Kristen Bell, shot exclusively for Today's Parent. Photo: Katherine Holland; Creative direction: Sun Ngo; Fashion styling: Nicole Chavez; Hair stylist: Bridget Brager; Makeup stylist: Simone Siegl
Kristen Bell always seems to have multiple projects on the go. In the past year alone, you could find her in Frozen 2 (in which she plays Princess Anna—and if you didn’t know that, are you even a parent?); TV’s The Good Place (Eleanor Shellstrop, for fork’s sake!); the web series Momsplaining with Kristen Bell (in partnership with Ellen DeGeneres); and, most recently, in a boardroom, planning the launch of her new baby-care product line, Hello Bello.
Professional success aside, Bell is also seriously nailing the whole mom thing. On a Friday night, when you’re home streaming Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Bad Moms or one of her interviews on Ellen or Jimmy Kimmel, it's possible she's at some swanky Hollywood event with her actor/podcaster husband, Dax Shepard. But she’s just as likely to be at home, too, in her PJs, jotting notes in the margins of a parenting book or creating a dried-bean sensory activity for her daughters, Lincoln, 6, and Delta, 4.
Bell steadfastly refuses to let paparazzi snap pics of her kids, and she never reveals their faces to the 12.9 million followers on her Instagram account, but that didn’t stop her from dishing to Today’s Parent about the wild and crazy ride that is parenthood.
Read on for our exclusive interview with one of our favourite celeb moms ever.
You have two young kids and tons of acting projects on the go. Why did you start Hello Bello?
Because my brain never stops. And when I have an idea—whether it’s organizing my junk drawer or carving out a niche with a new company—it’s like an itch that I have to scratch.
Hello Bello’s focus is on good-quality, Earth-friendly ingredients at accessible prices. Why did you choose this angle?
My husband and I both grew up in Michigan, and we were both on a pretty major budget growing up, like 99.9 percent of people who live on this globe. And when we moved to California, we never stopped being grateful that we could go to a fancy baby boutique and buy something with the best ingredients and not even look at the price. And it occurred to us that, with the platform we’ve been given, we could take an idea like this to someone who could execute it and do it right, and we’d speak on behalf of it. So the goal was to create a premium baby-care product that had efficacy, that was healthy for the planet, but did not make parents choose between their baby and their budget. We like to say, “It’s your mom’s ingredients at your dad’s prices”—because Dax is cheap and I’m always the one reading labels. I mean, we’re both cheap, but Dax is so cheap.
Which Hello Bello products do you use at home?
We all use the wipes everywhere and anywhere, and the kids use just about everything except the diaper rash cream, but I use it as a lip balm.
Wait, you put a product made for bums on your mouth?
There’s just great stuff in it! It’s moisturizing; it’s a balm. You can also use it as a foot moisturizer under your socks. Everyone should learn to read labels.
The Hello Bello diapers are getting tons of attention for their adorable prints. But I guess your kids are out of diapers at this point.
There’s a nighttime diaper situation. There’s a four-year-old late bloomer who likes a nighttime diaper for comfort.
Hey, no shame in that. My feeling about overnight potty training is that most of the time you can wait for it to solve itself.
Right? And also, no sixth grader is wearing diapers. This is going to rectify itself—I don’t need to worry too much about it. But what’s funny is, my first child potty trained herself at the mere suggestion of using the toilet, before she was even two years old. She was also the best baby, and my husband and I were like, “Why is everyone complaining so much about parenting? This is, like, so easy. Either that or…maybe we’re just really good at this!” Then we had the second one and we were like, “Oh no. It’s a mess. It’s a mess.”
The pressure on moms to lose weight after having a baby can be a lot, and it has to be worse for celebs, whose appearance is incessantly scrutinized. What was that like for you?
