'Reluctant Dad' Mike Birbiglia And Poet Jen Stein Share 'Painful' Parenting Truths | Connecticut Public Radio
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'Reluctant Dad' Mike Birbiglia And Poet Jen Stein Share 'Painful' Parenting Truths

Jul 27, 2020

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

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. - Mike Birbiglio

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 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Mike Birbiglia is a comic, writer, actor and filmmaker and a contributor to This American Life who tells personal stories about the kind of experiences and thoughts many people would not want to reveal out of fear of being embarrassed or judged harshly. Birbiglia has done it again in his new book "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad." It's about all the reasons he did not want to become a father, how he became a father in spite of that and all the reasons why he felt he wasn't connecting to his baby daughter and feared his marriage was falling apart. It didn't fall apart.

His wife Jen Stein, who writes under the name J. Hope Stein, collaborated on his new memoir, contributing her side of the story through poems interspersed through the book. Their daughter Oona is now 5 years old. The book ends when she's around 14 months. Mike Birbiglia also made and starred in the films "Sleepwalk With Me" and "Don't Think Twice." He had a recurring role in "Orange Is The New Black" and is now in the Showtime series "Billions." His new memoir "The New One" is expanded from his stage show of the same name.

Mike Birbiglia, Jen Stein - welcome to FRESH AIR. Congratulations on the new book. I really - I think it's great. So, Mike, how did you fear your life would change if you had children?

MIKE BIRBIGLIA: Well, one of the interesting things about putting this material on stage - and a lot of authors say this - is that it's when you write that you understand how you feel. And so I had this resistance from Day 1 with Jen and really before that of, you know, I'm never going to have a child. I remember one of my first jokes that ever worked on stage was, I'm not going to have kids until I'm sure that nothing else good can happen in my life.

And then I - when I expounded on that in the show and the book, I broke it down to seven reasons why I would never want to have a child. I - you know, things that include, like, I love my marriage, I love my cat, you know, the earth is sinking into the ocean - all these things. And I just felt so - logically, I felt so correct about all of my reasoning that it really took my wife putting it, I would say, in more emotional terms for me to understand it, which is to say she heard me out on all those reasons, and she said, I know all of that, and I think you'd be a good dad. And that was sort of a thing that really melted me because maybe - and I don't know if this is true - maybe underneath all of that was a fear that I wouldn't be a good dad.

GROSS: But you saw things in your brother's life and in the lives of friends who had children that you didn't want in your life, that you wanted to avoid. What were some of those things that you saw in your peers who were fathers?

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter) It just seemed like - well, my brother Joe, who has been, like, possibly my best friend and collaborator for many years, runs my company, he has two kids. And, you know, I make the joke in the book - I say he used to be so cool, and now he's a loser. And it's not that he's a loser, but he's just, you know, sort of less able to go out or do anything. He - it seemed like he was so bound, he was so restricted in this way that I just didn't want to be.

And at one point, I said to Joe, what's it like having a kid? And he took a long pause, and he thought about it, and he said, it's relentless. And then he said, I'm not worried about you 'cause if you have a kid, it's not going to be better or worse; it's just going to be new. And that's sort of where the title of the show and the book came from, which is "The New One."

GROSS: Jen, from Mike's telling (laughter), when you and he decided to get married, you agreed that you didn't want to have children. But, Jen, you changed your mind about that. So give us the short version of why you didn't think you wanted to have children but then changed your mind.

JEN STEIN: I guess it wasn't something I was really thinking about. When we met and we got married, it was almost kind of a goof because we had been dating a while and had been pretty tumultuous. But we really loved each other. And then we were like, let's just get married.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

STEIN: And we eloped. And my mom - like, we called my parents. And, like, my stepfather thought it was a joke when we called and said that we got married, and my grandmother assumed I was pregnant if I got married.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIN: So I think that, like, nobody really thought our marriage was going to last, and maybe we didn't know if it was going to last. So having kids was really far from my mind in terms of what our relationship would produce. It was just kind of like, let's get married; this is kind of fun. And then we just had our anniversary. It's been, like, 14 or - 12 or 14 years or something.

