Published on March 5th, 2015 | by Meg Lemke0
THE MUTHAS OF ONE BAD MOTHER! An Interview with Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn
Oh how I love Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn, co-hosts of One Bad Mother, a “comedy podcast that happens to be about parenting.” The show’s trademark phrase used to be “stop feeling like shit for being a mom!” and has since morphed into a mantra of “you ARE doing a good job” — with urging to tell that to fellow travelers you pass in the world, holding their own screaming children and holding back tears.
I listen to the show weekly, often on my walk back from therapy, and that is not a joke. My real crush is on these MUTHAs’ friendship, on their tangential, teasing banter. Biz has a sharp sense of humor, delivered in a lovely light Southern accent that notches up as she (often) declares “that’s HAWR-IBBLE!” Theresa plays her wit stealthily, but is equally funny, and that kind of instantly calming presence we all recognize in a valued friend, but so few of us can match.
Over a couple years tuning in, there’s so much I want to say back to them (this interview is edited for clarity and length due to me running on in fan-mom chatter). But, actually, any listener can join the conversation—OBM runs parents’ recorded calls in the show, stories of genius moments and failures, and “mom rants” that are often hilarious and other times leave me sobbing. They also feature diverse guests, including recently MUTHA‘s founder Michelle Tea.
Can I tell you, it’s incredible how Biz and Theresa get this show out on schedule. Between the date I called up these ladies and this posting, many more episodes went live, while my kid got sick and I got sick and her school was closed for snow and my computer broke and here I am, now, trying to finish this intro while patting a baby who is not even my own, but like my own once-baby daughter, may enjoy to gaze at a screen but passionately protests if you start typing. I’ve got this particular baby in arms because my friend needed to pick up her older daughter in the snow and ice; and if listening to One Bad Mother has taught me anything, it’s to understand when other mothers need help—and to ask for the help you need, too. As Biz and Theresa preach, let’s “strive for less judging and more laughing.” Listen in and tell us what you think.
MUTHA: So, I’ll just jump in: Who lives in your house? [The traditional OBM guest interview question.]
BIZ: What a horrible question! I don’t understand.
THERESA: What do you mean by that? I don’t get it.
BIZ: For me, it is myself, it is my husband, Stefan, and it is our two children, Katy Belle, who is five, and Ellis, who is thirteen months. And we have two cats, who are more interesting than all of us.
THERESA: One of them has one eye.
BIZ: Onion, the one-eyed cat and Bee, the fat cat.
THERESA: There’s always a fat one, right, when you have two cats?
BIZ: I like to say voluptuous.
THERESA: My turn. I live with my husband, Jesse, my three-year old son, Simon, my fourteen-month-old son, Oscar, and my two Terrier-Chihuahua mixes, Cocoa and Sissy.
MUTHA: To clarify, that’s Jesse Thorn, “America’s Radio Sweetheart?”
MUTHA: Why and when did you start One Bad Mother?
BIZ: The three years after having Katy Belle were hard. I was in New York for the first two, feeling isolated. Am I the only person who feels this is hard and frustrating? Why is everything online being super sweet and telling me I should be having a lot more fun than I am? We moved out to L.A., and Stefan knows Jesse and said, “I really think you should go hang out with his wife.”
As moms, I think we all know that feeling of it’s one more thing that I have to do… I’d like to go make a friend but… AARGH! Anyways, Katy Belle was in school, so I had some free time. I met Theresa and Simon at the playground and I was totally the creepy mom without a child.
THERESA: That was the first time?
BIZ: And you turned to me and said, “I’m having a hard time. With all of this.” That kicked us off. We started walking two times a week. We made time for it. I told her I had the idea for this podcast. She introduced me into to the Maximum Fun Network and I asked her to become my co-host.
THERESA: We became friends.
BIZ: Theresa and I have very different temperaments and that’s really needed for this to work. This wasn’t supposed to just be me screaming into the night about how horrible everything was. What this show has proven to me, over all this time, is how balanced Theresa is.
THERESA: I think we’re balanced together. Either one of us, on our own, that might not be something someone would want to listen to, really.
MUTHA: You can hear over the course of the show that you are getting to know each other better and better.
BIZ: “This is really a show about our friendship…”
MUTHA: Theresa, you hadn’t been on the radio before, despite it being the family business?
THERESA: I worked on the back-end, the business side. But I had a secret performer deep inside me. I went to art high school with Jesse and was a theater major. But it wasn’t like “I must perform—I’m setting out to broadcast!”
Honestly, the reason I wanted to do it now was because I had so much fun hanging out with Biz.
BIZ: Every time I sit down, three days after recording, to edit the show, I get so tickled by Theresa on air. It’s always a surprise what she’s going to say. Originally I thought, “Well, I’m the funny one”—because I’m an asshole and it’s all about me…
THERESA: Well, and you are the funny one.
BIZ: But, I laugh out loud at Theresa. We did a show on weaning, and during the introduction, Theresa started to sing this song…
THERESA: “Hooraay, it’s Weaanninng Daay!”
BIZ: I still get the giggles over it.
MUTHA: That show made me cry. Are you still nursing, Biz?
