Lisa Edelstein on raising teens as a stepmom: 'I might not be biological, but I made an impact'

Lisa Edelstein opens up about being a stepmom to two boys. (Photo: Getty Images; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
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Welcome to So Mini Ways, Yahoo Life's parenting series on the joys and challenges of childrearing.

TV fans will recognize actress Lisa Edelstein from a host of popular series: House, Seinfeld, The West Wing, Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce, Felicity, Relativity, 9-1-1: Lone Star and The Kominsky Method, the last of which premiered its third and final season in May. But one of Edelstein's most complex roles — being stepmom to two boys — has come later in life. Married to artist Robert Russell since 2014, the star is helping to raise teens Benjamin and Santiago, his sons from his first marriage.

Here, Edelstein opens up about the nuances of being a stepparent, the high and lows of dealing with teenage boys and how family bonding involves "Dungeons & Dragons Shabbat Extravaganza."

Do you remember the first time you met your stepsons? Were you nervous?

Of course! But they were so little, so cute, it took about two minutes before we were playing. But there was a real weight to the day, because meeting someone’s children is a commitment in itself. Robert and I were young as a couple but knew right away how seriously we took each other and our relationship. He didn’t want me to be under any illusions about his life — these boys are his life. So he really wanted me to date the whole family, in a sense. Most of my nerves came from whether or not the boys would take to me. Having been with them now for almost 11 years, and knowing them the way I do, of course they were like this from Day 1. These two guys are so kind, so empathetic, so sensitive and were just that way, even in their baby bodies. Watching them grow into themselves has been really wonderful.

How would you describe your role as a stepmother?

It changes day to day, year to year, like the role of any parent, be it biological, step, adopted or in whatever form it might take. From the day I met the kids, it was important to me to establish a relationship with them that they understood to be solid, present, available and like a fantastic extra parent. But it was tricky, to be sure. Robert and their mom had only been separated for a few months when we met, and I met the kids shortly thereafter. So their whole sense of family had just been blown up. It was chaos: the kids adjusting to new homes (Robert moved in with me), their mom and dad getting divorced. But no matter what was going on in the greater sense, there’s still bedtime, playtime, nap time, bath time, temper tantrums, dirty clothes, dirty butts and lots and lots of food to prepare. So I just got in there and got it done.

For the first few years I worked hard to really co-parent with Robert on our weeks with the kids (we were 50/50). Emotions were running high; divorce is never pleasant, and the kids were definitely going through it, too. But through all that, there was no real language for who I was in their life. “Daddy’s girlfriend” would not cut it, as far as I was concerned. But the world tends to view preofficial stepparents as intruders, in a funny way. All the moms and dads at school need to adjust to a new face with the kids, worry about how their mom feels about the new person. Even simple questions out and about like, “Would your son like a banana?” is rife with anxiety. If I correct that person, am I insulting the kids? Is “these are my boyfriend’s sons” really descriptive of my intimate relationship with them? I have to say, getting married really solved a lot of those issues, even for the boys. They had a box they could put me in and tag: stepmom. And so did the rest of the world. Language is an important thing, much more than we necessarily realize, day to day.

As things calmed down and normalized, I saw that I needed to allow Robert to be the leader of the pack. I could see that for me, we had a great time with the boys one week and the next they were with their mom and I could get things done. For my husband, we had a great time with the boys one week and the next week he’d be missing them, worried, yearning, feeling guilty. So part of my job became facilitator, creating the space and time for Robert to really bond with the guys. It was hard at times, because I’m a strong-minded person with definite opinions, and I think were they children we birthed together or raised on our own I would have taken a different stance. But the truth is, step-parenting in my case meant I was not only co-parenting with my husband, but also with his ex-wife, and later with her husband, too. So it’s nuanced. You have to choose your battles carefully.

