did you have an idea of the kind of childhood that you wanted for your kids and was that different than the one you had?

Alyssa Milano: Yeah, I think before I had kids, there is definitely a mentality that I have, which was like, my kids are going to have a really normal childhood. They're going to climb trees and they're going to collect frogs and they do all of that. But, you know, I think being the children of a celebrity, there's no way for it to be a totally normal childhood.

So, you know, I've let go of that a little bit. And it's funny, because everyone, you know, when I was pregnant and stuff, used to say, well, would you let your kids, you know, act at a young age, if they wanted to? And you know, at the time I was like, no, and then they come out and they're just kind of like who they already are and, you know, it's our job to kind of nurture that and allow them to be that.

And so, I mean, I feel pretty lucky that neither one of them actually is showing any interest in acting, but, you know, after having them, I sort of changed my tune a little bit with that.

Liz Tenety: That's that unconditional love of who they are. Like, you didn't maybe want them to go in your exact path, but then you realize like, well, if that's who they are, then that's what that means.

Alyssa Milano: And I think as parents, we want to give them every opportunity to find their fulfillment and passion. Although my son who's nine. He's like, I'm going to go to law school. I'm like, I don't know any nine-year-old that's like, I know I'm going to be a lawyer.

Liz Tenety: I have an eight-year-old who was making a legal argument about how unjust it was that he had a different bedtime then the adults. And then my dad bought him a constitutional law for kids, but I wanted to wait like another decade until he's truly arguing with me about that stuff. But I know a little boy like that…

Alyssa Milano: My son has the same book.

Liz Tenety: I'm sure. Well, you've made this really interesting and successful transition from child star to actress and activist. Can you walk our listeners through that journey and how having kids shaped that transition for you?

Alyssa Milano: I mean, I've been an activist since I was 15 years old. The moment that changed my life was I was on who's the boss. And it was sort of at the height of "Who's the Boss," when we were like in the top five of all shows.

And then I met a little boy named Ryan White, who is HIV positive and he was thrown out of his school because they were afraid that he would give it to and other students from casual contact. So, he had to fight for his, his right to go back to school. And he spoke before Congress and yeah, he and I became friends and he asked me if I would go on TV and kiss him to prove that you couldn't get HIV AIDS from casual contact.

And so, I did. At 15 years old, I went on television, the height of, of the stigma that surrounded HIV AIDS and I kissed Ryan. And that was the moment that I realized, oh, this is why it's cool to have a platform, although we don't call it a platform then. But since that moment, I've never really separated my life because it brought me such joy and fulfillment to be able to help in any way and lead a life of service.

And so I just continued fighting for what I believed in. I got politically active in 2000 and became really politically active in 2004. I've been a UNICEF ambassador since 2003. I've traveled the world to take care of the world's children. I've seen pretty much the worst of what humanity can be and the best. It's so interesting because in my twenties, you know, when we were just dependent on newspapers and magazines, there, wasn't an opportunity to talk about my activism or my political activism, because people were much more interested in, you know, what it was like being on TV and who my famous friends are and what shoes I was wearing or color lipstick.

I think social media has been really great for those of us who aren't afraid to use our voice. And I think on the other side of that, it's been really hard for people who are super famous, who are terrified to use their voices.

Liz Tenety: One of those social media moments, the way that it's been put, is that you helped to relaunch the #metoo movement. Learning about your friend and you kissed him at the height of the fear around that… in all these ways that you, over the course of your activism, you have really stuck your neck out. It's easy for us looking back on those events and saying, well, of course you can't catch HIV AIDS. Or of course, an actress is speaking out about politics. Like, of course that's the right thing to do. Of course, we have a massive problem with sexual harassment and sexual violence, but at the moment, before that happened, there was no movement.

Alyssa Milano: There was a movement, though. It was a perfect storm. I mean, I think Trump being elected, I think a lot of women woke up the day after the election and were just terrified of this guy who was, who was caught on tape saying horrible things about how it was okay for him to abuse women. So that happened. And then, you know, the women's March happened, which I think, you know, was the seed that sort of planted this resurgence of women's rights. And then, after that the equal rights amendment was passed in Nevada becoming the 36th state to ratify. And then it was like, oh my God, we only need two more States to ratify the equal rights amendment. And then the silence breakers came out against Harvey Weinstein. So, there was, I think, a gradual move. It was more, for me, sending out that tweet, it was really about like, how do we take the focus away from the abuser or the protagonist and put it back onto the women who had suffered, who were so survivors of sexual assault? I think that that's what that "one tweet that I sent out three years ago," what it enabled was for us all to stand together and form a sisterhood and just be able to say #metoo.

