Norwegian-born, Los Angeles-based Tonje Kristiansen is living lesson in not judging a book by its cover...
With her picture-perfect hair, enviable wardrobe and beautiful family, it would be easy to assume she is living the good life. And while it certainly is a life that’s good, it’s not one that has been without immense challenge.
As Tonje says, “I feel like my life was divided into two times – before and after I had children.” Following traumatic premature births and her children’s complex health challenges, Tonje transformed her life professionally, creatively and personally.
As well as working as an actor, filmmaker, photographer and journalist, she went on to launch her own online platform – Notebook by Tonje Kristiansen – where she has set about sharing stories and revelations of women and mothers, in the hope that we can inspire and connect with each other. This then sparked the launch of Her Platform, an event series that was born out of, “The isolation experienced in the rebuilding of my life when moving to LA. The breakdown of my marriage. The experience with my son’s birth, the hospitalisation and the aftermath. Working my way into the world and creating our new normal, shifting the narrative I thought my life would follow.”
If you’re wondering how she has the motivation and drive to keep going, you’re not alone. Tonje says that she is inspired by, “People who dedicate their life to help others, people who have overcome and dealt with medical challenges and serious illness, people who speak the truth and stand up for one another, young activists, entrepreneurs who have the persistence to execute their ideas and stay true to their vision in this competitive market, mothers everywhere and great artists within the visual arts.” But we think she needs to look no further than herself.
For a story that is moving, heartbreaking and ultimately incredibly inspiring – look no further than Tonje Kristiansen.
Tell us a little bit about your childhood...
I grew up in the countryside of Norway with parents who were famous filmmakers. The films they made were quite controversial; my mother was in charge as a writer, director and sometimes actress, while my dad produced. My mother fought intensely for women’s rights through her movies. Her approach was publicly praised, wildly criticized and always provocative. She was probably one of the most talked about personalities in Norway in the late seventies and eighties. When growing up, I thought my mother’s activism was intense and a bit intimidating. Today I find her journey quite fascinating as she went to that after being a fashion model in the sixties, photographed by the likes of Helmut Newton, discovered by Fellini and hanging out with the Beatles around Europe. She soon decided she couldn’t stand being an object in the direction of others. She moved on to the 70s becoming active in the women’s rights movement as a film director. After meeting and marrying my dad, they moved to the countryside where they had a post-production studio in the garden so that they could work close to my sister and I while we were growing up. I would say I had a very free and idyllic childhood. But because of my family, I did feel a bit like an outcast. We also travelled a lot and I did spend a lot of time away on movie sets and acted in my mother’s films from an early age. There was a strong division between my regular life in school and my experiences on movie sets. I loved the fictional part but every time I went back to school, I felt lonely because I could never share any of my experiences. It was obvious that my mother was a hot topic in people’s homes, and the children were picking up on it. I dreamed of my mother being a housewife who could bake and make me a lunch box that looked like the ones the other kids brought to school. The ones who seemingly had normal mothers. To me, it meant little that my mother was brave and resilient and special. That didn’t make me popular in our little community. Looking back, thinking about the families in our community, I just wish that I had seen or been made aware of the fact that differences are something valuable and completely normal. I started horse riding when I was 10 and got into competitive horse jumping which meant a great deal to me. I actually think the discipline, responsibility, commitment and caring for my horses taught me a lot that I’ve later benefited from as a mother raising my children. I’ve always felt I am drawn to nature and the big city life as a combination; that’s what I like about California.
How does your own upbringing differ from how your own children are being raised?