BIRBIGLIA: It's - Terry, it's either 12 or 14 years. We're going to get back to you on that.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIN: I mean, don't fact-check me, please.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: It's actually 12, to be clear.

GROSS: OK. So, Jen, what changed your mind and made you think you did want to become a mother?

STEIN: I don't know if I can put that into words. But I really did feel like there was something that I didn't know that we - that Mike and I would develop in terms of, like, we developed a really beautiful love, I thought, and our house sort of had a beautiful love to it, and I felt like we had something to offer to a child. And I don't know. It's something - it wasn't tumultuous anymore. We just sort of were living this beautiful life, and I felt like Mike would be this amazing dad. And I felt like it was the kind of challenge that we were ready for.

GROSS: Well, it sounds like you were ready.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIN: I think Mike was ready; he just didn't know it.

GROSS: So how - when you realized, Jen, that you wanted to have a baby, did you rehearse how to bring it up to Mike, knowing that he might be resistant to the idea?

STEIN: I didn't rehearse it, but I just know him so well. So I knew he didn't want to. So I guess, you know, the conversation was like, I know you don't want to have a kid. I totally get it. You're right to feel this way. But I see something different for us. And it was kind of that kind of dialogue.

GROSS: Mike, did you feel betrayed? Like, we had an agreement; we weren't going to have children. What do you (laughter) - what are you pulling on me now?

BIRBIGLIA: Well, I make the point that when she first brought it up, I said to her, I was very clear when we got married that I never wanted to have a kid. And I said, which - by the way - gets you nothing. Apparently, being very clear is useless. But it's true. Like, I think it ended up being a series of conversations that - I'd say over months and months.

You know, I think I say in the book, like, there was never a moment - there's never a moment in life that creates one big decision; I think it's a series of moments that form an evolution. And I think that's what happened - is over time, I just felt like, well, this 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 almost - I don't know. It felt very selfish to hold her back from that. And it was a dilemma.

But then just to come full circle, it's so funny. Like, Oona's 5 now. And it's - you know, sometimes people ask, like, what about when Oona gets older and she reads this book (laughter), all this stuff? And Jen always laughs at that question because Oona is so doted on by both me and Jen that I think, for her, it would be inconceivable that we would ever have anything less than 1,000% percent enthusiasm for having a child.

And the other thing is that, ultimately, where the book lands is at this - you know, I don't want to give this way. Spoiler alert - if people really want to experience the book exactly in order. But the end is a letter to my daughter saying to her like, I - you know, this book is for you. Like, I want you to read this book because, ultimately, it's about being honest. Like, I'm being, you know, 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 - in the long term, it makes you even closer. And then so - I don't know if Jen wants to speak to that.

STEIN: Yeah. I'd also say that, you know, Mike voicing all of his concerns, for me and the way our relationship works, it actually calms me down, and I don't have to wonder what he's thinking.

(LAUGHTER)

STEIN: And I think, in a relationship, sometimes people keep those kinds of fears to themselves, and then you have to half-wonder, and the - you know, the feeling is still in the air, but you can't quite put your finger on it. I don't have to worry about quite putting my finger on it. It's completely, like, vocalized on a daily basis, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.

STEIN: So I don't have to wonder where I stand or where things stand. And there's some comfort to that for me because I feel like I'm actually not much of a talker. And so for me, it's - I don't know. It helps me sort of - it helps comfort me somehow. And so I don't feel so overwhelmed by Mike saying I don't want to do something and knowing that I do want to do it. I don't feel like we're that far apart because he's so vocal, and we can actually talk about it, and we're not - I'm not wondering about it.

