It really was too good to pass up — a staff-writing job on a TV show shooting in New York, the latest creation from Zeitgeist master Darren Star, famous for “Melrose Place” and “Beverly Hills 90210.” Plus, I needed to support an insatiable shopping habit I’d developed on behalf of my children during my two years as a stay-at-home mom. So when Annie was two months old, and Sam 19 months old, I went back to work as a writer on the television series “Central Park West.”
If you know anything about television, you know this didn’t keep me out of the house for very long. The job only lasted a matter of months, and while it existed, it was not especially demanding. I could get to work late, leave early, and write at home, so neither my children nor I had to deal with major separation issues. It had been more than two years since I’d spent any significant time in all-adult company, let alone as the only one with children. I was about as clueless as a German tourist trying to decipher a New York City subway map. I couldn’t remember the last book I read that didn’t rhyme. I had no good industry gossip, and nobody there wanted to gab about breast-pumping machines and baby-proofing an apartment.
Then the show was cancelled, and I was back at home. This time as a work-at-home Mom — I got assignments to write pilots and some scripts for existing shows. I kept telling myself this was the best of both worlds, but when I look back on those five years, I see now it was also the worst.
Work was a distraction from Sam and Annie; Sam and Annie were a distraction from work. It turns out I’m not all that good at compartmentalizing or managing my time, but until this point, I never really had to be. I had always gotten things done before I had kids because I could work as long as I needed to. I’m one of those writers who needs hours of staring at the computer to write anything worthwhile, and now I had to weave those hours around parent/teacher conferences, ear infections, making cookies for a bake sale, and jumping up to see what made that horrible crashing sound.
I was turning in scripts late, past the deadlines set by the producers who had hired me; some I never turned in at all. I would bolt upright in bed at 3 a.m., freaking out about how I was going to do my share to support this family, vowing to myself that today I would get all the work done that I hadn’t managed to do yesterday and the day before that and the day before that and the day before that. I would set very reasonable, not overly ambitious goals for myself: write five pages today. We’re talking sitcom script pages with wide margins and double-spaced dialogue — I wasn’t giving Proust a run for his money. I would shut the French doors to my living room, determined to concentrate and then look up to see a little face staring mournfully at me through the glass. Was I really going to ignore that just so I could stare at a blank screen? Of course not! The mommy part of me was never going to take a back seat to the writer part of me — unless I had 45 minutes left to go in my work day and had produced barely half a page of stuff I didn’t loathe.
As my available work time ticked away, I would become increasingly tense. Mommy wasn’t opening the doors for a hug; it was the Writer, and she was snapping, “You have to leave me alone! I have to get this done!” This was followed by Guilty Mommy, who wouldn’t let Frustrated Writer do anything until she apologized. You know, it’s scary to watch the last scene of “Psycho,” where Norman Bates sits in a padded cell, his two personalities finally merged, and realize you’re thinking, “Wow, he looks relaxed.”
So, I had the Holy Grail of “it all” — marriage, family, career — and, for the first time in my life, anti-depressants. Yet everything I did felt half-assed. I hadn’t written more than a script or two a year for five years. I spent entire days in my bathrobe, not a particularly attractive one. I had an all-purpose sleep/work/gym wardrobe of leggings and oversized T-shirts and had been known to go 48 hours straight in the same clothes. My main mode of transportation was bicycle, which I could ride with four grocery bags suspended from the handle bars. It took me a really long time to figure out I can’t handle “it all” and even longer to stop feeling horribly incompetent about that.
In the mid 1990s, having children was considered a serious liability for female television writers. One executive, a woman who knew of my fertility problems, greeted the news of my second pregnancy with this: “You’re as useful to me now as if you had a brain tumor.” I thought, Oh my God, she’s going to realize she said this grotesque thing and call me back any minute, begging my forgiveness. But she never did; actually, she thought her sentiment so apt she repeated it to my agent. (I take tremendous satisfaction in the fact that a script I wrote for her, which died at ABC, was picked up in 2000 by the Disney Channel and became the series “Lizzie McGuire.”)
