Elisa Donovan: Motherhood Has 'Stretched Me in Ways I Never Imagined'

"I hope that I create an image of a full woman for Scarlett," Donovan tells PEOPLE

Elisa Donovan is crazy busy — and that’s just the way she likes it.

The 44-year-old actress, mother to 3-year-old Scarlett and PEOPLE.com blogger just starred in The Dog Who Saved Summer (the sixth installment in the series is out now on DVD), will appear in a darker film later this year and still has time to take her daughter to museums.

“I hope that I create an image of a full woman for Scarlett, a woman who has goals and desires and thoughts of her own, but whose primary purpose is being her mom,” Donovan tells PEOPLE.

The Clueless star opens up to PEOPLE about her devotion to both work and motherhood, why one precocious daughter might be enough and husband Charlie Bigelow‘s tea party skills.

Elisa Donovan dog who saved


Courtesy Elisa Donovan

PEOPLE: What is Scarlett up to these days? Describe her personality, her likes, dislikes.

Elisa: Well, she just turned 3 so she’s, you know — how do I put it diplomatically — a TOTAL PAIN IN THE YOU-­KNOW-­WHAT. Kidding … not really. Ha!

Let’s be honest — she is running things. Charlie and I like to pretend that we are in control, but we are just pawns in her master plan. She is hilarious and has a very strong opinion about everything, and it’s usually a contrary one. She LOVES music, but has very specific tastes (she went through a Public Enemy and Pharrell phase, now she’s into more yogic music and Led Zeppelin … she’s definitely diverse!). She dominates the iPod in our house. She also likes to play the guitar. She recites her favorite books to us, and she loves to build things — she’s into Magnatiles and Goldieblox, which I think is awesome.

She dresses herself, which, the large majority of the time, is alarming. She either looks like a renegade punk or a 65-year-old botanist. She totally cracks me up and is entirely her own person. Both my husband and my mother say she is exactly like me, so I guess it’s divine providence and payback.

The legendary meltdowns and tantrums of this age though — I could do without. Scarlett has also decided that she doesn’t want to go to bed lately, which is a recipe for a crazy house. If no one is sleeping, things get very, very, distorted … it’s debilitating. Irrational tears — mostly from me! This stuff will be the subject of my next blog for sure.

Elisa Donovan dog who saved


Courtesy Elisa Donovan

PEOPLE: What’s your favorite thing to do with her/as a family?

Elisa: On Sundays, there is something called Off The Grid/Picnic In The Presidio not too far from us. It’s this awesome family-friendly but adult fun picnic/gathering in the Presidio in San Francisco. There is a DJ and different food trucks from local restaurants. We go with a bunch of our friends and their kids. The kids build tents and dance and play together while we drink wine and lie on the grass. It’s a win-­win for everyone.

But what I like to do most with Scarlett, just the two of us, is go to museums. I have this series of photos, starting from when she was about 3 months old, of her at various exhibits. It’s really been fun to see as she ages what kinds of pieces she is drawn to. She loves the aquarium as well.

Elisa Donovan Dog Who Saved


Dog Who Saved Summer

PEOPLE: Do you think you’ll be “one and done” or are you hoping to expand your family further?

Elisa: GREAT question. How much time do you have? Ha!

The short answer is no, I don’t think we will have another child, but you never know. I’m an idealist — so in some capacity I think it would be wonderful to have another child: It’s the most rewarding, heart-­opening, exhausting, exhilarating, humbling, hilarious, infuriating, enlightening, experience of my life — so why wouldn’t I want to do it AGAIN??

But the reality is quite different. The love I have for and feel from Scarlett is beyond articulation. Just beyond. And I feel like I’m a really good mom most of the time. But I think a lot of that has to do with my constant tending to the balance of work, marriage, life and motherhood. And it is an exhausting balancing act that I’m never sure I am getting right.

I know I’m a better mom when I am working. Some people will want to vilify me for that, but my creative/professional life is very much a part of who I am as a person and I don’t take that lightly. If I ignore that part of myself, I am ignoring a part of my soul. How can I deny my kid a part of my soul? So if I already feel like it’s a juggling act with one, I have concerns about bringing another child into that and creating a life with even less time to cultivate the gifts I already have. That’s just the consciousness I have around it, for me.

Yes, I am aware that everyone says, “Oh, just have another one — it gets easier! You’ll figure it out!” On one level, I understand why people say that. But it’s a human life we are talking about here, and for me, I just don’t feel comfortable launching into it so flippantly. I think there are women who are cut out to be moms to more than one kid (and I know many of them!), I’m just not sure I am one of them. And I want to be sure that I am, if we are going to have another.

Elisa Donovan dog who saved


Courtesy Elisa Donovan

PEOPLE: What do you like about doing The Dog Who Saved… series? Is it hard to work with a dog?

Elisa: Oh I just adore making these movies! Gary Valentine (who plays my husband) is like my second husband. In fact, since we shot the first one of these movies before either of us were married, it’s kind of like he’s my first husband. Ha! We just have magical chemistry, we laugh and laugh, and play really well off one another. We have created these characters that I feel are so relatable as a couple and as parents.

The movies are great for the whole family. We’ve had different actors play our kids in nearly every movie and they’ve all been great. But this time, the kids are perfectly cast. They are such professionals and great actors, but also they are good kids. Sweet, smart, funny, respectful. It gives me hope for the future of Hollywood if these kids are going to be carrying on.

