What Family Dinner Looks Like When Mom’s A Broadway Actor
Jesmille Darbouze on the eternal scourge of mom guilt, the one thing she swore she’d never do as a parent, and pancakes for dinner.
“I’m in the trenches,” laughs Jesmille Darbouze, and though she’s joking, it’s a pretty perfect description of her life as a working actor and mom these days. The mother of two young children, Elliot, 2, and Grace, 5, just wrapped a run on A Doll’s House on Broadway, where she performed eight shows a week while juggling her responsibilities as a professor at Marymount Manhattan College. Does she ever sleep? Unclear!
The production, adapted by playwright Amy Herzog and directed by Jamie Lloyd, starred Jessica Chastain as Henrik Ibsen’s iconic Nora Helmer. Darbouze delivered a deft and moving performance as the independent and insightful Kristine Linde, an old friend who reappears in Nora’s life just as Nora’s world is starting to unravel from the inside. With what’s been referred to as “the door slam heard ’round the world,” the play, and especially the ending (which finds Nora leaving her husband and children), was considered truly scandalous when it debuted in 1879. But today, the story and themes are still shockingly relevant: How are we as women and mothers limited by the options available to us? What do we owe our families, our partners, our children? What do we owe ourselves? And what do we do when those obligations are at odds?
“What resonated with me the most at this time of where I am in my life, because I have two small children, is the self-advocacy piece,” Darbouze says. “This part of really going after what you need and want and not necessarily apologizing for it, and also taking care of yourself. Kristine is taking care of herself for the first time, and I, as a mother of two small children, can fail at that often.” She says the play has been “a beautiful reminder of the importance of really going deep down and thinking, ‘What do I need? What do I need in this moment? What do I need right now?’”
That’s a question that many of us rarely remember to ask ourselves. What would the world be like if we did — and listened to the answers?
Darbouze (third from the right), and her castmates in the Tony Award-winning production.
Below, Darbouze, who lives in Harlem with her husband and their children, chatted with Romper between shows about the eternal scourge of mom guilt, the one thing she swore she’d never do as a parent, and what family dinner looks like for a Broadway actor.
April Daniels Hussar: I assume that you read — or most likely studied — A Doll’s House when you were younger, or in school. What was it like coming to it again as a mother?
Jesmille Darbouze: I don’t think I quite understood it. I don’t know if a young woman at 18, 19 can really grasp this story and what that means for a woman to leave behind her husband and children and find a life of her own. So coming back to it now, as a mother of two children, having so much more life experience and perspective — it’s definitely hit me in an incredibly different way. One thing that I resonate the most with is, with Kristine, this is someone who has spent her life taking care of others and sort of not putting herself first. And, as a mother, that’s a trend. It’s trending, right? You tend to make a lot of sacrifices —
[At this point, we get disconnected. After a few panicky minutes on this writer’s end, we are reconnected.]
JD: Hi! I think we just got cut off.
ADH: Augh! My daughter just tried to FaceTime me and I have my phone on “do not disturb,” but she’s in college now, so I have it set so that even if it’s on “do not disturb,” her calls come through in case of an emergency… I tried to decline it, but I somehow disconnected everybody instead!
JD: That’s totally OK!
ADH: And you were literally just talking about how we take care of only other people.
JD: It’s perfect timing. Well, yeah, so what I was saying is that, yes, as parents we tend to make sacrifices and leave ourselves behind. I’m 110% guilty of that. I will make sure my kids eat; everyone’s had dinner but me, right? And I’ve had to learn that I need to kind of put my oxygen mask on first.
I had to really give up this fantasy of making these beautiful, elaborate meals when I realized that when I was doing that, they weren’t eating it.
ADH: What’s your work schedule like right now?
JD: We do eight shows a week, so that’s Tuesday through Sunday with Monday off. We do two shows on Wednesday, two on Saturday. And then, I’m also a professor at Marymount College. I was hired full time this time last year. I was supposed to teach four classes this semester, but because I booked this show, I’m only teaching one.
ADH: My God! Do you ever sleep?
JD: I’m going to be honest with you: I don’t know what it’s like to do the show not tired.
ADH: Maybe that’s part of why your performance so incredible. You just have to push through to that point beyond, where there’s this whole other reservoir.
JD: Yeah, you just bring it with you. It’s so funny when I tell people what I’m doing, and then people are like, “Are you insane? How are you doing this?” And the only thing I can say is I just have to.
ADH: How could you not? You have to do it. You’re on Broadway! What does a typical weeknight family dinner look like for your family?
JD: I’m Dominican and Haitian, so rice is a staple. Growing up I had rice and beans every day, and then the protein changed. Sometimes we’d have a salad and plantains. [My] kids are small, so I stopped trying to make elaborate dinners, and if it’s pasta with butter, it’s pasta with butter. If it’s pancakes for dinner, it’s pancakes for dinner.
