How Six Has Blossomed: Interview with Jenna von Oyby Casey Berna
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Jenna von Oy doesn’t talk fast any more, as her character “Six” from the hit 1990s television show “Blossom” was once famous for. There is nothing fast-paced about her life in Nashville these days. How can you move fast when you have a little baby attached to your hip 24 hours a day?
The fact of the matter is, Jenna doesn’t want to move fast. She is relishing her time as a stay-at-home mom and enjoying her new career as an author. Jenna writes a weekly blog, The Cradle Chronicles, which is a heartfelt, honest and hilarious reflection on motherhood, and she is working on two book projects.
After graciously agreeing to be interviewed via Skype, Jenna appears on my computer screen with the same beauty and endearing charm that we all loved her for back in 1993. No, she is not wearing a quirky hat!
She immediately asks me to pardon her sweatpants, her messy house and her snoozing pug “Boo” lying behind her. If her house was messy, I didn’t notice. But she and I are essentially wearing the same outfit, “nice” black sweats, a comfortable black top and a gray sweater. Jenna is so relatable that I begin the interview feeling like we are old friends and we spend the next two hours talking about motherhood-everything from breastfeeding, to growing pains, to faith, to the gift of being able to connect with other mothers, including her former co-star Mayim Bialik.
Surprisingly, the first question of the interview is not asked by me. As soon as we sign on to Skype, Jenna explains that she had nursed her 9-month-old daughter Gray to sleep, only to find out she had awakened five minutes later.
JENNA: I know that she has to learn to take naps on her own, but she’s not having this. This is not in her repertoire at the moment. It has been very dramatic and traumatic, probably more for me than for her. I’m beside myself about it. Maybe you can give me some sort of pep talk or advice? I know that I have to give her a little room to grow without me being right there. Loving my daughter means giving her boundaries. Loving her also means not making her feel like I’ve abandoned her. So which one means loving her more? I don’t see a compromise for that. Naptime is not for parental sissies.
I can offer no advice on sleeping. My own daughter was frequently awake 18 hours a day when she was a baby. To my delight, beautiful Gray appears on screen (carried in by her dad).
CASEY: So Gray, how was your day?
JENNA: Good, we crawled a lot. We knocked a lot of things over; pulled DVDs off the shelves. It was a good day.
Honestly, Gray is adorable and smiley as she attempts to communicate with me in baby coos. Her dad comes back in to take her downstairs so Jenna and I can chat. We both pour glasses of Syrah, Jenna’s pick, and toast to our respective computer screens. I marvel at what a happy soul Gray is. Jenna emphatically agrees.
JENNA: Even as an infant the only time she would ever cry would be when her tummy hurt. She had some really bad tummy troubles. I went dairy-free for four months to see if it would help her.
CASEY: I saw that in your blog. Did giving up dairy help?
JENNA: It was a miracle for her. I wasn’t entirely certain that I believed in the dairy-free thing. I knew it was going to be tough, and it was. It’s hard to get into it initially, and finding substitutes is difficult for some things. I am a foodie so for most things there are no substitutes. I was the last person that I thought would be able to do that from a will power stand point, but obviously it was so worth the result. I just wanted her to feel better. It’s such a small price to pay. I am not an expert on it. All I can say is, when I started going dairy-free, 8-10 days later, perhaps it was coincidence, I saw a huge difference. She had been projectile-vomiting like The Exorcist prior to that.
After explaining that any strange noises I may hear are from her other pug snoring at the foot of the computer, (which she tells me is propped up on her daughter’s high chair), we start talking about Jenna’s exquisite writing and the courageous way in which she shares her life experiences as a mom.
CASEY: I am really touched by your writing and how real it is. I particularly loved your story about going to Target and getting your first post-pregnancy bathing suit because your pre-baby bathing suits did not fit. We all go through all of these things. In a world where you hear women on television have a baby and then strut down the Victoria Secret Runway weeks later--- which is great if you can do it…
JENNA: Not everyone can do that in this life. Not everyone is going to be a supermodel, and whip back into shape. When you see people in the press that lost their post-pregnancy weight that quickly, assuming they did it in a healthy way, it’s because that’s their body type. I’m five feet tall, so that is not my body type and I am okay with that. If I’m going to have a voice as a mom and as an actress, and if I’m going to use my blogs as a platform to stand up and voice my opinions, I really feel it’s imperative that I make sure there’s honesty and vulnerability in my words. I appreciate the celebrity bloggers who are telling the truth, who are willing to stand up and say, “okay, I am totally imperfect; I am very flawed.” I have insecurities about being a mom. For example, when I started breastfeeding my child, I worried if I was giving her enough food, or if I was over feeding her. I have all the same worries that every mom out there has, and if I don’t share that, if I am not honest about it, what’s the point of being out there to begin with?
