Social media powerhouse Kristina Kuzmic shares her struggles as a Solo Mom and how she fought back
She’s done videos from her bathtub, she’s done videos while eating out of a tub of ice cream, and she’s done videos—more than a few times—with a glass of wine within reach. She’s talked up everything from being your child’s parent, not their friend, to breastfeeding in public to surviving teenagers to how to fake being the perfect mom on social media. But her message each time is the same: nobody is perfect, and chaos is normal.
“It’s like the universal thing. I don’t care what country you live in, I don’t care how old you are, I don’t care what your life looks like,” Kuzmic, 38, says. “We all just need to know ‘I’m normal.’”
That’s something she desperately needed to hear as a Solo Mom of two kids, sleeping on the floor and working two jobs, panicked about where the next meal was going to come from or how she was going to keep a roof over their heads.
It was not the life she imagined when she married her first husband at 22 and was a mother of two by 26. Kuzmic had immigrated to the United States as a teenager, fleeing her native Croatia, which was being ravaged by war. When her family returned to rebuild their lives, Kuzmic stayed in the United States, going to college in Southern California and contemplating a career in the theater industry.
Kuzmic says having a family was always part of her master plan; getting divorced at 27 and plunging into poverty was not but, then again, neither was becoming a social media sensation with more than half a billion views.
Kuzmic scrambled to pick herself up and support her family. A chance turn at creating her own online cooking videos led to the chance of a lifetime when Kuzmic beat out 20,000 applicants to win the reality-TV competition Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star, and then hosted her own cooking show on OWN (the Oprah Winfrey Network). She was once called the “It Plus girl” by Oprah herself.
That’s because Kuzmic uses humor and real talk to get to the heart of being a mom, making the disorganized hot mess that is parenthood seem absolutely normal.
“I feel like we all crave it,” she says, “and people just aren’t blunt enough, which is why I try to be extra blunt. Because I think something that simple could literally save lives. I really do.”
Now remarried with three children, Kuzmic spoke with ESME about her struggles as a Solo Mom, how she reinvented her life, and what she wants all mothers to remember during the hard times.
Q: What did you imagine your life would look like?
A: Not like this. [Laughs] I always knew I wanted to get married and have kids and that was actually really important to me. When I would babysit, I’d be paying attention to how people raised their kids and think, Oh that’s interesting. I’ll remember that.
Even though I never ever, ever thought I’d be creating parenting content, somewhere in the back of my mind I was super passionate about parenting because I was paying attention more than most teenagers to how people were parenting their kids.
I studied theater. So I’d say in my 20s I thought I would be performing in local theaters, maybe teaching theater in a high school. Again, the interesting thing about that is I am a performer in a way—definitely far from what I expected—but I think I’ve always had that need for creativity. I think it was the only way I felt fulfilled.
I definitely didn’t picture myself divorced and remarried. I don’t know that anybody pictures themselves that way when they think about their future. In some ways it’s completely different than I pictured it because I went through so much with my divorce, and I have a job that I never thought I would have. But in the other way, it’s still focused on the things that are important to me, which is parenting and creativity.
Q: How did becoming a mother at a young age set the course for your life?
A: I was a young bride, young mom. I’m trying to convince my kids not to get married until their late 20s, at least. I know a lot of people whom it’s worked out for. My best friend was married at a very young age and has been married for 20 years now, I think. Of course there are exceptions, and it works for a lot of people. My son’s high school teacher just told us that the human brain isn’t even done developing until 24. I thought, Oh, OK, that makes sense.
I just feel like I didn’t know myself enough. I didn’t even know what I really needed long term or what was going to be healthy for me long term. I didn’t know not to ignore red flags. I used to blame myself for it, but now as I get older, I look at 22-year-olds and I think, Oh my gosh, you’re just a baby! It’s helped me forgive myself and think, Kristina, you were a kid. You can’t blame yourself for not realizing this or not making the best decisions from a young age.
I don’t want my children to make those decisions as young as I did, but on the other hand, I can’t say I regret anything because I love my life now. And no, I never planned on being divorced, and no, I never planned on being as broke as I was and depressed and going through my hard stuff. Not to sound cheesy, but I feel like I was supposed to go through it because I really believe I was put on earth to do what I’m doing now. I have found my calling.
