Everyone wants to know how soon you “find yourself again” after having a baby. How soon you have sex. How soon you go jogging naked down an empty beach, full of light, unafraid. What feats of strength you have performed by six weeks postpartum. For me, the first glimpse of the old me came at two weeks postpartum, when I got up on stage to perform stand-up comedy. I needed the help of the host to hoist me up onto the platform, and was wincing from the pain of my c-section stitches, but I got up there because I had to. Because it melts away the rage.
I get paid to make people laugh in clubs around Manhattan and around the country. I don't get paid for every set, like my husband, but I do get paid. These days, those sets come more often. Maybe because I am funnier as a fat, tired, and angry version of myself in the throes of postpartum depression. Maybe because it is just that time in my career. Maybe people think I need to get paid to feed this baby, which I do. Either way, I'm happy...ish. I'm happier on stage. I need the freedom of it. It was one of the last things I did before becoming a mom — and I kept getting up there as I struggled with the aftermath of birth, a lack of sleep, the demands of breastfeeding. One insane night, I got up on stage at the comedy club while breastfeeding. I believe the life of my daughter, my husband, and I depended on that set.
I gave birth to a rather persistent child. She's not on a "schedule" as much as I'd like. I cannot imagine how one would do such a thing as scheduling an infant to eat. Maybe if I led a different, more structured lifestyle, I could anticipate her feedings at three-hour intervals without fail. Alas, I do not live that life; I live in a tiny apartment in Queens. Instead of a backyard, we have a 24-hour Greek dance club down the road. I work nights.
Every hour of my life, for the past five months and four days, I have thought about feeding my child and how best to make that possible. I'm a mother. We do that. I decided to breastfeed her because the pressure to do so had kicked into high gear even before she was born.
So, I feed her everywhere to keep the production up. I'm obsessed. I do it in green rooms while comics discuss their last dollar slice or their latest dump (dating or otherwise).
In the hospital, on the day we toured the maternity ward, we were schooled in the "glory" that was to be feeding our children at the breast. We sat, overwhelmed and excited, with all the other new, expecting parents, as a nurse gushed about the benefits to mommy and baby. She kept referring to every woman she addressed as, "Mommy." She wasn't saying it in the Latino, "mami" way to refer to a woman. It sounded like she was a 34-year-old toddler crying out for a binky. It creeped me out.
But, I went with it. I did the research. I drank the Boobie Kool-Aid.
"The weight loss! The weight will just fall off!" Lies. I still look like a manatee and I've been on a diet since I was six months pregnant.
"It will keep them from getting sick!" Lie. Baby girl just had a viral respiratory infection complete with Albuterol breathing treatments for a week.
"So much cheaper!" A load of crap. The cost of just buying a can of Similac probably equals out with all the supplements and teas and baked goods I made from scratch — you know, for the galactagogues.
I've tried everything to boost supply and not dry up: brewer's yeast, fenugreek capsules, lactation bars that taste like some dead guy's foot (tasted that one too many times), lactation supplement packets that cause flatulence capable of ruining a marriage, milk thistle (what is a thistle and how do you milk one?), oatmeal everything, Booby Bites, beer (why not add a beer belly to my ruined slab of a torso?), sparkling water (ugh, white people), and all other cockamamie Googleables. I hated the boobie-buddy bandwagon the moment I got on it. I hate being like everyone else and feeling "unity." I just didn't want to suck as a mom. I didn't want a sick kid. I didn't want to ruin our bank account if I could "save" by doing the "healthiest thing for my child."
The baby started to cry. And not an 'I can wait 15 more minutes, Mommy' cry. She was hungry. She needed to eat in 30 seconds or I'd ruin nearly a hundred peoples' good time, and I couldn't leave her with my flat-chested friend.
So, I feed her everywhere to keep the production up. I'm obsessed. I do it in green rooms while comics discuss their last dollar slice or their latest dump (dating or otherwise). I casually whip out my nipple and stick my daughter's head under my blanket of a sweater. It conceals my baby weight (not really), allows me to feed her discreetly, and makes me look more and more like Mama Cass. I don't think my entire nipple has been exposed, but knowledge of the action itself has been a bit of a discomfort for some. I’m no stranger to exposing myself in other ways — doing comedy is like stepping under one of those beams of light you see in alien abductions — but breastfeeding is something different.
