'And There Are So Many Ordinary Men'

an uneasy truce with failure

I went back to work five weeks after the birth of my first child, deep in the grips of postpartum depression and postpartum guilt. Usually I got home at nine or ten o’clock at night. My husband and baby would already be in bed. He stayed with our son two days a week, and the other three, our babysitter rocked him and played with him, sang to him, and watched Brazilian soccer games on her phone when he slept.

One Friday night, beat to shit by shame and fatigue, I got a drink at a little outdoor cafe with my sister, who studies women and domesticity. She tried to shore up my spirits as she often does, irritatingly, with context.

“During the Industrial Revolution,” she said, swallowing a gulp of Chablis, “poor women worked eighteen-hour days in factories. They lived in boarding houses and they didn’t have nannies or daycare. They had crates. When they went to work they just left the baby in their bed or in a box. If the baby got big enough to crawl or roll over, they’d tie the baby’s foot to a bedpost. To eat, they got a milk soaked rag, sticking out of a bottle.”

“They got a what?” I said.

She nodded. “Sometimes it was gin instead of milk, because it kept them from crying.”

My personal disease is one of comparison, but sometimes I can make it work in my favor. When I have a day I feel I was not a spectacular or present mother, I say to myself, “I am better than a milk soaked rag.”

* * *

I’ve stopped blow-drying my hair after I shower, even when I have a video call that is “for work.” I don’t have the kind of hair you can let air-dry. It stops being hair and turns into some kind of packing material. At one point I would have hoped that this conveyed a coolness to people who I’m hoping to work with, like I simply can’t be bothered to worry about my hair. But I think it probably just looks like I can’t be bothered.

In college, a friend told me that my air-dried hair made me look like a Manson girl. Now I see that as the sort of compliment with youth baked into it, that I am unlikely to get anymore even if my hair is at its most unruly. “Like a Manson woman,” maybe. “Like Manson,” definitely.

My daughter, who is eighteen months old, has beautiful ringlets that dry in perfect spirals against her head. She looks like a dignified old woman who has her hair “set” weekly at the beauty shop. She has an octopus tub toy that she loves desperately, and last night, after her bath, she tossed it into the toilet and closed the lid.

“Why would you do that,” I pleaded with her, over my limit that day. “Why would you do that to something you love so much?”

She stood there with her enviable hair drying into its nice shape. She held her little belly in both of her fat hands and smiled at me.

“Aha. I see,” I said, already opening the toilet to stick my hand in.

* * *

That first week people were circulating lists of things famous people had accomplished under similar circumstances: works of genius written in quarantine, masterpieces painted in sanitariums, symphonies composed from inside iron lungs.

Of course, the second week brought us: “You don’t have to write a symphony from inside your iron lung!” Influential professional public emoters posted pastel lists on their Instagrams that said things like:

It’s okay

- to be scared

- to be tired

- to be lonely

- to be UNPRODUCTIVE

until they verged on

- to grow your fingernails until they curl

- to let the mailman see your genitals

- to fill your CPAP machine with Jamaican rum

- to quit your job to dedicate your whole day to sex with a baguette you’ve named Oscar Isaac

I haven’t had a “job” job since November. When I try to sit down and work, my brain returns a message that says, “Hello! I am in Palm Springs and not answering email.”

I read an essay yelling at people who work from home in sweatpants that got yelled about by people at home in sweatpants. I saw one person extolling the pleasures of showering and wearing makeup and another reminding women that they didn’t have to do anything right now except SURVIVE.

I let these things feel like they’re for me when I want to feel okay about not doing work, and when I want to feel bad about it, I tell them they are for good people who are actually suffering.

Of course, whenever I tell people I’m feeling guilty for not working they remind me that I have THREE CHILDREN. There are hooks to take myself off of, and hooks to poke myself in the neck with. I spoke to a friend of mine, another television writer, who said, “Of course it’s okay to have trouble writing now! Everyone is.” But then he added, in a conspiratorial voice, “Although, the people who come out of this with scripts are the people who are going to survive.”

* * *

There’s a part of “The Phantom Tollbooth” where the hero, a boy named Milo, becomes lost in the forest.

Finally, he comes across a little house with a door on each of its sides. It appears that four people live there because the doors are labeled “The Thin Man,” “The Fat Man,” “The Giant,” and “The Midget” (it’s an old book).

When he knocks on The Giant’s door to ask for directions, an average-looking man who doesn’t appear to be a giant at all, answers. The man is cagey and useless and tells him to ask one of the other men in the house for help. But whenever Milo knocks on a new door of the house, the same average-sized man answers and each time he pretends he is a new person, whoever the door says he is, and that he’s never seen Milo before.

