How Sarah Jessica Parker Does It All

The 'Sex and the City' actress is a mom on a mission, balancing a new movie, home life, a far-flung career, and her longtime work for UNICEF.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 15, 2011
10 min read

To the overworked, underappreciated moms of the world: Sarah Jessica Parker gets you.

No, really. It may be hard to believe that an A-list celebrity just crowned by Forbes as one of the highest-earning women in Hollywood (right next to Angelina Jolie) could have anything in common with, say, a grocery store clerk in Toledo, Ohio, who goes to night school and parents three kids solo.

Her life is Prada and most moms' is Payless.

But it wasn't always that way. Growing up in a blended family of eight kids, first in Ohio and then in the New Jersey suburbs near New York City, she saw her mom and stepfather struggle. Indeed, Parker's first serious paychecks for her acting, when she starred in Annie on Broadway at the age of 13, helped supplement the family's meager earnings.

This month, Parker, 46, stars in a new film, I Don't Know How She Does It, based on the best-seller by Allison Pearson, playing a harried mom Parker says she understands very well. The actor and producer, with multiple Golden Globe, Emmy, and Screen Actors Guild awards under her belt, is best known for her leading role as Carrie Bradshaw on the HBO drama/comedy series Sex and the City and has appeared in numerous films, including Footloose, L.A. Story, and Smart People.

"Having come from where I did as a child, seeing how hard my mom worked and now seeing all the ways mothers work today to be good moms in various ways -- we all want the same things, right? Children that are safe and well and taken care of," she says.

Parker and her husband, actor Matthew Broderick, now have a brood of three -- son James Wilkie is 8, and twin daughters Tabitha and Loretta turned 2 in June. They have a nanny for the twins and a babysitter who picks up James from school if both parents are working, but they don't have live-in help. As dozens of paparazzi who constantly chase her through New York City playgrounds can attest, Parker is one hands-on mom.

She laughs when she recalls the relatively easy days when James Wilkie was an "only." "One child? I could take him anywhere! When we go out alone now, he's like, 'Aaah, it's like the old days, Mom!'" she says. (They recently took just such an excursion to see the premiere of the last Harry Potter film.) "Or when I take one of the girls to the grocery store by herself, I can't believe I just have a single stroller and no one to chase. But then, I'll hear, 'Where's Tata? I want to see Tata!'

"People seem to be very surprised that we don't want a life with that much outside help," Parker says. "We love that we have amazing people in our lives who are willing to help care for our children and love them. But it's nice to shut the door and know that it's just your family. There's something wonderful and private about that. And I like that the people taking care of my kids get to go home to their families and have time with them, and tell them what a hard day they had at our house!"

Juggling career and family, Parker says she easily relates to Kate Reddy, the frantic, 3 a.m.-list-making mom and finance executive she plays in I Don't Know How She Does It. In fact, one of the main reasons she quit the daily grind of series television involved with Sex and the City was that it took too much time away from her kids.

"I said yes to the part because it depicted so accurately what it is to be a mother who wants a life that includes work outside the home, and how complicated those decisions are and the consequences of those choices," she says. (Every mother who's ever missed a childhood milestone will relate to Parker as she walks through the streets of Boston, weeping because the nanny took her son for his first haircut.) "Her life is different than mine, but I related to a lot of it. I could empathize with the conflict within her, about wanting to be well thought of professionally but also to give her children and husband what they need."

Parker says she's enormously conscious of the tough, sunup-to-sundown days experienced by so many moms -- not, she stresses, moms like herself, with perfume lines and movie premieres and seven-figure paydays, but mothers like her own.

"I try very hard not to suggest there's a hardship in my life. I'm working by choice, and I have it so much easier than most women I can even imagine, who are doing it with very little financial support and resources, or maybe alone, without great options for child care," she says.

"The most inspiring people to me are the ones who don't have options and how they make their lives work. It's the women we don't hear about, working two or three jobs at a time and building rich, wonderful, healthy lives for their children with almost nothing -- that's the real story."

Parker herself would like to declare a cease-fire in the Mommy Wars.

Breastfeeding vs. bottlefeeding? Day care vs. nanny vs. stay at home? Parker thinks we all just need to give each other a break. "It doesn't surprise me that there's competition among mothers, but I can never quite understand how we can compete and compare. My house is with my children, and your house is with yours," she says.

What can we do to bring an end to the Mommy Wars -- at least on our own home fronts?

Remember that you don't know everything that's happening in someone else's life, and they don't know what's happening in yours, says Susan Newman, PhD, a social psychologist and the author of several books on parenting, most recently The Case for the Only Child. "Have confidence in your own decisions, but just because someone else makes different choices, that doesn't make her a bad mother."

Consider the source. If people are criticizing your parenting, they might have an ulterior motive. The mother-in-law telling you that you need to have a second child and that "onlies" are miserable might want more grandchildren, but she won't be the one up at 3 a.m. with a colicky infant.

Find your mom squad. Surround yourself with like-minded moms. You don't need a chorus of cheerleaders, but it can be an enormous relief to have at least one nonjudgmental "mom friend" who'll give you a hug and tell you you're doing fine.