The comedy world is very male, but I am proof that there is space for women, and even mothers, in America’s comedy clubs. And every single male comedian who has witnessed a feeding has been nothing but respectful. Never a dirty look, never a grimace. They, in no uncertain terms, have been endlessly supportive, despite generalizations that male comics are misogynists or secret perverts. I even breastfed my baby at the coveted comic's table at the Olive Tree, above the famed Comedy Cellar. Not one comic sitting there cared. My daughter nursing wasn't more interesting than the debate at hand. Why would it be? It isn't that interesting. This boob is not riveting. These boobs' ideas are.
Then one night it all came to a head.
I pulled my nipple out, tucked my baby under my sweater, latched her, rocked side-to-side for a second, and climbed on stage.
I was booked for a paid spot at New York Comedy Club. I ran with my friend from another spot in Williamsburg, her lugging the diaper bag, and me lumbering with the carrier. We got there with 10 minutes to spare and rushed to the green room. I was next, and the host told me he was going to light the guy before me. I had two minutes to get ready. And then, as I knew it would happen, the baby started to cry. And not an "I can wait 15 more minutes, Mommy" cry. She was hungry. She needed to eat in 30 seconds or I'd ruin nearly a hundred peoples' good time, and I couldn't leave her with my flat-chested friend. Each feeding could take seven minutes or 27 minutes — I was out of time. I had less than a breath of time to decide what to do.
My friend, Abby, said, "Just go. You've got this. Don't worry." She and another female comic smiled at me as I held my daughter. Their small bodies, not wrecked by giving life, seemed to be jumping; all pumped for this moment. This "moment." I balked. I hesitated for four long seconds. I wanted to cry. I wanted to scream. I wanted to slap the skinniest bitch I could find and ask "Why in the fuck is this so hard all the time?" I didn't. I like those girls. I told the host, "I'm going on. I don't know if I can do this." He nodded, his face as confused as mine, but still encouraging.
He introduced me. I can't remember the intro and it doesn't matter. I pulled my nipple out, tucked my baby under my sweater, latched her, rocked side-to-side for a second, and climbed on stage. I wish I could tell you that I'm not weeping as I write how conflicted and terrified I was. Not about the performing part; but the judgment I knew might come. The judgment I felt about myself as a mother, as a comic, and as a woman. I could have planned better, right? I didn't have to do this. I should have made a choice. Which one of these things is more important: my duty as a mother or the dream for myself that I've spent over a decade fighting for? Should I have to choose?
But those questions, and all that doubt, was momentary. I had a job to do. Wait, I had two jobs to do. So, I did them both like every mother has had to do at one point or another. I wasn't this breastfeeding icon or bad-ass female comic making a profound political point. I was just living, standing up, balancing on one foot with the other one on the stool to give myself leverage.
In my early days as a comic, I once used a sex astrology book in a bit. This was not like that — prop comedy — despite what some would think. I thought of Tig Notaro’s ground-breaking topless set, or, depending on your memory, her “cancer set.” I don’t put breastfeeding on stage in that realm, but each act asks us to consider what we bring to the stage as women, knowingly or unknowingly. Each represents the same impulse: to find the funny. To fight to keep going despite the challenges of a changing body, a changing soul. Isn’t that what real comedy is about? Tinder and dick-pic jokes are useful in your 20s, but outdated in your 30s, I understand that clearly now. I get that real comedy is sometimes ugly. Sometimes it hurts. And like everything in parenthood, good or bad, it is momentary.
I pulled her off and burped her. The crowd laughed at something else. I ended my set. There was applause. I stepped down.
I told the audience's awestruck faces what I was doing. I probably hurled some slur at them. I was aggressive. I probably made some weird face or made a noise that made the discomfort of the set that much more comical. I think I probably said I hated my husband, which I don't. Not anymore. To tell you the truth, I can't even remember what I did in those 15 minutes. I can’t watch it. All I know is they laughed. Even the one man that sat in the front, unable to make eye contact with me at first, laughed. I did material. I did crowd work. I addressed the situation. I said what I needed to say. There were lots of laughs. It was a great set. It didn't last forever.
My little girl finished while I was still on stage. So, I pulled her off and burped her. The crowd laughed at something else. I ended my set. There was applause. I stepped down.
