‘Little House on the Prairie’ Star Melissa Gilbert’s Mother Used to Monitor Her ‘Food Intake’ and ‘Everything’ Else

Melissa Gilbert’s mother was very involved in her career. As the Laura Ingalls actor wrote in her memoir, Prairie Tale, she was “at the helm of everything.” The Little House on the Prairie star’s relationship with her mother wasn’t a unique one for a child star. But it did greatly affect the course of her life.

Barbara Crane (later Cowan), Melissa Gilbert, Sara Gilbert huddle together at an event, photographed in black and white.
Barbara Crane (later Cowan), Melissa Gilbert, Sara Gilbert | The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Melissa Gilbert’s mother controlled her entire life

Gilbert’s mother, actor/dancer Barbara Cowan, adopted the Laura Ingalls actor just after she was born. Gilbert started doing commercials as a young child and when Little House took off, Cowan became even more involved in her daughter’s day-to-day.

“My mother was at the helm of everything, including my career, my food intake, and how I dressed–my whole life,” wrote Gilbert in her memoir. “I never questioned her or rebelled. Speaking out against the family was the ultimate form of disloyalty, and disloyalty was not tolerated.”

Since “speaking out against the family” was unheard of, Gilbert was sure to turn up the positivity in the interviews she gave as a young actor, even if she wasn’t always happy.

“In an interview back when I was ten years old, I’d likely have said that everything was wonderful, everyone in my life was fantastic, I was happy, and life was perfect,” she wrote. “But most of that was untrue.” 

Because Gilbert was adopted at a young age, she often “struggled with the mythology of [her] existence.” She had a lot of questions about her identity that she wouldn’t find answers to until she was in her 20s.

Melissa Gilbert’s mother got half of what her daughter earned

Just after the Little House on the Prairie star’s 18th birthday, her mother sat her down and said she thought they “should continue to be partners.” Without hesitation, Gilbert said “absolutely.”

“I was surprised by the statement,” wrote Gilbert. “I had never considered any other arrangement.”

“Good, and now that you’re eighteen, we need to make sure this is okay,” Gilbert’s mother continued. “I think it would be a good idea if we drew up papers and, you know, shared everything like partners, fifty-fifty.”

Rob Lowe, Melissa Gilbert, and Melissa Gilbert's Mother Barbara Crane hold hands at the Memorial Service for Ricky Nelson in 1986
Rob Lowe, Melissa Gilbert, and Melissa Gilbert’s Mother Barbara Crane | Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

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“My mom was still my mom,” wrote Gilbert. “She was still in charge, the oracle who guided me and who I turned to with questions. Beyond that, she was single, and she deserved to be taken care of. She had sacrificed a lot for me.”

So Gilbert and her mother signed a contract that gave Cowan “half of everything I earned, including my Coogan account, till I turned twenty-five.”

Around Gilbert’s 25th birthday is when she started severing her business relationship with her mother. Ultimately, she thought it was best for their relationship.

The ‘Little House on the Prairie’ actor leaned on her mother for support when she met her birth father

Also around that time, Gilbert hired a service to help her connect with her birth parents. She learned who her birth father was, David Darlington, and that the woman who had given birth to her (named Kathy) had died in 1980. The Little House on the Prairie actor went to visit Darlington in his home of Las Vegas, Nevada. The meeting didn’t go as Gilberthad hoped.

When she got back to her hotel room after meeting Darlington, Gilbert cried “like a hysterical, inconsolable fiver-year-old.” Her then-husband, Bo Brinkman, called Gilbert’s mother and handed the phone to his wife. 

“She got on the phone and listened to me recount what had happened and how terribly disappointed I was by the outcome,” wrote Gilbert. “Then she let me cry until I ran out of tears.”

Cowan told her daughter that finding out about her family was just a part of her story. Now she could move on in peace. Gilbert knew her mother was right.

Though they’ve been through a lot, Gilbert wrote several times in Prairie Tale that she considered her mother to be one of her best friends.