This same year, I wrote a pilot about a fabulous single girl who marries a widower with children and becomes Instant Mom. It wasn’t my idea, and I had no higher expectation for this script than anything else I’d written. But this one was picked up, and Geena Davis agreed to star in it.
This is like having just passed your driver’s test and having somebody hand you the keys to a Jaguar. You have to drive it, even if you feel like you’d be happy with a beat-up Toyota. Everyone keeps saying, “Boy, you’re so lucky, what a fantastic car, better not let it get dented or stolen or scratched.” Which is what you know for certain is going to happen if you so much as get behind the wheel.
Sitcom writing is not the job for anyone who wants to spend time with his or her kids. For nine months of the year, you just don’t get to. Eighty-hour weeks are typical. An “easy” job is one where you sometimes get home before midnight and have some weekends off. You eat most of your meals out of Styrofoam delivery boxes, and you spend nearly all this time in a conference room from hell, sitting at a table covered with cold French fries, empty soda cans, used napkins, open soy sauce packages, and the trade papers, which everybody’s reading while they’re supposed to be working from the hundred various drafts of that weeks’ script that also lie scattered around. Usually at least one person is quizzing the room from some dictionary of vile sex terms printed off the Internet.
But for me, the main drawback of the job was its location on the other side of the country, which meant moving my family to Los Angeles. Any satisfaction I may have allowed myself in my accomplishment was subsumed by guilt. I never for a moment considered going without them, and likewise never intended it would be a permanent move. It was for one year, an extended family vacation, with the promise of many trips to Disneyland. So I wasn’t adequately prepared for what happened when I finally went to work.
I loved it.
I loved being in the company of adults. I loved being able to swear freely and not worry I might be corrupting anyone. I loved having my own office with a button on the desk which would make the door swing shut. It had been so long since I had gossiped about anything besides other people’s nannies. I made new friends. I bought new clothes. I had my hair streaked for the first time and bought $300 worth of make-up which I actually wore for a while. The night we shot the second episode of the show, I was so overwhelmed with the pure joy of being in this place with these people that I wept and hugged everyone, including the network executives. People asked me if I was drunk.
I felt like Hollywood had for some reason conspired to throw me a massive surprise party, and everyone who came chipped in on the gift of a giant ego boost. But I can’t say I was especially proud of my contribution to my own show, or even that I made much of one. I was one of four executive producers, the one with by far the least experience. I may have stated my opinions, but I didn’t insist on them. The only people I had any real experience bossing around were my kids, and really not even them so much. And here the sitcom community had allowed me into their club in a big way — I didn’t want to alienate any of them now by saying no to their ideas. So I sat relatively quietly while we added a hot-for-five-minutes dimwit to attract male viewers. I said little as we broke a story in which Geena “accidentally” bakes a cake in the shape of a penis. And I wasn’t altogether surprised when the show was cancelled.
But the record shows we all enjoyed that year in Los Angeles. We rented a house, the first we had ever lived in, with this incredible yard that had hammocks, a fish pond and little waterfalls, a tree house, and grapefruit, orange, and avocado trees — quite a different piece of real estate from our New York City apartment. We took trips to Newport Beach and San Diego and cut school one day to go to Disneyland. It actually did feel like an extended family vacation.
We moved back to New York, as scheduled, a year later. I realized with something akin to panic that I had to escape our apartment if I wanted to keep playing with the big people. I just couldn’t slide back into my former life; I couldn’t return to writing in the living room, so I rented myself an office, where I was alone, just me and my blank screen, trying to write myself another job. The following year a pilot I had written became an ABC sitcom called “Less Than Perfect.”
