Zibby Owens: I'm so excited to be here today with Liz Astrof who’s the author of the hilarious book Don't Wait Up: Confessions of a Stay-at-Work Mom. An award-winning executive producer and successful sitcom writer, Liz has worked on shows like 2 Broke Girls, The King of Queens, Raising Hope, and many others. She calls herself a writer, producer, and mother-ish. She currently lives in California with her husband and two children. Welcome, Liz.
Liz Astrof: Hi. Is this on? [laughter]
Zibby: It’s on.
Liz: Hi. Thank you.
Zibby: Thanks for coming on “Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books.” Start, please, by telling listeners what Don't Wait Up is about. What made you write it?
Liz: What Don't Wait Up is about, it’s a collection of humor essays. It’s about the fact that I am terrified of being a mother because I inherited the maternal instincts of a hot dog from my own mother, from my biological mother. I am always shocked when I show up for them and when I'm not her, still to this day. I stay at work a lot and try not to come home. I do eventually. I had all these stories I wanted to tell from my childhood. I wrote all these essays. I took a class at UCLA after I was on Whitney. I want to write something that's my own and not TV and that I have control over. I took this class. I started writing. All of the essays started having the same theme no matter what they were about. They were all about being a mother and not really having a mother. That was the arc that I found.
Zibby: How long did it take for you to do all of them? How long was that whole process?
Liz: It took years. It took years to get the proposal together. The proposal was what took so long. I spent two years trying to write a proposal. Then my agent read the proposal that took two years to write and then said, “Thanks for taking your first crack at a proposal.” Then I was in a ball on the floor of a bowling alley saying, “I can't do it. I can't do it.” Then I met someone who knew how to do an overview and help me. We never met in person, but over the cloud, we worked. She helped me. From the time I wrote the proposal until the time I sold the book was only six months. Then I wrote the rest of the book in three months. Crazy. It was fast. It was really fast. Getting to it, it has been a ten-year process or nine-year process.
Zibby: It seems like the stories must have flown out of you. The way you write is like the way you talk.
Liz: Stream of conscious. Consciousness? Conscientious? I’ll never get it right.
Zibby: [laughs] Do you just sit down and they all come out? Do you do any sort of outlining?
Liz: I think the reason why this kind of writing is easier for me is because in personal essays you can go off on tangents. That’s why it’s easier for me. There have been some that have just come out. Then I immediately second-guess them and throw them out. There's a story in there about my daughter at a trampoline place and trying to jump high onto something. I was there with her. I wanted to tell her that we’re not the kind of people who jump high because we are potatoes. I've never been able to jump high, so you're not going to be able to. Then I became determined to help her do what I couldn't do. That night I sat in my son’s chair and wrote the whole thing. Then I was like, this is garbage. It wound up being the epilogue. The easiest ones, the ones I struggled the least with wind up being the better ones. Also, I try and structure them like a script. Each one is like an episode, sort of. I try. Nothing pours out of me except maybe black coffee.
Zibby: [laughs] In the beginning of the book you discuss how there's this whole stigma to being a stay-at-work mom, as you call it, and that you felt sort of discriminated against by the stay-at-home moms. You have this one scene where you're at a sporting event, I think a soccer game, with your kids. Somebody comes over and actually had asked you if your husband was working on the show. You were wearing a 2 Broke Girls hat.
Liz: I was wearing a 2 Broke Girls jacket with a thing on it. The woman turned to me. She's holding nine or ten kids. She's like, “Oh, my god. Does your husband work on that show? We love that show.” Then I said, “No. That would be great because then we'd work together.” What is wrong with you? Then I said I work there. My disdain for people like that is really my own guilt because then I followed her to the bathroom to explain why I have to work. [laughs] I made it like, “I wish I could be home. I really do. I can't. I just can't. How lucky you are.” Meanwhile, she didn't look that lucky. She didn't look that happy. The mother is always greener. I always feel guilty that I like working.
Zibby: You were making fun of her by saying -- the smugness -- “You don't even recognize yourself under those maternity sweatpants. You fantasize about getting in your minivan, running away from it all, getting involved in a Bridges of Madison County type romance, and never coming home again. There is no way any adult enjoys spending time with a toddler, even if it’s brilliant and hilarious. And frankly, if you really do enjoy them that much, there is something wrong with you.” [laughs]
Liz: I do think that’s true. I remember Angelina Jolie said Zahara was the funniest person she ever met when she was two. I don't know. I doubt that. How is she the funniest person you've ever met? I think that's strange.