CASEY: I think there is a lot of strength in your voice because you are a celebrity. The fact that you are using that strength to talk about things that are universal, to talk about things that leave you vulnerable, to connect to other women, is wonderful. So many people don’t talk about the real stuff.
JENNA: It’s a risk to put opinions out there about parenthood. There’s a lot of blame that goes around where parenthood is concerned because everyone wants to feel like they’re doing the best job they can. For instance, Gray was at a birthday party a few months ago. She was just starting on solid foods and was only eating pureed stuff. I love to cook so instead of spending a ton of money on store-bought food, I make a bunch of food and put it in travel pouches so I can take it with us. One of the fathers there said, “I’ve never seen that kind of pouch before. What brand is that?” I told him I’d made it at home and put it into the pouch myself. His wife happened to walk up at that same time and said, “Well, I did that with our first child too. But once you have another one, you don’t have time anymore. It’s not saying anything against us as parents.”
She immediately got defensive, and took it as a personal affront, as if I was saying they weren’t doing the right thing by not making their food at home. Which I would never say! I felt bad because we have created this motherhood forum where everybody is afraid they are not doing the “right” thing. When you are a parent who takes a risk, who voices an opinion and puts it out there, it does open the door for some backlash. Inevitably there are going to be parents who are worried that what you are saying is, “My way is the best way. I am the better parent because I choose to do this.” When in fact what you are saying is, “Hey is anybody else out there choosing this same route? Let’s be supportive of one another.”
CASEY: We are quick to be more defensive and let our insecurities get the best of us instead of saying, “Hey, I think that is awesome.” It makes me so sad. I feel like sometimes there is “Mom Political Correctness.” You have to say, “I love breastfeeding, BUT I know that not everyone can do it and I know it is not good for every mother and child.”
JENNA: I am the same way. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings. I do feel the need to follow up with disclaimers and that is unfortunate, but that’s the way our society works. Nobody knows my intentions or my heart but me. So I don’t want people to get hung up on the wrong thing because I failed to make a disclaimer. The message is the important part to me.
CASEY: The other controversial issue is working-mom versus stay-at-home mom versus part-time working-mom.
JENNA: To that point, I have felt the need in the past to make sure people know that when I say I’m a stay-at-home mom, I know it’s a blessing, not a chore. As with anything, there are so many sides to the equation. There are so many different viewpoints on it. We put labels on everything, attachment parents, helicopter parents, all of these things. All of a sudden people are like, “Oh, are you trying the Ferber Method?” I don’t know what any of these titles are! I am just trying to find what works for my child, feels comfortable and doesn’t make my heart hurt.
CASEY: That brings peace and sanity in your home.
JENNA: Yes, that makes my home a happier place. That’s going to be a different scenario for each person. I always hate when someone sits back and states, “If you exercise option “A,” you are not an okay parent. You are doing the wrong thing.” In my humble opinion, unless you are truly abusing your child, only you can know what the wrong thing is. Listen to the pediatrician, listen to the people you trust for good advice, then sift through all of those things and add your maternal instinct to the equation. You decide what the best answer is for how to get you and your child from point A to point Z.
CASEY: Do you find since motherhood you talk to your mom more?
JENNA: My mom and I have always been really close, and then we went through a phase where we weren’t quite as close, as I think most women go through with their mom. I think my mom and I started talking more once I got married. There was that connection that was suddenly reinforced because we had something in common that was new. Especially once I had my daughter, because my mother is head over heels for her. It’s phenomenal to see the love that comes from my mom where my daughter is concerned. To my mother’s huge credit she has been nothing but supportive and appreciative of my parenting style.
CASEY: When my daughter was first born, my husband and I had this revelation. We talked about how we totally understand our parents more now that we have a child. Parenting is hard. You do the best you can.
JENNA: Part of it is the first-hand realization that, as cliché as it is, “There is no rule book.” Nobody really knows what they’re doing. There’s no prep for motherhood. Nobody knows more than anybody else because we all start with a clean slate. Inevitably we will be making mistakes and doing dumb things.
CASEY: Yes, I feel like our daughter has survived us thus far.
JENNA: It does give you a whole new appreciation for what a good job your parents did to get you to the point where you can turn around and do the same for your child. And it’s not to say we are going to make all of the same decisions our parents did. I am sure all of us can look back at our parents and go, “Man, they really screwed up that part!” But, I am going to screw my kid up in some ways too. Not because I want to, not because I am trying to, but because there is just no getting around it. I can’t offer my daughter perfection.
