When actress Kelly Rutherford‘s children Hermes, 9, and Helena, 7, arrive at their mom’s home in New York City, they usually change straight into their pajamas, jump into their mom’s bed — with her two bunny rabbits and two kittens! — smother her with hugs and then beg her to cook a delicious meal. “They’re like little monkeys!” says Kelly with a laugh. “All they want to do is cuddle up and talk about how much we love each other. Even though it’s incredibly hard to be separated, this situation has given us a whole new level of connection. They know we’re going through this together.”
What Kelly is referring to is her much-publicized custody battle with her ex-husband, a German businessman. Four years ago, the case took a shocking turn when his U.S. visa was revoked. Kelly, who wants her children to have a close relationship with their father, offered to fly with them to France every school holiday and summer breaks until his visa had been restored. But the kids — who had lived primarily with Kelly since birth, were attending preschool in New York and had never spent more than two consecutive nights away from her — were ordered to leave the U.S. and live in France.
“It’s been the most difficult years of my life,” says the former Gossip Girl actress, who has visited her children more than 60 times and had to file for bankruptcy in 2013 after spending $1.5 million trying to reverse the ruling. Kelly even started a We The People petition to the White House and President Barack Obama, which quickly got its 100,000 required signatures (including Kim Kardashian West, Melanie Griffith, Cindy Crawford, Selma Blair, Marcia Cross and many others). In a bizarre court ruling, the U.S. courts gave jurisdiction to Monaco late last year, and in December, Kelly lost her joint custody after they ruled that the children should remain in France. “There are nights when I wake up crying,” she says. “But I look at my kids and I go, ‘I want stay happy for them. If I’m positive, their world is okay.'”
Despite the turmoil, Kelly is a remarkably joyful person. She’s quick to laugh — often at herself — and her calm energy is uplifting. “When things are hard, I try shift my focus to something positive, even if it’s the tiniest thing,” she says. “Suddenly, you start appreciating the little things in life, like a good laugh with a friend or a cup of cappuccino. And you learn that those things can get you through the toughest days. In a way, it’s been an incredible learning experience.”
Kelly, who was photographed for this story at a friend’s home while visiting Los Angeles, has launched The Children’s Justice Campaign, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to raising awareness through media about the injustices occurring to children through the U.S. family court systems. In an exclusive interview — and her most revealing yet — Kelly opens up about her love for her kids, how her bankruptcy was “a gift” and why she’s so determined to remain happy.
Ulrica: Four ago in a U.S. family court, your children were technically deported to a foreign country. What happened?
Kelly: The day the final ruling came down, there was two choices for the judge. The first one was for the kids to stay in the country in which they were born and had lived all their lives, to stay in their schools and to stay with their primary caretaker which was their mother. My daughter was two years old at the time and my son was five, so it was very traumatic for them. I offered to take them to see their father every single holiday and all summer. I wanted them to see him a lot until he had figured out his visa situation. That was a big deal at the time, because the kids had never spent more than two nights at a time away from me. The other option was to take the kids out of school, away from their mother, away from their country, and plop them into a brand-new school, a brand-new environment and a brand-new country which no one had any connection to. I had 50/50 custody, but I would have it in a foreign country. So I’ve spent two years flying to see my children and trying to find a hotel or a place for us to spend time together as a family.
Ulrica: How do you emotionally handle something like that?
Kelly: The strength comes from my kids. I have to stay positive for my children, because I want to be the best mom I can be. I want to be healthy for them. I have to keep love in my heart for them. We all know if our mom is upset, the world is not good. If you look at your mom and she’s good and happy, and positive words are coming out of her mouth, you can go to school and concentrate. You feel confident. You feel safe. So for me to stay positive, and speak kind words, that’s the best gift I can give to my children.
Ulrica: You’ve also been wiped out financially and filed for bankruptcy. What did that feel like; to lose everything you’ve worked for all your life?
Kelly: It’s a little scary! I’m the kind of person who never had any debt. I always paid my bills on time, so the whole experience was new to me. I had to get a bankruptcy lawyer and go to court. It’s very complicated, and it was uncomfortable.
Ulrica: A silly question maybe, but did anything good come out of it?
Kelly: You realize what really matters. Things and material possessions don’t make you any happier. They’re not what made me happy. I’m still the same person, even if almost all the things I owned have been taken away from me. I’m still someone who has always been a pretty happy person at the core. Also, I’ve always worked and I know I can support myself. I’m very grateful for that. The thing is, going bankrupt will never change who I am or how much I love my children.
Ulrica: Do you ever miss your “nice stuff”?
