Today I’m ECSTATIC to share my recent interview with celebrity mom, actress, writer—and closet salsa dancer—Elisa Donovan. You may recognize her as Cher’s super snarky nemesis, Amber, in Clueless, or as Morgan Cavanaugh on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. In addition to acting in film and television, Elisa has written and performed her own one-woman show, writes a celebrity motherhood blog for People.com, narrated Sheryl Sandberg’s best-seller “Lean In,” and supports teens struggling with eating disorders. She lives in San Francisco with her husband, Charles Bigelow, and their 18-month-old, cutie-patootie daughter, Scarlett Avery.
We all know how tricky balancing motherhood with career and creative pursuits can be, and this mama’s got creative energy oozing out her pores. I hope you enjoy our chat as much as I did. 🙂
Annie: Hi Elisa! Thanks for joining me.
Let’s start with the first question every mom gets the first couple of years: How’s the sleep thing going?
Elisa: Ha! Well, it’s funny—I remember feeling SO sleep deprived in those first 4 or 5 months. And then I thought things shifted a little as Scarlett started sleeping through the night.
But the reality is I think you just adjust to being permanently sleep deprived. I’ve just accepted that I will never, ever really have a full night’s sleep again. Like, ever! Even when I’ve been away from Scarlett for a few nights for work, I still don’t sleep straight through, and I still wake up before the sun rises, regardless.And it’s not even like Scarlett is necessarily awake at that time—she usually sleeps til 7:00! It’s just my internal mom clock that apparently never shuts off.
Annie: For sure. I was shocked by how unbelievably tired I was with our first baby, and then equally surprised by how much I’ve gotten used to interrupted sleep over the years.
What’s been the most surprising thing for you about motherhood so far?
Elisa: How much fun it is. And how humbling it is—in the sense that, I realize just how much I didn’t know beforehand…about a ton of things.
Annie: Yeah, I feel like I’m constantly learning new things through the lens of motherhood. Fun and humbling is a good description of it. 🙂
So, everybody seems to be a bit obsessed with celebrity baby names these days. Did you feel any of that pressure when you were picking out a name for your daughter?
Elisa: I wouldn’t say we felt any societal pressure, but I would definitely say that my husband and I had very different ideas for names. I wanted to name our daughter “Deva,” which in Hinduism is basically the word used for a feminine deity. My husband said I was insane! I wanted something meaningful and zen and spiritual, and Charlie was like, “Are you trying to ruin our kids life??” Ha! So we debated names for some time.
Annie: My sister-in-law’s name is Deva, spelled that same way! I could’ve had her put in a good word for you. 🙂 How did you land on Scarlett Avery (adorable, by the way)?
Elisa: Charlie actually came up with Scarlett Avery, in the shower one day. I liked it, but was on the fence…until I did a deep Google search and learned that in some ancient culture “Avery” referred to “an elfin magical counsel”—then I felt okay about it! Needless to say, I did NOT share that info with Charlie!
Annie: Ha ha! We have an Avery in our family, too. I wondered if she’d be bothered by the meaning, but she’s a big Lord of the Rings fan and likes to call herself “Ruler of the Elves.” Phew! 🙂
You started acting as a kid, so you had quite a long pre-motherhood career. How has becoming a mother affected your work as an actress?
Elisa: Now that I’m a mom I have so much more life experience to draw upon, deeper wells of emotion, so I think I’m probably a better actress now than I ever was when I was younger. But the irony, of course, is—I work less! Because now there is a whole other part of my life that has to be managed when I go to work. My husband and I are constantly evolving the details to figure out how to handle me being away, etc. But we are very much a team, and he is super supportive of me having a career, so we are figuring it out!
Annie: Do you look at parts differently now that you’re a mother? Are there jobs you might have considered before that you’d pass on now?
Elisa: Definitely. I have to look at things from many angles now—not just whether or not I want to play the role. It has to be worth it, the time away, etc.
But being a mother has not caused me to lose my desires as a creative person, so it’s tricky. I have learned that even though I might be missing Scarlett the second I leave her to go to work, it is very important that I go. For her, and for me. This is who I am, and I want Scarlett to grow up knowing that she can follow her passions and pursue her goals, and still have strong relationships; that having a career does not have to come at the expense of loving and being loved.
Annie: I agree, I think it’s important for our kids to see us pursuing our own dreams. Finding that balanced sweet spot is tricky, though.
You’re also a celebrity mom blogger for People.com. What does that mean for you as a writer and mother?
Elisa: Oh I love it!! I’ve been a writer since I was a kid (I also wrote a book about losing my dad to cancer, which came out of a one woman show I wrote and performed at The Geffen Playhouse in 2008), and so this is such a wonderful way for me to exercise that part of my creativity, while also sharing the wild ride of being a new mom.