As all mothers before me, I’m trying hard to make up for what I wanted but didn’t have, to create our “normal.” At times I have been guilty of trying to create a less eccentric childhood than I had myself, but I think at the end of the day I am creating another type of eccentric life for my children after all – looking at the type of life we have! I rely on my gut feeling and knowing my children very well has always been a focus. I find motherhood a very natural thing, a role that fell easily into place for me despite unexpected hardships we’ve been through. The biggest difference in my children’s upbringing is that I have been raising them as a single mother – my daughter since she was five and my son since birth. My own parents were always doing everything together and operated as each other’s support system – especially in raising children. Coming from parents who have been able to stay together for 40-something years and finding my own path as a single parent – not being able to rely on the ideals I grew up with or believed I would have – has been a challenge and something I’ve worked through. That, combined with the fact that I have been raising my children in a different culture, and I also had a lot of restrictions put on me when my son was born prematurely. I wasn’t able to work full time or pursue my personal ambitions for a lot of years, which has been very different from how I grew up with my mother. In our upbringing, she was the centre and my dad naturally participated in her career. Here in LA, I see mostly the opposite, where a woman usually revolves and gives attention to a man’s career. The US is still very conservative and way behind when it comes to equal rights for women and men and then in particular, mothers.
What did your career involve before children?
After a short modelling stint in Paris and attending The Lee Strasberg theatre school while living in New York for three years, I returned to Norway to work in television. I quickly decided I wanted to go to film school. After I graduated I made the short documentary “Kjell” about an old gay man reliving his past as a young model in the 50s. To my surprise, it became a big success in Norway and won Best Documentary in 2005. I followed up with another documentary/fictional piece, “Love Lessons,” about three generations of women and how their romantic expectations had changed over time. As I was finishing that film, I ended up moving to LA because of my ex-husband, even though I had settled quite well into Norway after years of living abroad. I also worked as a writer and journalist for a variety of publications, which is work that continued after my daughter was born.
Can you tell us a little bit about the births of your children?
I feel my life is divided into before and after I had children. As much as it has defined my life in so many ways, I didn’t expect that it would define me as the person I wanted to be (and became) in the most positive way. The resilience I discovered in myself and of course the deep love like no other. Both my births have been very complicated and looking back, quite traumatic. They shifted my perspectives on everything. Prior to getting pregnant with my daughter, I had stage three cervical cancer and had several surgeries on my cervix. The doctors were fully aware but as everything seemed to be going accordingly, they didn’t take any precautions. Five months into the pregnancy, this suddenly changed as my cervix was too short, and I ended up on bed rest for three months. I was devastated. I had envisaged going back to Norway to give birth and as most women, had some romantic ideas and expectations revolving around my pregnancy and being a first-time mother. The isolation and stress over having to be confined to stay in LA – when I had yet to feel at home there – and to not be able to move out of bed was stressful both on a psychological level and on a physical level. My daughter Siena was born six weeks early and stayed for two weeks in the NICU. She had some minor breathing issues but was otherwise healthy. After the bedrest, I thought those two weeks at the NICU were the longest in my life. In America, you are not allowed to stay over at the hospital when you have a baby hospitalized. When I finally got her home, I was the happiest I’d ever been. I dove into motherhood with an immense passion and joy. My son’s birth is almost impossible to describe. I have a distance to it now and I can talk about it without expecting to bond with anyone over it. I thought the experience I had with the pregnancy with my daughter and her premature birth were the worst it could get. Then the perspective changes again. Thinking of my experience with her in retrospect feels quite easy in comparison. While pregnant with my son, the doctors took all the precautions they didn’t take with my daughter due to my cervix. Everything looked perfect at my checkups until I got something called placenta eruption. They still can not say why that happened. While I decided to drive to the hospital after I felt something wasn’t right, I had no idea how serious this would become. I was instantly admitted and my son Leon was born three days later, at only 25 weeks, weighing one pound. To have a child that prematurely is impossible to comprehend. It’s also very hard when you compare it to having a healthy baby with a normal weight. I’ll never forget the sight of Leon’s legs in the incubator when I first got to see him days after birth. They were the same size as my little finger. The first month was very hard. You can’t bond with your baby at all and they are in the so-called “honeymoon phase,” when you don’t know if they will survive. When I knew he would live, I still did not know anything about how the prematurity would affect him. Six months and numerous surgeries followed at the NICU, and then another six months in other hospitals. A year in total, and then caring for him at home for another year with an oxygen machine and a feeding pump feeding him 24 hours a day due to his weight, eating problems and aspiration. This experience couldn’t be more different to nursing my daughter the two first years of her life as we explored the world together! I felt I went from a mother who could rely on natural instincts to a nurse who relied on devices. That part was a brutal transition for me. Then slowly, you find a new normal and a new version of yourself. Eventually, I could merge the two different mothers I felt I was for my children the first years of their lives. Today, Leon is doing great. He eats normally and we will remove his tube within the next year. He does get much more sick than my daughter ever would, but every winter he is completely healthy (asthma doesn’t seem so bad to me after all this!), but he is a total delight with the most endearing personality.