Zibby: Then as you said about the guilt, you said you feel guilt at the “unrivaled joy I get leaving my house in the morning.” Talk to me about the joy you feel at leaving and then the guilt that comes with it.
Liz: If I could fly away -- right now, I'm working from home, kind of. I'm between stuff, so I hang out at home a lot. I drop them off at camp. Then around three when I know they're getting off -- a mother senses these things, where their kids are going to be -- I leave my house as if it’s on fire. I grab all my things. It’s 3:12 every afternoon. You would think my house was on fire. It’s Bourne Identity style, driving off and getting out of there. I just can't. Anyway, the morning stuff, when they were little-little and my nanny would come and I would leave, I felt like they were in great hands, better hands than with me, hands that were going to play with them and not hide in the bathroom. I felt like they were in good hands. I was going to be with grown-ups. I would be laughing at work.
Then I would come home right before they went to bed, usually with presents, which is the worst thing you could do. My guilt, I'd come home with presents. Then if they didn't like them, I would go to my car and get other presents. Then if they didn't like them, I'd get other presents. I always had presents in my car. [laughter] I would rile them up again. My husband would get so upset because then they would be up. They're not sleep trained. They're like dogs that aren't potty -- they're not even potty trained. They're not sleep trained at all. That was the thing about the book I was going to tell you. My son sleeps in my bed a lot. He's twelve. He's giant. The bed goes down. He puts his glasses on the nightstand, gets into bed. We’re like a couple.
Zibby: That's awesome. I love that. I feel like guilt leads you to do so many funny things in this book.
Liz: I'm trying to make up for it.
Zibby: The chapter about the turtles, which was so funny, I literally read it out loud to my twelve-year-old son on his bed while he was going to bed. We were crying laughing, the two of us. Then of course my daughter’s like, “Wait, why didn't you read the whole chapter to me?” It was the funniest. In that, your nanny takes the kids to Chinatown, which you really didn't want to do.
Liz: There's parking. I don't know where things are. I'm annoyed immediately. Then I feel bad.
Zibby: So you let the nanny bring home these two turtles, which then you realized are going to live forty to seventy years. [laughs]
Liz: That was a giant “F you,” I felt like, on her part. I felt like she knew. They were tiny. My husband was supposed to say no. He missed the text. I must have missed a text somewhere. I always say yes to everything so that I'm the good guy. Then he has to step in and be the bad guy. He didn't. We wound up with these turtles that were going to be ninety pounds or something and outlive all of us. We'd have to find a house that suited the turtles. Where could we put the turtles? The turtles hate each other. It was horrible.
Zibby: Then at the end, you describe in great, hilarious detail, buying the tank and then the credenza that the tank has to sit on and this whole thing. It was so funny. The whole chapter, you've wanted to get to this yoga class. Then you're like, “I think now I could get to yoga, but that would be so selfish.” Then you're like, “Obviously, I went.” [laughs]
Liz: I went. It’s better for everyone. This is always me, “Should I not go to yoga? Do what you want to do. Should I not go to yoga? Whatever you want. I won't go to yoga. Okay. I have to go to yoga. I have to. I'm going to be a monster if I don't go.” It’s in our marriage license that I get to go. I think it’s in there. It’s in the book.
Zibby: A lot of the stuff that comes up about your own parenting comes from your relationship with your own mom, which you also describe in great detail. That part was actually sad. You make it funny, but this book is not only just comedy. You show us where it came from, which I also thought was really awesome. You have such a difficult relationship with your mom that during that funny scene at Tim Allen’s ranch or wherever you were, you get in a fight with him because he won't believe you that your mother was so terrible because you're such a high-functioning adult. Then you go off on this whole tangent about how you're actually not high functioning at all.
Liz: I couldn't make the connection either between high functioning and it means that -- he insisted that I had a good experience with my mother. This has happened with other people where they say, “You must have had one good experience.” There is not one. They insist that I have. Then my blood starts boiling. I have a physical reaction to it. My nose starts running and fire shoots out of my eyes. He said, “You can't be such a high-functioning person if you didn't have a good relationship with your mother,” which makes me immediately go to, I'm not a high-functioning person. Also, shit, I have to have a high-functioning relationship with my daughter so that she's high functioning. Otherwise, she’ll live with us forever. Then it’s so much pressure on that. But yes, my own mother and I are estranged. We didn’t have a good relationship.
Zibby: Was it hard to write about that? There's a lot of really painful stuff in there.
