Hilary Duff Never Meant To Make It Look Easy
Even Hollywood's ultimate Good Mom is figuring it out along the way.
It’s Tuesday morning, and Los Angeles is its most buoyant self. The Teslas on Beverly are glinting from a fresh wash. No one has seen a cloud since last week. Optimism is palpable. The message from the universe: It’s a Hilary Duff kind of day.
Duff greets me at her front gate with a hug and says, “It’s so nice to meet you!” as though it is genuinely nice to meet me.
Duff is an ambassador of her city: high-waisted jeans, pink slides, swinging blonde hair, a generously cut cardigan that’s part shawl, part blanket, and the kind of brilliant white smile that makes you want to count her teeth. It’s hard not to stare. We walk around the house to the backyard, and I glance/peek/spy into her living room window. Tasteful, comfortable, and all the things you would expect Hilary Duff’s living room to be. Then, smack in the middle, a small pile.
“Hilary, someone pooped in your living room.”
“Oh, ugh. Hang on a sec,” she says. She disappears into the house, says something to someone, presumably about the poop. In a minute, she’s back. “We have a very old, senior citizen dog.”
She leads me to the pergola on the side of her house — we sit on the couches, bathing ourselves in dappled sunlight.
You might know Duff from various roles over her decades-long career as Kelly, Kenzie, or Kelsey, but you almost certainly know her as Lizzie McGuire, the title character of a Disney Channel series that defined many late millennials’ tween years. Now 34 and starring in How I Met Your Father, Hulu’s new sequel to the long-running CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, Duff has been working as an actor — very, very successfully — since she was 10 years old. Her five pop music albums have sold over 15 million copies. And in a town famous for its fickleness (and schadenfreude), she is utterly beloved. Sutton Foster, whom Duff appeared alongside in Younger from 2015 until its finale last year, calls Duff “an amazing co-star, but more importantly an amazing person.” Isaac Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger, the creators of How I Met Your Father, were somehow even more effusive: “Hilary is the picture of talent, kindness, and professionalism. … She is effortlessly funny, you can’t help but root for her.”
That this woman is also raising three kids can make a normal person feel a little… underachievy.
Through the sliding glass doors, we see Duff’s offscreen life: Her daughter Banks, 3 years old, has dressed herself in pajamas and a princess dress, and is twirling through the kitchen, casting spells on every appliance in her purview. Mae, 10 months old at the time, is sitting on the floor, singing the universal baby song of “Blablabla” while palming any object she can reach. The room is a blur of toys and art supplies and sippy cups, and in the background, tasteful, expensive-looking furniture. There are a couple of grownups in the mix, cleaning, chatting, overseeing. And there’s the geriatric dog, a Yorkie named Jak, walking stiffly, trying to avoid being yanked into the fray. It’s chaos, and when it’s not yours, it’s beautiful and charming. Duff’s home has the joyful disposition of easiness. It’s a kid’s house.
“I wish I could tell you we were the family that all sits down and eats dinner together every night.”
Duff seems to take in the pandemonium with that mixture of exhaustion and pride that accompanies the “momomomomomomomomom” years. She does an impression of her oldest, 9-year-old son Luca: “‘Mom, the doorbell’s ringing. Mom, do you know where my this is? Mom, the dog pooped on the rug again.’ I’m like, ‘You’re almost 10! You can pick up poop if you see it!’”
As all but the unafflicted know, even with help (and Duff has plenty), parenting is like taking a redeye that never lands while sitting next to someone who keeps crying and barfing milk on your shoulder.
“So, are you done?” I ask. I don’t even have to add “having babies”; Duff knows what I’m asking, which is why she hesitates.
“I don’t think so.”
“It’s psychotic, I know. We might be. I don’t know. I love being a parent with Matt.” (Duff is married to musician and producer Matthew Koma. She had Luca with first husband, Mike Comrie.) “We are obsessed with our kids, even though we’re so exhausted.”
And then Duff, the face on all those How I Met Your Father billboards, Duff of the movie star smile, expertly groomed eyebrows, and poreless complexion, Duff with 20 million Instagram followers, tells me: “My entire life’s mission is to be a good parent.”
Don’t get the wrong idea. Duff doesn’t say this with a halo floating over her head. One of the things that’s so easy to like about her is that she doesn’t pretend to be perfect — or a perfect parent. “Does anybody nail this? Do you think any mom just crushes it every single evening?” No, no, I don’t. And if such an insufferable person exists, I don’t want to meet her.