How have you coped with/did you cope with the loneliness and isolation that can come with having a premature baby?
The loneliness and isolation I felt the first year was almost unbearable at the time, and I realise in the aftermath of this, inexplicable to others. It was also subjective. My life as I knew it, and the experiences I relied on, were no longer relevant. As much as I had to deal with the situation head-on in a practical sense, I struggled with the unknown on an emotional and internal sense. I found no one with the same experience, the same medical challenges, or the same feelings that I had going on inside of me. I think in that sense, the breakthrough comes when you somehow accept that you can’t shake that subjective experience and loneliness, but still find comfort in other things. For me, that was the life as I knew it with my daughter and what I’d learned from being around mothers with very sick children, and getting to know the doctors and nurses on a more personal level. Learning about a new world and a new environment and redirecting my experiences. But I did feel for a long time that we were invisible to the outside world; as though Leon had not yet been born when he was hospitalised for so long. I couldn’t relate much to anything else except for my children’s lives at the time. I felt as though I was incubated myself and identified with every single medical challenge my son went through. I had strange, almost physical sensations throughout that year, when it feels like my whole inside was trying to rebuild and reorganise itself. Those years have given me perspectives from another dimension.
How has the birth of your children changed your approach to life?
That your life can change in an instant, that everything in life is in constant motion and you have to change the narrative you have for your life and be willing and open to roll with the unknown. I don’t waste my time and I know how to prioritise. Even though I’ve learned this, I still find it difficult to change certain things. I do rely immensely on routines in my daily life, both as a single mother and because of these experiences in my life.
What does a typical day look like in your family today?
I drive my daughter to school. She is in middle school now which is in the opposite direction of where my son’s preschool is, so that takes up some time! I always try to squeeze in a coffee at one of the coffee shops or bakeries around Venice, like Gjusta. I then either work from home or the Little Beach House in Malibu if I am not around at meetings or running my children’s schedules. The driving in LA when you have children is a bit of a juggle and I find that a lot of weekdays go by getting from one place to another, which I do want to change. I plan quite rigidly because of it. I have pretty set days where I do things for myself and things for my children, otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to get anything done. This is something I had to learn in LA!
How do you make the balance/juggle/struggle work as a single mother with two children and a thriving career?
I would say there is no balance. The balance comes when accepting that there’s a constant juggle. I am still working on putting up boundaries and self-care in my everyday life. I was very bad at it for many years; I felt that for my children I could “go-go-go” forever and I should at all times. Being a single parent I also think it’s in my personality to try to overcompensate. Now I have trained myself and others around me to start realising that I sometimes need to say no, and to have respect for my time and taking care of myself. I find it interesting that despite growing up with a mother who was so good at these things, it took me so long to figure this out and to execute it. I feature speakers in their twenties at my platform who don’t even think about this or question the boundary or self-care part. I had to train my own boundaries and have two children – extending myself in all directions – to realise this. That said, routines and planning well are incredibly important to me and gives me a sense of balance. I used to miss being spontaneous, whereas now I feel that freedom and balance come from planning. So planning gives me the feeling of excitement these days.
What inspired the launch of Her Platform?
