She figured she’d have a great husband and a couple of kids by this big birthday. But she couldn’t have predicted how transitioning from staying home would go—or the surprising professional paths she’d pursue.

“Oh yeah! There she is,” says Jennifer Love Hewitt, the bespectacled celebrity smiling at me on my laptop screen. She’s not referring to having found me, her interviewer, on Skype, the unconventional but practical way we two moms on opposite coasts are connecting; rather, she’s referring to herself. In the fog of mourning her mother, getting pregnant, facing postpartum struggles, and getting pregnant again in quick succession, bubbly, career-focused Jennifer couldn’t recognize herself—not that she had much time to try.

“I worked [on Criminal Minds] when my daughter was 8 months old up until my son was born [nine months later],” she tells me from an area off her dining room in her home. It looks like a confessional space from the Real World—but hip, not hokey—with a map of New Amsterdam on a navy wall with a damasklike gold pattern. She’s wearing a gray shirt with tiny, colorful flowers sparsely scattered, and not a stitch of makeup, for which she apologizes. (She needn’t, I assured her.)

The mom then says she spent two years post-second pregnancy not working—and people thought she was nuts for it.

“They were like, ‘You’re in the middle of a career; you can’t do that.’ But I was like, ‘I can because that’s what’s in my heart.’ I have so much admiration for women who can have their babies and go straight back to work. But I needed to work on myself, get into a different place before being able to do that.”

What a different place she’s in now. A week after Valentine’s Day 2019, Jennifer, the gorgeous girl next door from Party of Five and ’90s movies galore, turned 40. She quickly made the most of her new decade. She’s back playing Maddie, an emergency-call operator on 9-1-1, which in April 2020 was renewed for a fourth season on Fox. She’s also writing a children’s book and releasing two wines with her husband, fellow actor Brian Hallisay, whom she met on the set of her last TV show, The Client List. He plays Doug, the abusive ex from whom Maddie was trying to hide on 9-1-1. In real life, the two are parents to daughter Autumn, 6, and son Atticus, 4.

And Jennifer is at peace with her post-childbearing life.

“There’s such a fear of saying, ‘I feel different after having children,’” says Jennifer. When she heard about others who bounced right back, it made her question, “Am I failing? Am I doing it differently from other moms?” That feeling can be especially intense in Hollywood, where women feel pressured to be a size zero, she adds, but she’s learned to accept her body for the baby-making wonder it is. “You’ve made a human being, so relax on yourself a little bit.”

Even though continuing her career with 9-1-1 felt “just right,” when I ask how going back to work was for her, she deadpans: “Horrible.” Then, she cracks a smile. “Uh, no. It was great. I felt good about what I was going to do.”

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And yet, like so many of us, she worried about how her little ones would fare while she was on the job. “My anxiety kicked into overdrive, and I was having these dreams—me being at work and, almost like a movie, children running around like, ‘My mother doesn’t love me!’”

Her resilient kids’ real-life response to their mom going back to work? “They had no reaction. Like, ‘Bye! Do I get ice cream when you get home?’” she says, laughing. “They miss me, but it hasn’t turned our whole life upside down like I thought it was going to.”

In fact, Autumn is fascinated. She loves asking Mommy, “Why do you want to do that job?” “The other day she said, ‘I think I like doing this [activity] as much as you like doing your job,’” Jennifer points out, touched.

Still, it wasn’t an easy transition. She made her working-motherhood return quite publicly at the Fox upfronts in May 2018, to announce 9-1-1’s premiere. Her low-key look, following her first time traveling with two toddlers, was widely maligned. Jennifer even issued a mea culpa on Instagram:

“I have to apologize for how wrecked I looked.” She told me, “I was out of practice; I was in mom mode.”

Being away from her young children for work continued to be an adjustment for the actress.

“The first four episodes, there was a lot of trying to be present and then constantly checking for the world to be falling apart around me. A couple of days went long, so I wasn’t home to put them to bed. It was my first time not doing that, so [my] lip would quiver, and there were some tears.”