Liz: It was. It was interesting because I when I wrote that stuff -- I'm cursed with a very good memory of very past things and not any short-term memory. All of my memory’s used on horrible things that I feel people have done to me. It was. It was cathartic. Then I felt like I came home in a bad mood. It would definitely shape my mood. When I was doing the audiobook, when I was reading those chapters about her, I started having physical reactions. Again, my nose would start running like I was possessed or something. I couldn’t breathe. I blocked her from Facebook, finally. She kept liking the book on it. She's not going to like the book. I don't want her to read the book.
Zibby: Your parents also -- I won't go into the difficulties in your relationship because you outline them so well. It’s your story to tell. Both your parents, I feel like, were really after you about your weight. You poke so much fun at that and talk about your experience at fat camp, Camp Shane, and all the rest of it, and trying to fit into this dress at a bat mitzvah shop -- it was funny -- and hiding your food outside in a paper bag and having this crazy relationship with your grown-up neighbor where you're having this reciprocal candy-sharing arrangement, which was hilarious. I was wondering, all this attention growing up on how you looked -- you make jokes like, “My failed bulimia.” How did you deal with all of that as a grown-up? How are you trying to deal with your kids now to make sure that doesn't happen?
Liz: It’s so hard. First of all, I have my own dysmorphia, for sure -- I see a dietician now -- and such a poor relationship with food. I think I have it under control. I definitely define myself by my weight and stuff like that. The one thing I will say that I give myself credit for is my daughter is kind of an experiment in having a relationship with a daughter that I didn't have with a mother. She has zero awareness of her weight, zero body shame for any reason. She has so much confidence. My friend Dale, her dad used to tell her every morning that she was beautiful. She's not someone that you would be like, “She's beautiful,” but she had so much confidence. Her eyes didn't even close all the way when she slept. She had such big eyeballs that it would always look like she was a little awake, like the white of her eyes in sleepaway camp. She had so much confidence because every day when she left the house, her father would say, “You're beautiful.” He didn't say inside and out. I think that's why she was a bitch.
I say to Phoebe, “You're so beautiful inside and out.” She really has so much confidence. The problem is with my son, and her a little bit, is that -- I immediately made everything available to them, candy, everything. I don't want it to be an issue. I don't want them to have to sneak or anything like I had to do. It backfired a little bit in the way that my son is gluttonous at times. He wakes up in the middle of the night and he eats ice cream and stuff. I find myself having to do what my parents did, like get rid of stuff. We had to put a lock on our fridge because it was bad. We got rid of all the stuff. I find myself repeating those patterns and trying desperately not to go to those places that my parents went. I get it now a little bit. I'm like, “Why do you treat yourself like a garbage pail?” That is challenging. It’s challenging with kids. Then I also know that for me, it got to a point where I had to want to do it myself, or not do it.
Zibby: I feel like so much of parenting is in reaction to the way you liked or didn't the way that you were parented.
Liz: Yes. Then I find myself doing the same things. I pull myself back.
Zibby: I had a moment like that. My mother used to hide all the chocolate chip cookies from me, which is probably smart given how much I loved chocolate chip cookies and how many of them I eat now. She would hide them on this high shelf and then bring them down on a platter for my brother when he got home from school. He could eat a box a day. I was not supposed to eat that. I was measuring out a quarter cup of orange juice. I made the decision, you know what? I'm going to let my kids eat whatever they want. I'm not putting things on high shelves. “Really? You want ice cream after camp, and you had an ice cream sandwich five minutes ago? Go for it! Amazing.” Like you, I'm like, I don't know. They have had fifty-seven treats today. I found myself the other day with this bag of chocolate chip cookies. I could see myself in a movie putting them up on this high shelf and being like, “Oh, my gosh. I'm doing that. I'm doing what she did.” Then I was like, but do I need them up here? Am I hiding them from me? Am I hiding them from the kids? I don't even know. I raced out of the kitchen. [laughs]
Liz: I do that. I'm worried about shaming them. My son had eaten a bunch of ice cream cakes out of the garage fridge, so I had to throw them out. I threw them out, but I threw them out without putting them in a bag. They were going to melt. Then my husband was like, “Did you just throw them in there?” It’s the summer. I go, “Jessie, when you go to eat in the middle of the night, just go to the garbage outside.” Is that mean? The other day I was in bed with him. He doesn't like to exercise. He’s like a very old man. He worries about chafing. He's twelve. He just turned twelve. I said, “Did you buy any snacks at camp today?” He said, “I was hot, so I had a Drumstick,” you know, the ice cream. He goes, “Then I had some Cheeto Puffs.” Silence. Thought he was done. “I had an Oreo bag. Then I had a hot dog.” I was like, “Did that cool you off?” I'm always like, “If you tell us the truth, we can't be mad.” What is interesting to me is that they have no reason to hide anything. Yet my housekeeper found a drawer of [indiscernible] in our bathroom a while ago. I said, “I had to hide food. You don't. Just eat it in front of me.” Then when he does, I'm white knuckling everything. There was one thing that happened that has to do with reading. I’ll tell you quick.
