It’s one thing to raise a baby during quarantine. It’s quite another to raise a baby while also promoting a book during quarantine. But, as mamas we tend to make it happen, and Bess Kalb is no stranger to getting sh*t done. As the mother to a one-year-old son as well as a regular contributor of some very funny words to the New Yorker – oh, did we mention she has a day job as an Emmy-nominated writer for Jimmy Kimmel Live – Bess brings her comedic wit everywhere from the Academy Awards to her very own home in Los Angeles. Now, Bess is getting a bit personal with her new book Nobody Will Tell You This But Me, a memoir in the voice of her best friend and late grandmother Bobby, filled with neuroses, shpilkes and the bonds that connect women through the generations. Here, Bess talks life during the big Q, how motherhood has shaped her book and her goal of finding the funny in everything.
Soooo how’s the whole “mom in quarantine” thing going?
I feel so lucky that my son is as young as he is. Even though there are times when it’s difficult and it does take a village, and I wish I could pass him to 50 friends or relatives, he’s at an age where he has no idea what’s going on. Fortunately, it’s the best time of his life. His mom and dad are around all the time and constantly paying attention to him. There haven’t been any strangers in four months. I’m always here to laugh at his jokes, like when he blows raspberries or drops something. It’s the best time of his life even though I’m somewhat crippled by fear and anxiety and heartbreak over what’s happening throughout the country. But we’re living with someone who’s a pure source of joy. Plus there’s nothing like the noise of banging two things together to take your mind off a global pandemic.
What would say has been the biggest challenge for you over the last few months?
I wish I were one of those people who are incredibly productive in quarantine, and more power to my people who are. But most of my friends who are moms and even friends who are not moms all expressed a similar feeling of total brain fog. At my best, all I’m doing is being a mom and everything else comes 9th or 12th so I can be there for my son’s immediate needs and be present and engaged. But when it comes to figuring out a three act structure for a screenplay, something that takes me three hours now takes me one week.
I was on maternity leave from my job at Jimmy Kimmel Live. So I took three months and two months unpaid, but the book was coming out during maternity leave, so I went back to working on my book when my son was six weeks old. That’s when I had to do a second pass as my book edits. I was literally nursing with a manuscript on the boppy. I had the manuscript on one side of the boppy and a nursing child on the other, so all the stories he heard were my second draft of my manuscript.
That must have felt oddly empowering.
Writing the book pregnant gave me a sense of what I could do in life, which didn’t end once I gave birth, because then I became a source of food. My son had an allergy he grew out of, but he was allergic to all formula. I really was a food source, so that responsibility and a responsibility to my editor made me feel invincible. I felt like I knew what an accomplishment was when I sent in the first draft, but sending in the second, after having and nursing a child, I felt pretty unstoppable, even if I looked like a mess.
Did having a baby after the first draft inform the second draft?
The parts I added while pregnant with my son were some of the places – whether coincidence or causation – with some of the most emotionally vulnerable parts. I felt like while I was carrying my son, I was also giving birth to something else, a tribute to grandmother. I was creating a life and paying tribute to life at the same time.
How has motherhood changed you?
My empathy for other women went through the roof. I found myself, even after giving birth, reaching out to other new mothers. I suddenly needed a community of mothers more than ever. Also, writing a book about my mother and grandmother was incredibly grounding. I found while pushing that I was thinking about my mother and grandmother. These people were characters in the book I was writing, but I’m here because of the women who came before me and went through this journey and made it happen.
Did anything surprise you about being a mother?
One of the most surprising things after giving birth was how I immediately forgave my mother for her overprotective meddling. I was like, yes this makes total sense because I will also have that fear and anxiety for the rest of my life. I owed my mother a huge apology.
Writing the book pregnant gave me a sense of what I could do in life, which didn’t end once I gave birth, because then I became a source of food.
What have been some of the more hilarious moments of motherhood so far?
Motherhood in quarantine, as every mother knows, is a challenge in finding what’s hilarious. You kind of have to laugh at everything. What quarantine taught me is that every other circumstance can be a cause for friction, but you just have to laugh. It’s the only way to survive. It’s also an important lesson for parenthood going forward. Finding the humor in the disaster.
The book is a matrilineal love story about my relationship with my grandmother and her relationship with her mother. It’s love skipping a generation. My grandma was a pretty absent mother but a doting, loving grandmother. The book is told in her voice from beyond the grave. So here I am trying to raise a baby in quarantine, wishing I could call her for advice all the time, but it’s a way to bring her back to me after she died. She was this fierce, passionate, incredibly chic woman and she was also my best friend. I talked to her on the phone everyday. This book is a tribute to her memory. What’s been amazing is that now Bobby, my grandmother feels like so many other people’s BFF, too.
What’s some advice she always gave you?
She always told me to wear an undershirt. And I’m not sure I ever did, except when she was coming over. My son was born in August, the hottest month on the planet. My husband and I were walking one night after the sun went down. We got in a fight because I was fussing the entire time on the walk about how he needed a hat and socks. “He’s cold!” I yelled. “He’s freezing.” My husband told me I was crazy and that he was basically sweating. I yelled, “Don’t call me crazy!” So I’m yelling at my husband while I’m overheating my child because I am in fact my own Jewish grandmother. She lives on me.
Given everything that’s going on in the world, how are you planning on raising a civically-engaged child?
That was also a big part of who my grandmother was and that’s why I am the way I am. She marched in Washington D.C. with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. There’s a story about that in the book. She and my grandfather were civil rights activists. My grandfather represented students for the Democratic society at Columbia University. My grandmother was the daughter of a Socialist union organizer. So I come from a line of strong progressive allies and the point of having a child now is to create a new generation of strong progressive allies. I will teach my son, who is a white man, to pass the mic and not to speak for those less powerful than him but to amplify those voices. My greatest hope is that my son helps fight for a better world than I and he was born into and generations before us were born into. I will have done my job if he helps empower people who are powerless and fights for social justice and the good. And it wouldn’t hurt if he lets me live in his pool-house when I get older.