CASEY: I think a lot of people in our generation are taught that you have to do everything perfectly. Everyone has so much pressure to be the best, to go to this school, to get this career. A lot of people take that same mentality and try to apply it to motherhood, which is impossible.
JENNA: There shouldn’t be narrow stipulations on how to mother your child. It’s not fair to anybody. For instance, it really bothers me that so many people want to verbally attack my former [“Blossom"] co-star Mayim [Bialik] about her affiliation with attachment parenting. I have a huge amount of respect for her, not only for standing by her convictions, but for being open about them to the public. She’s allowing a lot of vulnerability to show by putting herself out there. I have read her book, never once did she say, “You are an inappropriate parent if you do not follow these rules and regulations that I follow.” She’s saying, “This is what works for me and my family. This is what makes my heart feel okay.” What’s really cool is the fact that even though Mayim and I may have differing opinions on how we raise our children in certain instances, we have been there to support each other. She has talked me through problems that I have had breastfeeding, because she is a certified lactation consultant. She has been there for me as an emotional support system. I wish we could all manage to do that. I wish we could look at each other and go, “Okay, we don’t necessarily have the exact same way of raising our child but that is what makes it beautiful.”
CASEY: We live in a very polarized world, whether it comes to politics, religion or even parenting. Sometimes, people get on one side or the other very staunchly and cannot come together. It’s really unfortunate because we fail to learn more about ourselves, grow individually, and grow as a community when we block everything out and say, “No, no, it’s my way.”
JENNA: I’m sure we are all guilty of it at some point or another, in some respect or another. It’s so unfortunate that motherhood and parenting fall into a political war zone. Motherhood should not be a political war zone.
CASEY: I feel like as a parent you can NEVER say never.
JENNA: I am guilty of it. Several years ago a good friend of mine had a baby. I said these words and I am eating them at this point, “Oh, I totally believe in the cry it out method.” This is, mind you, prior to my becoming a parent, so really, who the hell was I to make a comment on this at the time? “Oh I just really believe that kids need to learn that it’s okay to feel frustrated and it’s okay to be alone, to soothe themselves to sleep.” With that said, my friend said, “Well, that didn’t work for our daughter and that just doesn’t work for every child.” And now here I am, going, “Well that doesn’t work for my child either.” Now I understand, “never say never.”
CASEY: It is really nice that you and Mayim are still so close.
JENNA: I think motherhood is like the grand bridge. It really brought me together with a lot of people that I lost touch with over the years. In a way I feel like we are closer now because we have this connection of our children we can talk about. Of course, we have that history too, which probably means more to us now than it did back then.
CASEY: What life lessons did you learn on the show as compared to the life lessons you are learning as a stay-at-home mom?
JENNA: It’s really hard to paraphrase everything I learned back then and I’ve only been a mom for 9 months. I have so much left to learn that I don’t even know if there are comparisons. I wish I would have allowed myself to be a kid a little bit more. I wish that I had looked in the mirror and understood that I was beautiful at that moment, that it didn’t take another ten years when I knew how to kiss boys and walk across a room wearing tight jeans to feel good about myself. I wish that I had felt that I could give some of my own validation instead of expecting it from everybody else.
It is difficult to have a show during the most awkward, gawky years. When I was on Blossom, I was angst-filled and hormonally charged. I hope that, if I can teach my daughter anything, it is to be true to herself. If I had been truer to my heart, and a little less concerned about being flawless, I might have indulged my sarcasm a little earlier and allowed my convictions and my voice to come through a little sooner. And those are the things I love most about myself now. I realize I have a little bit of a dark side sometimes and I embrace it. I wish I had embraced it then. I wish I had understood that coloring outside of the lines was okay, that conforming isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
CASEY: What helped you become more of yourself? What changed? I know there are still so many adults who are still struggling with all of the issues you have mentioned.
JENNA: I think it was getting off the show, and having time to figure out what it was that I really wanted, not what other people wanted of me. I also think that it is an age thing. I feel a hell of a lot more comfortable in my own skin in my thirties than I ever did in my twenties. And when I was sixteen, I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. I looked in the mirror and I wished for thinner thighs, smaller facial features and all of those things. I always wanted to change something about myself. My priorities are so different now.
CASEY: You have talked in your blog how Gray already loves singing and posing for family photo shoots. Do you have any strong feelings on whether or not you would want Gray to enter show business?