Zibby: Tell me.
Liz: One night it was three o’clock in the morning. I noticed that the bed went up.
Zibby: What do you mean the bed went up?
Liz: My son’s side of the bed was up. My son gets into bed with me every night, usually. We’re working on that, sleep training him at twelve. I notice that he's not in bed. I go downstairs to the kitchen. He slams the garbage. He has chocolate on his face. I'm like, “What are you doing?” He goes, “Nothing. I just had a little bit of pudding.” Then I go, “Just go back to bed. You need to get sleep. Go back to bed. Go upstairs.” I follow him upstairs. This is how we’re like a married couple. I go, “I just don't know why I send you to a trainer if you're going to eat like that, if you're going to treat yourself like a garbage pail.” He goes, “I got hungry. It was just one pudding.” I go, “No talking. Just go to bed. Go to bed.” Then we get into bed. It’s dark. I flip the light on. I take a book out. I go, “I can't sleep. I have to read now.” I'm lying on my side. I go, “But no talking.”
He goes, “Whatcha reading?” I go, “None of your business. Go to bed. No talking.” He goes, “Is that a chapter book?” I go, “Yes, it’s a chapter book. No talking. Go to bed.” Then he goes, “I don't see you read a lot.” I go, “I don't read a lot because I have been reading the same book for six years. I have not had the chance to read a book because I'm chasing you downstairs. I haven't had a minute because of you.” He goes, “What it is about?” I go, “I don't know what it’s about. I have no idea what it’s about. Go to bed. No more talking.” He’s quiet. I go, “No more talking. Go to sleep. You need to get sleep.” Then I said, “You know what? It would be nice if I could read a book once in a while.” Then he goes, “I'm sorry.” “No. No more talking.” Then I shut the light off.
I go, “Have you even practiced the drums?” He goes, “No.” I go, “Why are we sending you to drum lessons if you don't play the drums, if you don't practice?” He starts to talk. I go, “No talking. Go to bed.” Then he's quiet. I said, “Did you let the dogs out when you were downstairs?” He goes, “No.” I go, “Why couldn't you just let the -- you know what? Don't even talk.” He goes, “I didn't have to. Crash made a poop on the floor.” I go, “Did you pick it up?” He goes, “Yes.” I go, “Did you throw it in the toilet or the outside garbage?” He goes, “I threw it in the kitchen garbage.” I flipped the light back on. I go downstairs. I take the garbage out. I'm storming around. I got attacked by a moth. I come back up, storm into the bedroom, shut the light off. Then I go, “No talking.” I get into bed. Then I go, “Love you, Schnoogs.” He goes, “Love you, Mama.” Then we went to bed. It’s like this married couple. “You just don't stick to things. I haven't read a book in six years.”
Zibby: I see so clearly why you write for TV. I feel like now I just watched a show. I could see all that happening in my head. Thank you very much.
Liz: It is like a sitcom. He's a character in everything I write. I feel like I rob from our lives so much.
Zibby: Your husband too. Poor Todd.
Liz: My husband, poor Todd. I know.
Zibby: I saw you won some award. What was that?
Liz: When we first got married, we went for life insurance because I was worried that one of us was going to drop dead and our dog wouldn't have insurance. I was actually pregnant, I think, when we got life insurance. At the time, he wasn’t working. The insurance guy, he showed Todd what he would get if I were to die. Then he showed me what I would get if he were to die. It was just a blank piece of paper. He just wanted me to have a piece of paper. [laughter] I freaked out. I was like, “Can I take anything out on him, even if I want to go shopping?” He’s like, “Where are you going to go shopping?” I'm like, “I don't know. Bloomingdale’s?” He was like, “Could you go to a Nordstrom Off Rack?” I was like, “He's not worth anything dead?” I panicked because I was going to be supporting us even when I'm dead. I wanted to relax. Then it turned into, I wrote a whole pilot about it, about how he's there for me emotionally, which is so much more important, and how I consider myself low maintenance because I supported us but really, I'm so high maintenance. He wants to direct. I had sold the pilot to NBC many years ago. It wound up not getting made. I was like, “Why don't we produce it? You direct it.” We made it. The actors did it for free. They all got work out of it. It won the New York Comedy Festival and the LA Comedy Festival. It was exciting.
