Uma Thurman Puts Motherhood Center Stage

How the "Smash" actress and mother helps low-income parents and babies. Plus, why she thinks "balance" isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on April 01, 2012
10 min read

Uma Thurman doesn't believe in balance.

You know, that balance we're told holds the key to a happy, healthy life. That perfect equilibrium, where we make enough time for our kids, our spouses, our careers, our homes, our friends, and, oh yes, ourselves. Balance is supposed to be the kinder, gentler alternative to "having it all," but Thurman doesn't buy it.

"The idea of balance itself is kind of an assault on reason," says Thurman, 42, best known for playing the vengeful, blood-spattered Bride in the Kill Bill films and the slinky gangster's wife in Pulp Fiction. Now she's in her first significant TV role as a famous scene-stealing actor who tries her hand at musical theater in the buzziest show of the season, NBC's Smash.

"Both your family and your career require full-time commitments to really do well," she says. "It's somewhat impossible to give all your attention to two things or four things."

So what do you do? "You have to pick one [commitment] that you know you can't live with yourself if you screw up," Thurman says. "I couldn't live with myself if I screwed up my kids."

That's why Thurman took a four-year hiatus in the late 1990s, doing only a few small, low-budget projects after giving birth to daughter Maya, who is 14 this July. Son Levon, now 10, was born the year before Kill Bill hit the multiplexes. Fortunately for Thurman, director Quentin Tarantino had written the part of The Bride for her and refused to recast the role, delaying production for months while she was pregnant.

"I probably very much shortchanged my career when I did that, but it was worth it," she says. "Still, it's not easy. I have a wonderful relationship with my children, and they're the most important thing to me, but one does wish to have a creative, independent life as a person, too. It's hard to be a self-sufficient provider and parent and have a foot in both worlds."

Another break in the action may be coming soon -- Thurman revealed in February that she is pregnant with her third child, a girl, due in late summer. Dad is her boyfriend, financier Arpad "Arki" Busson, who also has two children from a previous marriage.

Thurman understands, on a very personal level, that she has it far easier than most working moms. Back when she was pregnant with Maya, she encountered a neighbor who forever shaped her perception of just how difficult parenting can be.

Living in a small brownstone in Manhattan with actor and then-husband Ethan Hawke, Thurman happily dragged home the usual array of baby gear that expectant parents stock up on: stroller, car seat, crib, swing. She saw her upstairs neighbor doing the same thing.

"She kept coming into the building lugging giant bags of baby goods up and down the stairs, just huge bags. She was a very slender and slim person, and at that point I was not!" Thurman says, laughing. "I finally said, 'I know what I'm doing with all these bags of baby things, but what are you doing?'"

The neighbor was Julie Burns, a social worker (and wife of documentary producer Ken Burns), who had spent years working as a psychotherapist with older children with behavioral problems as well as troubles with depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence. She was hauling all those supplies for her new charity, Room to Grow, which helps expectant moms living in poverty.

Burns had decided she needed to intervene earlier in children's lives.

"There was a profound lack of services for children in poverty from birth to age 3," she says. "These families want the very best for their children, just like parents with more resources do. I wanted to create an organization that would provide for their material needs, but also help parents navigate all the emotional and practical challenges that come with raising a young child, while at the same time facing all of the obstacles that poverty injects into your life."

That hit home with Thurman. "It's undebatably unjust for children to suffer," she says. "Going through the process of becoming a parent, naturally you see very closely how frightening, how overwhelming, and how important it is to you, and how much you want the best for your child. It brought it so close to home to imagine what it would be like to face all those things without a job, without resources, without support."

From that late-pregnancy encounter in an apartment hallway came a 14-year partnership. Thurman became one of the founding board members of Room to Grow, which now serves hundreds of families in New York City and Boston. Expectant parents are referred to the organization by prenatal programs for low-income families. They're given all the supplies they need for their new arrivals from among thousands of new and gently used baby and toddler items donated by area families. But the material side of parenting is only part of the organization's efforts.

"You can't just drop in and get stuff and go," says Burns. From pregnancy through toddlerhood, families meet one on one with Room to Grow staff clinicians, who monitor the baby's growth, teach families parenting skills, and help them navigate problems like finding affordable housing, looking for a new job, and getting a GED.

"It's about helping people become successful parents," says Thurman, who doesn't just slap her name on charitable solicitations. She devotes days to board meetings and planning retreats for Room to Grow, plunging into balance sheets and tackling challenging decisions about how to expand the charity's reach. "How do parents access subsidized child care so they can work? How can they afford dental care for their child? Whatever the issue is, from the medical to the personal, Room to Grow is there for people who might otherwise be overwhelmed."

The Room to Grow setup is an ideal strategy for nurturing learning in kids and parents facing poverty, says Sheila Smith, PhD, director of early childhood at the National Center for Children in Poverty at the Mailman School of Public Health, part of Columbia University. "Parents experience a lot of pressure when they can't provide material items for children. Just having the kinds of things that parents know their children need to grow and develop is, in itself, a really strong approach to reducing stress in the family. It also helps parents who are struggling with economic hardships to build that bond with their children, to enjoy time together that's not just the daily chore of getting through the day and making sure there's food on the table."