BIRBIGLIA: There's a joke in the book where I say, Jen is an introvert, and I'm an extrovert. An extrovert is someone who gets energy from being around other people, and an introvert doesn't like you.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: Or she might like you, but she's going to need me to explain why we're leaving the party. But that's - I mean, the introvert-extrovert thing that Jen is alluding to, it is, like, in some ways, our dynamic. And what she's saying, I think, is true, like, and it's building on what I'm saying, which is like - I grew up in, like, a Catholic, like, a conservative Catholic upbringing in Massachusetts that was very much the opposite of the way that I write, which is it was very sort of like, don't - you know, very much don't say how you feel. And it leads - you know, that kind of behavior leads to repression. And I feel like I tried to reverse that (laughter), and maybe I go too far.

GROSS: Oversharing.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, exactly.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad," and his wife Jen Stein, a poet whose poems about pregnancy and motherhood are interspersed through the book. She publishes under the name J. Hope Stein. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad." Also with us is his wife Jen Stein, who gives her point of view in a series of poems interspersed through the book, poems about pregnancy and motherhood. She writes under the name J. Hope Stein.

Jen, you had a difficult pregnancy. You were so thrilled to be pregnant, but you had - in your second trimester, you had a bleeding placenta, which at first you thought was a miscarriage. So I know you were very concerned through the pregnancy that something could go wrong, and then you found out you had hypermobile hips, which meant that, during childbirth, you could possibly dislocate or even break a hip. So I want you to read a poem about the pregnancy, and this is a poem called "Magic Trick."

STEIN: (Reading) Magic trick. I bled and bled. I thought of friends who have gone through much worse, and I bled. I thought of women across the world and in our own country who have no medical care and bled. I've thought of blood and its magic trick, flowing cell by cell through time, without ever leaving the body, how differently it performs than other liquids. Girl, I whispered to my belly, before they tell me she's a girl, my body may fail you. Sorry. But know this - your life belongs to you. And our time together, it has already begun.

GROSS: Thanks for reading that. And that's one of the poems in Mike Birbiglia's memoir. Mike, were you afraid not only of being a father but afraid of losing the baby and a fear that Jen might be injured in the process of pregnancy or childbirth?

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, I think that the pregnancy was very (laughter) - was nerve-racking throughout. It was - you know, getting pregnant was challenging. I think Jen can speak to this better than I can, but I feel like the first and second trimester were so challenging. And then there was a point in the third trimester where Jen (laughter) started - there was a period of time where she was enjoying it, and she started eating like a college freshman - just, like, hot dogs and ice cream and mayonnaise. And at one point, she's eating, like, three hot dogs, and she looks up to me and she says, I feel like I understand you now.

(LAUGHTER)

BIRBIGLIA: And I said, I think that's a little bit offensive. That might be the most offensive thing you've ever said to me. But we really did have, like, a bonding period in the third trimester, but - where I feel like, in some ways - Jen's pointed this out before - in some ways, we were as close in that third trimester as we've ever been. And, yeah, but it was scary. I mean, the whole thing was scary, and I was really scared for her. I was scared for Oona. You know, it was terrifying.

GROSS: Were you terrified, Jen?

STEIN: I was. And I had a mixture of feelings. I was excited, and it was like some days were the greatest days I've ever experienced in my life, in some ways. But, you know, and what the poem's about, too, is just, like, the closeness I was starting to feel with the unborn child because I was so day-to-day. And so I started to sort of, I feel like, be sort of maybe over-connected to the child because it felt like any day, anything could happen. And so I was very aware of my own struggle, and the struggle - her struggle as well. And I sort of felt like I started to have a connection to her early, not knowing if she was going to make it or not.

And then, you know, 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, you know, Oona was born, it went back to (laughter) - it went back to, he did not want to be a dad (laughter). He was not ready.

GROSS: So your baby, Oona, was born. And, Mike, the book is about your reluctance to become a father and your lack of connection early on to your daughter. And so you write that after she was born, you were not immediately in love with her. You didn't feel committed to her. And you started trying to figure out how to finance your life with this new child for the next 20 years.