JENNA: If Gray came to me, when she was old enough, and we talked about it and I felt that she had made that decision based on her own passion, I would not keep her from it. I’m impressed by the fact that my parents, who knew nothing about this industry, had the wherewithal to say, “I don’t know what the hell we are getting ourselves into, but if she wants it that badly we are willing to support her.” My parents both came from small towns. They had no clue how to go about getting me into show business, how to keep from falling victim to scams. They didn’t know the first thing about it. But they knew that I wanted it so badly and they loved me so much, they were willing to dive into the deep end and say, “Okay, we are in.” I don’t know what I would have done if God hadn’t given me parents who felt that way. So if Gray is that child, I hope that she was given to me because I’m a good enough, understanding enough, compassionate enough parent to be supportive of her in the same way my parents were. Do I have concerns about her getting into the industry? Of course, but I have concerns about her going to high school and meeting boys too. It doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.
CASEY: Are you a particular religion?
JENNA: I grew up Catholic.
CASEY: Faith is such a huge part of my life. I struggle sometimes with the Church’s teachings.
JENNA: Growing up in that faith has very much been a blessing and a gift for me. I don’t feel like I would be the same person without it. I realize the Catholic Church has a sort of rigidity associated with it, and many people only see a narrow path. It never felt that way to me, either in the church I grew up in or with the way my family is.
I don’t generally talk about my faith publicly, although after the Newtown tragedy, I wrote a piece which acknowledged it. It was the most vulnerable I have ever made myself. I grew up in Newtown. I am so attached to my hometown. My parents still live there. My brother still lives there. It’s where I went to school and graduated. It’s where I got married and baptized my child. I too am in mourning. People that I grew up with in high school lost their daughter. My friends lost their daughter. I can’t reconcile it and I never will. I wake up every morning thinking about that. I can’t get it out of my head. It’s horrible.
My intention in writing that piece was to open my heart and say, “This town is so much more than this tragedy that happened;” to mourn with every parent whether they have a direct connection or not. Before that moment I don’t ever remember saying out loud that I was Catholic in the press because that is so personal; so close to my heart. I don’t resent anyone, or feel that anyone is wrong, believing something that is different from what I believe in. I believe that having spirituality and faith is more important than whether or not our faith is for the exact same figurehead. I hope that I can teach my daughter to be open-minded and understanding.
It is now about two hours since Jenna and I began our interview. For the past hour, Gray has been with us, periodically breastfeeding, playing on the floor and tapping on the computer keyboard. It is way past Gray’s bedtime and almost time for our talk to end. I ask Jenna some final “Standard Mommy Questions.”
CASEY: What is your favorite song to sing to Gray when you are rocking her to sleep?
JENNA: A song I made up for her. It’s called, “Goodnight Bean.”
CASEY: What is your favorite book to read together?
JENNA: The Hungry Caterpillar, in French
CASEY: What is your favorite beverage to drink after a long day?
JENNA: A glass of wine.
CASEY: One character trait of yours you hope Gray will have?
CASEY: One character trait of yours you are praying will bypass Gray?
CASEY: Fifty years from now how would you like Gray to complete this sentence: I’m so proud of my mom for always….
JENNA: Letting me be me.
CASEY: What word do you use in front of your daughter instead of using a curse word?
JENNA: Crumb. Gosh Darnit. If I am being perfectly honest, I still sometimes use curse words and I know I need to alter that soon.
CASEY: Describe a mommy moment when you momentarily thought, “I don’t know if I can do this?”
JENNA: Teaching naptime. I will take a billion stinky diapers over teaching my daughter naptime.
CASEY: Describe a mommy moment that you wished lasted forever.
JENNA: There is something so special about this bonding time together (as Gray breastfeeds).
CASEY: Complete this sentence: I cannot wait until Gray is bigger so we can…
JENNA: Sing together.
CASEY: What did you and your husband do your first night out of the house without the baby?
JENNA: We went out to a restaurant and made sure we enjoyed drinks and dessert too.
CASEY: What is one thing that totally grossed you out before having Gray, that doesn’t even phase you post-baby?
JENNA: Honestly nothing. I am not a break-a-nail, need-a-hairdryer person, and with five dogs, you can be sure I have cleaned up my fair share of poop and vomit before Gray.
CASEY: Your past was on television and working as a recording artist. Your present days are filled immersing yourself in the role of a stay-at-home mom while finding time to write. Where do you see yourself in the near future?
JENNA: I would love to have another child. Because I am the oldest of four, I strongly believe in having siblings. I am working on publishing “The Betweeners,” which is a book for young adults. I am also in the process of writing another book which is based on my blog. Now, whether Gray will sleep long enough to allow me to write a couple of chapters in the next year, well, you will just have to ask her!
(Featured image: Photography by Barclay DeVeau)