I had to really give up this fantasy of making these beautiful, elaborate meals when I realized that when I was doing that, they weren’t eating it. You just want them to eat. So we keep it simple: rice, veggies, and a meat. There’s a lot of pasta. Mac and cheese is a favorite. They’ll eat the fish and the salmon and the casseroles when they get older. I’m not going to try to stretch myself thin in trying to do all those things.
Darbouze and her daughter celebrating some big news.
ADH: How often are you all able to have dinner together?
JD: We try to make sure that we have dinner together on Monday nights. Sundays are tricky, because I get out of the show at 5, and then by the time I’m out of the theater, I’ve already missed dinner. So Monday night is sort of our family dinner night. When I wasn’t in the show, though, we were having dinner every night, pretty much.
ADH: Do you have any feelings about that?
JD: It makes me sad. I’m going to be honest: I think family dinners and being able to eat together is such an integral part of connecting with each other as a family … and to not be present for that is sad. It’s the time that we talk about our day and what happened, and Grace says what was exciting about school, and Elliott can’t really talk right now, but he’ll just babble and chime in. And my husband and I are able to sort of, again, just talk about our day and connect with each other.
I hadn’t even thought about it till now…
ADH: What other ways do you find that time together?
JD: Saturdays and Sundays, we’ll do breakfast together instead of dinner. And that’s really fun. I pretty much have a tradition that every Saturday I either make pancakes or French toast with bacon. [The kids] know every Saturday that’s what breakfast will be, and they get very excited about it, and Grace helps me. Those mornings are really important to us.
We are capable of having both. I’m living and breathing and doing it. I’m drowning a little bit, I’m not going to lie. It’s very hard; I think it’s hard for any woman in any career to balance work life and family life, but it’s possible.
ADH: Do you have any picky eaters in your family?
JD: It’s so funny, you have one kid and then you think the other one’s going to eat the same way, and then they don’t. It’s the complete opposite. Grace eats every vegetable under the sun, like raw peppers, right? Things that I don’t even eat. Elliott, on the other hand — we cannot get him to eat chicken, not even a chicken nugget, which I don’t understand, every child likes a chicken nugget. How are you not eating a chicken nugget?
And they go through waves. I remember my husband, he took a photo of a broccoli and he sent it to me, and he said, “This is your son,” because he had eaten so much broccoli that day, that he was going to turn into a broccoli. And now he won’t even touch it! When they’re this small it’s kind of like, “All right.” I mean, my husband has called me and he’s like, “So, Elliott had cereal for dinner.” I was like, “OK. That’s fine.”
ADH: Fed is fed.
JD: Exactly. I was like, “Well, he’s eating. He’s eating. He’s fine.” I think I would be more stressed about it if he was my first, but because he’s my second and you kind of chill out a little bit, at least I did, you have a little less anxiety. I’m like, “I’d rather he eat something. He will let us know if he’s hungry. He will let us know.”
ADH: Is there something that you swore you would never do as a mom around food or meal time, that you do?
JD: Absolutely, and I’m embarrassed to say it, but I’m going to say it because it’s real. The tablet situation. Sometimes the kids get to watch TV or watch their tablet while they’re eating, and I always said I would never do that. But there are just some days that there is no other way. Especially when you go out to restaurants and go out to eat; I’m that kind of *sshole parent — excuse my language — who said, “Oh, they have the kids watching the iPad while they’re eating dinner? What? No, we’re not going to do that!” Sure enough, we do. That’s the only time my husband and I can actually talk or just... Yeah, so I’m embarrassed by it.
ADH: Don’t be. Everyone who reads this will be happy to read that.
JD: They’re not alone. They’re not the only ones!
ADH: I was so excited to read your bio and see that you got your Broadway break at 35 [in the Tony-nominated Broadway musical Kiss Me, Kate]. It’s just truly thrilling. There’s always those “30 under 30” awards and all these things about people who accomplish things when they’re younger, and it’s like, “No, it’s more amazing when we’ve stuck with something and we’re still doing it!”
JD: I agree, and I think you appreciate it more. I have friends who had their Broadway debuts right out of college, were jumping into shows and doing all these things, and I would’ve never thought that I would have my Broadway debut at 35. My daughter was 13 months old! That was like, “Oh, my gosh” — going into rehearsals and doing that show schedule with a 1-year-old. I’ve spoken to so many young women who are like, “I want to have a family, but my career.” Not even just in the theater, but overall, as women, we’re put in this position to have to choose, and we shouldn’t have to choose. We are capable of having both. I’m living and breathing and doing it. I’m drowning a little bit, I’m not going to lie. It’s very hard; I think it’s hard for any woman in any career to balance work life and family life, but it’s possible.
ADH: It is, and your kids will not ever think, “Gosh, I wish I had more Monday through Friday dinners with my mom that spring when I was 5.” Don’t worry. I have a 20-year-old. It all just gets absorbed into the bigger picture, I promise.
JD: Thank you. I had a wonderful person tell me that instead of looking at it like, “Oh, my gosh, my mom’s not around because she’s working,” how about like, “Oh, wow. My mom is going off and doing what she really loves.”
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.