Being Mama: Laura Prepon

The star of Orange Is the New Black and That ’70s Show on working through early motherhood, staying true to herself and why spicy food and breast milk don’t mix.  

Laura Prepon

You’ll know her as Alex, the raven-haired, cool-as-ice inmate of Litchfield Penitentiary on Orange Is the New Black– and Donna, That ’70s Show’s teen pioneer of second-wave feminism – but due to the private nature of the actress, director and best-selling author, you might not be so familiar with Laura Prepon’s role as mother.

In July 2017, on the same day OITNB went into production on season six, Laura gave birth to her daughter (it’s no accident that Alex is missing, under mysterious circumstances, for the first three episodes). She returned to work six weeks later and, soon after, gave her five million Instagram followers a first glimpse at baby Ella in a sweet snap captioned with: “Visit from my little one on set while directing this episode of #OITNB.”

“It’s not easy,” says Laura, answering the inevitable question of how she juggles motherhood and working life. “I was just recently talking to another mother who is in my industry with two kids and I asked her this same question. I always love talking to other moms to see what tricks they have that I can apply! But, it’s a tough one. She didn’t have an answer, either.”

For Laura, family always comes first. “From the get-go, if I’m considering a project, the first thing I do is ask myself, how will this affect my family? It’s not easy,” she reiterates. Many days see her leaving for work before sunrise and returning after Ella has gone to sleep. “You constantly have to ask yourself, is this worth it? I absolutely love my job and my family is everything to me… it’s a very tough question that I don’t have the answer to. I just know my daughter would be proud of me and I try to set a good example and make work fun.”

Laura’s career started in modelling. At 15, she dropped out of school and moved, alone, from her hometown of Watchung, New Jersey, to work in Milan, London, Paris and Brazil. At 17 she returned to the US, started acting and within a year had booked That ’70s Show and moved to LA. Crediting her independence to growing up as the youngest of five in a house with no rules or routines, when reflecting on her childhood, the words “freedom, eccentric, unorthodox” come to mind. Her parents’ advice was, “Be true to yourself. Never try to fit into any mold”, and through embracing her individuality, Laura wields a powerful onscreen presence.

“I’m very fortunate to say I have so many career moments I’m proud of. I was very proud when my cast and I won the SAG [Screen Actors Guild] Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series, and I was asked to say a speech on behalf of everyone. I’m proud of the episodes I’ve directed of Orange Is the New Black. I’m very proud and fortunate to be part of two long-running series that have impacted people’s lives, and to portray these incredible, strong women for so many seasons.”

Laura didn’t follow her father, an orthopedic surgeon, who sadly died when she was 14, into medicine as she’d intended, but did inherit a passion for cooking from her mother – a tireless gourmet chef with a habit of hanging a drying Peking duck in her bedroom. Combining nutritious recipes like sweet potato home fries, ‘no-bull’ bison patties and her skin-loving secret weapon, bone broth, Laura created The Stash Plan, a 21-Day health plan (and New York Times best selling book), alongside nutritionist Elizabeth Troy. Recently, she also launched a YouTube channel.

“I wanted to start posting to YouTube because, after my first book, I kept getting questions from fans and followers about other ways to stay healthy in simple, easy ways. I saw how everyone, especially moms, were struggling to balance life, jobs, and crazy schedules while making healthy food for their families. I was inspired by them to share what I’ve learned so that I can help make their lives a bit easier. Being a mom is hard work, whether you are a stay-at-home mother, or a working mother. I want to help make living a healthy lifestyle feel like less of a burden.”

Having spent her 20s struggling with digestive issues, weight gain and fatigue, Laura is the first to admit that a healthy lifestyle “will always take work, but my tips and recipes can help minimize time and effort and maximize impact on their daily lives and the lives of their kids and families”. Her plan is based on twice-weekly cooking sessions, resulting in a ‘stash’ of meals to mix and match throughout the week. “When you are taking care of other people, it’s so easy to put yourself last and be eating leftover cereal or a half-eaten sandwich your kid didn’t eat,” she says. “I want to share quick easy ways to be healthy, physically and mentally, to help us do the important jobs we have – being a parent!”

In light of the success of her book, it’s almost ironic that Laura’s biggest ‘mom fail’ had anything to do with food. “I was recovering from labor,” she recalls. “As every parent knows, after labor you’re just exhausted from pain, from joy, from all of it! And I just wanted a hot meal.” Her husband, actor Ben Foster, was kind enough to fetch one of her favorites – chicken tikka masala, from an Indian restaurant close to the hospital. “The next day when we took my daughter home – alone as brand new parents, which is already such a scary moment – she wouldn’t eat and just kept crying. We had no idea why. She would cry, I would cry, I thought something was wrong, because so many people told us if she’s not eating it’s a sign something is wrong!”

Laura and Ben rushed Ella to the pediatrician, who asked if they had done anything out of the ordinary. “My husband and I looked at each other, trying to think of what it could be, and then it hit us – the Indian food! The doctor smiled and said someday my daughter might like Indian food, but she definitely didn’t like what it did to my milk at the time. My husband and I laughed, and I haven’t had Indian food since.”

In her time as a parent, Laura says her biggest challenge has been the “worry” – a feeling she was relatively new to. “I’ve never been much of a worrier. I take reasonable risks without much thought and I felt worrying was a waste of energy. Once my daughter came along, I worried about everything in regards to her. Is she eating enough? Is she warm enough? Is she chewing her food?”

That said, motherhood has also taught her not to sweat the small stuff. “I now know what real stress is. Those early months… watching my daughter at night as she slept, making sure her chest was rising and falling with every breath, hyper-vigilance, having no clue what I was doing. That was stressful. Real stress for me is making sure this little being survives to the best of her ability. Now, at work or other situations of ‘stress’, it really doesn’t affect me anymore because my priorities are so strong and my family always comes first.”

Currently working on both sides of the camera for the seventh and final season of OITNB, Laura leaves us with the words of wisdom she hopes to pass on to Ella, that echo those of her own parents: “Be true to who you are. There is only one you.