Liz Tenety: You're absolutely right. There were grassroots movements, but certainly the power of celebrities like yourself to point attention is so incredibly powerful. So, what I was wondering is the word that was coming to mind for me and thinking about these moments that you've been a part of is that Alyssa Milano is fearless. Okay. And then I thought, you know what? Maybe that's not the story. Maybe she's terrified, but she's convicted that this is the right thing to do and she wants to do it anyway. So, can you tell us what it's like to kind of be in the middle of these storms and know what you need to do? Are you scared? Are you convicted? Are you fearless? How do you, how do you see that? And what drives you?

Alyssa Milano: Fear is what does drive me. And, you know, it's like that great quote, courage isn't the absence of fear. It's what you do with it. I think it's, it's that I think a lot that drives me now is being afraid for my children and wanting the world to be a better place for them.

I think that I'm a very resilient person, which took me a lot of years to figure out… to sort of accept that things weren't going to break me. And I think that that comes with struggle. Right? Every time you overcome a new obstacle you recognize your resilience. I don't think women recognize our resilience enough.

The burden lies upon us quite often. And especially now, you know, with this pandemic where we are, the caregivers and the teachers. And so I get scared, but there's something about a collective mission and a collective drive that when that happens, like when you're involved in a March or a protest, and you can feel that swell of collective energy, where everyone is fighting for the same thing. You almost feel so much less alone.

Liz Tenety: I know you you've said that being a mother, having a daughter in particular really motivates so much of the activism and this part of your life. I'm curious how you see motherhood in, what has it given you in terms of resilience and purpose?

Alyssa Milano: Well, I think mothers are incredibly resilient and I think to love something so wholly and fully and sometimes even painfully -- that love that just like hurts, only to be raising humans that you're eventually going to have to sort of let go. I mean, that's the ultimate resilience. But also just things like making it work. Moms, no matter what, we juggle so much. And we just, we make it work in whatever way we can. We'll have jobs. We'll try to figure out childcare. We'll make sure they're fed. And so, I think that takes a lot of resilience, right?

Liz Tenety: Ultimate resilience. We are, you know, what, month eight… I don't, we've lost track into this pandemic and mothers are bearing so much the brunt of this. And I know that the challenges that working families face are a big reason why you are working with the Biden campaign right now. So, I'm curious, can you help paint the picture of what you see and what's motive and you right now in your work for working families and all the pressures that they're under right now and why you're working with the Biden campaign on those issues.

Alyssa Milano: I mean, I look at all of this as being incredibly intersectional. And what I mean by that is it doesn't just affect women in the working family. It's everything. It's literally it's everything. It is childcare. It is early education. It is the equal rights amendment. It is maternal mortality. It is reproductive health and all of these things are so interconnected and to see a candidate for president who is talking about not only childcare as part of his women's platform, but also how to protect caregivers and how to give caregivers that are not necessarily hired, but family members, a tax break. I mean, these are all incredibly important things. And also, the recognition, the other part of the equation is the caretaking that we do of our parents. And so, the fact that the Biden campaign recognizes all of this and has created a women's platform that is so thorough. I mean, it really is every, they figured out how to incorporate. Every single part. So, I'm really proud of the work that Joe and his campaign have done to really look at the intersectionality and how all of this exists, how all of this affects women, how it affects women of color even more.

And so, you know, it is one of the, the things that I love about his platform is how incredible it is for women.

Liz Tenety: We at Motherly, we conduct an annual survey called "The State of Motherhood." And one of the most alarming findings year over year is that mothers and millennial women, as you may know, are the most educated generation of women in American history, but they are dropping out of the workforce when they become mothers, because of the cost of childcare and we hear over and over again, women doing the calculation, you know, the current cost of childcare, not to mention in the middle of a pandemic, having to pay for childcare that they weren't budgeting for because their kids were in school, that they were paying taxes for their child to attend.

But the part of the plan that really stuck out to me was for those who are low income, that the cost of childcare is fully covered, but that this idea of keeping the average cost of childcare for the average American family to $45 a week. When I know for many families, there's a zero on that it's like $400, $500, $600 a week for early young childhood care. How do you think having government programs built around high quality childcare? How will that change the United States? Because people don't realize we are an outlier in the world in the fact that we don't see investing as an investment in women.

Alyssa Milano: And then when you break that down to people in the military that don't have childcare people who have disabilities. I think it would be huge and also early education. The fact that we have to pay for preschool is crazy and in Biden would implement early education, which I think would help so tremendously. But how about just ensuring that families with school age children have expanded access to afterschool programs, weekend programs, summer programs. Remember summer comes around and kids really have nothing to do.

