'In Treatment' screenwriter talks sperm banks and corn schnitzels
Yael Hedaya, a single parent to three and the author of five novels, is an avocado mom.
Your book “Wednesday Evenings” − about a parents’ support group that meets every Wednesday to talk about raising children and families − pretty much makes you want to get your tubes tied.
What happened in the wake of “Wednesday Evenings” is a very strange thing. My nightmares came true. I suddenly became some kind of authority on parenting. And I’m not. Quite the contrary: I’m as dysfunctional as it gets. I got invited to all sorts of forums: the psychoanalytical society, the behaviorists’ association. At Adler they wanted me. Adler! I’m like ... me? I mean, this book made a mockery of everything that has to do with child-rearing methods or parenting groups. So the upshot is that I’m constantly being asked questions about parenting, and something in me terribly disapproves of the whole thing. I mean, I’m an artist. I’m supposed to maintain an unpretentious manner and say: Don’t bother me with these feminine matters. After all, you wouldn’t sit here with A.B. Yehoshua and discuss issues like ...
Nighttime bottle, yes or no.
Exactly. And I found myself in that niche and I don’t really know what to do with it. It isn’t me.
In another minute you’re also going to tell me that motherhood hasn’t placated you.
I’m not placated, I’m exhausted. But that’s great for me. I guess I needed a really major distraction from myself. And I provided myself with three of them − three kids, whom I am raising alone. If I have a success in life it’s that I no longer have time to be preoccupied with myself and to hate myself properly. I can no longer get up in the morning and say: How shall I be self-destructive today, what shall I whine about, and what levels of obsession shall I reach? I get up at 6 A.M., go outside for a cigarette, and know that there are lots of deep, emotional things that are weighing on me. And 10 minutes later I’ve forgotten. I can go through a very intensive day, and then comes that moment when all the kids are asleep, and there’s a sense of battles winding down. When I didn’t have kids, the battle would never be over.
There is catharsis and there are clear and understandable tasks, not existentialism. Kind of a switch in language. Instead of wondering about things, the question becomes: Is it okay for them to be eating frozen pizza and corn schnitzel for a third week in a row? In general, corn schnitzel is a very sore subject at our house.
My youngest daughter loves corn schnitzel more than life itself, and I went head-to-head on this. I don’t understand why − I mean, WTF? What’s the problem with corn schnitzel? Apparently it is symbolic in my eyes of an enormous parenting failure. Yes, it’s industrial, it contains dozens of chemicals, so what? It became an obsession and that became obsessive too. All of a sudden I’m also making all sorts of insane declarations: That’s it. No corn schnitzel for two months! And I say to myself: Why? But it’s too late to take it back. Now, people will tell you that it’s really boring to be preoccupied with this stuff. Especially for a writer. But it’s not boring at all. It injects content.
Clearly. There’s a whole lot of conflicts, all of which are of personal concern to you.
Resolvable conflicts. I think I’m going to come off sounding terribly unintelligent because of all this corn schnitzel. What else shall we discuss, nail polish?
Let’s talk some more about children. In the book you deal a lot with ruining things, with the damage that you can do to your kids. How conscious are you of this potential for damage?
Constantly. The capacity to do harm is so built-in to this scheme called parenting.
Yes. My own parenting experience is that of a monkey with a submachine gun.
In many respects it would be wonderful if there were something that stipulated that at age 18, say, your parents disappear. This relationship is at once profound, magical and appalling − we live our parents until the day we die and not until the day they die. I think that there are very few people, who are either fantastically healthy or mentally ill, that are truly capable of breaking free of their parents, in a good sense. Those who stop hearing the counterpoint in their heads, of what would she say. My mother really helped me a lot with raising the twins. She was this American from the Lower East Side, and when they were little and one of the kids would stick a screwdriver into a socket, she would say to him: “Bad boy!” And I would say: “Mom, you don’t say ‘bad boy’; you say ‘what you did was bad’” − and in the meantime the kid is turning into charcoal. So, yeah, you shouldn’t say bad boy, but what’s wrong with saying bad boy? I heard it plenty of times.
Your mother died last month.
Yes, it is still very fresh. I was very, very close to her. It’s so hard. My mother was 84, but things hadn’t been easy with her for several years. She wasn’t sick, but she had problems with dementia. In the midst of all this chaos and intensity of my life, with a career and three kids and single parenting − I had on this stereo headset where in one earphone they constantly broadcast the mess with my mother. My brother and I dealt with this a ton and spoke with her 100 times a day. And I still have the headset on, but that station is switched off. And it’s terribly strange. Some kind of place where a person just fades out. She died suddenly. She hadn’t been sick. There was something very quiet about the way she died, compared to those years when we took care of her. And that radical shift, from wild noise to quiet, without any warning, is terrible. On the one had, there is relief that the suffering and worrying is over and she died in a dignified manner, and at 84. And on the other hand, there is this feeling of what happened here? How did this happen? It’s awfully hard.
And you also have to keep up a constant front of the responsible adult in front of the children.
Yesterday my younger daughter, before she went to bed, began weeping. She hugged this stuffed-cat toy my mother got for her when she was 3 and said: “I miss Grandma.” I tried soothing her. At some point I said: “Listen, Grandma knows that you love her and miss her.” And she looked at me and said: “She doesn’t know anything. She’s dead. She doesn’t feel anything anymore and she doesn’t see me.” We passed a couple of hours this way in a grief session, with my getting increasingly into trouble with the terminology. Because ...
Because what are you going to say?
Exactly. What are you going to say? You feel a lot like a child yourself.
Losing a parent turns you into a child. Always.