All the incidents in my life inspired Her Platform. The isolation experienced in the rebuilding of my life when moving to LA, as I left my career behind in Norway. The breakdown of my marriage. The experience with my son’s birth, the hospitalisation and the aftermath. Working my way into the world and creating our new normal, shifting the narrative I thought my life would follow. Her Platform was also a way of continuing my passion for storytelling. It’s very inspiring watching women and men getting together in a physical space and storytelling. My strong network of women and my desire to learn from them professionally and personally were also important factors. I wanted to create my own conversational TED talk. I am always on a high after my events. We all are, as we learn so much and find glimpses of ourselves in each other’s stories, which is exactly what I wanted to achieve.
Tell us about Her Platform and some of the amazing women you’ve had involved...
It’s almost a year since the launch of Her Platform and it has exceeded all of my expectations already. I can’t wait to see how I can develop it and bring it further. It was incredible having Christy Turlington Burns and Clare Vivier do the first one, as maternal health care felt so close to why I started in the first place. After all, it represented everything I’d been through, but also addressed the actual health care system and the issues at stake in the US. The fact that I spent most of my time in the NICU advocating and dealing with insurance while my child was in a very critical situation was insane and shouldn’t be the case.
What have been some of the greatest lessons you’ve taken away from these events and the women you have interviewed?
That every breakthrough both professionally and personally represents a certain challenge, pain or discomfort, but that there’s a lot of growth in a challenge. To be persistent and to believe in your instincts and stay true to the visions you have. This comes up whether we are talking about brand building, health care, mental health, being a showrunner for a TV show, mothering, feminism or writing.
What’s next for you, for your family and for Her Platform?
I will travel more in the year to come and will also be working on taking Her Platform to the next level. For now, that means a couple of events in London, and I hope to start a Her Platform podcast. I also wish to make a Her Platform book and to document further by filming certain events and to host the talks at different venues so that I can reach out to a bigger audience. I also wish to invite men into the conversation and long term, to make a platform for teenage girls.
Do you practice self-care? If so, how?
I try to exercise whenever I can. I do yoga, walk on the beach or take a hike in the forest. Nature to me is a must. If I had the time I would probably take up horse riding and I want to swim more in the ocean… I do that a lot while in Europe. California is for surfers and sadly I’m not one! I do think being with my friends is part of my self-care as well, as well as planning things ahead that excite me, like travel.
How do you unwind?
I watch TV shows and a lot of movies. I am a film nerd and I grew up with it, so it feels like a familiar world to me. I watch The Daily Show as I love Trevor Noah and Graham Norton has the best talk show. I have a soft spot for Brits and Australians humour-wise! I also love looking at great design, dreaming about travel, browsing through a beautiful magazine and nature again. Plus, just hanging with my children when we don’t have to do anything.
Do you think women can have it all?
I want to believe we can and I was told we could growing up. However, I don’t think we can dismiss the fact that just by being a woman, having children and living in this world, it’s a different path for a woman than it is for a man. I do think the world has to respect that and make it possible for women to have it all. I also think “having it all” is subjective. The sacrifices a woman has to make to reach a level of success equal to a man financially it’s almost impossible if she has children. If you are divorced or single, it’s not even realistic sometimes. I don’t want to be the Devil’s advocate, but there are changes that have to be made. It’s alarming to raise children in America in this political climate. I wish for my daughter to feel those changes for real … So regardless of my love of California, it might eventually take us back to Europe.
Who inspires you?
People who dedicate their life to help others, people who have overcome and dealt with medical challenges and serious illness, people who speak the truth and stand up for one another, young activists, entrepreneurs who have the persistence to execute their ideas and stay true to their vision in this competitive market, mothers everywhere and great artists within the visual arts.
What’s on your list of loves?
- Citizen of Humanity Charlotte high-rise – they are the only jeans I wear – I have four pairs and I am obsessed
- Doen blouses
- White T-shirts from Vince
- Heels from Rouje
- Anything Lauren Hutton wore and wears
- Love Yoga in Venice
- French Vogue
- Beautiful photographs of Lachlan Bailey on Instagram
- Sharp Objects – so dark but genius storytelling
- Any art by Doug Aitken
- Sally Mann always
- Sky Full of Song by Florence + the Machine
- Face oil by Vinter’s Daughter