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'Reluctant Dad' Mike Birbiglia And Poet Jen Stein Share 'Painful' Parenting Truths

Mike Birbiglia was initially reluctant to become a father, but his wife, Jen Stein, saw things things differently. "I felt like [parenthood] was the kind of challenge that we were ready for," she says.
Ryan Miller
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Mike Birbiglia was initially reluctant to become a father, but his wife, Jen Stein, saw things things differently. "I felt like [parenthood] was the kind of challenge that we were ready for," she says.

One of the first jokes comic Mike Birbiglia ever told on stage was about remaining childless. He'd say: "I'm not going to have kids until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life."

Birbiglia wasn't really joking. In his Broadway show, The New One, he enumerated seven reasons not to have a child, including "I love my marriage," "I love my cat," and "the Earth is sinking into the ocean."

"Logically, I felt so correct about all of my reasoning," he says. "Maybe underneath all of that was a fear that I wouldn't be a good dad."

Birbiglia's wife, poet Jen Stein, saw things differently. "I felt like [parenthood] was the kind of challenge that we were ready for," she says. "I think Mike was ready. He just didn't know it."

After months of conversation, Birbiglia's outlook began to shift: "I just felt like, well, [Jen] is my life partner. This is this person who I love and trust and who I'm going to spend the rest of my life with, and this is really what she wants to do, and I know she'd be a great mom. And so the idea of holding her back at a certain point felt ... very selfish."

They agreed to have a baby, and, after a difficult pregnancy, Stein gave birth to their daughter, Oona, in 2015. But Birbiglia struggled to bond with her. It wasn't until Oona began talking that he felt himself fully embracing fatherhood.

Birbiglia explores his ambivalence about parenthood in the new book, The New One: Painfully True Stories from a Reluctant Dad. Stein collaborated on the memoir, contributing her side of the story through poems, published under the name J. Hope Stein.

Birbiglia describes the book as a letter to his daughter, who is now 5. "This book is for [her]," he says. "I'm being painfully and darkly honest in a way that I think that we should all be to each other, because I think that when you're honest with people who you love — ultimately, even if it's painful in the short term and the long term — it makes you even closer."

Interview highlights

/ Grand Central Publishing
Grand Central Publishing

On Jen's difficult pregnancy

Jen: I was so day-to-day, and so I started to feel like being sort of maybe over connected to the child, because it felt like any day anything could happen. I was very aware of my own struggle and her struggle as well. I started to have a connection to her early not knowing if she was going to make it or not. And then, as far as Mike and I, I feel like we were very close in this time. And his feelings about not wanting to be a father, I didn't hear that a lot from him. I don't feel like that was part of the experience when I was pregnant. It was more about my health and Oona's health. And then once Oona was born, it went back to he did not want to be a dad and he was not ready.

On how Mike didn't feel a connection to the baby when she was born

Mike: In the first 13 months, which is where the book mostly takes place, I felt like all of the things that I had thought, all the seven reasons I never wanted to have a child, I was right about it! And I was like, "See? I told you."

Sometimes parents bond with the child at birth, or before birth, or six months into the baby's life, or 12 months, or a year and a half, or whatever it is. And that's not just a father thing. It's a parent thing.

It was scary. It was a scary moment in my life. What's interesting, though, I will say this, is from performing these stories onstage, I can't tell you how many fathers come up to me — but also, I'd say disproportionately — mothers come up to me and say that they felt exactly the way I did, which was very illuminating for me. This idea of like, sometimes parents bond with the child at birth, or before birth, or six months into the baby's life, or 12 months, or a year and a half, or whatever it is. And that's not just a father thing. It's a parent thing.

Jen: I understand why Mike didn't [feel connected to the baby] ... but I kind of had the opposite, which is perhaps I was too connected to her. Maybe just because I had a rough pregnancy ... and so I think I went the other way. And I think that's part of us being in two different places in that time.

On Mike sleeping in a separate room and not being able to help with the baby at night because of his dangerous sleepwalking disorder

Mike: In my last book, Sleepwalk with Me, I talk about how I sleepwalked through ... a second story window of a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash., almost 15 years ago. So since then I take medication. I sleep in a sleeping bag. And with Oona coming, we decided that I should just sleep in a separate bedroom and sleep in a sleeping bag. And then, to make it even more secure, I [slept with] a sleep sheet that has a hole in it for my head ... and then I would lock the door and I actually put a chain lock on the inside, so that I couldn't get out.

Jen: We had agreed that I would be in charge of everything at night. I was exhausted and Oona was a terrible sleeper. ... I had to hold her all the time, and if I ever put her down, she would scream. So she would just sleep on top of me for a long time. That definitely created a lot of distance between Mike and I. And then he was shooting a film. So during the day, he was gone all day. And so I feel like in those months Oona and I got very close, and Mike hadn't really caught up to the basics of how to sort of raise a baby. So I was really doing most of the things at that point: diapers, baths, nighttime, everything. It's not a huge surprise given how he felt about it and all the discussions we had before it. But the actuality of it created distance between us, for sure. Because we were growing in different directions.

On Jen's fear that the marriage would end because of the emotional distance between her and Mike because of the baby

Mike: I was raised by two Catholic parents who have been married for 50 years, despite a really strong case for them not still being married. ... So the way I understood marriage, the way I was taught marriage as a child, was that it was forever, no matter what. And so I thought: I'm not going anywhere. But also, Jen had a different upbringing. ... In writing the book, Jen and I ended up saying things to each other that we didn't say in that period of time. And one of the things is that Jen felt like she thought the marriage might end in that period of time — that first 13 months with a child — and I didn't know that, but I could feel it.

Jen: That's the time period that my parents got divorced. And so it's probably part of my experience that that's something that can happen in that time period, if things go that way. I didn't want that. But it definitely occurred to me like, oh, I guess this is a time period that people can get divorced, or something like that. We hadn't really figured things out. And so there was a question of: Are we going to figure things out or not?

On how having a baby changed Jen's relationship to her own body

Jen: I became a mother pretty late in life. ... I was 41 when I became a mom. I had sort of lived a long time as not a mom. It seems so obvious to me now, but I ... wasn't really connected to my body. I wasn't really thinking of myself as a woman or a man. I was just feeling pretty much just like a person. ... Once I became pregnant, I understood like, oh, I'm a woman. It was kind of like I was experiencing my body for the first time. And then the idea that I could be food to another living thing is something I'll just never get over. It's just something because I think it came to me so late in life. It was just kind of shocking. I was like, oh my gosh, I have capabilities that I didn't even know I had. Now, five years later, I do think that sticks with me a little bit. I definitely see myself more as a woman than I did before I had a kid.

On what changed so that Mike bonded with Oona

Mike: When she started to talk, I started to understand how she felt. It's so silly. There's this chapter in the book where I take Oona for pizza on the corner and Oona says, "Pee pee!" which I think means "pizza" and also "yes." And I would say, "Oona, do you want some pizza?" And she would say, "Pee pee!" I'm such a verbal person, and I think I'm a decent listener, and so I could really listen and understand her. And I still can, like she and I are so close now. We just talk and talk and talk. The verbal communication for me was really profound. And I think for Jen, the physical relationship was their version of talking.

Lauren Krenzel and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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