“I wish I could tell you we were the family that all sits down and eats dinner together every night,” she says. “Luca has after-school, sometimes we’re not getting home until 6:45, his sports and her dance, and it’s just constant shifts of food. Everybody’s eating something else because this person doesn’t eat meat, and Matt can’t have dairy and blah blah blah. We all sat down together like three days ago at the table, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re all sitting at the table together! What’s going to be our topic? Highlight of the day? Worst part of the day? Go!’ And Luca was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
Maybe it comes from the work-hard, smile-hard ethos she learned at Disney, but in contrast to the braggy culture of effortlessness that’s all over Hollywood, Duff seems to measure success — as an actor, as a mother, as a person — by how much work she puts into matters large and small. After having Luca at Cedars-Sinai with an epidural, she had her second child at home to see if she could give birth without drugs. (She had Mae the same way.) It’s a character trait that has even followed her to the grocery store. When she was living in Brooklyn while filming Younger, she tried to go shopping at the Park Slope Food Co-op. Simple enough, except you’ve got to work there to shop there. Her assistant, Lauren, steps out onto the terrace to tell me what happened: “Hilary was like, ‘I guess we could take a shift once a week.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re also filming a show. I think we’re going to take it easy on you working at the co-op.’”
Parenting — in its myriad forms — will absorb all the energy you throw at it. “Hilary is a down-on-the-floor, roll-around-in-the-dirt-with-her-kids [kind of mom],” says Gina Abraham, Duff’s 54-year-old neighbor, who has become a close friend and parenting mentor. “She’s not a helicopter mom — she’s just easygoing and about the most fun mom there is. The other day, the road outside has just been tarred — and there is Hilary, outside with Banks. Banks is dancing in the tar, getting her feet all black. And Hilary goes, ‘Isn’t that disgusting?’ But Banks is having a ball and Hilary let her do her thing, knowing that she’ll clean her off when it’s time to clean her off.”
Several years ago when Luca complained that his friends “kn[e]w more” than him because they had older siblings, Duff responded, “What do you want to know? I will tell you.” Her child uttered one of the more esoteric euphemisms for penis and asked what it meant. After a moment of pearl-clutching, Duff told him what it meant. “I was like, ‘I don’t know how you heard that. I don’t even want to know.’ I’m sure it was on the bus,” she remembers. “It’s that moment where you’re like, ‘OK, here’s my choice: Am I going to lie, or am I just going to be an open book?’ And it’s so much healthier to be an open book.”
Maybe inhabiting so many roles in her two-plus decades as an actor has given Duff an advantage as a parent: She knows how to understand other perspectives. “What I love about Hilary as a parent is how aware she is of her kid’s feelings,” says Abraham, who has a 19-year-old son. “I have seen her completely exhausted, but then she’ll say, ‘I haven’t spent enough time with Banks today, so we’re going to paint for a few hours.’ She’s invested in her kids in a way I’ve never seen.”
Even Duff has her limit, though. “I operate in two speeds,” she says. “I’m either running at full speed or I’m laid out. It takes a lot to lay me out, but when I’m laid out, I’m done.”
“Oh, I’ve seen her lose her patience,” Abraham says. “It’s rare, but I’ve seen it. I’ve seen her use expletives and walk out of the room, but then she comes back and is like, ‘OK, Luca, let’s build Legos!’” And then, perhaps the highest praise one mother can bestow on another: “I wish I had more of her in me when I was raising my son.”
Like everyone else who lived through 2020 and 2021 (and might as well throw in the last few months), Duff’s world was thrown into disarray by Covid. Homeschooling was, of course, a trial, and not easily delegated, even to her husband. “I felt like once one parent signed up for that, it was kind of like, well, the other person can’t just step in. Because you have to know about this app and that app and this password and this thing. And we’re learning this in [social studies] and this is due. And you know what I mean? It’s a one-person kind of job.”
“I feel like I can never give my kids enough of me.”
I do, but I’m not sure the non-homeschooling spouses of the world would agree. “The pandemic was great for Matt because he’s like, if everyone’s just under the same roof all the time and we only have each other, fantastic!’ I’m like, ‘No, no, no, no.’ It’s OK for a little while, but…”
Those are the ellipses of the mother incapable of phoning it in. A mother who knows every password to every child’s online classroom, a mother who knows which kid lost her favorite wand, needs you to play a song but not that song, and which one has to have that thing with the sparkle thing that went through the washing machine but was saved from a hot, melty death in the dryer. Duff knows it all. “I have, like, the craziest guilt. I don’t know why that was my mom card dealt to me, but I feel like I can never give my kids enough of me,” she says.