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about the feeling that you weren't immediately in love with her? Did you think that there was supposed to be this kind of chemical reaction and just automatic sense of wonder about this connection, but you just weren't feeling it? Did you feel like something was wrong with you?

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. I mean, I think that 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, you know? And it was scary. I mean, it really was. I mean, it was a scary, you know, moment in my life.

And then 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 that's not just, you know, not a father thing, it's a parent thing. And I've spoken to, actually, so many mothers and fathers who have experienced that.

GROSS: Jen, did you experience that at all - the sense of, I don't feel the connection to my baby that I should be feeling?

STEIN: No, I didn't experience that. I understand why Mike didn't, and I really understand why other parents might not feel that, but I kind of had the opposite, which is perhaps I was too connected to her and too - maybe just because I had a rough pregnancy, still, like, maybe more worried than I should be. 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.

GROSS: My guests are poet Jen Stein and comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia. He's the author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad." It includes her poems about pregnancy and early motherhood. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "I'VE FOUND A NEW BABY")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with comic, actor, director and contributor to "This American Life," Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad." Also with us is his wife, Jen Stein, who writes about her experience of pregnancy and early motherhood in a series of poems included in the book. She publishes her poetry under the name J. Hope Stein.

The baby had trouble sleeping at first. And Jen, you're an insomniac. And Mike, you have a really serious sleepwalking problem. You nearly killed yourself...

BIRBIGLIA: Yes.

GROSS: ...A couple of times. And so you were concerned that you could hurt the baby while sleepwalking. So describe what you had to do to protect the baby from your sleepwalking.

BIRBIGLIA: This is something that Jen and I (laughter) spent a lot of time gaming out because, yeah, my last book, "Sleepwalk With Me," I talk about how I sleepwalked through - to be clear to the listeners - through a second-story window of a La Quinta Inn in Walla Walla, Wash., almost 15 years ago. And 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, (laughter) I invented - I invented. I mean, it's not trademarked. But it's a sleep sheet that has a hole in it for my head. And then one for Jen, though she never used it. And then I would lock the door. And I actually put a chain lock on the inside so that I couldn't get out because I was, you know - and then Mazzy, our cat, would sleep in that room with me. And occasionally, she would pee in the bedroom that I was locked in in a sleeping bag. So it was not - it wasn't the best surroundings, that period of time.

STEIN: I also wanted to add to that that before Oona was born, Mike's sleepwalking was really sort of a big issue in our relationship. And it's hard to explain to people how dangerous it is, that he actually jumped through a glass window, that he's capable of - what he's capable of doing in his sleep is very different than what he's like in his waking life. And it's really scary. And I was kind of the person not in charge of it, but I was, like, his partner in that. And being so connected to Oona, I think, took me away from that for a little while. And I usually had such strong, like, tabs on what's going on with Mike sleepwalking. And it was just very much a part of my day to day. And I was stretched so thin, I kind of let that go.

GROSS: So Jen, what was it like for you? Mike had to lock himself in the bedroom to protect the baby from his sleepwalking, which meant if the baby woke up, it's all on you.

STEIN: Yeah. And we had agreed on that. Because of Mike's sleepwalking issues and because he takes medication at night, we had agreed that I would be in charge of everything at night. And so yeah, I was exhausted. And Oona was a terrible sleeper. And I didn't really see that coming, you know, in my head. I sort of had this idea - I didn't have a lot of fantasies about having a child. I tried not to, like, put anything on her, you know, before she's born. But one, like, idea I had is that she would sleep eventually (laughter). Like, she would - like, I would be able to put her down...

BIRBIGLIA: (Laughter).

