Being Mama: Sarah Wright Olsen

The actress and co-founder of Your Zen Mama talks emotional pregnancies, work-life balance, and eating grilled cheese sandwiches during her labor

What’s the most surprising thing about motherhood, I ask Sarah Wright Olsen. She thinks for a moment before laughing. “How well I can function on very little sleep!” she says.

It’s a sentiment every mother (yes, even those who have babies who magically sleep through the night!) knows all too well. And yet for Wright, who is an actress (most recently, in American Made with Tom Cruise, along with roles in Parks and Recreation and Marry Me), an entrepreneur (she co-founded the website Your Zen Mama with friend and fellow actress Teresa Palmer) and mom-of-two, there’s a helluva lot of truth to the idea. How well can she function on a fraction of the sleep she got before kids? Pretty darn well.

The actress, who’s married to fellow actor Eric Christian Olsen (best known for his role on NCIS: Los Angeles), is mom to Wyatt, 4, and Esme, 1. She describes herself as both a grounded and a “fast and loose” mom. She gave birth to her firstborn, Wyatt, at home after 17 hours active labor. “In the end,” she says, “My midwife had to flip me over on all fours to loosen his shoulders and get Wyatt out. He was 9.8 pounds and just couldn’t get through.” The birth, she says, was beautiful and challenging. “I’m so grateful to have had that experience with [Wyatt].” For her second baby, Esme, she was encouraged to go to hospital. “It worked out beautifully,” she says. “I labored through the night, relaxing in the bath, eating grilled cheese sandwiches and drinking a little wine.” When she later arrived at the hospital, it took just two hours to deliver eleven-pound Esme. “Boy, did I feel that!” Sarah laughs.

While she says that no two pregnancies are alike – during her first pregnancy, Sarah says she felt “incredible,” apart from a bout of “evening sickness” (as opposed to morning sickness) that lifted after her first trimester, while her second pregnancy was “much harder on my body” – the biggest issue she faced both times was her changing emotional state. “My pregnancy with Wyatt was filled with so much love, joy, and excitement, and obviously I wanted this for both of my babies,” she says. But when she fell pregnant with Esme, Sarah’s father became very sick. “I remember telling him about the baby,” she recalls, “and with a big smile he said, ‘I have to fight to be here in August.’ I remember thinking, ‘Of course he will be here, he has to meet her’.” The next month, though, his illness took a turn for the worse. “During my second trimester, I began flying back and forth between our house and my parents’ house to help my mom take care of my dad. Knowing that he might not make it through the next month, let alone to meet his new granddaughter made me overwhelmed with sadness – but it also made me determined to get ahead of what I knew would be a very challenging, heartbreaking time for me and my family.” Sarah began consulting with a therapist to look after her mental health. “She taught me that it was OK to be sad, but it was also OK to be filled with joy because of the little miracle inside of me.” At the end of Sarah’s second trimester, her father passed away. “I like to imagine that they spent some time in a space in between, both souls passing, one in and one out of this world.”

Like most working mothers, Sarah feels the push-pull of work and motherhood almost daily. “When I had Wyatt, I was back to work around five weeks postpartum –  not every single day, but I did a few shows here and there.” She went back to full-time work when her son turned one. “I do feel the struggle,” she says, “but I also know I am lucky. I am so fortunate to have my kids with me at work, or to work from home with them there.” After losing her dad and giving birth to Esme, Sarah took a full year off work. “I had meetings and read scripts,” she says, “but I tried to take it easy and focus on my family.” Each career decision, she says, is balanced with her family’s needs. “The biggest issue I find is the ‘mom guilt,’” she says. “You want to do it all, right? Be with them and also get a million things done. So I try to do my best to make lists and tackle what I can away from the kids so that when I am with them we can just color and play and make food together.  The days I don’t accomplish this and don’t make a list I feel overwhelmed and frazzled because I feel like I start about six things and complete nothing, and I don’t feel present for my children.”

Acting is merely part of Sarah’s career now, with her work on the popular parenting website Your Zen Mama taking up a huge chunk of her time. It’s a project extremely close to her heart. “The hardest part about parenting,” she says, “is maintaining that balance of doing for yourself and also taking care of your children and being present for them. I am always working to adjust this and make sure they are getting what they need from me, but while also trying to listen to my heart and my body on what I need.” This struggle is at the heart of Your Zen Mama, and it’s a sentiment that’s earned the site hundreds of thousands of fans.

Finally, I ask Sarah what the best part of being a mom is. Again, she pauses – but not for long. “Everything!” she says emphatically. “The good, the bad, all of it.  Every step of the way. There are magical times, there are beautiful moments. Then there are the times you forget the diaper bag and your son does a massive blowout and you have no idea how to clean him up!” she recalls, laughing. “But seriously, all of it is just amazing: the first words and steps, the first smile, the first song, the transition to school, the transition to becoming a sibling. Every stage has been such an incredible moment in our lives.” Since becoming a mother, she says she’s become a lot more grounded. “I know what I want, and who I want to be. I know what matters the most, so that’s what I work for every day, that’s why I want to be the best human that I can be, it’s why I want to continue to learn and grow and evolve.” Sounds pretty zen to us.

A day in the life of Sarah Wright Olsen

6am: Wake up and play with the kids while drinking coffee.

7am: Make breakfast while running around getting myself and the kids ready to leave.

8:15am: Jump in the car to head to school. Sometimes we have a coffee date and then walk to school together.

10am: Put Esme down for a nap.

10-11:30am: Do as much work as I can – read scripts, prep lunch, clean the house, work on yourzenmama.com.

12pm: Lunch.

2:30pm: Pick Wyatt up from school.

3pm: Back home to play.

4:30pm: Prep dinner.

6pm: Have dinner with the kids.

6:45pm: Bath time.

7pm: Pyjamas and books and songs and play.

7:30pm: Kids bed time!

8pm: MAMA TIME! I have a glass of wine or tea, and a piece of chocolate, watch a favorite TV show or finish working.

9:30pm: Too tired to stay awake any longer… zzzzzzzz.

My mama style essentials

  1. A great cross-body bag to hold your keys, wallet, phone, hand sanitizer and a couple of random small toys. I keep the diaper bag in the car but always wear a cute cross body bag. I feel like it dresses up a casual look and just adds a pop. My favorite is from Clare Vivier.
  2. Cool, comfy, chic T-shirts. My favorites are from NPhilanthropy. They have these great distressed T-shirts – I throw them on in the mornings and immediately I feel dressed!
  3. An easy floral dress that will work with sneakers and a jacket, or that can be dressed up with heels or boots. My favorite place to go for this is Madewell. I also love the jeans from Madewell.