When Milo has finally had enough and calls the man out, the man hushes him. “You see,” he whispers, “to tall men I’m a midget, and to short men I’m a giant; to the skinny ones I’m a fat man, and to the fat ones I’m a thin man.”

Through this “deception,” the man is able to hold all four jobs at once and talk to the lost people who pass through, even if he has no idea how to help them. His secret is that he is ordinary. “And,” the man laments, “there are so many ordinary men.”

* * *

In February I was a week away from my scheduled C-section and driving west from my house to pitch a show idea I’d been working on for about two years. I was nervous, both just in a natural pre-pitch way and because I had spent the entire two months preparing by telling myself that nobody would buy it, because it was too weird and no one likes me.

When I was approaching the lot I realized that I was about half an hour early and that I was starving, because I was absurdly pregnant and I hadn’t eaten for a whole ten minutes. I spotted a Wendy’s a few blocks away and decided I had time. It was the longest Wendy’s drive-thru in the history of Wendy’s drive-thrus, and was the kind where you are blocked from exiting the line early by a concrete divider.

I am going to miss this pitch because I am trapped at a Wendys, I told myself for the full eighteen minutes before I was able to get my junior frosty and medium fry.

The pitch went fine. I had to stop and take breaths because of the eight pound person pushing his toes into my diaphragm. And because the show was too weird and no one likes me. It was a comedy in which twin sisters who don’t get along are finally united when they must fight the evil historical society in a crumbling town whose factory no longer manufactures shoelace tips. The two men I pitched to said it was a “big swing” and they’d “talk it over it and get back” to me soon, which is one of at least seventy Hollywood “soft no’s.”

This was before everything shut down, so I was lucky enough to just miss worrying about hospitals or if I’d have to be alone during the delivery. If anything, it was nice not to have to think about the pitch or anyone “talking it over” and just concentrate on getting sliced in half and stitched back together again.

Three weeks after I gave birth I checked in and got the hard “no” while I was changing my new son’s diaper.

“Okay,” I said to the baby, trying to straighten out his little frog legs long enough to work them back into his duckie pajamas. “We’re going to use this time, okay? We’re just going to get back to work.”

He looked at me with as close to a smile as a newborn is capable of giving, until one of his eyes started wandering away, like it had gotten bored.

* * *

“Do you know the phrase the ‘Good Enough’ mother?” my old therapist asked me shortly before I stopped seeing her.

I didn’t know the phrase, so she explained. It is a popular theory that it’s actually better to be a mother who only just meets her children’s needs than one who, say, hides their spinach in brownies or gets down on all fours and pretends to be a bulldozer whenever they demand it. The idea is that this better equips them to deal with life on their own terms, to be disappointed, to play by themselves, to eat nutritious food as it tastes and not squirreled away under chocolate frosting.

I love an excuse to loaf and fail but I also love to feel guilty about loafing and failing. Everything my kids eat is ecru and processed. Last Halloween, I overnighted costumes from a villainous online retailer only to fully flake out on trick-or-treating because everybody was tired.

My eighteen-month-old frequently texts emergency services and people I had exactly one embarrassing sexual encounter with ten years ago, because if I let her play with my phone when she wakes up at four in the morning, I can go back to sleep for another hour.

I also don’t want to be a “good enough” mother. I want to be a great mother. I, specifically, want to be the kind of mother that, when other people are randomly pressed in conversation to produce examples of Incredible Mothers, I spring quickly to mind.

I frequently come across jokey social media posts about motherhood whose point is to get women to give themselves a break. They often involve wine or pictures of babies with upended bowls of spaghetti on their heads. Because, especially now, this is really hard. Go ahead and relax with your spaghetti babies, you drunk losers, I think.

“I don’t think you quite get this concept,” my old therapist said.

“Maybe I don’t!” I said.

* * *

I’m in a few internet “groups” for other women who write for television shows. These are supposed to be for networking and “lifting each other up”, but on a given day they’re about 50% complaining, which I don’t particularly mind, because I am also about 50% complaining.

But sometimes, especially now, the complaining is from mothers. These mothers want to know if anybody is getting anything done, anybody. Some of these groups are explicitly for parents, but some are not. In those mixed groups, I want to tell the mothers “Shhhh!”, because I am married with children, but four years ago I was not.

Back then, if I saw a mother post about how she can’t write because she is busy washing twenty-thousand tiny forks with trains on them, I would have thought, “Good, good! More for me! I will USE THIS TIME. May you never stop washing forks!”

I realize this makes me sound like a bad woman, but, of course, I am now the woman I had no empathy for. I am now also a woman who has lots of empathy to give other women, especially women who are mothers. I am lots of women. None of whom is what my mother’s friend Barbara would call “wildly successful.”