STEIN: ...And do a little work while she's asleep. And it didn't feel like that. It was like she - 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. And so that - I mean, that definitely created a lot of distance between Mike and I. And then, you know, 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, you know, got very close. And Mike hadn't really caught up to the sort of basics of how to sort of raise a baby, you know? So I was really doing most of the things at that point - diapers, baths, nighttime, everything. So - and, you know, it's not a huge surprise given how he felt about it and sort of all the discussions we had before it. But the actuality of it, you know, created distance between us for sure because we were growing in different directions.

GROSS: And, Mike, it sounds like you thought that you and Jen were growing apart. Were you afraid the marriage would end?

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. 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 (laughter). Like, I think - I don't know a better way to put that. Like, I think they love each other. But I also feel like, in a different set of circumstances or in different era, they might not be together. There was a lot of not physical conflict growing up, but it was a lot of verbal conflict that was hard to - you know, it was hard. And so the way I understood marriage, (laughter) 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 to - I'm not going anywhere. But also, you know, Jen had a different upbringing. And so I felt like she - and we've since - this is interesting, Terry. Like, 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, in that first 13 months with a child. And I didn't know that. But I could feel it. I could really feel it.

GROSS: Jen, why did you feel the marriage might end?

STEIN: Well, I thought - you know, we had been together a while. And that was definitely one of the more tumultuous times. And because there was so much distance between us, you know, 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.

And so you know, I didn't want that. But it was - I definitely - it occurred to me. Like, oh, I guess this is that time period that people can get divorced or something like that. And so - and we hadn't really - we just hadn't figured things out. And so there was a question of, are we going to figure things out or not? And I guess I didn't know at that point. And I didn't know - I guess I just didn't know if we were going to find each other in that moment or not.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad. The memoir is interspersed with poems about pregnancy and motherhood by his wife, Jen Stein, who is also with us. She publishes under the name J. Hope Stein. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MICHAEL DEASE AND GWENDOLYN DEASE'S "PORKCHOP'S BLUES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad," and his wife, Jen Stein. Some of her poems about pregnancy and motherhood are included in the book. She writes under the name J. Hope Stein.

There were body issues for both of you after Oona was born. You know, Mike, you had put on weight during the pregnancy and the early time of...

BIRBIGLIA: Easy, Terry, please.

GROSS: Yeah (laughter). And I think part of it was, you know, at the end, like, Jen was eating so much that you might have eaten along with her. But also, you say, like, you're addicted to food. And I'm sure stress...

BIRBIGLIA: Sure.

GROSS: ...And the stress of the pregnancy and becoming a father just added to that. You'd become pre-diabetic. You know, you had cancer when you were 19. You were just very aware of all the health issues you had. And I think you were feeling that especially after becoming a father.

Whereas, Jen, you had to deal with, you know, the pain of the aftereffects of childbirth. And - but you have a really beautiful poem about - it's called "Body, I Never Knew I Could Love You." And it's about all the joy of having had, you know, a baby growing inside you and seeing her in the world. Would you read it for us?

STEIN: Sure. (Reading) Body, I never knew I could love you. I never loved my body until she was inside it. I never loved my breasts until they made milk for her. I never understood why people took naked pictures of themselves until she was inside me, the taut and expanding skin over the relentless womb, the anti-gravitational breasts. They are the only naked photos you will find of me on my computer. Release them, I don't care. Release them for science. I'll say it just once and only to myself. I don't want to give up the power to feed my child with my body. I don't want to give up the power to be able to feed my child without a bowl or green or utensil or dollar or bottle or government, this government, or job or faucet or jar - and on airplanes.

We are a smooth-operating machine on takeoffs and landings. Passengers come up to me and say, your baby could solve world peace. She's the face of the cease-fire. It scares me to depend completely on the world around us to feed my child. What if we get lost and I forget to pack snacks? What if the economy dives and we have no money for food or a natural disaster or the dictator comes to power or some kind of attack or - how will I feed her?

GROSS: Jen, did pregnancy and childbirth and how it changed your feelings about your body, did those feelings remain? Do you feel differently about your body and what it's capable of than you did before you became a mother?

