You may know her as Lois, the take-charge mom on Malcolm in the Middle, or the voice of tough Judge Constance Harm on The Simpsons. At home, Jane Kaczmarek is a hands-on mom to three young children with a full schedule of school events, music lessons, and ballet classes.
Before pursuing an acting career, Jane trained to be a teacher, like her mother and brother. Now she’s actively involved in the education of her children, 9-year-old Frances, 7-year-old George, and 4-year-old Mary Louisa.
When she’s not busy with the kids, Jane works with Clothes Off Our Back, the foundation she started with her husband, actor Bradley Whitford (The West Wing, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip). Clothes Off Our Back raises money for children’s charities through online auctions of clothes worn by celebrities. To date, it has raised nearly $2 million for groups such as the Children’s Defense Fund and Cure Autism Now.
We caught up with Jane at her home in Pasadena, Calif., right after she took Mary Louisa to prekindergarten. She talked with us about balancing work and family life, why she doesn’t watch television, and why she still loves going to school.
Both you and Brad got degrees before becoming professional actors. How do you impart the value you place on education to your children?
I was in graduate school until I was 26. I was very sorry to say goodbye to education. I love school. It’s been my greatest joy now that I’ve got free time. I’ve taken just about every music history class at the Pasadena Conservatory of Music. I’m now taking art classes at the Armory in Pasadena.
We also love music. I play the piano and my husband plays the viola. Music education is big. The kids have been in music classes since they were 18 months old. All three kids play the piano, and Frances also plays the cello. I think when you see that your parents really appreciate it and love it and participate in it, in our experience anyway, it’s been a pretty easy thing to impart to the children.
We also don’t watch television! I hate to sound like one of those nutty people, but we have one television in our house. It’s in a room way over on the other side of the house so it’s just never on and you have to walk over to that room to turn it on. Sometimes after they practice, read, take their baths, maybe there’s a half an hour at the end of the day, and we TiVo things so they can watch a half an hour of something. I can’t think of any greater decision we’ve made as parents than not having the television on. It’s odd because we make a living in television, but there are so many other things I’d rather be doing.
How do you stay involved in your kids’ education?
The two older children are at a K-12 private school and we moved out to Pasadena because of this school, frankly. We bought a house where they can walk to school, which is very unusual these days. We have a bicycle with two tandems on it and Brad often, when he has time, will ride them on the bike. I walk Mary Louisa to her preK.
I will volunteer to drive [for field trips]. They also have a hot lunch program, which is very different from my hot lunch program where you paid 25 cents and you got a hot lunch. The mothers have to volunteer and serve the hot lunches, and they’re very good, so I will do that. What I’m very good at is silent auctions. I get so much stuff, free stuff, and I always have a basement full of things to donate to the silent auctions. I get so much stuff that’s wonderful, but I don’t need it. I love that we sell it for good causes.
I do know some moms that all they do is live for their kids and the school, and I think there’s a fine line between being on call for your children 24 hours a day and maintaining some kind of individual existence.
Also, Brad and I always said, too, that the reason acting became so important to us was it was totally our thing. Our parents weren’t involved in it at all. I had a teacher in high school who thought I had potential to become a professional actor and, you know, in the ’70s it was like saying you were going to be an astronaut. Nobody became an actor. He would find classes for me and I would take my baby-sitting money and get the bus schedule and figure out how to ride my bike or take the bus to downtown Milwaukee to take these classes. It was really my thing, so if I pursued it, it was because I really wanted to do it, not because I had a parent that was pushing me. The same thing with Brad. I see so many parents now who are so invested in children succeeding in things or doing things only because it’s going to look good on a college application, and we just really try not to do that.
It must have been hard staying involved with the kids when you were both filming TV shows.
I can’t imagine, with the three children I have, ever going back to work full time. We had a battalion of nannies who were extremely good and hands-on, and I never worried that my children weren’t being well taken care of, but when Malcolm ended and I looked at what was going on in my children’s lives without me, I was just stunned. It sounds naive in a way, but I can’t believe how full their lives are. And I missed a big portion of that, of their very small childhood by just never being around. I get such pleasure now out of braiding my children’s hair in the mornings and putting on their nightgowns at night and drying their hair after baths, and you know, that’s why I had kids. I love being a mother.
How would you describe your parenting style?
I’m not like Lois so much, but I’m not afraid to say no. I think it’s very important that children know that saying no means no. I think there are so many mothers that are afraid to say no, so many mothers that are afraid to set limits. [My kids] really know who the boss is. And I think because they don’t watch all those smart-ass kids on television, I don’t have much problem with them speaking in disrespectful tones. I do a voice on The Simpsons on occasion, and I’ve never let my children watch The Simpsons.
You don’t want them modeling their behavior on Bart.
Yeah, a classic underachiever.
What do your kids think of Lois’ parenting style?
They’ve only seen a couple episodes of Malcolm in the Middle. They were really too little when I was doing it to see it. Those kids are naughty, but what I love on that show is that they just never got away with anything, as naughty as those children were. And I think that’s part of the reason that show was so funny was that if you let your kids get away with stuff it’s not funny to watch. If you know that Lois is like a hawk watching those kids, they have to really be clever on what they’re trying to get away with. And that’s where the humor was.
She’s such a great character.
She always made a lot of sense to me. I think that because that first year of Malcolm I was pregnant and we were renovating the house and I just wanted to go home—I would have to check with the contractor, I had to go to the doctor for a checkup—and I’d be working on this show with these kids and I would yell at them. The director would always ask if I wanted to have another take, and I’d say, “No, I don’t want another take. I want to go home. Let’s just do this!” I think that Lois was really born out of my dispatch. I just wanted to go home.
You and Brad started Clothes Off Our Back, which raises money for children’s charities through online auctions of clothing that celebrities wear to red carpet events. What inspired you to start the foundation?
A lot of it started with having three healthy children who were never going to want for clean water or good schools or immunizations. The first year, we sold Jennifer Aniston’s dress from the Emmys and someone paid $50,000 for it and we were able to immunize 50,000 children in Africa. That’s just amazing. What we really love is getting it into people’s heads how tangible it is. That pair of Manolo Blahniks, $500 shoes, you know what you can do to feed people with that?
What are your hopes for the kids benefiting from Clothes Off Our Back?
Even if it’s just throwing them a safety net, even if it’s just getting them through another year of existence. There’s a great quote that had a huge impact on me, from Marian Wright Edelman, who runs the Children’s Defense Fund. It’s in her book called The Measure of Our Success, where she says that service is the rent we pay for living, and the higher your financial or education gifts, the higher your rent. And I feel as though I’ve been so lucky in Hollywood, so I have a really high rent to pay. I don’t think there’s an evening gown or jewelry or a limousine I’ve ever been in that has made me feel as good as I feel knowing that I’m helping children in need.