Liz Tenety: I mean, the logistics of summer is a reason that many women drop out of the workforce because they can't make it work. It's also easy to think about some of these things as just costs. Like, well, how are you going to pay for that? But there's also a lot of research that these kinds of investments in women's careers, in high quality childcare, they're literally investments in the economy and keeping women employed and able to provide for their family and in the development of kids, right. It's not just a cost. There is real proof that.

Alyssa Milano: Yeah, the pays off it that it's worth the money that we'll be putting back into the economy. If we were able to have childcare and go back to work, it's like billions of dollars a year that we would put back into the economy. And that's an incredible thing.

But that should be the minimum, right? Like I'm more concerned with, how do we give every single child an opportunity to succeed. And every mother, the opportunity to reach her fullest potential, a woman should not have to choose between creating a livelihood and having a job for herself and raising a child that should not be a choice that we must make.

Liz Tenety: We also spoke before the interview began that you experienced what millions of families have gone through and you were diagnosed with COVID-19 in the early pandemic. I'm curious, our family was affected as well. My husband's grandfather passed away from COVID. I have a very good friend who is alive, but we thought might not make it. And obviously millions and millions of families are not only what we've already gone through, but fearful about what else lies ahead. How do you make sense of what you've gone through this year? And I guess I'm curious, what gives you hope about how we could turn this like terrible moment into something productive and better for not just working parents, but for all of us.

Alyssa Milano: This has really pulled back the curtain on a lot of, uh, the inequity and inequality that we have in our country, the systemic racism we can't deny anymore. And a healthcare system that needs to be better. The thing that got me was I was so sick. I was so sick. There was one night where I was like, not, I'm not gonna make it cause I could, I just couldn't breathe.

But I didn't want to go to the hospital because this was back in the end of March when it was like, if you went into the hospital, you were basically put on a ventilator. So, I was like, I'm just going to stay home. And the whole time I was thinking, Oh my God, like I have every resource available to me.

What is the person that doesn't have healthcare insurance that doesn't have a doctor that's afraid to go to the emergency room because maybe they're undocumented or the people that are incarcerated that are living in close quarters with no masks and no hand sanitizer or the people in detention, what are they feeling right now? It was hard and it continues to be hard.

Liz Tenety: You mentioned how sick you were with coronavirus. I did not realize you were just that sick that you thought even the fleeting thought, like maybe I won't make it. What was it like to be a mother in the middle of that? Like, how did you talk to your kids?

What were the logistics of keeping your kids safe? How did that all work?

Alyssa Milano: it was really tricky because my whole story is that I had two negative COVID tests. So, um, and this was the time when the swabs were weird, and the CDC didn't send some part of the tests. So, the testing was all messed up and it wasn't until I got the antibody tests and my antibodies were through the roof that we realized that it was, I mean, I knew it was COVID cause I literally had every single symptom and my best friend was diagnosed with it. So, I was like, there's no way this is not COVID. But you know, this is in the very beginning when the doctors were like, we don't know. And my doctor, and you know what, I'm really glad he did, but he was like, look, because I bed share with my daughter…. He said, it's all the same soup and I think it would probably be a lot harder for her to be separated from you and it's scary for her to be separated from you right now. We're still learning about this. Don't do anything drastic. Because I was ready to go check into a hotel, just something to keep the family safe.

But luckily my, my husband didn't get it. And the kids, if they got it, it was mild. Enough that they were okay. So yeah, I mean, it was hard. There was one point when I got out of the shower and that was the really bad night and I kind of crumbled to the floor and I was crying and like gasping for air. And my daughter had just walked in and saw me. And so it was, it was a thing. So we'd just talk about it. You know, it's like, I feel like kids have such active imaginations that the truth is often less jarring for them than to try to hide things from them. I just feel like if they don't know, they're just going to go into their heads and try to figure it out. And sometimes that's worse than the actual truth.

Liz Tenety: Do you also talk to your kids about your activism?

Alyssa Milano: Oh, yes. There's no, there's no separating that.

Liz Tenety: Are they involved in your work at all?

Alyssa Milano: I mean, to an extent. Like, my husband walked in on Milo yesterday watching the debate. Totally unsolicited, he just put on the debate and David was like, what are you doing, buddy? He's like, well, this is important stuff, dad.

So I think, yes. And for the same reason, right? Like their imagination. When I go out to a protest or whatever, I want them to know what I'm fighting for. I teach them about it, where they are emotionally. I'm trying to be as honest as possible without terrifying them basically, but they have such a beautiful way of looking at all the issues.