I was very concerned with the shape of my body when I found out I was pregnant. I was asking other moms how much weight they gained, when they lost it, whether breastfeeding really makes you shed the pounds. And I did end up gaining 47 pounds, which is a lot, although my doctor said it was OK. But after I had the baby, something clicked. I thought, I can spend the next couple of years worrying about the shape of my body or I can focus on this beautiful thing I’ve created and look at the marks on my body as the scars of a superhero, as having done something as spectacular as birthing another human. That realization dissolved all the fears I had. I just decided worrying about it wasn’t going to be my thing. I don’t know that there’s anything you can say to anyone that will get them to feel OK about it, though. It has to come from something internal. You have to decide whether you want your body to be the focus or you want your baby to be the focus. There’s no amount of advice that will make you stop focusing on it until you decide to stop.
Even with an “easy” baby, the newborn phase is hard and most couples end up fighting a lot in the first year. What did you and Dax argue most about?
We didn’t. We read a book called Brain Rules for Baby and the pregnancy chapter talks about how something like 85 percent of marriages go downhill after having kids because of the stress. It gave us five indicators to look for—isolation, lack of sleep, and a few others—and we handshake-agreed to be on the lookout for those things in each other. So when he was awake all night because I was [keeping] breastfeeding, I would say, “I’m gonna sleep in the front room with the baby for the next couple of nights so you can catch up on sleep.” When he noticed I hadn’t left the house in four days because I was frazzled with a newborn, he would say, “I’m going to take over today; I want you to go out for lunch with your girlfriends.” It was very much us fighting for each other in order to fight for our marriage. And that was because we did the research ahead of time, we didn’t go into it blindly.
I’m also really lucky that Dax is a firm believer, perhaps because of his sobriety, that you have to earn what you’re involved in. So, I remember him saying to me, “If I go to work for 10 hours a day and then I come home, I can’t tell you how to parent her. I have to be involved. I have to get up and change the diapers. If I want to have a say in what medicine she takes or her sleep schedule, then I better be involved.” And he was.
The fact that he’s an engaged dad must help with the guilt that comes from being away from your kids for work.
I trust my husband so much, he’s very hands-on, so I have that safety net. But I still struggle with guilt. It’s there; I have it. But what I’ve realized is this: Parents have to get comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. I miss them right now; that’s a fact. And when I’m with them, I’m sometimes thinking about work. And that’s OK. All of it’s OK. We all, as human beings, need to get more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings. Running from them does nobody any good.
It’s kind of like how, when our kids are crying, we try to get them to stop. But why do we do that when crying is a natural expression of emotion? Why do we try to stop it?
Because our kids are projections of ourselves and none of us have been taught how to appropriately handle discomfort. Experts say that’s a lot of the reason addiction exists—bad things come from when you cannot handle uncomfortable feelings. I just finished a book called The Gift of Failure, which talks a lot about how important it is for kids to feel uncomfortable feelings.
The author gives a specific example: Let’s say we’re children and we’re in the sandbox together and I throw sand in your face. If my parents swoop me up and your parents swoop you up and the adults try to fix it separately, my parents have denied me the ability to see you cry, to get embarrassed, to feel shame. Those are necessary emotions for character development. So I’m probably going to throw sand at you again next time because I never saw how you reacted. If I see you crying, I’m thinking, “Uh-oh, my friend is crying; that creates a funny feeling in my body. I don’t like that feeling. Maybe next time I won’t throw sand.” Kids can feel this—they can feel it at one year old. That blew my mind when I read it. And, so, lately I’ve been telling my girls, “It’s OK to feel embarrassed. I’ll just sit with you.”
Parenting is exhausting and you have so many different jobs. What do you do that’s just for you? I’m avoiding the word “self-care” because it can be so loaded.
