Folks We Love with Erika Christensen
Erika has been a dear friend of mine for a while, and we met one afternoon in Los Angeles on her cozy couch to talk all things motherhood and life. Besides being a brilliantly talented actress, Erika is one of the is one of the warmest, kindest, loving people I know, and to share her with you all is a great pleasure. Erika and I talked discussed her entering the entertainment business at a young age, what happens when you play a mom on TV and then become one, the ups and downs of entering motherhood and some curiosities I had about Scientology. Hope you enjoy.
interview by Kacy Byxbee, editor, Your Zen Mama
YZM: Hiiiiiii, ok, so for those who don’t know you, who is in your family?
EC: There’s me, Cole, and our daughter Shane who is almost two.
YZM: How did you choose Shane’s name?
EC: Shane was named after the Western with Alan Ladd called SHANE. Cole’s name is from the John Wayne western, El Dorado.
YZM: Tell us a little bit about your journey and how you came to arrive here?
EC: My family is originally from Seattle and my brothers and I were all born there. My parents decided to move to LA when I was 4 and my twin brothers were 1. We first moved to Glendale and stayed with their friends until we found an apartment. So, born in Seattle, but I grew up in LA, which I'm super grateful for because I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was pretty young.
I was doing background work when I was 5 years old and I wasn't totally sure if I was into it. My mom didn't want me to feel like I was forced into it so she stopped pursuing it with me. Then, when I was 12, I told my parents that I wanted to be an actor and so I was able to start pursuing it right away.
I don't know how differently my life would have been if I would have graduated high school in Seattle and then moved here right on my own. I am a California girl and my husband Cole’s whole family is from Memphis. He moved here around 12 years ago and we’ve been together for 6 years.
YZM: Was there a movie you saw that made you want to act? Where did that connection come from?
EC: As an audience member I don’t know what it made it click for me, but it was from this side, as a performer, and connecting with the audience or singing in front of strangers, that made me feel—I want to do that.
YZM: Were you working in film while you were still in high school?
EC: I didn't go to normal high school. I went to private school right up until I started acting and then I was homeschooled. When you’re working, you do the required 3 hours of set schooling, and then when I wasn't working I was still homeschooled, but was also auditioning, in singing classes, dance classes, acting classes, and rehearsals for various amateur theater groups that I was part of. The rest of the time I was thinking about and talking about my career with my mom and figuring out if I could have done better on that last audition—I was so focused.
YZM: How do you think you were able to be that focused when you were so young?
EC: My mom’s support made the difference for me. She was working at a software company and doing really well but when she realized that I was serious about acting, and that it was something I wanted to do with my life, she was willing to throw her weight behind me. I also started making money, so when she could afford to quit her job, we made it our full time job. She had to drive me everywhere and I was the navigator with our Thomas Guide. If you’re from LA you remember the Thomas Guide!
YZM: Looking back, is there anything that you would have changed about it?
EC: Not at all, not at all.
YZM: What was it like transitioning into TV from film? How did it affect you creatively?
EC: It took me a long time to understand that TV was really where it’s at. After doing independent films and movies that didn’t get seen as much as I would’ve liked or didn’t work out artistically how I’d hoped, I started to realize that career-wise I wanted to focus on TV. Right before I got Parenthood, I started to audition my ass off for different shows. Parenthood came up and I knew it was the right choice. It was so unique at that time.
I miss Parenthood in an indulgent way because it's such a lovely lifestyle, and for me it was easy to be complacent. There are definitely people who aren't and who use the stability and free time to write plays and make movies, but I didn't. I was doing all kinds of other things (like riding my bicycle before, after, and to work) that were totally worthwhile, but not necessarily artistic. As a lifestyle, it's easy to love and so desirable also for raising kids because you have a predictability and stability in your schedule for your life.
The coolest thing moving from movies to television was that with a movie, it’s finite and the character arc is already mapped out, whereas on a show that's being written as you go, you and your character are both evolving in this parallel universe in real time and you are affecting one another. My character went from having one kid to four at the very end, and from being a very work-oriented and guilt-ridden mother to being a stay at home mom and really actually miserable about it, and then going back to work. It was cool to experience all of that even though I had yet to have a baby myself.
YZM: What was it like going from playing a mother without having kids of your own, to being pregnant and having a child yourself? How did your character on Parenthood inform motherhood for you?
EC: We are still in chapter one here because she's not in school or any kind of pre-K. She's at home with us and anywhere we go, she goes. I haven't gotten into the whole thing of schools, she's not potty trained yet, but at least she's weaned! That's a big chapter, but there's so much parenting that I have ahead. I think about all the school politics, helping her with her homework, trying to instill in her all of our values, helping her with her future siblings and other kids. All of that stuff is where that character lived. That’s a whole big chapter ahead of me.