And it's so beneficial for me to talk with them about things. When we were fighting in 2017 for the dreamers and you know, to re-enact DACA. I went on a bus with a bunch of dreamers and we hit all of the Republican offices in the state of California. I was gone for like 18 hours, but I had told my kids like, I'm going to go and I'm going to be with a bunch of people that they will want to basically make leave the country and go to countries that they've never been before, and I would go through the whole thing with them. And I got home after 18 hours. And my son who was six at the time, ran over to me and he gave me a hug and he said, did you do it mama? Do the dreamers get to stay home? And I was like, that's it. Do the dreamers get to the stay home? It's like, literally this issue is as simple as that. And we have complicated it, which I think grownups do in such a way. So, they just bring it down to this like most basic fundamental place.

Liz Tenety: What else have you learned from your kids? I love how they, they simplify these tricky political things, but if you reflect on what you've learned from your children or through motherhood, are there other big lessons?

Alyssa Milano: You know, what it feels like to live with your heart outside of your body and to just feel like an open wound at all times, because you don't want them to hurt or to be sad. I feel like they made me a better actor as well. And just to see how they play with them such reckless abandoned and they dance like no one's watching that to think that you're invisible to lose yourself in an action. They taught me how to love my husband in a way that I didn't even think was possible. They've taught me how to be kind to myself and gentle with myself. They've taught me it's okay. It's okay to have a meltdown. Sometimes you need to.

Liz Tenety: Yeah, you feel better after.

Alyssa Milano: Yes, just to let that, let it out? I don't know. I think, the woman that I am at this age is completely shaped by them and their love for me.

Liz Tenety: Well at Motherly, one of our core beliefs is that motherhood brings out our superpowers, just really otherworldly things about each of us that often we didn't see before we became moms. So, I'm wondering what is your superpower?

Alyssa Milano: I think that my superpower is my ability to focus. Not on the thing that would be most hurtful or ego crushing or the people that try to hurt me, but to focus on the people who I respect and love and the friendships that I've made and to sort of let things roll off. That is my superpower. If anyone looks at my Twitter feed, they'll know exactly what I mean.

Liz Tenety: I mean, and actually that was a question I did have. If I could just ask one follow-up to that, because as I was trying to get at, in asking you about, are you afraid when you do these things or do you just, you use the courage to push past the fear?

You know, all of us have to deal with haters. You have to deal with haters on a level that I don't think I'll ever be able to wrap my mind around. How do you process that? And are there lessons for people who aren't celebrities, but you know, just ordinary women listening who still have, you know, voices of criticism that, that they hear in their lives and may want a new way of thinking about how to deal with that?

Alyssa Milano: I think you've got to really work on yourself. It is hard work. To get to a point where it doesn't get to you, but once you do get to that point, it is much healthier. I think the work that you put into yourself -- it kind of becomes your like defense mechanism or your shield. And there are moments where I'm fearful of my safety. So, I've had some, as you can imagine some crazy, crazy things, but I think if you're using your sense of self in a way where you're fighting for things that you believe in, or you know who you are, it's a lot easier to just allow those things to go away.

Now, that's not to say that if my best friend didn't come with at me with, you know, some criticism or my husband or my parents or people that I really trust and love that would obviously hurt me. Then, I'd have to do some self-reflection.

Liz Tenety: I love all that. Alyssa Milano. Thank you for joining us on the Motherly podcast.

Alyssa Milano: I had such a good time. Thank you so much.

Liz Tenety: So great. What a lovely way to end my Friday. I really appreciate it.

Liz Tenety: So, Mary, how do you think you, Mary can make the world a better place? What can you do?

Mary: (child's voice) Well, I am helping the environment and litter.

Liz Tenety: Okay. Trash. If you see it, what should you do?

Mary: If it blew to the ground and you go and if there's no place to put it then you go and take it with you.

Liz Tenety: That's great. Do you do that?

Mary: Well, there was a piece of trash and it feel on our floor and then I took it.

Liz Tenety: You, you littered on our floor inside our house? (Laughs)

Liz Tenety: Well, that's it for our show this week. Thank you so much, Alyssa. And thank you for listening to our podcast. We have some incredible guests lined up this season. I cannot wait for you to listen to our upcoming episodes. So, as always, I would love it if you spread the word about the motherly podcast. The best way to do that is to actually leave us a review on Apple podcasts. It takes about 30 seconds and it helps other mamas discover our show. And I truly love reading your feedback. I read every single one.

The Motherly podcast is produced by Jennifer Bassett with editing from Seaplane Armada. Our music is from the Blue Dog sessions. I'm your host, Liz Tenety. Thank you so much for listening.

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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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