Parenthood also sheds new light on what has been a lifelong commitment for Parker -- her role as an ambassador for UNICEF (

"From my earliest childhood, I always remember going out trick-or-treating for UNICEF," she recalls, noting that her mother had a passion for the organization that she taught her children to share. "Our holiday greeting cards and our only family calendar were from UNICEF. It's been a part of my life forever."

A UNICEF ambassador since 1997, Parker's latest effort for the international children's charity involves launching a new initiative that she says "is trying to change the course of the AIDS epidemic that has ravaged developing countries." At the 10th anniversary conference of the Global Business Coalition on HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria in June, Parker introduced the project -- the HIV/AIDS Innovation Fund -- to key business leaders involved in promoting global health.

The idea is to bring together top HIV experts with business and philanthropic leaders to provide the seed money needed to identify interventions that cost relatively little but have the potential to save many lives -- and get those initiatives moving quickly and flexibly.

In 2007, Parker served as the national spokeswoman for the launch of the UNICEF Tap Project. During World Water Week in March, restaurants around the country ask patrons to donate $1 or more for their usually free glasses of tap water. "Every bit of that money goes to UNICEF for their clean water program in developing countries," Parker says. (The initiative has raised almost $2.5 million so far.)

The importance of that commitment -- or the size of the challenge -- can't be overstated, says Deborah Dean, MD, MPH, executive director of the Children's Global Health Initiative at the Children's Hospital Oakland Research Institute in California. "Every year, around the world, 10 million children don't make it to their fifth birthday," she says. "And more than 3 million of those don't even survive their first two or three weeks of life. That's astounding."

Parker clearly understands the scope of the problem, which is what has made her involvement so valuable, says Caryl Stern, president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. "She's made a true commitment, not just to her own children but to the world's children. As a mom, she's instilling in her own children what it means to give back, and calling on other moms to do the same. And she has the integrity that she only says what she really believes."

Parker says she struggles with how to explain these things to her own, very privileged children -- to instill in them the same values her mother taught her. "I definitely talk to James Wilkie about it as much as he can handle without starting to roll his eyes," she says. "It's harder to convey to the girls right now, at just 2. It's a fine line. You want to help a child understand these things in a way that doesn't overwhelm them."

For someone who's jetting off to China the next day as the special guest of a figure-skating spectacular (James Wilkie's going along) and who's been a household name for pretty much her entire adult life, Parker seems remarkably grounded. Despite her early fame, she never blundered through the drugs-and-rehab, sex-and-scandal revolving door that seems to be de rigueur for many young actresses today. And despite a few setbacks, she's always managed to reinvent herself as an actor and businesswoman, and find new and successful roles.

"A lot of that is just good fortune. I couldn't suggest otherwise," she says. "But I've tried to be thoughtful and careful about the choices I make. I really believe in a strong work ethic, and people know that when I commit to something, I am not interested in having one foot in and one foot out the door."

It may sound a bit old-fashioned -- especially coming from the woman who embodied the glamorous Carrie Bradshaw -- but Parker worries that such a work ethic is becoming a thing of the past.

"There's such an interest these days in how to become famous or wealthy quickly. But you have to work hard, you have to, no matter what you do," she says. "I wish I could tell younger people today, 'You will love the memories of how hard you worked, and of pounding the pavement and going from audition to audition, and going to a pay phone and digging deep in your pockets for a freakin' quarter to call your messages to see what the response was.'

"I talk with my friends who are actors about that part of our past, and we wouldn't want it any other way. It's the same way no matter what you do in life. Don't overlook the process when you're making career decisions."

They're known as the deadly triad. Malnutrition. Dirty water. Infectious disease. Together, these three plagues take the lives of thousands of children every day in the developing world.

"They all go hand in hand in a sort of vicious cycle," says Deborah Dean, MD, MPH. "By far the biggest cause of preventable deaths in the developing world is infectious disease, with diarrhea alone accounting for about 17% of preventable deaths in childhood." (Measles and malaria are two of the other leading killers.)

Every day, 22,000 children under 5 years old around the world die from preventable causes like these. "Five thousand children die every day just due to lack of access to good, clean, healthy water," says UNICEF's Caryl Stern. And once they're fed, clothed, and housed, children are still vulnerable in dozens of ways.

"Every child deserves a childhood, but there are thousands of children being forced into trafficking, slavery, and soldiering," Stern says. But the situation is improving: Just a year ago, the daily death toll from preventable causes was 24,000 children. Indeed, over the last 50 years, UNICEF and its partners have cut child mortality in half through programs in almost 200 countries providing children with health care, clean water, nutrition, education, protection, and emergency relief. But there's still a long way to go.

How can you help support programs that make a difference for children? A few ideas:

  • Organize a Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF event at your children's school for Halloween. You can get kits, tips, and resources online at, including handbooks and guidelines for teachers. You can also set up an online fundraising page.
  • Give an "inspired gift" ( On your mom's birthday, honor her by buying a blanket for a child.
  • Support Water Aid, an organization whose sole purpose is to improve access to safe water and sanitation throughout the world ( The "shop for life" section lets you earmark your donation for useful items ranging from faucets to a composting toilet.
  • Help other moms keep their families alive and healthy with CARE, a humanitarian group fighting global poverty that focuses on women, believing they have the power to help whole communities reach self-sufficiency. Its web site lets you drag and drop gifts into a personalized "CARE package" (