What’s the rudest question you can ask a mother?
My daughter recently checked out a book from the preschool library called “My Working Mom.” It had a cartoon witch on the cover. “Did you pick this book out all by yourself?” I asked her, trying to be nonchalant. Yes. We read the book, and the witch mother was very busy and sometimes reprimanded her daughter for messing things up near her cauldron. She had to fly away to a lot of meetings, and the witch’s child said something like “It’s hard having a working mom, especially when she enjoys her work.” In the heartwarming conclusion, the witch mother makes it to the child’s school play at the last second, and the witch’s child says she doesn’t like having a working mom but she can’t picture her mom any other way. I didn’t love it. I’m sure the two men who wrote this book had the absolute best intentions, but this leads me to my point. The topic of working moms is a tap-dance recital in a minefield.
It is less dangerous to draw a cartoon of Allah French-kissing Uncle Sam—which, let me make it very clear, I have not done—than it is to speak honestly about this topic.
What is the rudest question you can ask a woman? “How old are you?” “What do you weigh?” “When you and your twin sister are alone with Mr. Hefner, do you have to pretend to be lesbians?” No, the worst question is: “How do you juggle it all?”
“How do you juggle it all?” people constantly ask me, with an accusatory look in their eyes. “You’re screwing it all up, aren’t you?” their eyes say. My standard answer is that I have the same struggles as any working parent but with the good fortune to be working at my dream job. Or sometimes I just hand them a juicy red apple I’ve poisoned in my working-mother witch cauldron and fly away.
The second-worst question you can ask a woman is: “Are you going to have more kids?” This is rude. Especially to a woman like me, who is in her “last five minutes.” By that I mean my last five minutes of being famous is timing out to be simultaneous with my last five minutes of being able to have a baby.
Science shows that fertility and movie offers drop off steeply for women after forty.
When my daughter says, “I wish I had a baby sister,” I am stricken with guilt and panic. When she says, “Mommy, I need Aqua Sand” or “I only want to eat gum!” or “Wipe my butt!,” I am less affected.
I thought that raising an only child would be the norm in New York, but I’m pretty sure my daughter is the only child in her class without a sibling. All over Manhattan, large families have become a status symbol. Four beautiful children named after kings and pieces of fruit are a way of saying, “I can afford a four-bedroom apartment and a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in elementary-school tuition fees each year. How you livin’?”
Now, I’m not really one for status symbols. I went to public school. I have all my original teeth and face parts. Left to my own devices, I dress like I’m here to service your aquarium. But the kid pressure mounts for other reasons.
The woman who runs my local toy store that sells the kind of beautiful wooden educational toys that kids love (if there are absolutely no other toys around and they have never seen television) asks me, “Are you gonna have another one?”
A background actor on the set of “30 Rock” will ask, “You want more kids?” “No, no,” I want to say. Why would I want more kids when I could be here with you having an awkward conversation over a tray of old Danishes?
The ear-nose-and-throat doctor I see about some stress-induced canker sores offers, unsolicited, “You should have another one. I had my children at forty-one and forty-two. It’s fine.” Did she not hear the part about the stress-induced canker sores?
My parents raised me never to ask people about their reproductive plans. “You don’t know their situation,” my mom would say. I considered it such an impolite question that for years I didn’t even ask myself. Thirty-five turned into forty faster than McDonald’s food turns into cold non-food.
Behind Door No. 2, you have the movie business. Shouldn’t I seize the opportunity to make a few more movies in the next few years? Think of the movies I could make!
“Magazine Lady”: The story of an overworked woman looking for love, whose less attractive friend’s mean boss is played by me . . . when Bebe Neuwirth turns the part down.
“The Wedding Creeper”: An overworked woman looking for love sneaks into weddings and wishes strangers well on their wedding video, only to fall in love with a handsome videographer (Gerard Butler or a coatrack with a leather jacket on it), despite the fact that when they first met they knocked over a wedding cake, causing an old lady (Academy Award™ winner Jane Fonda) to rap.
Next, a strategically chosen small part in a respectable indie dramedysemble called “Disregarding Joy,” in which I play a lesbian therapist who unexpectedly cries during her partner’s nephew’s bris. Roger Ebert will praise my performance, saying I was “brave to grow that little mustache.”
Finally, for money, I play the villain in the live-action “Moxie Girlz” movie, opposite a future child star who at this moment is still a tickly feeling in Billy Ray Cyrus’s testicles.
How could I pass up those opportunities? Do I even have the right to deprive moviegoers of those experiences?
These are the baby-versus-work life questions that keep me up at night. There’s another great movie idea! “Baby Versus Work”: A hardworking baby looking for love (Kate Hudson) falls for a handsome pile of papers (Hugh Grant). I would play the ghost of a Victorian poetess who anachronistically tells Kate to “go for it.”
I debate the second-baby issue when I can’t sleep. “Should I? No. I want to. I can’t. I must. Of course not. I should try immediately.”
I get up to go to the bathroom and study myself in the mirror. Do I look like someone who should be pregnant? I look good for forty, but I have the quaggy jawline and hollow cheeks of a mom, not a pregnant lady. This decision cannot be delayed.