Q: How did going through the hard stuff impact the career you have now?
A: Let me put it this way. I was sitting in a meeting a few months ago. It was a big, fancy Hollywood meeting with big, fancy people, and I think I even shaved my armpits for this meeting because it was that important (and maybe just one leg, but only up to my knee).
I’m sitting in the meeting, and I remember the executive saying, “You’ve grown this following, and . . . [blah, blah, blah] what do you want to do next? Do you want to write a book? Do you want a TV show? Do you want a talk show?” And he was naming all these big things: “Do you want a line of products for moms?”
And without even thinking, what came out of my mouth was, “I want to be for others what I needed when I was at my lowest.” And then I literally broke down in this fancy meeting because it was the first time I said it out loud, but everything all of a sudden made sense.
Whether I’m trying to make parents laugh or whether I figured out a great parenting tip that works for my kids and I’m going to share it or whether it’s sharing my raw story just to make people feel less alone: that’s all the stuff I needed. When I was at my lowest, I needed to laugh about the exhausting parts of motherhood. I needed some parenting tips. I needed to know I wasn’t alone. I needed to know other people were struggling.
Whether it’s the serious stuff or the funny stuff, it all gets back to that’s what I craved when I was at my lowest point.
Q: What was your lowest point?
A: After my divorce, I didn’t ask for any child support. I just wanted to leave. I didn’t want to go through crazy court things. My life, everything, felt so dramatic that I just wanted to sort of—let me just tiptoe out of this and not cause any extra drama. I was a stay-at-home mom after my divorce. I ended up sharing a little bedroom with two kids, getting two part-time jobs. Living in Southern California is expensive. I couldn’t even afford a bed for myself. I slept on the floor, and a friend of mine bought my kids bunk beds.
I ended up having to apply for food stamps, which for me was—and I’m sure a lot of parents feel this way at first—oh my gosh, I cannot even provide food for my kids without help.
I ended up sinking into a really deep depression. It just got to the point where I was convinced my kids deserved better than me, I’m a loser, I have failed, I am not a good mom anymore, my life is useless.
Everything was negative; everything was bad. I had every homeless shelter in my area written down on a little piece of paper and kept it in my wallet because I was so fearful. My rent would be late, and I was always asking my landlord, “Can you give me an extra day or two?”
There was just so much fear in everything. The financial struggle and then the internal struggle of, I suck, and it sucks for my kids that I’m the mom they got.
Q: You met your new husband soon after. How did you turn your life around?
A: After I got remarried, we couldn’t even afford a honeymoon. My new husband was in grad school. We were better than I was when I was broke broke, but we did not have a lot of money.
The day after our wedding, he said, “What do you want to do? You’ve been in survival mode, but you’re so creative; you’re so passionate. What do you want to do?”
I said, “You know what? It would be fun to make some cooking videos.”
So I made a few cooking videos, and within a month of posting them, this complete stranger e-mails me and says, “I saw your videos on YouTube, and you need to enter the Oprah competition. You have the ‘It’ factor,” or whatever.
I replied, “Hey, stranger! I don’t have a working television right now!”
So she sends me the link, and I’m thinking, Well, what the heck? Sure I’ll send in a video. I send in a video, and about a week later, I’m talking to Mark Burnett’s producers.
This is probably only about two years after I’m sleeping on the floor depressed. So I enter the competition. Oprah and Mark end up choosing me [as part of] the top 10 who will compete in the reality-TV show, where Oprah’s going to give someone a TV show and I end up winning the whole thing. Which, again, it’s insane if you think about it.
I decided I wanted to do a cooking show.
Q: How was it working with Oprah Winfrey?
A: The one thing Oprah gave me is the confidence. I think I’d still be doing the funny stuff, but I don’t know that I’d be as confident to share the real raw stuff if it weren’t for Oprah. Oprah said, “I love that you are messy and real and you don’t pretend to be perfect and you embrace how flawed you are.”
But then she went off to film the movie The Butler, and I got stuck with TV executives who would say, “No, no, no! We can’t show a messy kitchen on TV. No, no, no! You can’t be burning dinner on TV.” And that’s what I wanted!