Uprooting my family again was not an option, so this time I went to Los Angeles by myself, making a deal to run the show for its first 13 episodes. “It’s only for four months,” I told the kids. “I swear I’ll be home for Thanksgiving.” Then the show was picked up for an entire season, and for three months after I “came home,” I spent half of every week in Los Angeles. The kids’ goodbyes went from tearful to furious at warp speed:
“You lied!” “You said you wouldn’t go back!” “I hate you; I HOPE YOU NEVER COME BACK!”
You try getting in a town car and driving away from that.
So why did I? I could say it was because I had to, if I intended to remain a television writer, live in New York City, and send my children to private school. All of that is true. But it was mostly because I wanted to.
That year I missed a lot of things in my children’s lives. Big things that I loved: the first day of school, parent-teacher conferences, the annual apple and pumpkin picking excursion, choosing their clothes for picture day. Little things that I loved even more: laughing over Shel Silverstein poems at bedtime, the way they look right after a haircut, the wrinkled notes from school they pull out of their backpacks that they were supposed to give me last week.
But this was something in my life I didn’t want to miss. Getting a show on network television is a thousand-to-one shot, and I had hit it. It’s not the kind of opportunity you can tell yourself you’ll take the next time it comes around. Obviously it sucked that it was an opportunity three time zones away from my family, but that’s where it was, so that’s where I had to be.
Every time I spoke to Sam or Annie during those months, they would ask, “Mommy, do you love your television show more than us?” And I would tell them, no, of course I didn’t. Their next question always was, “Mommy, then why are you with the show and not with us?”
First I tried “This is hard for me, too.” They would point out I could solve that if I would just come home. When I said, “But I have to be here,” they would say other people could run a TV show, but I was the only mommy they had. (The perfect age for a prosecuting attorney: eight years old. Eight-year-olds are merciless.)
I could never come right out and say to my children: I want to do this. I need to do this. This is who I am, and it’s taken a lot of therapy not to apologize for that. At my children’s school, there are mothers who hold meetings with administrators to discuss the juice policy. I would put a fork in my eye if that were my life. But I’m grateful to the parents who immerse themselves in our school, and I would like to think that somehow, I’m returning the favor. No — not by writing a television show for their children to watch. But maybe by letting their children know they can someday turn the trauma of their teenage years into an interesting career. As I agonized, friends told me I was setting an example for Sam and Annie to pursue their dreams, and that as adults, they would appreciate that. The problem was, I needed something to comfort them at that moment, and I didn’t have anything.
The best I could do was minimizing the torment. After the first year, I turned “Less Than Perfect” over to another show runner, also a mother who had faced her own struggles having a family in this business. The fact is, there are a lot more of us now, and we do have workplace conversations about how much homework our kids have and why sleepover birthday parties often turn out badly. We can be late to work to attend school field trips and doctor visits. I’ve had women thank me, and tell me I helped make that possible. Had I known anyone would ever say that, I would have had an answer to those horribly difficult conversations with my children.
But we haven’t had any of those lately. I still go to Los Angeles several times a year. My kids don’t love it, but they accept it. The trips are shorter, and the goodbyes are manageable.
Before my most recent trip, Sam and I were walking up Broadway together. I asked him, if it had been up to him, would he have wanted me to work or be at home?
We happened to be walking down a block where I had pushed him in a stroller, where I had stood with him as he counted buses going by, where he collected bottle caps from the sidewalk despite my begging him not to. Now here he was, dressed in his baseball uniform and carrying his bat bag: I could see his whole history on this stretch of concrete as I talked to him like the adult he nearly is.
The next day, I told this story to a roomful of network executives in Los Angeles. I was pitching a pilot about a woman who goes back to work after several years of being a stay-at-home mother. I may have gotten out of my living room, but as a writer, I rarely venture five feet from my own life.
I repeated Sam’s answer to me.
“I would have wanted you to do what made you happy.”
As soon as I said it, I started to cry.
And so did the other moms in the room.