* * *

A year ago our union got into a fight with our agents and TV writers had to fire our representatives, except for some people who were repped at the smallest, boutiquiest firms. Without representatives, it is more difficult to find jobs, so some people thought that this might mean they’d get opportunities usually reserved for writers at the big, least boutiquey firms.

“Yes, we all can’t wait to watch the programs staffed by the clients of Who, What? and CLICK,” said a friend of mine at a big firm.

“Insecurity is fear in a big hat that says ‘CONTROL,’ ” said a therapist I tried exactly twice.

“Yeah, I know,” I said.

* * *

Like most of the women I know, I ate disorderedly at one point. As an anorexic, I would give myself maybe three out of five stars. I obsessed over calories and went days without eating and said caustic, unloving things to myself about my body — but for anyone to consider you SUCCESSFUL at your EATING DISORDER you need to actually be thin. Preferably, with sexy dark under-eye circles and collarbone hollows you could fill with jellybeans.

I just never got there, maybe because I am not type A enough. I did go to Bennington.

I stopped eating disorderedly when I got pregnant the first time, because I wanted the baby to be healthy and later, after I’d given birth, because I no longer had the extraordinary energy it takes. I also, incredibly, began to appreciate my body purely as a machine, a 3D printer that could do eyeballs and testicles and sometimes must run on bread.

A terrible holdover from those sick years: I still scan every woman I meet involuntarily, like a Robocop comparing his body against other Robocops. When I was nine months pregnant with my second child, a nurse helped me off the scale, and I commented that I had gained exactly thirty pounds.

“Don’t complain,” she said brightly. “You still weigh less than some people.”

I actually hadn’t been complaining, so much as commenting on the exactness of the number. It was also sort of a screwy thing for a medical professional to say. But the old brain, the brain that chugged ice water to burn calories and used a hollowed out cucumber as a hoagie roll, said, “Good, good! You weigh less than some people, according to this fucked up nurse!”

* * *

When I am overwhelmed, I think about mothers with truly enormous amounts of children. Like that scary baptist woman on TV, or the counselor my parents saw when they were getting divorced who was the youngest of twenty-one.

Sometimes the mothers I think of are fictional, like the one in “The Thornbirds.” She continually gets pregnant for the whole duration of this seven million page book, and each time, her eldest, an (Irish? Australian?) teenager, howls stuff at the husband like, “Ah! Can’t you keep your goat hooves off of her, you devil?” But even she works: she’s constantly beating dirty underthings with a rock or rolling out biscuit dough for two hundred around her swollen belly, in the sweltering Irish-Australian heat.

When I say I have three children people look at me like I’ve just poured petroleum directly into the blowhole of a dolphin. I am tempted to repeat the oft-cited statistic that a few enormous corporations are responsible for 75% of the world’s carbon emissions, not people having babies. I don’t have the energy to do that, so instead, I’ll just say, “It’s a lot of babies!” or “I know, that’s a million babies!” or “My husband can’t keep his goat hooves off me, the devil!”

* * *

I read that it’s so hard to concentrate “during this,” because we are all dealing with ambient fear, and that our “fight, flight, or freeze” responses are constantly being tripped and tripped and tripped again, like an overly sensitive smoke alarm.

You may get used to the sound of the smoke alarm, but you can still hear it. And you likely will have trouble working with the smoke alarm going off, whether there is a fire or not.

Every night at eight, when the cheer for medical professionals goes up, my dumb YouTube kid neighbor blows an air horn twenty or thirty times. My dog whimpers, my two toddlers startle in their beds, and I hope something bad happens to the YouTube kid. Not the virus. But something.

* * *

Some days I feel I am doing okay, some days I think, “You have violently plateaued.”

I like many people who are “doing better” in this work than me. The ones I am not actual friends with seem nice, and they always try very hard to “be cool” about the fact that they are doing so great. They share news of their triumphs in a skillfully selfaware way. They know the alchemy of silliness and gratitude.

“Wow can’t believe THIS sex goddess got a lucrative overall deal” they’ll write, under a picture of them as an 11-year-old with cystic acne and polio. Or, “Welp, turns out I will be joining the staff of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s ‘Cheers’ reboot starring Daniel Day-Lewis, the entire cast of ‘Parasite’ and David Bowie’s ghost,” under a close-up photograph of two dogs throwing up on them.

On my worst days I’ll say to myself, “You can figure this out.” Or I say to myself, “You should have gone to a good school and not one where, instead of grades, we got a water-colored picture of a shy pony.”

On my worst days I’ll say to myself, “That girl the dogs were throwing up on doesn’t even think about you!”