So I ended up creating this cooking show where, unfortunately, they made me perfect. They made me this perfect little cook who never messed up. It was the opposite of what I wanted to do. I kept thinking, All this show is going to do is intimidate moms at home. It isn’t going to encourage them.
After one season we parted ways, and I just took a break. I thought, I don’t want to do this; I’m obviously not meant for TV. They’re just going to try to change me.
Q: You then took a break from the spotlight, had a baby boy with your husband, and threw yourself into family life. How did this huge social media following happen?
A: I’m sitting on my couch breastfeeding him, my shirt is up, and I’m looking down at my scrunched-up stomach with my stretch marks. I’m looking down, thinking, How many women right now are doing the same thing I’m doing? They’re breastfeeding their baby, and they are completely missing out on how amazing this moment is because they’re too busy staring at their stomach and judging it. It just sparked an idea, and I thought, I’m going to make a video about how sexy stretch marks are.
I just set it up, and I started talking about how sexy stretch marks are, and that was my first video.
I literally was just posting it for my tiny little 3,000-person following I had from the Oprah thing. But then it did really well, and I started getting e-mails from moms saying, “Thank you, I needed that.” And I thought, Oh,OK; I’ll keep going.
The fourth video was “4 Reasons Women Should NEVER Breastfeed in Public,” but it’s sarcastic and is supporting women breastfeeding. I wake up in the morning, and my phone is blowing up with texts from my friends: ”Ashton Kutcher just shared your video.”
That’s when I realized, man, my stuff is reasonating; people need to hear this. And I now am in control. I don’t have to be perfect. I can show my messy, crazy life.
And then I just kept creating, and eventually People magazine is calling because they want to talk about a video and then Us Weekly is calling. It just grew into this thing I never expected.
Q: Tell us about the chaos behind the videos!
A: I have two very loud dogs. If a leaf flies by outside, they will bark. For a two-minute rant, it’s a 20-minute video, and every two minutes you’ll hear me going, “No barking! Stop it!”
My dogs are constantly barking. I try to shoot videos when my kids are in school, but my preschooler is at school for only three hours a day, so a lot of times he’s home. He’ll pop up and need a snack, or there’s poop somewhere. There’s always poop somewhere.
It’s a lot of me getting up, trying to deal with the chaos. I don’t know that I’ve ever shot a video where it’s sit down, shoot it, get up, done. It’s just not what my life looks like.
My house is very loud, and that is not the greatest thing. I keep daydreaming about some day having a studio that is soundproof and far away from my children.
Q: What would you like to tell other Solo Moms?
A: You’re normal. Every time you think, I have failed today, I’m a loser, I didn’t do this right—most people around you are feeling it, too, they’re just not saying it out loud. And there is no such thing as a perfect parent.
And there is not a perfect family. So when you’re looking at those picture-perfect mom and dad and kids, you don’t know the chaos that’s happening behind that.
And I also want to say, especially to single moms who are struggling in any way, especially financially, I spent so much time worrying I wasn’t good enough for my kids and that my kids deserved better. But it’s interesting now talking to my two older kids; they don’t remember the stuff I remember. They don’t remember the struggles, they don’t remember the stress, they don’t remember not having a Christmas tree for three years, they don’t remember the lame birthday gift I got them at the thrift store, they don’t remember the fact that their room wasn’t decorated fancy like all their friends’ rooms—they don’t remember any of that stuff.
All our kids really need and want is us. They just want the best version of us. And if we would spend less time stressing over all the things we aren’t and all the things we don’t have and just enjoy life, that’s when our kids will get the best of us. We spend so much time walking around mopey and stressed out because of all the things we can’t provide for our kids when all our kids want is for us to stop walking around mopey and stressed out.
Make the best of life and just enjoy it.
When embracing the chaos gets too tough, remember that you have a community of Sisters who have your back. Join us in Sisters Only.
Sarah Netter, ESME’s Adoption Resource Guide, is a single mother by choice to a fabulous little boy, one neurotic Italian Greyhound, and two Spanish Galgo puppies. She is a full-time journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and ABC News.