Thurman is so devoted to Room to Grow that she wedged a host of commitments to its winter fund-raising event (she served as co-chair along with the Burnses and fellow actors Liv Tyler, Julianna Margulies, and Mark Ruffalo and his wife, Sunrise) into her schedule in February, even though she was almost constantly filming for Smash.

One of the strengths of Room to Grow is the program's ability to help parents and children play productively together.

"Children develop their ability to learn through exploration with toys," says early childhood education and development expert Sheila Smith, PhD. "They also develop it in play with adults who help them and say, 'Why don't you try it this way?' but also sit back and let them try things on their own. Room to Grow increases the opportunities for parents to motivate their child to learn."

You don't need fancy, expensive gear to do that, Smith says. The simplest toys are often the best. Try Smith's top three playthings:

Stuffed animals or small family figures. "Anything that represents a character," she says, the more general, the better. Don't tie children down to brand-name princess dolls or action heroes. "They can make up stories and use their imagination, which encourages symbolic thinking and language development."

Art supplies and Play-Doh. "You can talk about all kinds of wonderful things and use great vocabulary with Play-Doh and paint," Smith says. "Make a pattern with a brush or your finger. Make shapes. Talk about stretching, dripping, blending, and colors."

Blocks. "Blocks are the ultimate open-ended play material. They're wonderful because children can make anything and then remake it," Smith says. "They're very good for spatial reasoning, and they also encourage flexible thinking. Children try an idea, and if it doesn't look the way they want, they can try something else."

Thurman has a full plate for sure. But appearing in a show about staging a Broadway musical was hard to resist. "It's the first time I've done something like this, and I thought it would be fun," she says of her part in the series, which also stars Debra Messing, Megan Hilty, and Katharine McPhee. "I love song and dance and Broadway, and I thought it was an exciting, creative idea for a show."

She also stars in the upcoming release Bel Ami, a period piece she shares with Robert Pattinson and Christina Ricci. She has half a dozen other movies in pre- or post-production, including The Savages in July, and rumors have it that a Kill Bill 3 may start filming soon.

You might expect Thurman to handle her stressful schedule with Zen aplomb. Her father, Robert Thurman, is a noted Buddhist theologian and the first Westerner ordained as a Tibetan Buddhist monk. But despite many reports listing her among famous Buddhists, Thurman says she admires the philosophy but doesn't practice it.

She freely admits that she handles stress "pretty badly!" But she's trying a new approach. "I was working the other day, and I said to someone, 'I'm sorry that you're stressed,' and the person said very calmly, 'I'm not stressed, I'm concerned.' I've decided to do that. I walk around all the time saying, 'I'm stressed, I'm stressed, I'm stressed,' but now I'm going to start saying that 'I'm concerned.' Maybe that will help."

Her favorite way to ease the pressure? Getting back to Mother Nature. "Whenever I can, I get out of the urban environment as much as possible. My favorite spot is the mountains. But even if I'm in the city, I have Central Park."

Another can't-live-without way to take care of herself: reading. Thurman also admits to having a few vices, including food indulgences (guilty pleasure: chocolate), not getting enough sleep, and neglecting exercise. "I don't do it enough. Guilty!"

And she says her work with Room to Grow is itself a stress reliever. "I think it's important to feel you have a positive outlet, to know that you're making some sort of difference and connecting with your community and that things can be improved," she says. "It's a big relief -- instead of watching the news and thinking the sky is going to fall."

Despite her busy schedule, Thurman still hasn't been pushing herself quite as hard as she did before she had kids.

"I've done things that I've chosen. Just to enjoy myself. I haven't done anything really big in a long time. Partly that's been a conscious choice, and partly it's been that I just haven't found something worth putting my life aside to do." Spoken like a true believer in making choices instead of trying to have it all.

Is Thurman right? Are we torturing ourselves with this mythical idea of a "balanced" life?

Definitely, says Lana Holstein, MD, a life coach and the former director of women's health at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz. "As a physician, mother, wife, and life coach, I have never lived a life of balance," she says. "Most of our lives are not in balance. We emphasize one area or another for a time -- that is just fine in my book." So what should we strive for instead?

Nourishment, says Holstein. "We all need nourishment every day -- and not just food. Are you including things that nourish your life essence? Pay attention to your exhaustion/joy ratio. If you are nourishing your true self consistently, you should not be exhausted and chronically vigilant."

Movement, advises time-management consultant Steve McClatchy, founder of Alleer Training & Consulting, in Malvern, Pa. "Think of the last time you had the thought that your life is better today than it was yesterday. Maybe it was a graduation, a new job offer, an award your child received, even just doing a great workout or receiving a compliment on a job well done. Movement in our lives toward goals and improvement creates the excitement and adrenaline that we need to keep going."

Realism, says Sara Rosenquist, PhD, a clinical psychologist in private practice and former clinical assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "As long as people have to work for a living, children will come second to making money to pay the rent and put food on the table. Lose the guilt. Adjust the expectations. Then you will have 'balance,' the way a mobile is balanced with some parts short and heavy and other parts long and light, but it will not be a 50-50 division of time."

Blending, says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better, a management research firm in Boulder, Colo. "Balancing makes you think of juggling balls, with fear of one dropping," she says. "Blending brings up the idea of mixing ingredients to make a wonderful dessert or blending colors to create a vibrant painting. It also incorporates the notion that you can change the blend as desired."

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