I don’t think we’ve done a deep-enough dive on the topic of self-care. For me, a manicure or a bubble bath is not self-care. It’s bigger than the hour you’ll take for yourself that week. Self-care, to me, is asking for help. That comes in a lot of different shapes and sizes. It’s having a quick video chat with my girlfriends. It’s calling my sister, or my best friend, Jess (my girls call him Naughty Uncle Jess because he’s a fun piece of work), and saying, “I’m going to wring someone’s neck. I need you to come over here and defuse some of this energy.” He’ll come over, put on some music and have a dance party with them and I can just breathe.
What about another mom buzzword: the mom-cation? It’s cringey and gendered, but is the idea of a total break from your mom and wife duties intriguing?
I actually took my first girls’ trip ever a couple of weeks ago, to Europe. I’ve never taken one before because every minute I wasn’t working, I wanted to be with my kids. I was hesitant but my husband encouraged me. The first couple of days were miserable because I missed my family—I’m pit-of-my-stomach uncomfortable when I’m away from my tribe, truly. But by day three, I felt good. I felt what it was like to be just a woman in the world again, which is pretty invigorating. And by day six, when I came home, I was the 2.0 version of myself.
How long did the new, invigorated version of you last?
Oh, it’s still here. It’s never going away. I bought a hat and a pair of glasses and I’m pretty much Parisian now, so everyone’s just going to have to handle that.
What’s an amazing family trip you guys have taken recently?
A couple of times per year, we take Thursday and Friday off, we rent a big Airbnb about an hour away from our house, and we stay there with four other families. It involves nothing more than that. We pack puzzles for the kids, and a bunch of food, and it’s incredibly relaxing. The kids run around together and the adults can just talk. I find so much happiness in community living. At the end of every single one of those trips, we go, “Why on earth don’t we live in the same house? Why don’t we just buy a commune?” It’s so much easier and so much fun.
They say it takes a village. And yet moms are more isolated than ever, so they turn to social media for support and advice. Where do you go when you have a parenting challenge?
I rely a lot on friends, face to face, but my primary source of information is books. I read a lot of parenting books—from the ones written by moms just winging it to the ones by neuroscientists—and I take a little bit from all of them. But I think the most important thing to remind moms is to follow your gut. You don’t actually need advice!
How do you and Dax spend family time with your girls? What might we find you doing on a random Saturday afternoon?
We do a lot of family bike rides on the Los Angeles River bicycle path. At home, I’m very into making sensory crafts for them. Like, we just pulled this out a couple of days ago—you fill a big bin with by-the-pound dried beans, then hide little trinkets in it and have a sort of digging adventure. And then after they find all the toys, they’ll spend hours playing with the beans—scooping them in cups, dumping them out. We also do a lot of cardboard box crafts and puzzles. And we build a lot of forts.
What’s the sleep situation in your house? Do your girls sleep through the night?
The older one sleeps perfectly. The little one wakes up a lot. She’s never been a good sleeper. She will be at the side of my bed, like Children of the Corn, staring at me at 3 a.m., and I’ll wake up suddenly and she’ll tell me some nonsense, like she has a hangnail. In the beginning, it made me very frustrated, but I’ve surrendered to it. I said to myself, This is something she’s going through; it doesn’t help anyone if I’m angry about it. So I get up, I tuck her back into bed, I stay with her for three minutes, and then I go back to bed.
But one thing we recently discovered is giving them kids’ melatonin at night. I kind of can’t believe it—it’s such a game changer. It makes everything so much easier. So I immediately called Hello Bello and was like, “We need a kids’ melatonin!” And we’re doing it.
Melatonin helps bedtime, but what about mornings? Are they early risers?
One thing we’ve made clear to them is that Dax and I will wake up at 7 a.m. Before then, you’re on your own. This morning, for instance, they got up about 5 a.m. and I could hear them moving things. I went into their room at 7 a.m. and they’d moved all the furniture—the dresser, the chair, everything—and had redesigned the space. I don’t know how they did it and I’m sure there are scratches all over the wood floor. But one of the best moments of motherhood was the day I walked into their bedroom early in the morning and the older one was lying with the little one on the bottom bunk. Apparently the little one had gotten scared. I heard her say, “Don’t go get Mama and Dada. I’ll lie with you.” She’d never done that before—and, so far, hasn’t done it since—but she was just so kind and it almost made my heart explode.