I started writing about this topic because I wanted to share the reality of it— rather than the hearts and rainbows of it all. It’s hard being a parent, and totally insane sometimes—but it’s also really funny most of the time. It has really shown me how human I am…and how susceptible to all of the typical pitfalls and traps that come with that. It’s made me less judgmental of everything.
Annie: That’s why I write about motherhood, too. It’s hilarious, but hard. And it’s so important to share both aspects, so moms know they’re not alone on this crazy ride.
So, in addition to acting and writing, you also paint. You’re like an arts school poster child! In what ways has motherhood affected how you express your creativity?
Elisa: Ha! I love that! I think the biggest effect being a mom has on pretty much everything else you do is time management. I realize what a great luxury it was to be able to stay up writing or painting til all hours of the night, or to just create when the feeling strikes you. That is just not as realistic of a possibility now, if I have something I actually need to accomplish.
I’ve had to become more disciplined with it in a way—to say, “OK, the sitter will be here for four hours today, so I have to write for at least two of those.” And if the spirit doesn’t happen to move me in those two hours, well…I’ve learned to coax it out of me, because that’s the time I’ve got! I still do the occasional late night writing jag, but it makes for a tough following day, so it’s not that sustainable.
But on the other hand—I have found that being a mom is a constant expression of creativity, just in a whole new way.
Annie: Oh, I love that so much! Motherhood as “a constant expression of creativity…”
Elisa: Everything about it is expression. I also make art for Scarlett. I make collages for her, of images and ideas that I want to foster in her, to share with her; and that has been magical for me.
Annie: Well, that’s just awesome. Seriously, I’m totally going to borrow (well, okay, steal) that idea.
Speaking of arts school poster children, you’re in the running for a spot on Dancing With the Stars. Sounds fun and exhausting! Tell me more.
Elisa: Oh this is such a great story!!! I’ve always been a HUGE fan of the show, and I am a closet salsa dancer…as in, I used to keep shoes in the trunk of my car so that I could go at a moment’s notice, which I did. Often. (But since having Scarlett, that has taken a major back seat, for obvious reasons. It’s not so realistic to throw my heels on at 10pm on a Monday and hit the salsa club!)
So a couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine said, sort of as a joke, “I’m going to start a Facebook page for you, to get you on DWTS.” And he did. Then the next thing you know—Perez Hilton posted a piece about it, and asked me to shoot a video. So we shot this funny video, and he posted it. Then Entertainment Weekly picked it up, the Daily News, Zap2it and a bunch of other entities started to write articles about this campaign! We were like “Ummmmmm—is this really happening??!” And so I said, YES, I’d love to!
It has been a ball so far, a kind of grassroots thing that has caught on. I am beyond flattered and can’t believe how supportive people have been. It’s awesome. Now I’m really excited at the prospect, so we will see. I would absolutely love to do it. So tell everyone to “Like” the page!!
Annie: Gladly. I’m sure I’m not the only Mama who’d like to live vicariously through you and your salsa shoes. 🙂 [Go here to “Like” the page, folks!]
Okay, I have a question I always want to ask other moms but can never figure out how to naturally fit into a conversation: What’s your biggest fear as a mother?
Elisa: That I will fail Scarlett in some way. That I will disappoint her. It’s a somewhat amorphous fear, but I think it would crush me if I were unable to be there for Scarlett in some way. I mean, I sometimes fear that something will happen to her, that she will get sick, that sort of thing…but my spiritual beliefs can usually talk me down off of that cliff! I have a more zen belief about life in general, that things happen for a reason, etc. But I would really like to think that I can be the Super Mom for Scarlett, and never disappoint her. Perhaps I’m setting the barre too high???
Annie: Oh, gracious, I think many of us set the barre too high! Kids are pretty good at knocking it down a few notches, though, so it all evens out in the end. 🙂
Alright, here’s your chance to do a little mommy gushing. What do you love most about motherhood?
Elisa: Oh it’s all awesome—it’s really just the best thing ever. I know everyone thinks their own kid is the most amazing thing on the planet—and I’m no different! Scarlett is a really reflective and observant kid…and hilarious. I love watching her personality form and grow right before my eyes. And I love the hugs—oh the hugs are heaven!!
Annie: It’s magical, isn’t it? It sounds so cliche, but there really is nothing that can compare to the love a mom has for her kids.
Thanks so much, Elisa, for giving us a peek at your motherhood journey so far. And good luck with Dancing With the Stars!
Elisa: Thank you so much!! This has been really great.
Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.