STEIN: I think so. Yes. I mean, I was really - I became a mother pretty late in life. And so - and I...

GROSS: How old were you?

STEIN: I was 41 when I became a mom. So I was - I had sort of lived a long time as not a mom. And - I don't know. It seems so obvious to me now, but I really 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. I didn't really understand how - I don't know. I just didn't understand something that I felt - like, once I became pregnant, I understood, like, oh, I'm a woman.

And actually, 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, like, 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 these capabilities that I didn't even know I had. Now, five years later, I do think it sticks with me a little bit. Yeah. I definitely see myself more as a woman than I did before I had a kid.

GROSS: Mike, how did you start to connect to your baby daughter? What changed things for you?

BIRBIGLIA: I feel so silly when I think about this because it's so simple is that when she started to talk (laughter). I started to understand how she felt. I mean, it's so silly. Like, I - there's this chapter in the book where I take Oona for pizza on the corner. And Oona says, P, P, which I think means pizza and also yes.

And I would say, do you want - I'd say, Oona, do you want some pizza? And she would say, P, P. And I'm such a verbal person. And so I - 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. And the verbal communication, for me, was really profound. And I think for Jen, it was - the physical relationship was their version of talking.

GROSS: Though, they can talk now, too (laughter).

STEIN: (Laughter).

BIRBIGLIA: No, no. I've cut that off, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter) Cut that out. Yeah.

BIRBIGLIA: No. Now that I have the upper hand, I've really taken over.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you both. If you're just joining us, my guest is comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad," and his wife, Jen Stein. Some of her poems about pregnancy and motherhood are included in the book. She writes under the name J. Hope Stein. We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with comic, writer, filmmaker and actor Mike Birbiglia, author of the new memoir "The New One: Painfully True Stories From A Reluctant Dad." His wife, Jen Stein, gives her point of view in a series of poems about pregnancy and early motherhood interspersed through the book. She writes under the name J. Hope Stein.

So it's interesting. I've seen this with other parents, too, that at first you worry that having a child is going to ruin your work and ruin your career, and then the child somehow becomes a subject of some of it. Like, you have this great book and show that you did as a result of becoming a father, and, Jen, you have these great poems about being a mother. So it's just interesting how things change. Speaking of things changing - so you had these long talks before, you know, becoming parents about, you know, Mike's reluctance and, Jen, why you wanted to have a child. And I know you couldn't possibly have fathomed that you'd be raising a child during a pandemic and that the child wouldn't be able to go to day care or go to school and that you'd be, you know, teachers and parents and that, Mike, you were worried you wouldn't be able to tour. Well, you can't tour. That decision has been made for you for the time being. And you can't make movies right now. And you can't do your stage show right now. Like, everything is on hold for now. How are you dealing with this new - new, though, it feels like forever - change in your lives as parents and as professionals?

STEIN: We had Oona start going to school when she was 1 1/2 years old. So we really feel it, her not being in school. And I think it's a lot like when we first had her. I feel like the dynamic between Mike and I is probably reminiscent of that time period right now and for the reasons that you're saying and that he can't tour and it's hard. It's hard. I mean, we have a lot of beautiful family experiences that we're thankful for. But those things are really hard. I mean, I think they're hard for everybody.

BIRBIGLIA: Yeah. I mean, I'm not - I'm a live performer as my primary source of income and a live touring performer, and it's gone. (Laughter) I don't know - I don't know any other way to put it. It's on hold for a year and that's - we rescheduled our book tour, which was going to be a 15 or 20 city tour, and it's rescheduled for next spring. And even then we're looking at those dates and not entirely convinced that that's going to be the case. And so I've had to - I created the "Working It Out" podcast where I'm basically taking my work and I'm placing it into a live audio format so that I can continue to not only work artistically but also have a job. And so that's reminded me, actually, of when I was 23 years old and I was driving my mom's station wagon around the country cold-calling comedy clubs and saying, hey, do you want to have me perform at your club and struggle and rejection of that.