Excited faces, gushing women full of pride, reassurance, concerned men, helpful friends. They all were there in the immediate aftermath when the tears came. I cried so hard for so long. The tears didn’t just come from the vulnerability of a nipple exposed or for my brand new baby who should be able to eat in peace. They came from 10 years of fighting to establish myself to be able to demand respect in my industry. They came from eating truckloads of sh*t for a decade. From a booker who didn’t like me, and who “let” me hostess for the club for free for three years in order for the chance to perform for inattentive crowds busy paying their checks. Crowds who didn’t care and a booker who still won’t book me for whatever reason despite the strength that those years gave me as a performer.
I’ve done all the worst shows. I’ve done shows for two tourists from Denmark. I’ve won over reluctant audiences, hecklers, drunks, drug addicts, and ambivalent teenagers. I did a set while a guy nodded out in the front row. One time, a woman picked up her chair and turned it around to face away from me before I even opened my mouth to speak. I wouldn’t say I’ve done it all, but I’ve done my share.
It’s the hard shit that makes us strong. It made me funny. But in those few seconds I worried that I could undo a decade of work. That I may not get booked again for doing something some may see as prop comedy, hack, or attention-seeking when all I was doing was being a mom and a comic.
I went out that night to pick up my husband, Aaron, at his show. When I told him, trembling, what I did, he didn't make a fuss. Nonchalant, "Oh, OK. How was the show?" He has done some of the most outrageous stuff while on stage; some while stripping and some while doing stand up. I loved him more after that response than in any other moment.
I ran into comics Pete Lee and Tim Dillon, who were sitting at the bar at The Stand. I mentioned what I had done earlier, still reeling, and I was met with high-fives and a not-even-a-little-bit-sarcastic "Good for you."
I sat there at the end of the bar of a club I don't yet work, surrounded by people I admire and respect, mulling over my actions and the set. I could've done better on a joke or three, I'd imagine. I have to fix a couple punchlines of some jokes. I could have held Piper in a different way to make it easier. I could have used a wrap in order to be hands-free. I could have left the mic in the stand. I noted the changes and learned.
A very pretty young woman admonished me, 'Oh, Christine, no! You have to stop bringing her on stage! You don't want to become that comic!'
Laurie Kilmartin, of CONAN, appeared at the corner of the bar. A woman who had brought her own child with her to shows when he was little would have perspective. I thought, She's made it already. She did it. She was successful. She's been in more situations like this than I have. She's wicked smart and magnificently funny. I told her what I had done. Very calmly, she said, "I think all that matters is that you do the job, which is be funny." She mentioned the comedian Katt Williams, who had just done a special with eight models onstage behind him as set decoration. "So everyone can just shut up," she told me.
I have, henceforth betrothed my daughter to her son. She doesn't know it, but it is a done deal. Son of this angel, plus he's part Latino? I look forward to grandchildren with less sensitive skin and better hip mobility.
Only one person had something negative to say. A very pretty young woman admonished me, "Oh, Christine, no! You have to stop bringing her on stage! You don't want to become that comic!" The “that” was weighted with negativity. I assured her that this is my life.
I'm far away from any family who could take care of my daughter while I go out and pursue my dream. How I'd love to have a perfect life or the extra money for a nightly babysitter. But I'm not there yet. I became defensive, angry, and disappointed at this woman's response. Wouldn't a woman understand something like this and support it? Of all people, why would I have to try and defend my choices to this woman? She doesn't live my life. And I am proud of my struggle and my way through it. If anything, it is what defines me. There is no war on women, ladies. The war is within ourselves. The moment of zen came — I realized my daughter will grow up in a world where her mother did something she was scared of and did a bad-ass job of it. Here I am talking about my set, but of course I ultimately mean motherhood. We are all dying and winning at the same time as moms. And I know that the right people will book me because I’m funny, not because I have tits that feed a person. And that the people that won’t book me probably had a hard time latching and hate their moms. (See what I did there? Angry comedy is the most fun.)
I ended my set with something like, "I hope you find something you love as much as I do enough to do what I just did." I hope that for everyone, especially my daughter. For all our daughters.
Getting on stage allowed me to let go of whatever pain I was in instead of carrying it with me, preventing the discontent and anguish from bubbling up underneath. I marvel at how women give birth, deal with these huge life changes, or nearly lose themselves in postpartum depression without the freedom to scream and yell maniacally at strangers just to get a laugh from it.
So please laugh at me. It hurts the stitches, but it melts away the rage.