Photo Credit: NBCU Photo Bank
Before she was even a year old, Melissa Francis was already a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild. From commercials to sitcoms to a coveted role as Cassandra Cooper Ingalls on "Little House on the Prairie," the California native was no stranger to TV cameras. But knowing the love of a supportive, nurturing mom? Now, that was unfamiliar.
Francis, the host of Fox Business's "Money with Melissa Francis," eventually traded acting for a Harvard education and broadcast journalism, writes of her life as a child actress living with a competitive and hostile mother -- and a neglected older sister -- in her new memoir Diary of a Stage Mother's Daughter.
As Francis's career soared, her sister's life began to spiral, and, as she began forming a family of her own, she was forced to confront her mom. We recently spoke with Francis, who now has two boys of her own, and asked what she learned from having a stage mother.
1. You don't have to parent the way you were parented.
"My husband and I were married for about a decade before we decided to have kids. Having been through that storm myself, it was hard for me to figure out how I was going to do things differently. As you take away the abuse and the bullying, how do you discipline? I didn't have an example of how to do it in a loving way, but not have your kids run all over you. It took me a long time to process and figure out how to parent differently, but the number one lesson was, just because you were parented in a way that didn't work out doesn't mean you have to repeat the same behavior. You also don't have to be afraid to be a parent, yourself, which I certainly was for a very long time."
2. There's no formula.
"I started writing (the memoir) when the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother really reached critical mass. The idea of parents emulating that model really terrified me. It actually brought me to tears -- even when I was reading the excerpts from the book -- and it was hard for me to get the book and read through it because I feel like I am the product of an extreme version of a tiger mom. I wanted to warn parents that that unrelenting form of parenting may make some children really disciplined and focused and achievers -- the author says herself if you ride children hard early, you don't have to come down on them later -- but with some kids, as you learn with my story, it can be wildly destructive and really rob them of them of their confidence and send them into a spiral. When you read a formula about how to be a parent, it doesn't necessarily work, because kids are all individuals, so it can be really dangerous."
3. You can't change who a child is.
"I really see that now that I have two boys and they respond completely differently to the same type of praise or discipline. They are just hardwired differently. As I watched them from day one, before I even had a chance to have any impact on them, they were different kids. You can't change that. I think my mom wanted to make both my sister and me into performers and achievers, and my sister wasn't built for that. She had her own fantastic qualities, and, if someone had taken the time to get to know her, could have fleshed out what she would be special and successful at. You have to help children bring out what's best about them and help them manage what's difficult about their own personalities and the way that they were born."
4. Hard work sticks.
"I grew up as a child actor, and that taught me hard work. That is one positive thing that came out of this: the reward of a job well done, and the pride of earning my own keep. I worked steadily in television the whole time I was growing up, as the book talks about. When I left to go to Harvard, I worked in the dining hall. I got a great job in tech support. There's never been a time in my life when I didn't work. And whether it's working for money, or it's the way that you approach family in your home, hard work is something you can teach kids early."
5. It's never too late to be happy.
"I really hope that's what people get out of the book at the end of the day, and I hope it's what my kids get out of it when they're eventually old enough to read it. Every family has a drama and a heart-wrenching story, and every person has suffered through his or her own trials. I honestly believe we could all write a book. … But rather than carrying that pain around with you and letting it paralyze you, draw upon it. You know what not to do. At some point I decided to take control of my life and my history and my past and my future. I'd love for anyone who reads the book to feel like they can learn from a challenged past and whatever has happened to them, and then choose to have a joyous future. You can choose to be happy; you can choose to have a new life. It is never too late, no matter how old you are. That was the point I was trying to make in the very last scene of the book, where I saw a woman I work with crumple into tears -- this incredible, gorgeous, successful woman with a family of her own -- and her mother just reduced her to tears. I said to her, as delicately as I could, "You can be free of that. You're an adult, and it's your choice now." You can choose to be happy and to be joyful and to have a different life. It's not easy, but it’s better than the alternative."
"The way my family finally exploded was what showed me that I really needed to make a strong decision to have a better life, before I drowned in this disaster. I needed to make a decision for myself, my husband, for my future children. I had to make a decision that our family was going to be different and it was going to end with me. I kept repeating that to myself: It ends with me. My mom always talked about how her mother did this to her and I'm sure it was all true. I think these cycles really become self-perpetuating, and it struck me that it was going to be up to me to say it ends with me. I won't let this continue. It was too late for us as a nuclear family, but it wasn't too late for the family I have now. I think that would ring true for a lot of other people, as well. When you feel like you're in a cycle, especially with extended family, you can make it stop. You just have to stand up and be counted."