OITNB's Dascha Polanco on Single Motherhood Being Enough: 'As Hard As It May Seem, My Life Is Beautiful'
In her most intimate interview to date, actress Dascha Polanco shares some of the most difficult struggles she has faced as a single mom and how she overcame them.
Actress Dascha Polanco’s road to motherhood looks nothing like she’d imagined as a kid. The 37-year-old, Dominican-born, New York City–raised actress, who first rose to fame playing Daya in the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black, always figured she’d follow in her mother’s footsteps.
“I grew up in a very Catholic household, where women were expected to get married, have kids, and dedicate their lives to raising their family,” she says. But her life took an unexpected turn when she got pregnant at age 17 with her daughter, Dasany, now 18, and again at age 25, with her son, Aryam, 11.
For many years, Polanco struggled with the resulting guilt she felt for defying those cultural expectations. “I was the shame of my family,” Polanco says. It wasn’t until recently that she has learned how to let go of that pain and celebrate her independence, strength, and success as a woman and a mother. Her journey is one you can’t truly appreciate, or learn from, until you know where it started.
From the DR to NYC
Polanco moved to Brooklyn at age 2 from Santo Domingo, and she describes her childhood as a series of hardships and upheavals. “I saw how both my parents suffered as immigrants, and that took a toll on me too,” she says. “As a little girl, I’d have to go with my mother to the Medicaid office and to get food stamps, and I’d have to continuously defend her because she didn’t speak English and they’d treat her badly.” Even though her parents couldn’t give her much, Polanco says they gave her the two things that mattered most: unconditional love and a strong moral code. “My mom would say, ‘Make sure you always respect other people, and don’t ever allow anyone to have reason to speak negatively of you.’”
At 14, Polanco, along with her parents and two younger siblings, moved to Miami for a fresh start, and that’s where she fell in love with acting. “I was so thankful, because I got to take a theater class for the first time,” she says. Drama allowed her to escape her daily struggles and pretend to be someone else, but that freedom and stability didn’t last long. Within a couple of years, they were back in Brooklyn. Her father, once the calm patriarch of the family, ended up in prison, and by her senior year in high school, Polanco, her mom, and siblings were left homeless. “We moved from the projects to a shelter,” she says. “My life was a lot of moving and letting go."
Still, Polanco was determined to graduate and go to college. Then, months before she was to don her cap and gown, she got pregnant. “I remember sitting in the cab on the way home from the doctor with my daughter’s father, telling him, ‘I don’t think I want to have this baby. I’m so young,’ ” she says. “He said, ‘What you’re thinking is a sin. Don’t worry. I’m going to be there for you.’ It’s hard to convince me to do something I don’t want to do, but he did. Yet, as it turns out, he wasn’t ready to be a parent either. We were kids, and he was also in and out of prison.”
If making the choice to have the baby was difficult, telling her mother was even more so. “She cried so hard,” recalls Polanco. “To hurt my mother was the worst thing I could ever do.”
Not Just Another Statistic
Polanco also struggled with suddenly being that girl—the unwed pregnant teenager on government assistance—in her tight-knit Catholic community. She became a pariah. “One night, my best friend’s father said, ‘What you’re doing is horrible,’ and he embarrassed me in front of everyone. I’ll never forget that. But I was making the best decision that I could. I knew that having a baby was going to make my life harder, but I was also determined to turn every obstacle into a blessing.”
After graduating from high school, Polanco enrolled in college to study psychology, a decidedly more sensible career than acting, and she and her mother, Janet, who was now struggling with an autoimmune disease, rented a room together in a basement apartment. “It was a concrete, rat-infested box, like a solitary-confinement situation, and I remember feeling like, ‘Is this going to be my life now? I’m a statistic?’ ” She hadn’t even finished her first semester, when she went into labor two months early and gave birth, via emergency C-section, to her daughter. Dasany, weighing barely 2 pounds, remained in the NICU for a few months, and Polanco and her mother visited her daily, delivering her frozen breast milk between classes and work. When Dasany was finally able to come home, Janet cared for her, while Polanco studied and worked to support them. “My daughter and mom were so close,” says Polanco. “She’d actually call my mom Mami and me Dascha-Mom.”
Dealing With Loss
The next four years only got harder. Polanco tried to keep her daughter a secret from her classmates. “I wouldn’t tell people,” she says. “I’d let them find out, and when they were like, ‘You’re a mom?!’ I pretended I didn’t care. But it made me feel self-conscious and affected my confidence.” After school, she picked up a night shift at a local hospital to sterilize operating equipment. “I have no idea how I got through my twenties,” she says. “I barely slept.” As her education progressed, so did her mom’s illness. “She looked like a beautiful ghost,” says Polanco. Then, one day, Janet went to the hospital feeling ill. “At 9:30 that night, they called me at work to tell me she had ‘expired,’ and I just thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” On top of her grief, Polanco also felt an almost unbearable guilt. “I could’ve dedicated myself to taking care of my mother, but she was helping me and my daughter. I made it harder for her.”
Though Polanco kept going through the motions of life, her soul was crushed. She stopped celebrating everything. Birthdays, holidays, nothing mattered anymore. “I was harboring so much sadness, anger, and depression, and I was so lonely,” she says. “I’ve never been one to show my vulnerabilities, and of course, in the Dominican culture, we never talk about mental health, but one day I finally opened up to one of my psychology professors. I told her I hated being a mother, and ever since my mom passed, I didn’t celebrate anything. She told me the reason I got angry was that I had a subconscious jealousy of my daughter, because she had her mother and I didn’t have mine. I was like, ‘Oh my God, I never thought of that!’ She told me I wasn’t being fair to my daughter by not providing her with good memories.”