* * *

The first time I was pregnant everybody I knew was reading the Ariel Levy book, “The Rules Do Not Apply.” But I wouldn’t, because it’s about her miscarriage, and I was superstitious.

But I did read an article she wrote in The New Yorker about Niki de Saint Phalle, an artist who famously abandoned her children to pursue her work. She had her first child at twenty-one, and her husband became frustrated when she refused to do domestic tasks, because they were “boring.” Laundry piled up in their apartment. When they went out at night, leaving the baby completely alone, Saint Phalle would line pieces of salami on the railing of her daughter’s crib, as both a toy and a snack.

I read her book during my second pregnancy. My daughter was fine.

* * *

Around the second week of quarantine everybody in my house got sick, except my husband. He’d had a bad cough in the weeks before, but he seemed better by the time we all started feeling lousy and coughing.

I’d just given birth for the third time, and even though we tried to separate the new baby from my other children, one day he woke up with a barking cough. My husband and I looked at each other with terror.

After a few days of this he got worse, and eventually whenever the baby breathed, it made a rattling sound and the skin on his impossibly small chest would collapse into his ribs like an accordion. I left my other two children with my husband, and our babysitter dropped us off at the ER at Children’s Hospital LA. The “six feet” rule wasn’t widely in effect yet but it was the first week that it seemed like people were panicking in earnest.

The person at reception hilariously misspelled the baby’s name on the bracelet that they wrapped around his wrist.

“How is LeBon?” the intake nurses kept asking him.

They led us to a holding area by the elevators, and instructed me to keep my son’s face covered with a blanket and to stand at a distance from any other patients. There was only one other patient in the holding area, though, a little girl sleeping bonelessly in the arms of a stocky, bearded young guy with a backwards hat and calf tattoos. He lifted his chin toward the blanket I was holding, and smiled.

“How old?” he asked, moving gently back and forth from foot to foot. Neither of us was sitting down, because we didn’t know if the chairs had been disinfected.

“Six weeks, “ I said. “He’s having trouble breathing.”

He nodded. I half expected him to move even further away from us or ask me if we’d been “exposed,” but he didn’t. The elevator opened, and I stared as an orderly emerged with a woman in a wheelchair. She had a child on her lap and they were both entirely covered by a large paper blanket.

“Hey,” said the young dad gently, after they’d gone. “Don’t worry. This place is great.”

It turned out the limp, pretty little daughter he was holding was actually one of four siblings. She wasn’t sick. She had asthma. They had to monitor her oxygen levels more or less constantly and bring her in to the ER when she was low. They were here a few times a year. He’d brought an overnight bag. I had brought only my purse and an armful of diapers, and my arms were beginning to tremble from trying to hold them and my wheezing infant and a clipboard with forms I hadn’t filled out.

When they called his daughter’s name, he smiled and nodded again. “Good luck,” he said, and I said it back. I stood there dumbly patting the baby until someone finally looked out of some swinging doors and said, “LeBon?”

It ended up being a virus, not the virus, and we spent two days in the hospital that I barely remember.

When we came home I told my husband about the man, who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five and who had four kids, one of whom was chronically sick, who was calm and helpful and taking the time to try to comfort a stranger.

After that I held the baby on my lap while I worked, whenever I worked, until one day I was on speaker phone and he farted loudly enough for the people on the other line to hear.

* * *

The best part of my day is the hour when we put our kids to bed, and we sing songs about a banana phone and talk about monster trucks as I wrestle a washcloth into their ears and pajamas over their heads. Last week I wrote for nine hours straight one day, and the next couldn’t sit down and put together a sentence.

“How can anybody write anything now for people to watch, when we don’t know what the world they’re watching it in is going to be,” I said to my old therapist, who I am of course talking to again.

“I think for your purposes you have to pretend that the world is not the problem,” she said. “This problem you’re having may be worse now, but this problem isn’t new. It’s not just about what’s going on in the world.”

Fear is uncertainty in a hat that says “CONTROL.” Some days I get in bed after the kids are asleep and I feel pressed on both sides of my body with it, uncertainty, like a panini. I don’t even know if I’m ambitious anymore. Maybe that’s the problem, or the solution to the problem.

I want to let the laundry pile up because it is boring, but I also want to do the laundry and fold it in angular, neat piles. I want to Get Some Work Done and I also want to be able to be as present for my kids as if I had one hundred eyes and eighty hands. If nobody ever takes a picture of me with a cigarette in one hand and statuette in the other and my breasts looking like beautiful balls of mozzarella, I think I will be okay with that, even though a short time ago I would not have been.

I am the “good enough” mother. I am the milk soaked rag.