As for working with a dog — basically, you have to accept the fact that if the dog gets it right on the 10th take, that’s the one they will use; and inevitably that’s the take that will be your worst. They say, “Never work with kids or dogs.” I guess I didn’t get that memo!

Elisa Donovan Dog Who Saved


Dog Who Saved Summer

PEOPLE: Does Scarlett watch these movies? Are you scoring major cool points with her?

Elisa: I was actually pregnant with Scarlett in one of them! (The Dog Who Saved Christmas Eve) They wrote my pregnancy into the movie, so it was somewhat surreal … suffice it to say there were moments where I would take liberties with the script and say, “Yeah sooooo, I don’t think a pregnant woman would say this, and here is why — !”

But as far as Scarlett watching the movies, she’s still too young to understand that Mommy is in a movie. Whenever she sees me on TV she just says, “Mama’s on the TV again!” But I honestly think she just sees it like I’m in an iPhone video or something — she doesn’t think it’s weird at all.

And I definitely don’t think I’m getting any extra points for it at the moment. Although my friends’ kids who are a couple of years older think I’m very cool for being in a movie with Francesca Capaldi and Cole Jensen! So I will definitely keep that in mind for the future …

PEOPLE: Do you have any more film/TV projects in the works?

Elisa: I have an indie movie called Cardinal X that will be coming out later this year. It’s an edgy drama where I have a small supporting role of the wealthy, alcoholic, emotionally abusive mother of a teenager (played by Francesca Eastwood). So basically, it’s the antithesis of my character in the Dog Who Saved movies … ! We will also be shooting the next installment of the Dog movies later this year.

Oh! And I want to be on Dancing With The Stars!! Can I say that? Hello, Universe — listen up! And Scarlett would be front row center cheering me on, with very strong moves of her own. I would win it! You heard it here first. Well maybe not first, since I do try to tell anyone who will listen … ;-­) !

Elisa Donovan Dog Who Saved


Dog Who Saved Summer

PEOPLE: As a working mother with an active toddler, has Lean In taken on even greater importance in your life? [Donovan lent her voice to the audiobook of Sheryl Sandberg’s bestseller]

Elisa: Absolutely, yes. I have found that being a mother has stretched me in ways I never imagined. One of the most surprising things has been how strong the pull has been to continue in my career, juxtaposed with how strong the pull is to just to be with Scarlett all of the time.

I know there are some women who don’t have that pull towards career, and that is wonderful for them. It just isn’t that way for me. Charlie thinks I’m a loon because every time I say I need space away from Scarlett, the second I get it, I’m missing her … and wondering if she’s getting what she needs, etc. But I want Scarlett to grow up seeing two parents that fully participate in life. And for us — that is a mom and a dad that both work hard at something that matters to them and both have fierce commitments to being parents. And I want Scarlett to know that having a career does not have to come at the expense of loving and being loved. It’s that simple.

I don’t know any woman who doesn’t feel pulled in several directions (working or not/mother or not), who doesn’t feel like she’s failing or not delivering in one area or another of her life. I think this is partly because we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to excel and be perfect and do everything, but it’s also because we are multitaskers by nature, with the full ability to get s— done.

So I hope that I create an image of a full woman for Scarlett, a woman who has goals and desires and thoughts of her own, but whose primary purpose is being her mom. I can already see that Scarlett and her generation of girls are a strong bunch. They will be a force to be reckoned with. I don’t know if there is a “having it all,” I think that’s a short-­sighted catchphrase that people like to exploit both sides of. But if messy, perfect‐imperfection, zany, ­sometimes‐getting‐it‐right­‐sometimes­‐screwing­‐it­‐all­‐up is having it all — then yeah, I have that!

PEOPLE: How is Charlie doing as a dad of a daughter? Is he a tea party expert yet? Are there any special father/daughter things they do together?

Elisa: Charlie is a phenomenal dad. He and Scarlett are super tight. We joke (well, I joke, and he says “Yeah, that’s not a joke”) that one day they will definitely be sitting across from me at the table saying, “Why is Mom so nuts?”

Somehow, Charlie manages to go to work at 4 a.m. and still have enough energy to be her best buddy when he gets home. He and Scarlett dance around together even more than she and I do. His tea party skills could use a little work, though. When Scarlett says, “Daddy, do you want some tea?” he used to say, “No. I’m good,” which did NOT go over well with her. So I had to coach him a little …

PEOPLE: You’re an avid yogi — do you have any tips on how stressed-­out moms can stay sane?

Elisa: Starting your day with a few sun salutations is a really easy way to get into yoga if you’re unfamiliar. Mindfulness and breathing are everything. My simple advice is: When you’re in that moment, when you’re really about to lose it (we ALL KNOW THAT MOMENT), take a deep breath. A really deep one. Feel your heart beat. Feel your feet on the ground. Then begin again. Trust me — just try it.

PEOPLE: Do you have any plans to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Clueless? Have you kept in touch with your costars?

Elisa: There is a BuzzFeed screening and Q & A in Los Angeles in July that I will be participating in. Donald [Faison] and I are still friends, we try to see one another whenever I’m in L.A. It gets hectic with work schedules and kids, especially because I’m only down there really when I’m working. But we always keep in touch. We went to his wedding. He’s the real deal, I adore him.

Actually, when we first started shooting the Dog movies, I remember texting Donald and saying, “I’m working with someone that made me think of you — because we are laughing ’til we’re crying!”

Elisa Donovan dog who saved


Courtesy Elisa Donovan

RELATED: Elisa Donovan’s PEOPLE.com Blog Series

— Andrea Park

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