BIZ: No. It failed. I came back the next week and explained that I had scrambled to try and do it again, because I was having such a hard emotional time with ending. But Stefan was out of town and Ellis was sick. A million things became suddenly out of control and he wouldn’t latch. Everything was in unlatchable shape. Nothing happened, which got him frustrated and upset, and me frustrated and upset. So, I just stopped. He now takes a bottle of whole milk and we have a sweet cuddle time when he wakes up from his nap. It’s actually more of a way for us to relax and connect than what I thought I was going to lose. Breastfeeding wasn’t always the best for me; this has allowed us to have a better time together.
MUTHA: I’m curious about the larger structural piece of being part of the network. It cracks me up when you mention that you have a lot of single dudes who are listeners. While I don’t want to say it’s a boys club, Max Fun does seem like it’s a boy-ish radio network. The shows I listened to before were like Jordan, Jesse, Go, and the Judge John Hodgman podcast…
THERESA: We have a lot of new shows with women—and it’s taken a lot of work. Bringing more women in has been a huge priority for the network. The issue is not just Max Fun, it’s all of podcasting. And, honestly, all broadcasting. It’s just starting to open up more for women.
MUTHA: Clearly One Bad Mother is reaching listeners who tune into to every show on the network. The guys who write in like, “well, I’m not a mother but I had a mom…”
THERESA: Podcast listeners as a whole have been males, for a long time. Statistically, with any new technology, it’s usually dudes at first, and then opens up to more women. As podcasting has become more prevalent, there are more women listeners. But yes, the first existing audience the show is promoted to is these dudes, some of whom check it out.
MUTHA: Do you feel like One Bad Mother has brought in other women to the network?
BIZ: Now at year two, the bulk of our listeners are moms. But at the beginning, it really was this diverse mix of differing ages, including men and women without kids—we had this one sixteen-year-old fan, a guy, and he was way into the show.
I used to do sketch comedy. As a comedian and a woman, I wanted to write what was funny. I felt that you could find anything funny—it didn’t have to be geared to a gender. If it’s funny, it’s going to be funny and that’s it.
We want to be respectful to all of our listeners. Parents are a diverse group. Everybody’s family is different. There are single dads out there raising kids on their own. And people who don’t have kids! We have a line in our promo: “We’re the friends with kids that you want to hang out with!”
There’s something about being really honest about this experience, where hopefully the humor that comes from honesty won’t alienate people but make them feel included in the process. The show is about helping all of us, on the parent and non-parent side, to better understand each other. Once a kid comes in, it’s easy to get isolated on both sides. Communication can really break down.
MUTHA: The popularity of the show speaks to the appeal of the real-ness of your presentation. In the way that good fiction is about the details, “specificity is the soul of narrative.” There’s intimacy and trust built up, between each other and between you and your audience. Listeners hear each of you coming to realizations about yourself, in the moment, on the show.
BIZ: Those are actual moments happening. That’s why I’m so glad for Theresa. I think “Oh my God, how have I been looking at this issue only this way?” as she opens her mouth and these “knowledge-bombs” rattle off out her. I realize I could be looking at something another way entirely.
THERESA: The trust has been built up over the course of the show. You’re exactly right–and it scares me. Coming in here every week, Biz and I have gotten to know each other, become more comfortable with each other, and the feedback from listeners has been positive. But in the beginning, I was more cautious. Jesse was already in the public eye, and I wanted to keep some part of our family life private, just for me, just for us.
While I’ve relaxed, there are subjects still off-limits. Maybe we have gotten better about knowing what’s in that box, and not opening it on the show. Or, I’m going to wake up two years from now and think, “What the fuck did I say! Now the whole world knows my business!”
BIZ: The slippery slope of us becoming good friends on the show is that we want to stay as inclusive as possible. We really believe other mothers are doing a good job. We don’t want to become the thing we hate, get super casual and not remember to still see our experiences through other people’s eyes. We need to learn to be empathetic, so that when we are having a hard time, we remember and address that others may be having a different type of hard time with the very same problem.
I edit the show. We’re normal, we’ve said mean things. If I think we have said something cruel, or too private, I take it out.
MUTHA: When I interviewed Hillary Frank, who does the Longest Shortest Time podcast, she said that when her daughter was a baby, she was more comfortable telling all the baby’s secrets. But now, her daughter is five, and that’s changed. My own daughter is now three-and-a-half years old, and she’s becoming her own person enough that I realize I could embarrass her.
Whereas, hopefully your boys won’t be too embarrassed by the extensive penis content….
BIZ: That is me! But, I am talking about the general penis. The general penis experience.
MUTHA: To put this out there: You are two white women, who are married, who have houses. What I understand you are saying about inclusivity is that you want to bring in listeners who have had very different experiences. And you do that through your guests, featuring more diverse voices.
Who are some of your favorite guests, to give MUTHA readers an idea of who to expect on the show?
BIZ: Deesha is amazing. Her book for divorced parents is really helpful for married people trying to schedule things, too.
John Hodgman was fun. A very non-parenting conversation.
MUTHA: I loved that show. It was great when Biz got her back up with Hodgman!
