Julie Bowen: Modern Mother, Modern Family

The actor’s tricks and tips for balancing TV's No. 1 comedy and family -- including three kids under age 3.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on March 23, 2011
8 min read

On the spectrum of mommy sainthood, Julie Bowen is much like her character Claire Dunphy on ABC's hit TV show Modern Family: She lands somewhere on the higher end of the scale but falls far short of perfection -- and that's OK with her.

This proud working mom of three boys -- all under age 3 -- remains a self-admitted control freak, however: "I function on the belief that if I were not around, the wheels would slowly fall off the bus, and no one would ever be dressed or fed," she jokes.

Still, after she and husband Scott Phillips, a software engineer, welcomed twins John and Gus, now 22 months, when their firstborn Oliver was just hitting the "terrible twos" -- within weeks of her landing the role on what has become the No. 1 comedy on television -- the in-demand actress knew something had to give.

"I breastfed for a year with my oldest," Bowen, 40, tells WebMD. "We did the Mommy & Me classes -- we did everything. But once the twins came along, I slid a lot farther down that scale."

She cites the new bar-setting trend of making your own baby food: "Organic in a jar is better than anything I'm going to come up with," she riffs. "There's a whole secret underground movement of people who feel like they're being bullied by these messages of ''You must grow your own food and purée it!' If you can do that and it brings you pleasure, do it. But if it doesn't work for you ... there are so many options out there that are healthy, why beat yourself up because you can't can your own peas?"

Bowen's views on TV-watching sound just as liberated: "I've heard all the evidence about television for kids, but every now and then Yo Gabba Gabba! is your best friend when you need to get the dishes done or just chill out for a minute."

Sounds like a line her alter ego Claire might deliver deadpan into the camera, a staple of Modern Family's confessional, break-the-fourth-wall style. The show -- which won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Comedy Series last fall and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series in January -- has become a certifiable fan favorite. The series hilariously depicts a dysfunctional clan of three interconnected couples who marry themes of gay partnership, foreign adoption, May-December romance, culture clashes, religious differences, warring spouses, and uppity teenagers. In other words: real life.

Bowen as Claire is a mom who believes she knows best -- but much to her chagrin (and the audience's delight) very often doesn't. Women especially respond to Bowen's character because she makes so many laugh-inducing mistakes. They love her because she mirrors just about every well-meaning if fallible mother out there.

The Baltimore-bred actress first earned household-name status as the primary love interest on the series Ed from 2000 to 2004. Bowen made additional star turns on Weeds and Lost, as well as in Adam Sandler's 1996 film, Happy Gilmore. Along the way, she's had to acquire some serious juggling skills to satisfy the demands of a skyrocketing career and burgeoning home life.

Still, Bowen's balancing act is not so different from that of other working moms -- she's simply traded the office cubicle for a studio set. Consider breastfeeding twin newborns while trying to memorize lines to perform before a live audience: "I pumped a lot. I pumped in my car. I pumped at work ... I pumped in a hotel room and sent it back to Los Angeles on dry ice. Not because I'm some kind of saint, but because it was easy for me. Again, if it's not easy, or if it's painful ... quit. I really resent the militants who insist things must be one way or another. Do what works for you, and cut yourself some slack with the comparisons."

With this mantra, Bowen's earned another big fan, Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, LCSW, psychotherapist and author of Mother-hood Without Guilt: Being the Best Mother You Can Be and Feeling Great About It.

"The pressures of modern-day motherhood can feel overwhelming," Rosenberg says. "Women buckle under it. They simply can't be in three places at once -- yet they try to be. With so many women working full-time jobs while attempting full-time motherhood, there are many false expectations. And this combination of factors pushes toward ever higher, often unattainable standards of what it means to be a good mother."

Are women under too much pressure today? "Yes," Bowen says. "There is too much pressure. I feel awful! An actress whom I adore -- who helped me audition -- told me: ''You've ruined it for all of us. You were hired for Modern Family when you were eight months pregnant with twins, and now that's the expectation -- that we can all do that. Nobody's getting a break.' How awful, that in any way, shape, or form I've made it harder for any new mom. Because I'm just as swamped as the rest of us."

Swamped is right. In the world of network TV, actors often log brutal hours. While Bowen is luckier than most, her schedule can be erratic.

"The model for Modern Family is to do it quickly and inexpensively," she explains. "We try to shoot 10-hour days where most shows shoot 12 or 14, so that happens to dovetail nicely if you have a family ... [but] there are weeks when it's in balance, and there are weeks when it isn't. Put it this way: There's a lot of kid time, and there's a lot of work time. It works."