True. It’s the biggest cliche, but it’s the truth. I may have taken care of my mother during the last years of her life, but her sheer existence was so meaningful. When she’d ask me what I was writing and I would answer, she was really pleased − nobody is going to be pleased by your accomplishments like your parents. It really is tough. My children, for example, are very afraid of losing me. We talk about it a lot.
No. No. We’re really morbid at home. Now, with my mother dying, even more so. I think that in some way my little girl cried because of that. Because she suddenly realized that a person can disappear. In an instant. We’re talking about horrifying topics once again.
What about love?
We did corn schnitzel and we did death. Would you care to talk about love?
Love. It’s a mess. We can try.
The choice to have three kids on your own is a choice that involved a great deal of love.
Also. How do you explain this choice to yourself? Where does it come from?
I was very young relative to straight women who have kids using donor sperm. When I presented myself at the sperm bank at Ichilov [Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center] I was 33. It was very revolutionary. They asked me if I wanted to see the psychologist, and said why not wait a while. The truth is that there was something very crafty about this act of making the children.
That you tricked yourself?
Yes. That isn’t why I had kids, of course. I don’t want it to sound like that. But somehow I believed that it would increase my chances of finding a partner. That what I’d been doing until then wasn’t working.
What were you doing?
I spent all of my 20s, especially when I lived in New York, convincing myself that I didn’t want a partner, and honestly aiming for the type of connection that didn’t stand a chance. I conveyed something that was very deceptive. On the one hand, let’s enter a no-commitment relationship, I don’t want anything from you − and on the other hand, what came out of me was this vulnerable, tender thing. I fell in love quickly. I really didn’t succeed in playing the role that I had tailored for myself.
Yes, the stuffing falls out of the seams. There really is no way to conceal it.
You can’t conceal it. And I honestly did also intimidate men. It almost always came out that I’m smarter than them, more successful than them. And then, at 30, I suddenly got into this mode of a fierce desire for a mate. But my dynamic with men was already so not good. They enjoyed my company and were enchanted by me, but I felt like I was conducting a literary salon and dialogue more than getting somebody to fall in love with me from the right place. And whoever did fall for me, it always seemed to me that it was coming from the wrong place. That it was because I’m a writer who has already started to succeed.
You played yourself too successfully.
Precisely. I portrayed some sexy, witty, dark, appealing side, to which any connection with myself was purely coincidental. And then this type of dynamic became set, whereby it was very difficult to bring the softness out of myself. And at 32, after two or so years of blind dates, after I had already agreed to being fixed up by the neighbors’ aunts − I had just turned into a cliche. And I said: Cut, that’s it. I realized that something wasn’t working, and I had two options: either go into intensive therapy for 20 to 30 years, and when I emerged from the other side normal and capable of communicating, I’d be 60, or else to perform some revolutionary act.
A revolutionary act can be dyeing your hair blond or studying yoga. Bringing twins into the world on your own is such a drastic and irreversible step. How do you understand this?
I think that I knew, intuitively, that something in me had to soften, urgently. Like you ripen an avocado when you attach an apple to it − I wanted to attach something to me that would soften me.
What a moving observation.
It just came out. Honestly, this is the first time I’m thinking about it in this way. I needed that apple to soften the avocado. It was obvious to me that the moment I had kids I would become a different person. More available, softer, vulnerable. I thought that once I’d wander the neighborhood with a shirt covered in spit-up stains and Bamba crumbs in my hair, I would necessarily also be sexier. More accessible to men.
You don’t say.
Totally. Was I ever wrong.
C’mon, stop it. You really thought that?
Yes. And in retrospect I can’t say that I wasn’t right, at least about the effect that it had on me. The avocado ripened. Even turned into guacamole in nine months. I really did change immensely. I was ripe now, in both senses of the term, to conduct myself in relation to men, but there just weren’t any around. I had this fantasy in my head where I’m rocking the baby carriage and some cute single dad sits down beside me and we start talking at the park. But I left Tel Aviv, so I ruined my chances of ever meeting someone.
Why did you choose to use donor sperm?
I had an option of doing it with a gay friend. I debated it terribly. To this day I can’t tell you if it was the right choice to conclusively deny my children the right to know who is responsible for half of their genes. It is a question.
Are you still looking for love?
Look, it’s great fun to include someone in your life, even though there is the side of me that is emotionally programmed already; I am already an autarchic economy, I’m not that good at sharing. I had a significant relationship two years ago, and it was like learning another foreign language, on top of parenthood.
Do you feel lonely?
Not in the least. And I think that in a strange and surprising way, throughout my life − maybe only in early childhood − even during very difficult times in my life, of depressions and breakups and storms and loss, I have not felt lonely.
Sensitivity to nuance
You have to go in a moment and we’ve only talked about feelings. We haven’t discussed your work.
I really don’t have the strength to discuss my work.
I want to talk with you about observation. What sets your writing apart in my view is your unusual sensitivity to nuance.
The ability to observe is not ability; it is incapacity, a disability. It is so hard to be an observer. As a girl or a teenager or a young woman, it washed over me and bugged me. Today, by my power of survival, I have developed cataracts. I feel as though, in a way, the computer is telling me: “the memory is full.” I have no more room for observation.
That can be very sterilizing.
True. Because you are never in the moment, only outside it. I have moments when I can rise completely above the situation and see it. It drives you crazy, because you want to participate, to be a part of this thing. You don’t want the constant excessive self-awareness that is this observation. I frequently tell my daughter, when she becomes sad over something she has seen, that it is good to observe because that means that you have empathy, and are sensitive to the sorrows of the world. And I was in fact like that.
I was. Because enough − how long can this go on? You recognize the patterns of sorrow and misery. You become such a pro at observing. And today I have a greater capacity for being in the moment or enjoying the moment, or being sad in the moment. I dug my way into the world with a spoon. I became an integral part of humanity.