YZM: How do you stay grounded while being surrounded by Hollywood?
EC: I find that I'm not really surrounded like that. It’s work, you know and certainly actors are treated nicely, but it's a work environment and we’re all there to get a job done and it's a big team effort. It is such a tiny portion that we’re on the red carpet and going out to parties. When we bought this house I was scared that I wouldn’t leave the house, and I now I don’t! We grocery shop a couple times a week, I have my scripts here, and I do meetings over Skype. My parents and my brothers all live in LA, so that is grounding. Also, being a cyclist, being a non-actor person in LA, also helps.
YZM: What helps you stay connected as parents?
EC: As soon as Shane goes to bed at night we just hang out. We have dinner together, and watch whatever show we're watching. With Shane, we love to do family baths and in the middle of everything it is such a pause button. It's so sweet.
If either of us wants to find the time to do something specific on our own, we really are conscious of trying to make that happen, whatever it is. A lot of times it's just taking a bike ride. For me, I like to take Pilates, go spinning, and though it’s not necessarily therapeutic, I am in Instagram junkie and it's definitely relaxing and nice to check out and look at pretty things. Also, I’m a Scientologist, and I will take a book I’m reading to the Scientology Center (the one that looks like a castle) and go and sit in there for a couple hours and read my book. I’ll leave my phone off, and I love it because I'm learning and educating myself.
YZM: Speaking of Scientology, what do you think is the biggest misconception the public has about Scientology??
EC: Y’know I don’t actually know what I’d say the biggest misconception about Scientology is, but likely the ideas about it will become a lot more accurate soon, as people watch the Scientology TV network that just started airing recently. Actually, maybe the biggest misconception is that Scientologists don’t want you to be able to know everything about it, because we do. I’m psyched, with the network to just show everyone what we’re up to.
YZM: What's it like raising a kid with different religions?
EC: Well, it’s easy for us in a number of ways. You don’t have to convert or anything to use Scientology, it’s just tools anyone can use. So Cole has found his uses for it, and some of the most practical ones are in raising Shane. I think the other way that it’s never been a problem for us is that we’ve always focused on what we agree upon. It happened a few times early in our relationship that Cole said something, some point of view he held, and I’d be like — wait, that’s what I think! And I’d show him how I had to learned it by reading a Scientology book. I think it basically proved to us that we agree on things, and that we can agree on things. Sometimes it just takes continuing to communicate about something until we have both articulated everything we’re thinking and feeling and — you know, you don’t always know what that IS so you have to persist a bit. The best thing we do in general is probably making sure to mention when we recognize that the other has done something we appreciate, even if it’s as small and dumb as tossing a ball and saying, “good catch, babe.”
YZM: What is on your manifest board?
EC: A lot of the time I just think year-to-year. This year I want to work on projects that are relevant and actually affect people. I've also always wanted to do action movies—a movie where there’s some great struggle, then some great triumph that restores your faith in humanity and you just leave feeling great. I love those kinds of movies—the ones that make you more optimistic about life.
We always have dreams of traveling more, and especially love if it can coincide with work. For Shane’s life, I want get her into a great school, and I'm so excited for her to have the social interaction and learn!
YZM: What was most surprising to you when you first had Shane?
EC: The first year I found a newfound respect for any parent anywhere. It's not easy, and even when she does latch and even when she does sleep for a little bit longer and everything else, you realize that this is a little period of time in your life that’s really not easy. We are totally grateful and joyous, and we made sure that each other could sleep whenever we could, but becoming a parent is not without it’s challenges.
YZM: What advice would you give a new mom?
EC: Something life-changing for us was realizing how to deal with her when she is upset. If it is because she's hungry or tired, we feed her and take her to bed. If she's upset just because she's throwing a fit because she wants something there's always the, “I totally understand that, how about this instead.”
If she’s injured then it's just getting her attention back off of it and then she realizes she's okay. We do a version of what's called a “Locational” where you get their attention to present time. I will point to something and she will touch it, then I will point to something else and she will touch it, and then again and by the third thing, USUALLY she has stopped crying and she is cool. It’s not distraction, but it brings her into the present and focuses her attention to the fact that what she was crying about is not now, even if it was 5 seconds ago, it's not right now, so she brings her attention to what is right now and then she can be like, yeah, ok, it still hurts a little bit, but I'm cool. There have been so many times where we are in a public place and she starts crying and then you know three pointing and touchings later, and she's cool. It’s a great tool
YZM: What's your favorite book?