Is it unusual for them to be sweet to each other? Do they fight a lot?
They fight almost 100 percent of the time, and it was a big surprise to me. I definitely thought my children would get along better than they do. But what I’ve been able to recognize is that when siblings fight, it’s usually because they don’t have the tools to work it out yet. And they’re also trying to discover their id, their ego and their self-awareness, and that takes a lot of time and mistakes.
Do you get involved in their arguments?
If they have a bad fight, I’ll break it up. And I step in when the big one hits the little one. I take her aside and say, “We are nice girls. We do not hit people or things that are smaller than us. We protect things that are smaller than us.” There’s a theory that telling kids they’re smart can backfire, but I don’t think telling them they’re kind and nice can backfire. I hope that’s the label they show the world. It’s something I say to them a lot: “Here’s how nice girls act. We are nice girls.” It’s like our code in our house. Just now that they’re four and six, I’ve started letting them work out their own fights, although I listen in because one is bigger than the other and I wouldn’t be responsible if I didn’t. But I also don’t want the little one thinking I’ll come to her aid all the time. I want her to learn how to stand up for herself.
Do you make them say sorry?
No, because sorry isn’t active. If you hit somebody and all you have to do is say sorry, then you’ll learn that all you have to do is say sorry and then you’re out of it. Our preschool taught us to instead have them say, “What do you need?” So we’ll say, “Ask her what she needs.” And the answer could be: “I need space, I need a hug, I need a teacher, I need an ice pack.” It’s usually an ice pack, to be honest. Someone once told me that kids’ brains are most open right before they go to bed, so usually before bed we talk about the fight. The conversation always pleasantly surprises me. Like, “I did that because she was annoying me and I couldn’t control my body but I know that I shouldn’t react that way. I’ll try harder next time.” It makes me very happy.
Do you let your kids quit activities or force them to finish?
I used to let them quit everything. They started soccer and quit, they started ballet and quit. Recently they joined a 12-week theatre group program. They said they wanted to.
But it was brutal—and I mean brutal. Every week they were screaming in the car, “I hate going here!” But I said to them, “We’re going through with this play, because neither of you knows what it’s like to be on a team, and that is a skill that you need.” I like to give my kids context, so I said, “I’m not just forcing you to go to this theatre rehearsal; I’m telling you that you need a skill set that you don’t yet have, and it’s called being on a team, and we’re going to do this. So you can either make this miserable or you can bear with me and do 12 weeks of it.” They made it miserable. But then something clicked at week 10 and they decided they loved it. They had a great time at their performance and they want to do it again.
With the baby and toddler years behind you, what are you loving about parenting older kids?
Their developing opinions. Babies are cute and wonderful but I just love the endless, endless opinions. They’re hilarious and just so interesting. I also love seeing their aesthetic developing, when they pick their own outfits or they tell me they don’t like a certain fabric or a colour, or I see the way they draw. I see that as someone who is shaping themselves.
What’s the very best part about being a mom?
You never get tired of looking at their faces. It’s like having the Mona Lisa in front of you forever. It’s like having the world’s most beautiful picture following you around. It’s endlessly entertaining and pleasing to look at.
But, actually, you know what’s even better? The opportunity to focus on someone else and care so much about their development. It’s so peaceful for your own ego. That’s also why I have a bunch of senior dogs. They require so much work, but being of service is a very peaceful feeling, and when you’re focusing on nurturing something else, it’s harder to let your ego get out of control. Being a parent makes it easier to be happy.
Here are a few of our favourites from the new baby-care line launched in part by Kristen Bell. The items are available at HelloBello.ca and will soon be in a wide variety of stores across Canada.