And what’s so great about work, anyway? Work won’t visit you when you’re old. Work won’t drive you to the radiologist’s for a mammogram and take you out afterward for soup. It’s too much pressure on my one kid to expect her to shoulder all those duties alone. Also, what if she turns on me? I am pretty hard to like. I need a backup.
And who will be my daughter’s family when my husband and I are dead from stress-induced canker sores? She must have a sibling. Hollywood be damned. I’ll just be unemployable and labelled crazy in five years, anyway.
Let me clarify. I have observed that women, at least in comedy, are labelled “crazy” after a certain age.
Female Writer: You ever work with xxx xxxx?
Male Agent (dismissive): She’s crazy now.
Female Writer: You know who I loved growing up? xxxxx mcxxx. What about her for this part?
Male Writer: I don’t know. I hear she’s pretty batshit.
Female Writer: I got a call today from xxx xxx.
Male Producer: Ugh. We had her on the show once. She was a crazy assache. She wanted to see her lines ahead of time. She had all these questions.
I know older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all “crazy.” I have a suspicion—and hear me out, because this is a rough one—that the definition of “crazy” in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no one wants to fuck her anymore.
The only person I can think of who has escaped the “crazy” moniker is Betty White, which, obviously, is because people still want to have sex with her.
This is the infuriating thing that dawns on you one day: even if you would never sleep with or even flirt with anyone to get ahead, you are being sexually adjudicated. Network executives really do say things like “I don’t know. I don’t want to fuck anybody on this show.”
(To any exec who has ever said that about me, I would hope that you would at least have the self-awareness to know that the feeling is extremely mutual.)
It seems to me the fastest remedy for this “women are crazy” situation is for more women to become producers and hire diverse women of various ages. That is why I feel obligated to stay in the business and try hard to get to a place where I can create opportunities for others, and that’s why I can’t possibly take time off for a second baby, unless I do, in which case that is nobody’s business and I’ll never regret it for a moment unless it ruins my life.
And now it’s four o’clock in the morning.
To hell with everybody! Maybe I’ll just wait until I’m fifty and give birth to a ball of fingers! “Merry Christmas from Tina, Jeff, Alice, and Ball of Fingers,” the card will say. (“Happy Holidays” on the ones I send to my agents.)
I try to think about anything else so I can go back to sleep. I used to cling to the fact that my mom had me unexpectedly at forty, only to realize a couple of years ago that I had the math wrong and she was thirty-nine. A world of difference, in my insomniac opinion.
My mom was conceived in the U.S., born in Greece, and brought back here as an infant. Because of this, she never gets called for jury duty.
She grew up speaking both English and Greek, and when I was in elementary school she volunteered to be a classroom aide, because a lot of the Greeks in our neighborhood were “right off the boat,” as she would say, and needed a translator. Sometimes the teachers would ask her to translate bad news: “Please tell Mrs. Fondulas that her son is very disruptive.” And my mom would nod and say in Greek, “George is a lovely boy.” Because she knew that if she translated what the teacher really said the kid would get a beating and the mother would hate her forever out of embarrassment.
Little kids’ birthdays in my neighborhood were simple affairs. Hot dogs, Hawaiian Punch, Pin the Tail on the Donkey, followed by cake and light vomiting. (Wieners, punch, and spinning into barfing would later be referred to as “the Paris Hilton.”) I would always complain to my mother after the Greek kids’ parties, because they served Italian rum cake. Covered in slivered almonds and soaked in booze, Italian rum cake is everything kids hate. No one ever ate it. It just got thrown away.
Cake Time is supposed to be the climax of a birthday, but instead it was a crushing disappointment for all. I imagine it’s like being at a bachelor party, only to find that the stripper has overdosed in the bathroom.
My mom finally explained to me that the reason the “Greeky Greeks,” as she called them, got the Italian rum cake was that it was the most expensive item in the bakery. They wanted the adults at the party to know they could afford it. Anyway, is that what I’m trying to do with this second-baby nonsense? Am I just chasing it because it’s the hardest thing for me to get and I want to prove that I can do it?
Do I want another baby? Or do I just want to turn back time and have my daughter be a baby again?
Some of you must be thinking, Well, what does your husband want? He’s a part of this decision, too, you know! He wants me to stop agonizing, but neither of us knows whether that means go for it or move on.
Why not do both, like everybody else in the history of earth? Because things that most people do naturally are often inexplicably difficult for me. And the math is impossible. No matter how you add up the months, it means derailing the TV show where two hundred people depend on me for their income, and I take that stuff seriously. Like everyone from Tom Shales to Jeff Zucker, I thought “30 Rock” would be cancelled by now.
I have a great gynecologist, who is as gifted at listening as she is at rectal exams. I went for my annual checkup and, tired of carrying this anxiety around, burst into tears the moment she said hello. I laid it all out for her, and the main thing I took away from her was the kind of simple observation that only an impartial third party can provide. “Either way, everything will be fine,” she said, smiling, and for a little while I was pulled out of my anxious, stunted brain cloud. “Everything will be fine” was a possibility that had not occurred to me.
That night, as I was putting the witch book in my daughter’s backpack to be returned to school, I asked her, “Did you pick this book because your mommy works? Did it make you feel better about it?” She looked at me matter-of-factly and said, “Mommy, I can’t read. I thought it was a Halloween book.