During the homeschooling phase, she says, Koma “would come home and I had maybe a bottle of wine, and he’d be like, ‘Do I need to be worried?’ I’m like, ‘You’re not doing what I’m doing. I was having to hide from Banks because she was 15 months old, in that super [attached] phase, and Luca wanted me to be the teacher. It was hell on earth.”
The upside of all of that was learning to say goodbye to some of the guilt. She let herself quit breastfeeding Mae much earlier than she had with her first two. “With Luca and Banks, I got to seven months. With Mae, I got to seven weeks, and I was like, ‘I’m done.’ I spent all my time in that chair in the corner either feeding her or pumping, and I wasn’t making enough milk, so I was also having to supplement, so the whole feeding process was so long. I was like, ‘What am I doing? The guilt is why I’m staying here.’” She didn’t even feel guilty having an occasional glass of red wine in the third trimester of pregnancy. Then she adds, “I don’t want the mommy warriors to come after me.”
Mommy warriors of the internet: If you can hear this, Hilary’s fine. The kids are fine. Move along.
But if you’re Hilary Duff, the mommy warriors don’t always move along. Recently, the controversy-free Duff had a mini-controversy.
Before we get to that, a brief geography lesson: Duff lives in a small, lovely gated community. Imagine a lot of trees, a smattering of gardeners, and zero traffic. Presumably, people drive in and out of their driveways from time to time, but not in any hurry.
“It’s not like I’m driving on the 405 with my kids in the backseat without a car seat.”
“The other day — my publicist would absolutely kill me if I brought this up,” she says, bringing it up anyway. “There was this huge story that came out because my friend Molly [Bernard, Banks’ godmother and another Younger cast member] was in the backseat of our car with Banks without her carseat. It’s not like I’m driving on the 405 with my kids in the backseat without a car seat. You have no context. You don’t know where I am.”
“Do you know how many times I let my kids sit on my front seat once we get [close to our driveway] to pretend like they’re driving home? You’re telling me you’ve never put your kid in the backseat to drive a block before with an adult back there? I’m like, ‘Happy new year to you, too.’”
I start to think of Duff as the Little Mermaid, a perfect creature without a leg to stand on. Someone created by the Disney industrial complex for the viewing public. She was molded to be a sweet, beautiful, perpetually smiling doll that would sacrifice her voice along the way. We could watch her giggle or be a good friend or trip but in a cute way. She was designed to be comforting. But one day she got her legs and found her voice and became her own person. She wasn’t Lizzie or Kelly or Kenzie. By dint of hard work and free will, she was Hilary. And yes, maybe her entire life’s mission is to be a good parent. The world may cling to its Happy Hilary doll — she has spoken recently about accepting that some people will always see her as Lizzie McGuire. But Duff herself has built a life — a real one — where she gets to be the flawed parent, the unwilling homeschooler, the one always trying for the elusive, perfect family dinner.
It’s time for Mae’s nap. Her nanny, Connie, brings her out to the porch to give her mama a kiss, and Duff swoops her daughter up and rubs her nose against Mae’s cheek. Then Connie carries Mae, now rubbing her eyes with her tiny fists, back inside.
At the risk of Duff thinking I’ve joined the carseat monitors, I note that Mae has pierced ears. “You did it young, huh?”
“I did. I did it young for Banks, so I did it young for Mae,” she says. “There are so many opinions about that.”
“My daughter wants double piercings now,” I say.
“I would do it,” she says. “That’s something easy to say yes to.”
“But what if she regrets having the hole later?”
“You have double piercings,” she says. “Do you regret it?” Fair point, I think.
We walk out, past the living room windows — the dog poop is long since cleaned up, but we both know there will be more. For now, the house is sparkling and beautiful, thriving with life and mac and cheese and princess dresses. Duff gives me a hug goodbye. I’ve been a mother a few years longer than she has, but even in our brief afternoon together, I somehow have the sense that I could learn a few things from her parenting.
I get in the car and call my daughter.
“Hi, Mommy. How was your interview?”
“It was great. We actually talked about you.”
“Yep. Do you still want to get second piercings?”
Top Image Credits: On Hilary: Brandon Maxwell dress, Talent’s own ring. On Mae: Gucci bloomers, Stylist’s own hair bow
Photographer: Kerry Hallihan
Stylist: Tiffany Reid
Hair: Nikki Lee
Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan
Set Designer: Robert Ziemer
Bookings: Special Projects
Video: Alex Van Brande
Danielle Pergament is a journalist and frequent contributor to The New York Times travel section. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children.