As they’ve grown and matured, like any parent/child relationship, things shift again. They’re teenagers, they’re learning independence, they want their own lives. We all co-parent now, Robert and I, their mom and her husband. It’s easier, in a way, because the kids are more self-sufficient; there are fewer immediate decisions that need to happen. That said, when we need to have a united front we can, and four parents telling you “NO" is a pretty powerful thing.

Edelstein on the day she met the boys who would become her stepsons. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Edelstein)
Edelstein on the day she met the boys who would become her stepsons. (Photo: Courtesy of Lisa Edelstein) (Lisa Edelstein)

What's your favorite way to bond as a family?

We have Shabbat dinner every Friday. There is something wonderful about ritual, about structure, about finishing a week with meaning, together. I cook a big meal, bake a delicious vegan challah and we talk about the week’s highs and lows. Everyone gets their moment, so everyone’s life is acknowledged and celebrated. It’s really beautiful. When they were young, we did it as "Hip-Hop Shabbat." We hired a fabulous guy to come over and teach hip-hop dancing to the boys for a few hours before dinner on Friday. Friends were always welcome. They loved it, and it made Shabbat celebratory; something to look forward to. We developed friendships over the years that made the Shabbat dinner grow bigger. Sometimes it’s just us, other times I’m cooking for 20. Hip-Hop went by the wayside and became "Dungeons & Dragons Shabbat Extravaganza," mostly for our youngest. He’ll have campaigns with his friends that go all night. It’s the best!

Being a stepparent gets a bad rap sometimes — some people think it's too much to take on. In your experience, what have been some of the positive aspects?

There are so many versions of being a stepparent. In my case, these are the only kids I have so this is my experience of parenting altogether. For me, it’s perfect: super-intense weeks with the guys and then a week to deal with the rest of life. Being a part of someone’s life from when they were babies is an experience not interchangeable with anything else. I get a little thrill when one of them says something I know comes from me. I might not be biological, but I made an impact, I’m a part of their emotional zeroes and ones. I look forward to the day I get to see these boys in their grown-up lives, see how they find themselves in the world. It’s like a massive lab experiment. Here are these amazing, promising people — how do we help them see all they have to offer while supporting them through all they have to contend with? I guess what I’m saying is, parenting is parenting. You’re in or you’re not. Being in means a lot of work, a lot of compromise, a lot of buttons being pushed and alarm bells going off. And then it’s this wonderful thing: this love, this family, this future. It’s yours to make of it what you will.

Any secrets for dealing with teen boys?

Teenagers are awesome. And assholes. But mostly awesome. I love seeing them mature, start having opinions, start expanding their worlds. They’re still babies in some ways, still really sensitive to our opinions, our support and our dissents. But they need to find their own footing and it’s exciting to see how they manage it all. When they do well we think, “Wow, we were amazing parents.” (When they mess up it’s a little less interesting to take credit.) That said, parenting teenage boys is literally being the frontal lobe they don’t have yet — trying to get them to understand consequences and understand they aren’t immortal.

You've played so many different types of mothers on-screen. Is there a particular storyline or relationship that particularly resonated with you?

I loved playing Abby [on Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce]. Her version of motherhood was different from mine. She was allowed to own it in a way that I hadn’t yet experienced out in the world as a stepmom. She didn’t have to prove her parenthood in any way. I remember the first day the kids came to visit me on the set of Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce. One of my fictional children was the same age as our youngest, Santiago, and I could see it was weird for him, seeing me act like a mom to a little boy his age, acting in such a similar way as I was with him. I quietly loved his jealousy, because it meant he felt ownership of me as a parent. It’s little moments like that that make the difficulties of stepparenting slip out of importance.

Haley Joel Osment plays your son in The Kominsky Method. How has that been?

I think [her character] Phoebe is perhaps the worst mom possible and has the son to prove it! She’s a narcissist and she raised one, too — until he joined a cult and got someone else to raise him, that is. Haley is fantastic. We had a lot of fun together this season as sort of the comedy duo of greed personified. It’s a little weird realizing I’m old enough to have a son with a full beard, but there it is! I own it!

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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