Bialik: Being a girl is more complicated now
Big Bang Theory star’s second book offers advice to teenage girls in need of guidance
Mayim Bialik is one of the highest-paid actresses on television, but she is resolutely un-Hollywood. For the past seven years, she has played Amy Farrah Fowler, the socially awkward, cardigan-wearing neuroscientist in long-running sitcom The Big Bang Theory. Yet she claims to be “a very low-maintenance female” and, for someone who reportedly earns $500,000 per episode, insists on doing all her own housework, even down to cleaning her own toilets — which is unheard of in Tinseltown.
“I don’t have a housekeeper or nanny or chef, either,” says Bialik, “and I use a babysitter less than once a month.”
In the United States, the 41-yearold is as well known as an actress as for her unorthodox and outspoken approaches to modern motherhood. Her sons Miles, now 11, and Fred, eight, were raised without wearing nappies, a process called “elimination communication”, whereby the parent learns to interpret signals from their baby that they are ready to use the toilet. They were also breastfed until they were aged four and two respectively, and the family adopted the practice of co-sleeping, with Bialik and her husband sharing their bed with their sons. She also initially refused to have her children vaccinated, although they subsequently have been.
These, and a myriad other intruiging details, were laid out in her parenting book, Beyond the Sling —a reference to the hipsterish practice of babywearing, whereby the child is held in a sling close to the parent’s body, from newborn to toddler, rather than a pram or pushchair, to “promote a content, calm, and securely attached baby-parent relationship”.
Described as a “real-life guide to raising confident, loving children”, the book unsurprisingly elicited a mixed response, with Bialik’s views on breastfeeding seeming to cause particular ire — especially after she was photographed breastfeeding Fred, then three-and-a-half years old, on the New York subway.
“But that’s the way that mammals feed their babies, so I don’t really know what the fuss is about,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of standards of what we want women to do and what we don’t want them to do, and breastfeeding is a different way of presenting breasts — ie, not sexually. There will always be people who don’t want to breastfeed and those who do. I’m a lactation education counsellor as well, so I counsel women who need assistance, the way women did for me.”
When Bialik and her husband divorced shortly after the book’s publication five years ago, some surmised that the intense style of parenting might have been in part to blame. She later released a statement clarifying that the adherence to attachment parenting was not the cause of the marriage’s demise and that, “relationships are complicated no matter what style of parenting you choose”.
But as she says now: “I was prepared for a strong reaction to the book, because people who parent the way we do have always had that kind of reaction after putting it out in the public arena. But I’m very confident that the way we decided to raise our kids works for us. And,” she adds, “other people don’t have to agree with that.”
How to be strong
It’s clear, then, that Bialik is perfectly content marching to a beat entirely of her own making. She was, by her own admission, a “socially awkward late-bloomer”, which is one of the reasons why she decided to write a follow-up book, Girling Up: How to be Strong, Smart and Spectacular — a guide for teenage girls that discusses everything from friendships and family to body image, sex, love and the stresses particular to adolescents in today’s world.
“I wrote it because I didn’t have this kind of resource when I was growing up,” says Bialik, “and I think that being a girl now is even more complicated, with social media and presumptions of women and beauty.”
Growing up in San Diego, California, with older brother Isaac and parents Barry and Beverly, both teachers, there was little to suggest that the young Mayim would become a child star. She came from “a very traditional immigrant Jewish family where roles for boys and girls were very different,” she explains.
“I had an earlier bedtime than my brother and I wasn’t allowed to stay up and watch shows he was allowed to watch. I never saw the Indiana Jones movies past the first one because my parents thought they were too violent. They were very careful about stuff like that.” An interest in drama at school however saw her being cast, aged 12, as the young Bette Midler character in the 1989 film Beaches. The following year, she became a global sensation after she landed the title role in the hit teen TV series, Blossom.
However, her adolescence wasn’t an altogether happy time. “I was teased a lot [at school] — for being short, for being flat-chested, for having a big nose and pointy chin, and for having a stupid name, even,” she laughs. “I went to a very academically rigorous school, too, so people weren’t impressed by my being on TV, either. I wanted to disappear a lot when I was growing up.
“I actually don’t regret being a late bloomer at all,” she says. “Most people don’t feel as though they fit in in some way and it helped me develop a different sense of independence and inspired me to find ways to appreciate who I really was.”
Having achieved the holy grail of a hit TV series in her early teens, Bialik could easily have continued with her acting career after Blossom, but opted instead for a more unusual route — dropping out of acting for 12 years to continue her studies, eventually earning a PhD in neuroscience at UCLA. It was there that she met and subsequently married fellow student Michael Stone and, after having her two children, decided to put her career on hold to look after them while they were still young.
Looking back over this career decision, she says that “women can have it all — but not at the same time, I think. And we have to make choices because we can’t physically be in more than one place at a time. The decision I made to exclusively breastfeed, for example, eliminated the possibility of not being at home. That’s a choice I made which I stand by, but it meant I couldn’t also pursue a career in the same way.”
Back to acting
She returned to acting in 2010, with her role on The Big Bang Theory — a show about a group of nerdy scientists at Pasadena’s Caltech University — which has given Bialik a platform that she has taken up with relish. As well as penning books, two years ago she set up her own blogging website, GrokNation, where she uploads videos on anything from open relationships to celebrities disrobing in the name of empowerment. (For the record, she’s not particularly keen on either).
Last month, she took to the vlog to announce that she had been ordered by doctors not to talk for 30 days because of a sprain to her vocal chords. In typical kooky fashion, Bialik posted a silent video, with her sat at a computer screen, typing and waving at the camera.
Hopefully, her voice will recover in time for the new season of The Big Bang Theory, though, especially since it was reportedly her fellow cast members’ intervention that saw her pay upped from $200,000 to $500,000 an episode. “Our strength lies in being together on the show,” she admits. “It’s something we’re very grateful for.”
The series, which attracts around 15 million viewers a week in the States and is routinely the mostwatched programme on E4, returns for its 11th series in September. However, there will be at least two people who won’t be watching: her sons who, she admits, have never seen it.
“I don’t have a TV,” she says, perhaps inevitably — before adding: “Maybe I’ll let them when they’re a little bit older.”
Mayim Bialik is well-known for her unorthodox approach to modern motherhood.
A scene from The Big Bang Theory.