It was the wake-up call Polanco needed. She rededicated herself to giving her daughter the best life possible and soon graduated on the dean’s list. “I was, like, ‘I’m going to live my life and surpass all of this,’” she says. When Polanco didn’t make the nursing program right away, she focused instead on being a hospital-operating-room manager. “In that world, I was That Bitch,” she says. “I became a boss, and I was finally living my life.”
- RELATED: How to Raise a Proud Afro-Latino Kid
Mami Second Time Around
Then Polanco got pregnant again, quite unexpectedly. She’d fallen in love with a man she met on MiGente, a now defunct social-networking site for Latinos. “I feel as if I was one of the first people to find someone online,” she says, laughing. They had an on-again, off-again relationship, and he eventually moved to Texas. “When I got back from visiting him one weekend, I was pregnant!” she says. Polanco knew right away she wanted to have the baby. Her boyfriend moved back to New York City, and they made a go of it together.
Giving birth again—this time at age 25 and with a partner by her side—was a totally different experience from doing it at 17 alone. “My water broke right on time, I had a few contractions, they did a C-section, and then I just saw his squishy face—it was love at first sight,” she says. When she brought Aryam home, she was ready to enjoy him. “I’d breastfeed him and take him into the shower with me. I’d make him organic baby food with egg yolks and smashed pumpkin. I would cut his toenails, and I got him his own little cologne. He was delicious. My little frog! My little monkey! And he loves his sister so much, and she loves him.”
By the time Aryam turned 1, Polanco decided to split once and for all with his father, though they remained friends. “I have so much love for this man, and he loves his son so much, and I respect him for that,” she says. He lives in Washington Heights, a short walk from Polanco’s apartment, and they still coparent on a daily basis. “There’s no drama,” she says. “It’s like, ‘Aryam, you want to go to your father’s this weekend or come to your mom’s?’”
A Dream and a Day Job
Through all of this, Polanco still dreamed of one day giving acting another shot, and she managed to take a class here and there, while raising two kids, enrolling in a master’s program for nursing, and juggling jobs at two different hospitals and a surgical center. She and her sister, who by then had children of her own, moved in together to help make it work. “I saw my purpose in life as doing whatever the hell I wanted to do,” she says. “I always knew I would have to be a warrior and get my respect by fighting through, but guess what? Nobody was going to stop me.”
When Aryam was 4 and Dasany was 11, she auditioned for a new show, Orange Is the New Black. She was at the hospital when she learned she got the gig. “I started crying so hard in my lab coat. ‘I booked what? What do you mean series regular?’” Despite the big break, she didn’t want to leave the security of her job behind. She asked her boss if she could rearrange her schedule around filming. “He said no,” Polanco says. “So I said, ‘Well, I’m not going to let you get in the way of my dreams.’”
Since then, Polanco’s career has taken off. Not only is she hosting a podcast series on Netflix, Brown Love, but she is also starring in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, a big-screen, blockbuster adaptation of his hit Broadway musical. (Its release date, originally set for this summer, has been postponed to next year.) Polanco plays a hairdresser named Cuca, a role he wrote just for the movie. She’s currently on hiatus from shooting another film, with Sylvester Stallone, Samaritan. “When girls see me on screen, I want them to see hope and inspiration,” she says. “I want them to think, ‘Yo, I may not have the same financial means as other kids, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.’ There’s nothing worse than feeling that you don’t belong.”
While navigating Hollywood, she’s also raising two amazing kids, who understand not only how strong their mami is but also how deeply she loves them. Dasany is now a freshman in college in the city, living her own life, but she visits Polanco often. “All of her friends have come to my house, and I make them cry! They have issues with their own mothers, and I tell them, ‘You need to appreciate your mom, because she is the only one who will always be there for you.’ They’ve all had a ‘Dascha Cry Session,’ but they keep coming back.” She’s raising Aryam to be respectful of women. “In my house, everything is 50-50. You sweep, you mop. It’s all about equality.”
The Power of Motherhood
Polanco is as proud of her kids as she finally is of herself. “Of course, there are certain things I wish I could’ve done differently,” she says. “I would’ve put my daughter in sports or sent her away to camp. But I was on food stamps, and those things weren’t financially available to me at the time. I constantly have to remind myself to let that go.” It’s getting easier every day. “I set boundaries,” she says. “I allow myself to be vulnerable. I’m able to apologize. I’m able to say, ‘We don’t do that in this house’ or ‘I’m your mother, not your friend.’” Of the lessons she’s learned, the most important one may be this: “It’s okay to make mistakes. Every mother is just raising her kids to the best of her ability, and the more time passes, the more you learn that.”
For so many years, motherhood was Polanco’s source of shame, but no longer. Now she knows it’s exactly what makes her so fierce. “I’m going to continue to work as a mother and grow as a mother,” she says. “I’m going to kill it as a mother, and I’m going to be a sexy-ass mami too. I’m going to be true to me.”
Dascha Polanco's Parenting Short List
Summer anthem: “Ready or Not,” by The Fugees
Your mother’s most enduring advice: “Keep it to yourself.”
Best part of being a single mom: My kids witnessed independence, strength, and achievement.
Successful coparenting means: Communication, putting your kids first, and making sure they are part of the conversation.
Work-life balance motto: Delegate and let go.
Dreams come true if you … Do it now, don’t wait to regret.
This article originally appeared in Parents Latina's June/July 2020 issue as “Daring to Be Dascha.”