It’s a stormy day in New York City, and Kelly Rutherford and I are staying dry under the awning of a cafe. A man approaches with two young girls and a camera, asking if he can take her picture. Kelly bounces up effusively, poses with his daughters in the rain, lifting up the small one who swings her legs around Kelly’s waist and hugs her tightly. The father thanks her saying, “You are so kind.” She is also happy, hilarious, and peaceful—not what you’d expect considering what she’s been through. Kelly Rutherford is an actress (you might recognize her as Lily from Gossip Girl) and activist. Over the past six years she has endured a highly publicized battle with her Monaco-based ex-husband over the custody of her two children, Hermes and Helena. While custody is joint, Kelly is unable to bring her children back to the US, and in 2013 she filed for bankruptcy due to millions spent in legal fees. Yet all of this seems an unfair introduction—it paints Kelly as a victim, which her attitude strongly contradicts. Kelly is in a good place. She sees her kids regularly—"I was with them last week, I go back in two weeks, and I’ll be there for about 20 days. They’re good, thank god”—and she is “thankful for their father.” So what does it take to find peace in awful circumstance? How do you find courage in the worst of times? This is what Kelly told me.
“I’m doing really well, thankfully. I’ve been taking time to refocus. I think a lot of that has to do with my kids getting older, that my situation with their father is much better, and also my age. I’m turning 48 in a month, so I’m starting to think about what this next chapter of life looks like. I met this woman years ago who has become a mentor for me. She said, ‘Kelly, this is all about the journey from being a chick to an eagle.’ Life throws things at you and you think, ‘Why do I have to go through this?’ But it’s part of your journey. Unjust things will always exist, and what heals us as individuals is knowing that there are some things we can’t change, but what we can change is our perspective.
In some ways, you can compare what I went through to nature. Nature is not always just, but it balances out in its own way. I always use the example of a duck on a pond with little ducklings following. It’s natural for children to be with their mother, and for mothers to protect their children. What happened to me went against nature. Any time you interrupt nature, there are going to be repercussions. The repercussions for this particular situation are that my children are now going to grow up as kind and compassionate people, who will know the difference between right and wrong, and who will be advocates for mothers and children. So if that’s what comes out of this, then there is a balance. I think what happened has had a huge impact on people, even if they don’t know all the details. They know innately that it was wrong. I have women and men stop me on the streets with tears in their eyes. That itself is a powerful shift in awareness. We don’t have to know all the details of things, we know viscerally when something is right or wrong. My children witness those people coming up to us—they see those reactions and are very aware that people know what we’ve been through.
I didn’t intend for the whole situation to be so public. I was just in such a shock that I didn’t know what to say—I was fumbling. I was like, ‘What? Can someone explain this to me? I don’t understand.’ I did my best to navigate it at the time. You make mistakes. You listen to people and then think, ‘Oh my god, why did I listen to them?’, but you do that because you’re overwhelmed and scared. Something I’ve learned is how to lift myself up out of those scared places. You need to feel the grief, but you can’t make decisions in that place of fear and worry. You need to find a way to reframe it for yourself. For me, that meant concentrating on the fact that we’re all healthy, that we’ve been very blessed in life, and that we’re going to be OK. I’ve needed to step out of that feeling of being a victim or being mad at my ex-husband. Because when I was so deep in the drama of it, I started to notice that my reaction would perpetuate the drama even more. I had to try and keep love in my heart, and continuously say to myself,
‘How can I be the best I can be, no matter what the circumstance?’
Because once you make that decision, circumstances start to shift. I wish I had known this earlier on in this process—that it comes down to deliberately shifting your energy and perspective. At the time, it felt less like, ‘How are we going to fight this?’, and more like, ‘How are we going to survive this?’ You wonder when will it ever end. At the same time, at some point you have to surrender. You tell your kids you love them, and you get up every day and do the best you can. That’s how you get through it. And slowly, you go from surviving to thriving again. Now, I’m with my kids a lot, we are super connected, and they know how loved they are. I think regardless of circumstances, the most important thing for kids is to know how much they are loved. That gives them a huge amount of courage and well-being, especially in their early years. You know, I’m really thankful for their dad. I look at my kids and see how incredible they are, and for that I love their father. I think he’s doing the best he can too.
There are lots of things that have helped me get to this place. I read a lot of spiritual books and do meditation. I have great people I can talk to, like this wise woman I mentioned earlier who is a healer. Writing down how you want things to be is really important, because when you’re going through hard times, you tend to focus on how you don’t want things to be, when we should be doing the opposite. I started to think, ‘How do I want my kids to come out of this? How do I want to come out of this? How do I bless my ex-husband and find forgiveness?’
Complaining disempowers you.
When we complain, we recreate and reinforce those negative stories. You stay stuck in that place. I kept thinking, 'I don’t want to be this sad mother. I want to be there for my children so they can say, 'She’s our rock. Even though this is happening, we know we’ve got her. Our mother is how we’re going to get through this.’ Having that attitude comes from knowing what you want. Knowing what you want gives you power. By all means, have a cry and a few glasses of wine with your girlfriends, let it all out—but then decide what you want out of the situation and get on with it.
Something that has also helped sustain me has been an enormous amount of love and compassion from my own mother. She definitely empowered me as a child and as a young woman. I think maybe that’s partially why I was able to handle this. I mean, I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and I continue to learn as I go. But I’ve been able to say, ‘Kids, I’m so sorry, mommy totally fucked up.’ Which the kids think is hilarious because I’ve said a bad word. But I’ll often ask them, ‘How can I be the best mom for you? What can I do?’ And I don’t think that’s something parents ask. We complicate things. If you ask your kids what you can do for them, they’ll tell you! It’s so much less work to say ‘How can we solve this?’ That’s a far easier road in all our relationships. How much simpler would it be if we asked people what they wanted, instead of bitching about what we don’t want or don’t like?
For anyone trying to find hope in a hopeless situation, I would tell them to listen to themselves, to trust, to try and connect with themselves, and say, ‘Where can I find the good in this? What can I be thankful for?’ And often it’s the small things, like having your cup of coffee in the morning. Because the people around you feel that. You need to say to yourself, ‘What can I find to make me feel better?’ Because if I feel better, I uplift everyone else.
If I’m not compassionate to myself, I’m going to fall apart, and I can’t serve anyone.
If you can shift your perspective, things will start to improve. It becomes a practice, like everything else. It’s about having awareness of what we’re thinking, what we’re feeling, then doing whatever works to get back to that high vibration. Reading, getting outside into nature, taking a nap, going shopping, and even Instagram is great—it distracts me from everything. Instagram is the new therapy!
I think resilience is whatever works for each person as an individual. For me, resilience is reframing things so that that they empower you instead of disempowering you. You learn resilience through adversity, so there’s something healthy about the tough times. Courage is also something relative. Some people think jumping out of a plane or climbing a mountain is courageous. I’m like, ‘I’m an actress. I’ve had a crazy ass divorce. My life is courageous enough, thank you very much!’ But when it comes down to it, I think courage is subtle. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting up in the morning when you’re going through a rough time. Courage is choosing to look at the good, and focusing on what’s important. Sometimes it’s the ability to admit that you don’t feel strong, and that you don’t have to be. You don’t have to have all the answers and be everything. Courage is knowing what you need—it’s being real with yourself.”
Interviewed & photographed by Amy Woodside