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Actor Stéphanie Szostak Embraces A Very French View Of Motherhood

The A Million Little Things actor opens up about her new mental health book and the parenting advice she’s gotten from “matter-of-fact” French moms.

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Ariela Basson/Scary Mommy; Getty Images, Courtesy of Stephanie Szostak

A Million Little Things actor Stéphanie Szostak is "passionate about mental health." In her most recent TV role, she played a widow in a tight-knit circle of friends rocked by her husband's unexpected passing. As the friends navigated their grief, the hit ABC series highlighted how mental health looks different for each person.

Although Szostak's real life is far from that of her fictional counterpart (she's happily married and a very present mom to two sons), life imitates art in at least one way: Mental health is a running theme, not an aside.

In fact, her first-ever book, Self!sh: Step Into A Journey Of Self-Discovery To Revive Confidence, Joy, and Meaning, just hit shelves and is all about learning to treat your mental health as an active daily practice. Inspired by Szostak's own journey, the book contains tools she's developed and used over the last decade to help her overcome personal challenges and improve her mindset. Challenges like struggling with imposter syndrome while acting alongside Steve Carell and Paul Rudd, and overcoming insecurity as a French immigrant.

Self!sh is built around eight self-reflection exercises that guide readers to create their own personal mindset improvement Playbook.

"We all know the importance of having routines and rituals. We have skincare routines. We have fitness routines to build strength and endurance. And that's the concept behind this workbook," Szostak explains. "It's to build strength and endurance for your mental fitness, first by going through the exercises that will actually help you discover your strength, build resilience, improve your well-being or your mood, and then to build endurance by every day putting the focus on that which is within your control and that serves you well."

If you're a mom, you may be thinking, Easier said than done.

When you're already trying to squeeze seven million things into a day — with most of them revolving around prioritizing the needs of others — prioritizing yourself can feel like a luxury you don't have.

I asked Szostak about the fact that mothers often feel there's a stigma attached to taking time for themselves. How do we shift out of that mindset? To answer, she recalls a trifecta of pivotal conversations from her past.

"I think a lot of it comes from us, from within, and not feeling guilty," she starts.

"Before I was an actor, I worked at Chanel, and my first boss was a mother of four boys. I felt really guilty because I had to travel for work. She's French, and French women are a little more matter-of-fact maybe. She was like, 'Guilt? That's useless. Don't even entertain that idea. That's not going to get you anywhere good.'"

To this day, Szostak remembers that conversation when the mom-guilt starts to creep in. "I think it's realizing, No. 1, we're better mothers once we take time for ourselves — once we do things that fulfill us," she says.

And as Szostak points out, "Our partners get to be better parents if we're not there all the time."

"The first time I went on location for a long time, my husband said to me, 'Oh my god, I never realized. I would just go to work, and the kids were out of my mind. I was in work mode …. And now that you're not there, I go to work, but one piece of my mind is always thinking about the kids and their schedule, and is everything organized?' He said, 'That's your brain. I never realized.’”

For the final convo of the trifecta, Szostak reveals a piece of advice her own (French) mother gave her about being "selfish" as a mom.

"When I was younger, my mom said, 'You might have kids one day. Just remember, that's not your identity. Your kids are, of course, the biggest love of your life. But they'll go away, and you need to remember who you are because when they're gone, you have to still have a life.’"

If nothing else, Szostak says, remember that your kids are watching. "When they see us take time for ourselves, whether it's for work or just to replenish and work on ourselves, we're being a good role model for them. And they're seeing the other parent support us. So, it's all good."

Granted, a seemingly inevitable part of parenting is feeling like you're failing at some point along the way. In Self!sh, Szostak outlines self-reflection exercises that revisit your greatest achievements as well as the moments that have been especially hard for you.

"I actually call some of those moments our greatest achievements because by revisiting those, you realize you made it through," she explains. "You're going to take stock of your life, how far you've gone, how far you've come, and maybe realize some of the strengths that you have."

Szostak starts every day with her Playbook, which keeps her from getting sucked into social media, or the news, or even just emails from work (that can wait!).

"My Playbook is an album on my phone. I hit play, and there's music that comes. By the time I'm done, I'm centered. I feel some joy because I realized the good that's in my life," she says, "and I am just more apt to start the day on my own terms and not confused by other people's agendas."

Still, she understands the pressure that comes with this societal idea that we have to have everything figured out by the time we turn 30, and how demoralizing it can feel when you don't.

Szostak, now on the other side of that struggle, wants other women and moms to know it's OK to not have all the answers at 30, 40, 50, or beyond.

"I took my first acting class at 29 years old, and I had never taken an acting class before. So, my advice would be to keep on exploring because you never know what's out there that's going to grab you and make you feel alive like nothing else before. And also, embrace that feeling of 'I don't have it all figured out,'" she says, adding, "I just wrote a book at 50. I'd never done that before, and I certainly didn't have it figured out."

There's magic in the not knowing, she emphasizes.

"That's a great thing because it means we can learn. We can ask for help. We don't need to pretend that we have it all figured out because when we do that, we don't connect with others in a real way."

Self!sh is available now, with 50% of the proceeds going to the mental health organization Give An Hour.

Editor’s Note: In keeping with the current writers’ strikes, Szostak did not speak about any past or present acting roles. Any reference to such is contextual from Scary Mommy.

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