In December, Rachael Harris' divorce from her husband of five years, violinist Christian Hebel, was finalized — and her focus is on new beginnings for her and their two young children.
In a candid, hour-long interview with PEOPLE, the Lucifer star opens up for the first time about conceiving sons Henry, 4, and Otto, 2, through surrogacy, the joys and challenges of single parenting (Harris and Hebel have been separated and sharing custody for over a year) and her goal to be "strong," both mentally and physically.
"We're behaving like friends," says the 52-year-old actress, who explains that at first it was "weird" to navigate her relationship with Hebel, 44, and co-parent after she filed for divorce in August 2019.
"We didn't know how to treat one another. We didn't know how to detangle from one another. It was just awkward," Harris says of the initial separation.
"And yet, you have these two children that you're so in love with and you want to share everything with your spouse, that only their father can understand," she adds. "But at the same time, you're trying to separate from this romantic love. It's been challenging for both of us. I'm proud that we're really trying to be kind to one another."
Harris and Hebel became engaged after attending the wedding of their mutual friends, Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka, in Italy in September 2014. They eloped about eight months later in New York City with Harris, Burtka and Kelly Ripa serving as witnesses.
Not long after, Harris realized she was finally ready to be a mother — a possibility she'd long been nervous about.
"I think there's a reason that I didn't have children until I was in my late 40s, early 50s. I had a lot of work to do," Harris explains. "I knew that it really scared me to have kids… I wanted to get to a place in my life as an adult, with my children, that I wasn't embarrassed to ask for help or to say, 'I don't know how to do this.' Or, 'Wow, Henry's really struggling with this and I have no idea how to help him.' "
Now, Harris is in a different place. "I respect myself now in a way that I can honestly say, 'I don't know,' even with my kids," she says. "If my kids ask me, 'Mama, what does that mean?' I can say, 'I don't know. Let's look that up.' "
When Harris married Hebel, she was ready and excited to have children. But they weren't able to conceive naturally and IVF failed.
"Then we talked about me carrying a baby," Harris explains. "Our doctor had said, 'You have a 50/50 chance of being able to carry the baby to term. And even then, probably half of your pregnancy, you'd be on bedrest.'"
The couple decided the best option was surrogacy.
"We found the most beautiful surrogate. We had one surrogate that carried Henry and another surrogate that carried Otto," she says. "For me, it was such a blessing."
Since welcoming her two sons, Harris says her life has changed irrevocably — and for the better.
"The best service that I [can give] is to help these little boys become loving and generous abundant little souls," Harris says. "I didn't realize how big my heart could grow. I didn't realize how big their hearts are and how they can love so many people."
While Harris was completely in love with her role as a mother, she wasn't as sure about herself as an individual. The star says that she comes from a family that battled both alcoholism and low self-esteem, which impacted her own sense of confidence.
"I suffered from low self-esteem for many, many years, even though I've been in therapy since I was in college," she says. "In all of my past relationships, I was always the person who wanted to please the person that I was in love with because I couldn't believe that they actually wanted to be with me."
She continues: "I thought, 'They're going to find out my dirty secret that I'm unlovable, and they're going to leave.' "
This same problem emerged in her relationship with Hemel, she says.
"I got to a place where I just really didn't know who I was,"says Harris. "Instead of asking what I wanted to do about something, I would ask, 'What does he want me to do? What's going to make Christian happy? How can I avoid upsetting him?' That's not healthy. That's not necessarily Christian's problem."
In May 2019, Harris started taking charge of her mental and physical health. She was inspired when she saw her costars' results after they worked out with Paolo Mascetti, Tom Ellis' personal trainer.
"I realized, 'Gosh, I'm really getting lost in this and I don't like myself. I know what I can do. I know what I'm capable of doing. I just said, 'You know what? F— it. I'm going to hire a trainer,' " Harris remembers. With Mascetti's help, she changed her diet and began working out regularly. Harris couldn't be happier with the results.
"At 52, I'm in the best shape of my life ever," she says. "I'm going for strong versus skinny. When I put on my clothes, I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I look strong and I look fit and I look healthy.' I carry myself differently on set and I feel confident."
Unfortunately, at the same time Harris began to take charge of her life, there was an increasing disconnect with her husband.
After over a year of separation and with their divorce finalized, Harris says she and Hebel are friendly and have gotten a handle on co-parenting.
"The boys are doing well. We share them, so they go back and forth between his house and my house," she says. "That's actually taken a turn for the better the past couple of months. I feel like we've gotten our groove down."
Harris says she's also worked through the guilt she used to feel for making herself a priority.
"I worried that if I train and I make sure that I get enough sleep, does that mean that I'm dropping everything for my kids all the time? It doesn't," she says. "I had to reframe it because it felt like I was choosing that over my kids. I reframed it to, 'No, I'm choosing this for my kids and for me.' Because if I'm happy, they are going to be happy."
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