And so it's been hard, but I have to say, like, the silver lining of it - and I've heard other parents say this - is in this period from March through August, if it were not for the pandemic, I would have been on tour, and I would have missed some of these milestones from our daughter's age, 5, which are astonishing. Like, she'll do a five-minute monologue to me about dinosaurs, facts about dinosaurs that I do not know and monologues about rocks and insects. And she's learning to read and she's learning to swim, you know. Like, we - she was in the ocean the other day, and she got, you know, pummeled by waves in the ocean and then got - fell down to the sand and then jumped right back up and said more, you know. And it was awesome. And so it's like - it's been a lot of highs and lows during this period of time.

STEIN: And, you know, without child care, you know, Mike and I really don't have a lot of time to spend together alone. And there was one day in all of this where we took a walk, just the two of us, while somebody watched Oona distanced. That's how little time we have to just be a couple, you know, but that's what it is.

BIRBIGLIA: And then the analogy to the thing that I say in the book is in the middle of this pandemic where, you know, we're struggling and a lot of people are struggling is because other people are struggling, you know, exponentially more, we have to say it's the most joy I've ever experienced and I didn't know what joy was until now and now I know what it is. It's this. And Jen's pointing out this thing that it is similar to the first 13 months of having Oona. And she didn't bring that up to me directly, but it sometimes it takes FRESH AIR, Terry, to bring out the truth.

GROSS: (Laughter) So your next book, Mike, is going to be about death. And I thought, like...

BIRBIGLIA: Yes.

GROSS: So this book is about new life. And now you go into death (laughter). Why is that going to be the subject?

BIRBIGLIA: Well, the new show, which I tentatively have called the "YMCA Pool," pending the the legal agreement of the YMCA pool or the YMCA organization, is about how as a child I went to the YMCA pool constantly. I went to nursery school there. I took swimming lessons there. And I just - I vowed I would never return to the YMCA. Like, I don't know if it was the chlorine smell or the snack machine room that also sells soup or the - you know, there was something about it. Like, I just don't want to return. And then here I am in my 40s and I'm back at the Brooklyn YMCA swimming laps because my doctor says, you know, you're - you know, I failed the pulmonary test. I had type 2 diabetes. I've since reversed that but, yeah, I'm trying to live longer, you know? Like, I feel like you get to this age where I'm 42 now, but, you know, they call middle age being over the hill, which I never understood until I got on the hill and then I looked around and I was like, oh, well, there's natural causes, you know? And, like, they're not close, but they're coming.

And it's just what I - honestly, it's what I think about is sort of like - is sort of how does this end? And then similar to the new one, I feel like it's a taboo subject. People don't want to talk about death, but yet it's all around us all the time. And then with COVID, of course, I'm going to have to write extensively about how that affects how we feel about death because, again, it's all around us and it's - yeah. I mean, I try to write about the things that we think about but we're uncomfortable talking about. I feel like if there's a service in what I'm doing as a writer - there may not be a service, but if there is a service, I think that's what it is.

GROSS: Well, I'm so glad you collaborated on this book. I want to thank you both so much for talking with us and for being so open. And I wish you good luck during this COVID crisis. And good luck with parenting and, Mike, with all the work that's on hold right now that will hopefully resume in the not-too-distant future. Thank you both so much for talking with us.

STEIN: Thanks, Terry. Stay safe.

BIRBIGLIA: Thank you so much, Terry. We really appreciate it.

GROSS: Mike Birbiglia's new memoir, "The New One," includes poems by his wife, Jen Stein, who writes under the name J. Hope Stein.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey. Her Black mother and white father had to leave their home in Mississippi to get married because interracial marriage was still illegal there. After their divorce, her mother married a man who turned out to be abusive and after years of marriage shot and killed her. Trethewey's new memoir is about her mother and about race. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF HANK JONES AND FRANK WESS' "YOU MADE A GOOD MOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.