It should have been a dream: Move to Hawaii to enjoy the sun and sand with your kids for a year, while your husband films on location for the hit TV show “Lost.” But ironically, Shannon Kenny Carbonell had already felt lost for years — and was terrified the move would exacerbate those feelings.
At the time, Kenny Carbonell felt insecure about her decision to set aside her own acting career (while her husband Néstor Carbonell pursued his) to focus on parenting their two young sons. She had been successful in her own right, appearing on shows including her native Australia’s “Sons and Daughters,” “7th Heaven,” “Seinfeld” and more.
Kenny Carbonell, 52, details her journey to reclaim her identity and happiness in her new book, “All Is Not LOST: How I Friended Failure on the Island and Found a Way Home.”
“I do think there is this kind of daily internal conversation with women who are parenting: ‘This is great, my kids are great, I’m so privileged … So why do I feel so empty?’” Kenny Carbonell told Know Your Value. “I was lucky to be able to talk about this with my girlfriends, but it’s not a conversation I see out there publicly. And I think I felt so adrift, because I didn’t expect to be a full-time parent.”
As Kenny Carbonell details in “All Is Not LOST,” she did continue working after the couple’s first son, Rafael, was born in 2002. But she quickly discovered it was going to be difficult.
“I was surprised. My goal was to work ... But even before [Rafael] was born, [my husband] Néstor and I had to drive five hours north [from our home in Los Angeles] for him to attend a film festival. I was filming in San Diego at the time. I remember exactly where we were on the [Interstate] 5 freeway, near a bunch of cows, when it landed in my brain that this was going to be very complicated logistically.”
Still, Kenny Carbonell acted for about two years after her maternity leave. Yet she found herself not wanting to leave the baby, and she wrestled with what felt like opposing forces in her life: her career and family. Once their second son, Marco, arrived in 2005, Kenny Carbonell decided to become a full-time mother.
She expected to feel a bit of relief. Instead, “the minute I chose not to work, this crack opened. A big hole was formed inside of me,” Kenny Carbonell recounted. “That was a big shock. I didn’t realize how much of myself I’d put into this dream [of acting]. I literally felt like nobody. That’s when the terrible internal talk began, and it didn’t stop.”
“You are such a loser. You couldn’t hack it; you made it into the industry and you completely gave up. You’re worth nothing,” Kenny Carbonell would think to herself. Then came the guilt for having these feelings at all. She thought, “You’re so privileged; so many moms have to work. You have these beautiful kids and you’re complaining?”
She could get through the day-to-day, buoyed by moments with her children and leaning on a very supportive Néstor, but especially when the kids went to bed she felt unfulfilled, “like a zombie.”
All the while, Néstor’s acting career was flourishing. What had begun as a smaller part on “Lost” expanded as his character, the mysterious, ageless Richard Alpert became an important part of the story arc. Néstor was promoted to the main cast for show’s sixth and final season. And that meant moving on location to Hawaii.
The couple decided the whole family would move to Oahu, where they lived from August 2009 to July 2010. Again, Kenny Carbonell felt torn: She was excited to go and also wanted to support her husband. But she also wondered how she would build a life there when she was “not right within myself.”
Hawaii would ultimately become the first step in reclaiming her identity. But first, she hit rock bottom.
Kenny Carbonell’s family had come to Hawaii to help them move in and spend time together, but within a week they were fighting about her decision to become a full-time parent and the feelings of loss that they could see in her as a result. She clashed with father in particular.
“I sensed in him this loss, too, of walking away from my career,” she said. “I didn’t just disappoint myself, but I disappointed my father too. I didn’t even know if my family would come back from this huge fight. And I hit such a low that I realized, I have to stop fighting this pain. I need to make it part of it, let it sit with me. Once I did that amazing things began to happen.”
Part of her healing journey was the island itself, Kenny Carbonell said. She was inspired by native Hawaiians’ strong connection to their land. And she began to meet women, often new mom friends. They took her on hikes amid lush greenery. They brought her to a sandbar far out in the ocean to have picnic lunches. They swam and laughed and talked about real things.
“I was sinking into this life where there was no Hollywood and I could just be Shannon,” she said. “In Hollywood everyone has dreams of being an actor, not a wife and mom. I love Hollywood [and] that people come here with dreams. But I needed to separate from that.”
Her book chronicles some of the unique friendships she built in Hawaii — what she calls “microloves.” Military wives, a woman working at the drugstore and many more taught her lessons that she “learned by osmosis,” she said.
When she returned to California a year later, “I came home healed,” she said. “Something happened at home that I talk about in the book, and I made a big realization that I’d thrown away a big part of myself.”
Kenny Carbonell looked at the pile of journals she unpacked from her suitcase and knew she wanted to write a book someday. “All Is Not LOST” was a decade-long journey, with Kenny Carbonell taking writing lessons, attending memoir classes and ultimately starting her drafts by writing one hour a day in the mornings.
“The silences became filled with something,” Kenny Carbonell said. “I didn’t have to spend a lot of time away from the kids, but I created things that were just for me. And now that they’re 19 and almost 16, I see just how important that is.”
She wrote the book not for herself, she said, but so other women going through motherhood may feel less alone. Women don’t often feel safe to express a sense of loss of identity, hollowness or other complicated feelings around parenthood, she said.
“First, fully acknowledge the feelings and share them at a deep, deep, honest level,” Kenny Carbonell said. “I didn’t fully do that with anyone but my husband. Whether it’s your friends, family or a therapist, it needs to come out. Don’t fear it; sit with it.”
“Know that probably every mom feels some of this way on some level. And it’s going to be hard work,” she added. “It’s not pretty. Bringing in the pain means suffering, but that’s how you can actually process it.”
Forgive yourself for these feelings. Know that they are valid. And finally, figure out what what will help them dissipate. It could be making time for close friendships, finding an enjoyable hobby or working on projects while the kids are asleep — the key is that it's something that's just for you. You can also start small, with any actions that will foster a sense of self, reward your creativity and make you feel fulfilled.
“Separate the mom part of you from the other parts of you,” Kenny Carbonell said. “You have to be able to live joyously with your children. And the only way you can do that is by being true to who you are.”