EC: My favorite books right now are The Art of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, Let's Have Healthy Children which is a great nutrition book, the Scientology book I'm reading right now is called Science of Survival which is about human behavior, how to recognize it, and predict it and through predicting it, sorting out who to trust with life and business and relationships. Also, 12 Hour Sleep by 12 Weeks Old is an amazing book about sleep training. The philosophy is that your child can learn to put themselves to sleep so they have the ability to do that for the rest of their life. I can’t even do that myself! Natural Birth the Bradley Way talks about giving birth and how to get out of the way of the body to let it do it’s own thing. I think the takeaway is how to not resist what’s happening. Honestly I didn’t apply the techniques in the book. It was super educational and an awesome jump-off point but I felt it was really helpful to me to not just relax and stay in a sort of neutral zone, but to actively, physically and/or mentally, contribute to the motion and help the body do what it’s doing. To own it.
YZM: What are some of the most loved ways to spend the day with your clan?
EC: We like park days. When we're traveling, we'll check out local local thrift stores and any museum that has anything remotely kid-friendly. We love being outside with Shane—we have done some pretty major hikes with that big backpack where she's away from your body and above you so she can actually see out.
YZM: What most surprised you after you had Shane?
EC: I was not one of those people who fell in love with their baby the second I saw her. I was thinking, oh hello, there's a little being, she's a burrito and she has eyes but she can't see me and okay...and then trying to nurse and stuff like that. It was reading along with Baby Center on how her eyesight was developing and me observing that she would all the sudden actually make eye contact and look at me and then when she was around 5 weeks old, she looked at me and she smiled and I burst into tears. It wasn’t that I didn’t like her before, but I was waiting for that love to really to kick in. Now, I don't even realize that I'm obsessed with her, but I have recognized the fact that if she gets too close to me I'm just kissing her. That’s the main manifestation of how I feel about my kid. But that whole transition was a long process.
YZM: I like you saying that because it is so normal and also something people do not talk about.
EC: I think it’s normal too, but you know you hear those wonderful stories of those people that the first time they lay eyes on their baby, they are just filled with love and maybe that will happen to me with my future babies now that I have more perspective.
YZM: What were the best or worst things that people said to me you are pregnant?
EC: One of the things that I shouldn't have been offended by (but I was offended by) was people saying, “Oh, it's so fun when they're three.” I felt like, that is a ways away, so let me try to enjoy everything between now and 3 years from now. This other woman didn’t know I was pregnant, but after the attacks in Paris she said to me, “who would want to bring a child into this world?” Good people need to raise kids to make more good people!
YZM: What is the best parenting advice you have received?
EC: Just listen to them. That means so many things. It means both don’t ignore them and don’t discount what they are saying. Also to focus on what it is that they're doing right. When that’s what gets the attention, that's what you get more of —from discipline to things like expanding her vocabulary. First, we tried a method where when she would communicate nonverbally and we knew what she wanted, we were told don't give it to her until she said the actual word. It was super frustrating for her because she knew we knew what she wanted.
The next phase of this was focusing on what she was doing that was right, which in this case would look like her making a sound that I know means milk and me saying, “you want your milk, cool. Here’s your milk.” It doesn't matter what she tries to say—if something comes out of her mouth, and she's attempting it, then perfect. We say, “that's right! that's MILK!” and just reinforce the positive. That’s been a real helpful, new, effective thing for us.
YZM: Where do you get advice?
EC: Definitely both of our moms. I think what's so important for the advice that you seek and get in general is that you have to be willing to be vigilant enough to not just accept anything you're given, you really have to decide for yourself.
YZM: What is the hardest thing about being a parent?
EC: I think it is the balance of making sure that I give her everything I have to offer while making sure that I don’t discount anything that she feels makes her who she is. The balance of who she is and who we are. I would have thought that the responsibility would feel more significant, but most simply, it's making the choices that I would have liked to have made for myself when I was two years old.
YZM: What was the most important thing for you while getting ready to give birth?
EC: The two most important things for me were knowing what my body was going to be doing so that I could mentally, and therefore physically, contribute to it too. Also knowing the various possibilities there were for the best possible situations (you will find out about the worst whether you try to or not). Doing research on amazing experiences of the women that have shared them, like orgasmic births and whatever else can be so helpful. Seeing that this can be a positive experience—I think that is so important so that your mind can go there. It’s like a birth manifest board. That is ultimately why I decided to have my baby at home. I knew the hospital would let me do it my way, but it just wasn’t the dream for me. I really just wanted to be at home, where I felt safe and comfy. I also ended up not wanting to have anyone talk to me. I just wanted Cole and my mom rub my back a little bit. That was it. Make yourself know what your own dreams are when it comes to your birth, and of course things can change and not go the way you intend, but in that case, just go with it!
YZM: What are four things that you can't live without as a parents?
EC: The baby monitor, the pacifier, the blender which we use to make Dr. Weston A Price’s recipe for baby formula, and our own room. Well, and number five would have to have been that book 12 Hours Sleep by 12 Weeks Hold! And the breast pump. That’s six!