"It works" means fewer Mommy & Me classes these days and an ability to stop sweating the minutiae of her children's lives -- a healthy relaxation, according to Rosenberg.

"With her first child," the therapist explains, "a mother is often vigilant about every detail: counting every step on the stairs, pointing out every flower. By the time her third one arrives, it's ''Hurry up!' Believe it or not, the latter may actually be better for children. Then they don't feel like the world revolves around them -- and that's a good thing."

One subject Bowen does sweat is the ongoing debate over vaccinations. Like many other mothers of young children, she felt daunted by anxiety-inducing mixed messages delivered by the media and traded among moms about the risks of annual and seasonal vaccine shots. In the end, she consulted her favorite doctor for advice.

"I cried making the decision, I'm not gonna lie," she says. "But I spoke with my sister, who is an infectious disease doctor -- and then also with my own doctor and my pediatrician, who said to me: “’By not vaccinating your children, you're putting them at serious risk.’ That was it for me. Once I made that decision, there were a few tears -- mostly mine -- but now all three boys are on regular vaccination schedules."

While there are no guarantees in this preventive approach, accepting it led Bowen to join the American Lung Association (ALA) as the national spokesperson in its ongoing public awareness campaign, "Faces of Influenza," about the importance of getting an annual flu shot.

"The flu is a significant disease," says Norman H. Edelman, MD, chief medical officer of the ALA. "Each year between 10% and 15% of all Americans get it. An estimated 15,000 to 40,000 die from complications."

"It's a privilege to get to educate people," Bowen adds. "Everybody should make the choice that's right for them. But, please," she adds, "make an educated choice."

It's clear that Bowen is a woman on the run. So it comes as no surprise that she jogs nearly every morning. "You can pick up a pair of sneakers anywhere and you're off," she says. "And 45 minutes later, you've had a great workout."

Anyone who's caught Bowen glammed-up and glowing with good health on recent awards shows can testify she looks downright amazing, considering the woman is in her fourth decade of life and has birthed three babies since 2007. What's her secret?

For starters, she's the first one to tell you that staying in shape takes hard work. It also requires sleep, the aforementioned daily runs, plus the commitment to do both.

"I front-load it," she says of getting a good night's rest, meaning she's typically in bed before 10 p.m., a healthy habit that enables her to rise by 5 a.m. and run a few miles before the kids wake up.

Surprisingly, Bowen has worn a pacemaker since she was diagnosed in her early 20s with a cardiovascular condition where the regular heartbeat can drop to dangerously low levels. The pacemaker "serves as a monitor for me," she explains, kicking in when her heart requires it.

And while she doesn't "hear or feel" the device, she's grateful "to live during a time when the technology exists to treat my condition," and is in "excellent health."

Managing a significant health complication helps her understand the importance of staying fit. But there are emotional benefits, too. "Running puts me in a better mood," she says. "For me, it's brain medicine."

Still, Bowen is fast to repeat her philosophy: "If this doesn't work for people, I don't begrudge them one iota. If you like to work out once a week, or work out after work, great. I like to come home and just be with the kids. So I exercise early ... I'm willing to give up late nights and going out in order to get up early -- and that's fine."

Which seems like a perfectly reasonable position to take for a seriously stretched, almost comically busy modern mother of three.

Striking a balance between motherhood and the rest of life's demands is no easy task. Psychotherapist Debra Gilbert Rosenberg, LCSW, offers some pointers for women faced with the urge to be all things to all people, all of the time:

Know your needs -- "It's important to strike a balance that works for you on all levels -- financially and emotionally. Listen only to your needs and the needs of your family, to establish this balance, whatever it may be."

Banish the guilt -- "If finances dictate that you work a full schedule, or if you need to work to maintain a healthy sense of personal identity, then good: Work. If this is what's best for your family, accept it. Then find nurturing child care and let the guilt go."

Be a "good enough" mother -- Rosenberg cites Donald Winnicott, a mid-20th century English pediatrician and psychoanalyst who made the concept of the "good-enough" mother famous. "You don't need to be Super Mom," she says. "Your job as a parent is to provide your children with healthy food, safe shelter, good education, love, respect, and nurturing. But no one ever said it all has to come solely from you."

Remember -- No one has it all. "'Having it all' was not what the women's movement of the 1960s and '70s was about: It was about having choice and opportunity. It's been twisted into this notion that women are supposed to have the amazing career and the amazing kids and the amazing husband and the amazing body -- all at once. Men don't have it all -- and they never have. Why do modern women believe they can have -- no, expect to have -- everything, all at once? Something has to give."