Danielle Brooks on Practicing Self-Care After Baby: 'I Want to Love This Skin That I'm in Now’
For the actor, being a new mom has been exciting and gratifying. She is figuring things out as she goes—and love for herself, her career, and her family are guiding the way.
After you become a parent, you expect there will be countless times when you comfort your child. But there's a deep and surprising sense of bliss when you realize they will comfort you back. Danielle Brooks recalls giving an impassioned speech at the wrap of the Lifetime movie Robin Roberts Presents: Mahalia (out April 3), in which she stars as the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. Her 1-year-old, Freeya, "ran into my arms and put her head on my shoulder," Brooks says. "It warmed my heart and just brought on even more tears."
For the Tony-nominated, Grammy and SAG Award–winning actor, who played Tasha "Taystee" Jefferson on Orange Is the New Black and Sofia in Broadway's The Color Purple, working as a new mom has been, as they say, all the things: rewarding, challenging, emotional. "You adjust to not being with your child 24/7 and trust someone to take care of them," she says. "It's tricky, but I'm grateful to do what I love."
Brooks and Freeya have been staying in Vancouver, filming HBO Max's DC Comics series Peacemaker, coming in 2022. Time on location has offered a respite from life in New York City, where the 31-year-old normally lives with her fiancé and Freeya's dad, Dennis Gelin. (You can spy Gelin in A Little Bit Pregnant on YouTube's Netflix channel, which documented Brooks's pregnancy via hilarious shorts.) "Where God put me right now gives me time to quiet my head and my spirit," she says. But she misses Gelin, at home in New York for work, "who FaceTimes every day and is present and says things like, 'You're a super mom.'"
"I'm learning how to balance being a mommy and working in another country without him," Brooks says. "Trying to handle everything on my plate has been like trying to juggle eight balls—and I'm not a juggler."
How has becoming a parent helped you to grow?
I'm gaining patience, and I did not have a drop of it before. I'm caring less about BS. When I was pregnant, I played Beatrice in Shakespeare in the Park's Much Ado About Nothing in New York City. Normally, I would've been freaked out that I got all these lines, and 1,200 people a night were watching. But when I had a child inside of me, I was more fearless. Just walking around with a little more bravery, that was cool for me. That was a big piece of power I discovered.
What aspects have been harder than you anticipated?
The balance and how to say no to things. When you have a child, you really have to decide what's important. There are times when I feel guilty for not being with Freeya, but having downtime in my dressing room has given me moments to rediscover myself. I put goals and quotes on the wall that say things like, "I am pure magic" or "I am safe to be my true, authentic self."
Did giving birth make you feel like a new, different person?
I gained a lot of weight during my pregnancy, and I think I did go through postpartum depression. I was trying to stay positive when it felt like my whole world had flipped upside down. Creating a human takes a toll on women's bodies. Sometimes we don't give ourselves enough love or patience about that. You may think you're going to bounce back miraculously, but that's not true for a lot of people. I'm one of them. While I want to return to my pre-baby size, at the same time, I want to love this skin that I'm in now.
What helps you feel best?
I'm working on eating well, not just to keep losing weight but to stay healthy. If I want to continue to live a life full of abundance, I have to plant those seeds now. I bought roller skates and a personal trampoline. Freeya will jump up and down, imitating me. I find peace by taking walks with Freeya too. I try to incorporate her into things that bring me joy and calmness. And I really like the advice to "talk to yourself as if you are your best friend."
Mahalia was your first job as a mom. How was the transition?
We all worry if we'll ever work again. "Will people see me as a burden because I have a child and I need somebody to care for her? Will people accommodate me?" The fact is, I can do my job. Now I'm in the DC world. Before, I thought, "If I ever got that kind of role, I want to be in the best shape of my life." I'm not. But they hired me where I am, so I have to have a little grace. What we're able to do as women is phenomenal. It's queen status.
You bought a home in 2019. Does it feel different now with a kid?
Yes, Lord! It's crazy because you think you have all this space. Then you have a child, and they take a room, a bathroom, half the kitchen, and half the living room with strollers and car seats and toys. Before you know it, you feel like you don't have any space. There are things that I want for her, things I had as a child, like a big backyard. I'm teeter-tottering with the idea of getting another home.
Is there a difference between how you actually parent and how you thought you'd parent?
I'm way more lenient than I thought I'd be. This past winter, my mom had Christmas cards on her table, and I was like, "Take them off so Freeya doesn't get to them." Grandma's like, "No, leave them and teach her not to touch them." I'm like, "Adjust for the child," and old-school is, "No, the child needs to adjust to you." But her name's Freeya. Part of me is like, "Just let that baby be free."
Have you had any thoughts about expanding your family?
I'm in and out. This week, I'm like, "Maybe." Normally, I am very much like, "Girl, do not ask me that question." Having a baby really did take a toll on my body and on me mentally. Right now, I'm getting to the part where I'm okay with shedding that old skin and discovering somebody new. Once I feel a bit more whole and not like a machine that is being put back together, then I might consider it.
Did the racial injustice and unrest of this past year make you feel any different about raising a young Black woman?
Yes. It was hard to have a child in the first place, because I knew that my child was going to be brought up in this very hateful, racist, sexist world. I feel like I've gone through different phases since she's been here. At first, when everything happened—the obvious pandemic, but then there's a racial pandemic as well—I felt defeated. I felt like, "How is this child going to survive in this world?" which is the fear of a lot of parents of color. Now I feel hopeful because I know how I'm going to raise my child. There's one better human being in this world. It's work on the parents' part to show our kids love. I pray I raise my daughter to be street smart and be able to tackle the world and not be defeated by it. Motherhood has been good. It feels good on me.
Everything You Need to Know About Danielle Brooks' Family
Little thing I can't wait to do post-pandemic: New Year's party at my crib
Lesson I learned playing Mahalia: I am capable.
One Mahalia Jackson song to listen to: "Move On Up a Little Higher"
Freeya's favorite show: Sesame Street
Key piece of baby gear: Maxi-Cosi Lara Ultra Compact Stroller
Best advice I received: Babies are resilient. She'll be okay.
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's May 2021 issue as "Danielle Brooks: Lessons in Grace." Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here