BIZ: I did! “You can’t insult my friend!” I was riled.
We’ve had such a diverse group of guests, it’s really hard to pick…
THERESA: Laurie Kilmartin, of Shitty Mom, who is a single mom…
BIZ: Alice Bradley…
THERESA: We had W. Kamau Bell, who was really funny, talking about how easy it is for a dad to get so much praise for canceling a few tour dates, to be at home with his newborn. Also, Eleni Mandell, who took the artificial insemination route, solo, and had twins.
BIZ: We’ve talked with transgendered parents, adoptive parents, gay parents, gay adoptive parents… And, [MUTHA’s own] Michelle Tea has been on the show!
What we learn from our guests affects me so much. I often think about what adoptive parents have to go through. I go to a story-time at the library, and there’s a woman who brings in her niece, who is being fostered by the caregiver’s sister and husband. Every time the child has a bruise—the social worker is there. All the time. I think about Theresa talking about her son Oscar learning to walk and constantly having a giant bruise on his face; no one cares. No one is coming to Theresa’s house to check.
There are parents so desperately trying to get a baby. All I had to do was get drunk. It’s a good reminder, when you’re talking with other parents, to watch your mouth before you open it.
THERESA: “Is that your baby?”
BIZ: Nicole Blades was on the show and is writing a book titled Are You the Nanny?
MUTHA: You both managed to get pregnant with your second children within a month of each other, which was quite a feat. Hypothetically, would the show have taken a different turn otherwise, if one of you had and the other hadn’t?
THERESA: We felt like dicks when that happened. We have listeners trying and trying and trying. And we get it. I’ve had a miscarriage. Well, obviously, we don’t totally get it, of course, but we can imagine.
BIZ: It was two years before I had Ellis. It wasn’t like Theresa and I were walking around the park… Well, we kind of were.
THERESA: It happened for both of us a little faster than we expected, and within a month. At the time, I was playing it casual, even though I really wanted to have this baby. “We’ll see what happens, it might take a year–I’m not trying.” While Biz was saying, “I kind of need this to happen right now.”
BIZ: If Theresa had gotten pregnant, and I was still trying, we would have worked it in. It’s a good thing to talk about. It’s a friendship dynamic that happens all the time.
MUTHA: Having a second child, it changes your perspective?
MUTHA: When my daughter was very young, I felt “judgy-er.” In the thick of it with a newborn, you have a protective stance. As she’s gotten older, I’ve seen her grow up with children who were parented with very different choices, and those kids are great, too. When your second children were newborns on the show, I feel like you can hear you two returning to that moment. What’s your advice for new moms?
BIZ: The first year, with your first baby, it is impossible to not feel judged and to not judge. I do believe that new mom’s judging is less about the other person’s choice, and more about how you’re perceiving that person’s choice and how it reflects back on you. I remember thinking, “They let their baby just stay up all night!” Really I was questioning, why am I working so hard to keep my baby on a schedule?
THERESA: It’s a process that everyone has to go through. What would it have benefited me to hear as a new mom? Maybe: “Look, nobody cares what you do.” Maybe I didn’t hear that enough. But, I still feel that no matter how much I repeated that to someone, they would still have to go through the process. It’s the journey of becoming the parent that you’re going to become—that you’re always becoming.
BIZ: Don’t beat yourself up about it. I still work on noticing when I open my mouth, and something comes out—unsolicited advice or a judgy comment, “Oh, you’re letting all three sleep in a basket? They’re going to eat Doritos… for lunch?”
THERESA: Those are the ones that come up, time and time again.
BIZ: Socializing with the basket children. I try to catch myself in the moment, or realize as I’m driving home, later, “Gosh, I sounded like a dick.” My advice would be to try to follow-up. “That may have sounded unsupportive, and kind of like a dick. I apologize. You’re doing a great job.”
Today on the show we had a mom call in and leave a rant—she was just done. Super tired, burnt out. Theresa and I spent the rest of the show talking about how tired and burnt out we were, too. Maybe the trick is, when a friend shares that they’re having a hard time with parenting—or really, anything, it doesn’t have to be parenting—before offering the advice, say, “you’re right, that sucks. Tell me more about why that sucks.” That helps to curb the judging.
THERESA: As humans we have the urge to problem solve. But it’s not always the most helpful thing, it just isn’t.
BIZ: Sometimes—AHA!—just listening is enough.
THERESA: Holy fuck, what!?!
BIZ: Weren’t you listening??
MUTHA: The sense of isolation as mothers, this can come about because you write someone off due to something they’ve said. The idea of returning to a conversation can break apart the myth that there is one type of mother, and you have to bunch into “your type.”
BIZ: But it falls on both people, not just the one apologizing. We as parents also need to work on saying, “I know that you didn’t mean that in a weird way, but I’m super in the thick of it and all I hear is judging—even from the grocery clerk. But I want to tell you…. Please hug me.”
MUTHA: We’re trying to laugh it off—but it’s hard to do!
THERESA: We’re also all sleep-deprived. Maybe we don’t have the filters in effect that we should. It’s another good reason to forgive each other.
BIZ: Most people actually aren’t assholes. Some are, but most aren’t.