Zibby: That's awesome. I love your chapter with the Tiffany Love Bracelet. That was so funny too.
Liz: Isn't it bad? Does that make me look bad?
Zibby: No, it didn't. The whole thing, it was one thing after another of hilarious -- you say all the stuff that everybody is thinking and feeling, maybe not everybody, maybe not everything.
Liz: Neither of us come off smelling a rose in that.
Zibby: No one in life is perfect. That's what's so great. You had this one section where you outlined all the reasons why you lied and stole. Do you know what I'm talking about? I'm trying to remember what it was in the context of. It was how you're not a perfect mother at all.
Liz: Was it the one when I sent that text?
Liz: I sent a horrible text to my friend our first night on vacation. Then I had to tell my husband all the things I lied about because I thought she was going to tell him anyway. Oh, god.
Zibby: Yes. That was awesome.
Liz: That was terrible. Everyone’s done that, though. Everyone’s felt the hot rush of blood draining from their entire body when they’ve sent a text to the wrong person.
Zibby: It’s the worst. With all the stuff that happens in your life -- now it’s all become this hilarious material. You do have a scene in the book where you realize you're funny when you're regaling your stock photography office with your stories of this Club Med disaster vacation. When you're going through day-to-day life, things in your head, are you finding them funny even when they're really not funny at the time? Do you have to step back and later you find them funny?
Liz: I find them funny almost immediately because it’s the only way I can process them. Even my parents’ reaction to the book, my stepmom and my dad, has not been stellar immediately. I'm like, this is an essay. This is my next thing. Wouldn't it be funny if I tried to kill myself in an electric car because my book was coming out but then I had to live? That's my defense mechanism is to try and think of how it’s funny because it’s so not. But yes, everything.
Zibby: Love that. Are you going to work on another book after this?
Liz: I want to. If I get to, if I'm allowed, if it does well enough, desperately. Yes. I might make this one more fiction.
Zibby: The next one?
Liz: Yeah. I'm kind of working on stuff. Either way, I just want to do this again. It was the best writing experience I've ever had.
Zibby: Better than TV?
Liz: The whole process is much more -- you don't have networks. People don't have to be likeable. Your characters don't have to be likeable. You can be unlikeable, stuff like that. I probably will make this into a show at some point. That's actually part of the reason I wrote it. When I would pitch this book as a show, the studio people would say, “Everyone’s so unlikeable. We don't know that they're likeable.” Then in the book I was able to show that they're likeable. Now people want to make it. They're like, “We know you turned out okay, but I don't know if we’re going to find an audience that knows,” but now they know.
Zibby: Would you be in it?
Liz: No. I'm too old, maybe as a [indiscernible] future.
Zibby: Oh, stop. [laughs] Do you have any advice to people starting out who want to do something like you did with writing?
Liz: With writing, here's what my advice is that I learned from this writing coach. It’s been the most helpful for me. I do it now. If you give yourself a sentence, a writing prompt like “My story is about this...” and then set a timer for twenty minutes and just meander and write without any editing, no rethinking, no going back, no judgement, you will find a kernel of something that you can use. You'll be amazed by what you come up with. I still do that.
Zibby: Interesting. Any sentence?
Liz: Anything. One of mine was “I'm afraid of...” I don't know how I wind up in a whole other -- I do have to say, I have all these writing prompts that I did recently that all wind up having the same theme to try and figure out what I want the next book to be. They all wind up coming back to the same thing. Either that's laziness or there's a reason.
Zibby: What's the thing?
Liz: The thing is that I want to write about escaping and freedom. I have a lot of friends who are at that stage where their kids are grown up enough that they don't need them as much. They gave up careers for them. Their kids are a-holes, kind of, and not thankful at all. Now they look down and they're wearing the same sweatpants they were wearing when they had them. They start to take their lives back. That's what every single one of my things comes to. It’s about people taking their lives back, like a rebirth.
Zibby: So cool. I love that. Awesome. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.
Liz: Thank you. This is so fun.
Zibby: I'm telling you, this is literally my favorite. It was so funny. It is such a gift when authors are this funny and relatable even though your lives are not the same. Finding that kernel between reader and author, it’s the greatest experience. You feel so not alone in any of the stuff, even the inner stuff in your head that you're kind of ashamed of.
Liz: Zibby, that's so nice. Thank you. I say everything I'm ashamed of.
Zibby: Everybody shares some of that.
Liz: I like that. That makes me feel better too, actually. Thank you.
Zibby: Works both ways. Thank you.