Kelly: You know, it’s kind of liberating to lose everything you’ve worked for your whole life. It’s sad that it had to happen, but in a strange way it’s also liberating. I might be living in a tiny apartment, and I don’t have a lot anymore, but I don’t have any regrets. I spent that money fighting for my kids and traveling to see them. I’ve had nice things in my life. I don’t attach myself to them. Of course they’re great, but they’re just icing on the cake. They’re not what determines who I am as a person, or a friend, or a mother or a voice in the world.
Ulrica: What’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned?
Kelly: People can try to destroy you, or take your money, or take your kids, which is worse than anything. But they can only destroy you if they succeed in taking away the love you have in your heart. You have to keep the love and stay positive. You have to find happiness, even if it’s in the littlest of things. I’m so happy to get up in the morning and have my little cup of cappuccino. It makes me so happy! It might sound silly, but it makes it okay to get up even if things are hard. You have to start noticing the little things in life that can bring you joy, because they’re the ones that will pull you through.
Ulrica: Are you angry?
Kelly: I’ve felt anger, I’ve felt hurt, I’ve felt all the emotions known to man! [Laugh]. But the goal each day is to say, ‘Okay, the only thing that truly destroys a human being is when they become full of hate. So don’t let that happen to you.’ And I also know that, no matter how horrible my experience has been to me on a personal level, there are people all over the world who have it much worse. I always try to think about that. Whenever I wake up in the middle of the night and think, ‘Oh no, this has happened. When am I ever going to get my kids back?’ I try to remind myself how lucky I am in the grand scheme of things. I realize I’m still one of the fortunate ones.
Ulrica: How do you keep in touch with your kids when they’re in France?
Kelly: I Skype with them almost every day, and I talk to them a few times on the phone. I set the alarm clock so I can talk to them before they go to school in the morning. I travel to see them about every three weeks. Sometimes I’ve had to go six weeks because I can’t afford the ticket. The only time I can bring them home with me is when they’re on a holiday break or in the summer.
Ulrica: The thought that you can’t be there to brush your little girl’s hair in the morning as she heads off to school, or comfort your son when he falls down, or read books to them at bedtime… it must be so hard to miss those day-to-day things that, as a parent, make your heart soar.
Kelly: It’s been very very painful. But my best advice for anyone going through something like this is to get in the shower and have a good cry! Close the door and get it all out. Crying in the shower is the best. Then pull yourself together, brush your hair and, this is the key, try to put positive thoughts in your mind. Read a positive book. Surround yourself with positive friends.
Ulrica: You mean try not to talk or think too much about the bad stuff?
Kelly: Yes, because talking about it doesn’t change the situation. The more I complain about it in a negative way, the worse it becomes for me. In the beginning, I would talk about it all the time because I was so shocked! I couldn’t believe this could happen in my own country. I was hoping someone would say something that would magically set it right. But doing that is really just a waste of time. You’re not changing anything. You’re just making yourself miserable. So instead of focusing on the negative, I re-focus my attention on all that is good in my life. Even if it’s just one thing in that moment. I put the negatives in one corner, and I bring forth the positives. And that makes me feel better overall. And the better I feel, the better my children feel.
Ulrica: Your kids are only eight and five years old. What do you say to them about this situation?
Kelly: I remember when I was young and my parents got divorced. I always knew who everyone was and how they felt about me. I knew the truth, no matter what anyone said. So I think about that a lot with my kids. My son asked me, ‘Do you love papa?’ and I said, ‘Of course I love your papa. He gave me the two most beautiful gifts in the world and I will always love him for that.’ I try to find the positive side of things, and the truth, and say it in a way that’s comforting to them. I think it’s important for them to know that I loved their father. And if I can’t go and see them, I tell them, ‘Mommy doesn’t have the money right now. It’s not because I don’t love you.’
Ulrica: How do you try to raise them? What values do you teach them?
Kelly: Of course I talk to them about eating healthy and where food comes from. I talk to them about being honest and truthful. I talk to them about speaking in a respectful way to each other and to other people. I tell them things like, ‘The more you give, the more you get!’ I come up with little silly catchphrases, like when they’re zooming around on their scooters I say, ‘Fast and safe wins the race!’ Just so they’ll remember to put on their helmets. But the ultimate lesson is ourselves. If we treat our kids well, and if we treat others well, they’ll remember that. If we put out positive energy into the world, and if we conduct ourselves in a kind and joyful manner, they’ll pick up on that. To be a positive force in the world is ultimately the best lesson we can teach our kids.
Kelly Rutherford was photographed exclusively for Sweden With Love by Elizabeth Messina. You can find out more about Kelly by visiting her website www.KellyRutherford.com and follow her on Twitter @kellyrutherford.
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