Luckily, sympathetic co-workers on set at 9-1-1 eased the transition back to working.

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“I was doing a dramatic phone-call scene, crying, and my phone lit up. It was my daughter’s school, and she had gotten sick. It was just terrible. [Some of the crew with kids] came over and were like, ‘Hey, she’s OK. She’s in the [school] office. You’re almost done. Your husband’s on his way. She is not thinking, Where is my mommy right now?’ It felt so nice that they saw that in me and helped me get through it. Sure enough, [Brian] got home. [Autumn] was totally fine. I came home, she came running at me in her cute little pajamas. It wasn’t a big deal.”

It’s not the only time Brian, who’s “great in emergencies,” has come to the rescue. The family was all together last fall in one room at home when the couple heard a noise; Atticus had managed to hurt himself badly enough to need stitches for the first time. They’re still not sure what happened, only that Brian was the calm one in the situation.

“I hope in my 40s, when it comes to my children being injured, I can find a calm and ability as an actress to be like, ‘It’s OK, babe. It’s not bad.’ That is not what happens. When it’s one of my children, it’s like, ‘Nooooooo!’” she screams.

On these occasions, Brian has to give her a pep talk. He’ll say, “‘Love you, but you can’t be like this. Not sure who I’m supposed to be taking care of right now.’ He does it in a nice way, but he has the unbelievable ability to look at these people he loves so much and handle business. I fold. And I hate it about myself. You would think, I’m an actress. Play the part of somebody who can handle the situation. No, when it’s my babies, I lose it.”

Plus, Brian steps up when Jennifer reaches her parenting limit and “needs five minutes of deep breathing in another room.”

Is Brian one of those mythical husbands who takes on the mental load, the thinking and planning moms tend to handle alone?

“No, no, no,” Jennifer assures me. “He splits running the house, keeping our children functioning—but that stuff that happens in the brain? If you ask him what size shoe [Atticus wears], he doesn’t know.”

Jennifer freely admits that she and Brian are still figuring out parenting, but one thing’s for sure: She misses her favorite role model, her own mom, Patricia, who passed away in 2012, just before Jennifer became a mother herself.

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“I become more like my mom every day,” Jennifer says. But that isn’t a bad thing for her. “My mom was pretty extraordinary. I’m going to have fun doing to my kids what my mom did to me as a teenager. If my mom threatened to show up at a party in a bathrobe with curlers in her hair, she would do it. And I grew up in Hollywood. My mom would come rolling up to a party of kid actors and be like, ‘I told you I was going to show up here.’”

Jennifer is starting to share stories about her mom with her children, especially Autumn.

“My daughter knows [my mother is] a guardian angel, and that is her Mimi. When she has a rough day at school, she’ll be like, “Do you think Mimi was watching over me today?’ I’m like, ‘Of course.’”

Losing her mom and talking to her kids about the grandmother they’ll never meet spurred an idea: writing a children’s book. “There are not a lot of books out there that in a childlike way teach children about deceased grandparents. I think that’s an important book because people are having children later in life,” so their parents are less likely to be around to meet the grandkids. Jennifer hopes that writing about her mom will get young readers to ask their parents, “Hey, do I have a Mimi?” and start that tricky conversation.
Jennifer Love Hewitt and husband Brian

Another new professional territory: making wine. She and her husband partnered with friends to release a chardonnay and a roussanne, which Jennifer calls a “masculine chardonnay.” Brian is the connoisseur of the couple, but wine has increasingly infiltrated Jennifer’s world … at playdates. “Moms are like, ‘Do you drink wine?’” she whispers. “‘I know this is a noon playdate, but do you want a glass of something?’ It’s hysterical.”

Turning 40 and trying new things isn’t scary to Jennifer; it’s exciting, even reassuring.

“A lot of my friends have already turned 40, and in watching them and my husband, there’s this settling in with who you are and being OK with it that’s lovely. I like this version of me because I have two amazing children and a great husband. I am exactly where I hoped I would be.”

In 2020, Jennifer and Brian are making music together, posting their songs and covers on Instagram.

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