Mariskay Hargitay radiates the September cover of Good Housekeeping. The 46-year-old Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actress opens up about motherhood, her longtime role on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and how having her own child has helped heal the loss of her mother.
Mariska was born into celebrity, the daughter of two pop-culture icons — ’50s sex symbol Jayne Mansfield and bodybuilder-actor Miklós “Mickey” Hargitay. The couple divorced around the time of Mariska’s birth and just 3 1/2-years later, Mansfield died in a tragic car crash.
When Mariska welcomed her son August in June, 2006, she opened up to a new way of thinking about the loss of her mother, who had five kids.
It’s not a source of pain or angst anymore,” she says. “I understand her in a new way that gives me peace. Being a mom has been healing. Now I understand the love she had in her, and it makes me feel closer to her.”
Her father died of cancer shortly after she gave birth to August. “I am grateful he had a chance to look into his grandson’s eyes and pass along his love and strength,” she says.
Together with her husband, fellow actor Peter Hermann, raising their 4-year-old son is the world’s greatest joy. On weekends mom and dad don’t sleep in and they whip up “a whole big breakfast extravaganza with pancakes, bacon and eggs, oatmeal, and apples.”
When they have alone time, they read together or catch a movie. “I don’t have a normal job where you can have date night. We just had a ‘two-weeks-in-Paris-with-August’ date, which is better than any date night,” she says.
When it comes to getting August to eat his veggies, she gets involved. “August,” she says, “you and I are going to have a race to see who can finish their asparagus first.”
And what about please and thank you?
August has great manners, and I am very proud of that,” she says. “We are on him like white on rice about looking into someone’s eyes if you are saying ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ or apologizing. Or when you are meeting someone. You know how some kids say ‘Nice to meet you’ and they’re looking down? I hate that. You’ve got to teach them young. I don’t want any fishy handshakes,” she says.
When it comes to discipline, mom and dad are on the same page.
“The one rule that we follow is: Always stick up for the other parent no matter what. And if you disagree, you talk it over in private, not in front of your child.”
Mariska goes on to talk about the joys of motherhood.
“Bath time is such fun,” she says. “I get in trouble with Peter because I’ll stay in the bathroom with August for hours just laughing.” Often she’ll put August to bed and get caught up in reading the night away with her sweet boy. “It’s a special bonding time, and lots of interesting things come out when he is downloading the events of the day.”
The mother-son duo often lose track of time. “Peter will come in an hour and a half later,” she says, “and August and I will be wrestling on the bed, and Peter will be like, ‘Bedtime!'”
Mariska says that the hours she works are a challenge. Some days, she goes to work before August is awake and doesn’t get home until he’s in bed, though she chats with him via video from the set. “When you love your kid, there’s a string that attaches you, and you are always connected even when you are doing other things,” she says.
Technology also allows her to stay close to her circle of celeb mom pals, including Maria Bello and Debra Messing. She created a “Happy Monday” e-mail where they send one another the latest cute photos of their kids.
She’s the first to admit that sometimes the day-to-day work routine gets her down.
“I get jealous that other people get to take August to school and pick him up,” she says. “It’s hard for me to go to his school and not know all the parents. They all know one another, and it’s a community. I can’t always be a part of that. You can’t have everything, though.”
Becoming a mother at 42 was a blessing. “When I think about having a bigger family, sometimes I am so in love with August that I can’t imagine anything else, and it’s so perfect, our little triangle here. But then you think, Oh, I want to have another kid.” Perhaps they will consider adopting? It has been discussed, she says.
While she loves her family life, she’s not ready to quit acting just yet.
“August and Peter, my family, being a wife and mother, is my life, and that gives me the most joy. Joyful Heart is my mission and the thing that I feel the clearest about. But I’m not ready to quit acting yet.”
And what about her body after baby? “Would I like to be the same size as when I got married?” asks the former size 4 or 6, who is now a size 8. “Sure, but I had a child, and your body changes. Being thin is not more important than enjoying life.”
After 11 years portraying Olivia Benson, the tough but compassionate Manhattan sex-crimes detective in Law & Order: SVU, she felt more prepared for the rigors of motherhood: “It really prepared me for motherhood, because as a cop, you are in charge of any emergency and you need to stay calm, take control, and get the help and the attention you need to fix it. It’s the same thing with being a parent.”
This role of a lifetime also gave her a fulfilling life mission. She’s been touched and forever changed by countless letters from women who watched the show and wrote to her disclosing that they had been raped. In 2004, she founded the Joyful Heart Foundation which helps survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse through retreats, education, and advocacy.
In addition to acting and her family life, Mariska says the foundation is her passion.
“[It] fulfills me as an artist and rewards me even more as a human being. It is powerful and life-affirming to extend my hand and my heart to those who are in need.” Becoming a mom only deepens that passion: “You realize when you become a mom that everyone you look at is somebody’s kid. Caring for August makes me even more committed to helping others.”