Tony Award winning actress Laura Benanti remembers receiving unsolicited advice about motherhood even before she gave birth to her daughter, Ella, four years ago. She also recounted numerous people asking if she planned to return to work after her baby was born.
Her reply was always: “Are you going to ask my husband that?” She added, “I get to be conflicted about the answer to their question, but they don’t get to know that.”
For years, Benanti, 41, has been speaking up about the “backhanded mom shame” that women—especially working women—feel as they tackle the seemingly impossible task of holding down a job, taking care of the household and making sure everyone in their circles are cared for and happy.
Benanti, who is now starring in HBO's hugely popular "Gossip Girl" reboot and TV Land's "Younger," recently opened up to Know Your Value about motherhood, pandemic parenting and boundary setting. “I’ve shed a lot of tears trying to do it all and [at times] feel like I’m doing none of it well” she said.
After Ella was born and Benanti began working again—and occasionally traveling briefly for work— women would tell her that they couldn’t possibly be away from their children for that long, suggesting that Benanti was not a devoted mother for making the choice to work.
“Do I have feelings about being away from my daughter? Sure. But do I think it will be the best thing for my daughter for mom to do what she loves? I do. I want that for her,” she said.
She continued, “I don’t know why people feel OK to comment about motherhood from the second you’re pregnant— touching your belly without asking, deciding if the baby is a boy or girl based on physical traits, asking if you’re using a midwife or a doctor, whether you’re going to breastfeed or not… Why as a society have we decided that’s OK?”
Benanti has often shared her unfiltered motherhood moments through her social media, and in the last year, she has had to parent a bit more visibly. For example, Benanti didn’t realize when she agreed to be one of the featured singers in a splashy Broadway tribute for the Presidential Inauguration this January that Ella would want to be a part of the action, too.
“I didn’t plan to have my daughter in the room. I just couldn’t get rid of her,” Benanti laughed. “When I’m home, my daughter wants to be with me at all times—in the room, next to me, on my lap. She made it clear that she wasn’t leaving, so I knew I had to roll with it.”
Pandemic life as a ‘pathological helper’
In March of 2020, Benanti and her family were en route to the airport to film a television show when she received word that the shoot was postponed indefinitely as a result of Covid-19. They turned the car around and drove to Benanti’s childhood home in New Jersey so that she and her husband could work from home while her parents occupied Ella. “We’re very lucky,” she said. “Most moms didn’t have that.”
In times of crisis, Benanti said she likes to keep herself busy by being of service as much as possible. Her husband calls her a “pathological helper.”
And help she did.
In April 2020, Benanti introduced the #SunshineSongs initiative that offered high school students whose school plays had been canceled to share performance videos on social media. The performances turned into concerts for senior citizens and hospitalized children as well as a documentary that Benanti created and produced for HBOMax called Homeschool Musical: Class of 2020.
Benanti used her platform to extend a helping hand to all moms. Together with her friend Kate Mangiameli, a Metropolitan Opera soprano, she released a board book, “M is for MAMA (and also Merlot),” to remind moms that “yes, motherhood is incredible, but it’s not a bed of roses.” She also shot a tongue-in-cheek video about a day in pandemic motherhood to benefit Birth Queen, an organization working to end the Black maternal healthcare crisis.
She was also able to return to the world of working actors. Her filming schedule picked back up in September 2020 with the final season of “Younger” and the reboot of “Gossip Girl,” and her self-titled album came out in October, the same month that her family welcomed their nanny back to help with childcare. And her film “Worth,” with costars Michael Keaton and Stanley Tucci, among others, premiered at Sundance this spring.
Benanti said, “I feel grateful to continue to work during the pandemic when so many in my Broadway family haven’t been able to do so.”
Supporting working moms
Though she hopes that the government will step in to support working mothers and families, Benanti said that there are many things we can do ourselves to help lift women up.
Most importantly, Benanti touted the impact of solidarity. “Motherhood can feel really lonely,” Benanti said. “It can feel like you’re failing, like you’re bad at everything. But who says we have to be good at everything? Nobody is placing these pressures on fathers.”
Along that same notion, she urged mothers to be open and honest on social media. Performative motherhood (such as photos of perfectly-balanced meals with vegetables cut into tiny shapes) feeds into a narrative that can be dangerous for moms, especially new moms who might fall into a comparison trap. Benanti urges mothers to “live their truth openly and honestly,” and celebrate the messy moments of motherhood as well as the ideal moments.
Benanti acknowledged how much people—including other mothers—love telling new moms what to do. She suggested that people hold back on giving advice “because at the end of the day, moms know what’s best for their children.” On the flipside, she encouraged moms to set boundaries on receiving advice. “Just saying, ‘Thanks. I’ve got it from here.’ can go a long way,” she said.
Benanti often reminds herself that all she has to do is try her best: “I know that even though things will fail, I’m doing OK and my daughter is doing OK. As long as I’m loving and attentive, providing for my family, contributing to our survival, and modeling the behavior I want her to follow, we’re doing OK.”