I Can't Have Enough Mothers

Gillian Jacobs on the "bonus moms" she has collected over the years.

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Ingrid was my first bonus mom. She started out as my acting teacher in junior high but quickly became much more. We bonded over stories about truly disastrous productions she'd been in, like the interactive dinner theater in Boston where human waste ran down the outside of the pipes backstage. Ingrid would drive me around Pittsburgh in her Volkswagen Golf, which lacked power steering. As she yanked the wheel around (great for the forearms, she'd tell me), Ingrid imparted her wisdom about Shakespeare, Chekhov, and dating.

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After I received a very bad review in the local paper for my undercooked portrayal of Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream ("It's harder for Jacobs, who must segue from angry Mother Earth to playful seductress. Seeing her dolled up in flowing lingerie and silvered hair, you might have a fleeting thought of JonBenét Ramsey." Ouch), Ingrid gave me the gift of perspective. Instead of letting me wallow in self-pity, she insisted I read No Turn Unstoned, a collection of terrible reviews undeniably great actors received. It hurt to get panned, but I was in excellent company.

The book — and Ingrid — taught me to laugh at my failures. Despite the bad review, and my belief that I had been miscast, I still had to perform the play eight shows a week. Ingrid taught me to look at those performances as an opportunity instead of a burden. If I could stop feeling sorry for myself, I could view this as a chance to improve and learn about the role and the play.

****

I can't have enough mothers. Although my biological mother is wonderful, loving, and supportive, I've always craved more. To make a long, complicated, sad story short, my dad and I had a fraught relationship, so I sought out additional parents to fill the gap. Although I did have strong bonds with some men, most of the meaningful relationships have been with other women.

The summer before I started college at the Juilliard School, I met my next additional mother, Joan. Joan and I acted together in a production of The Cherry Orchard at the Pittsburgh Public Theater in which I played the daughter, Anya, and Joan played my nanny, Charlotta.

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At the time, I wanted my mom to change my curfew to midnight. I argued that I was about to start college and should finally be allowed to stay out past eleven. My mom cautioned, "You'll have a curfew at Juilliard, so no." I started laughing. "A curfew? What are you talking about? There are no curfews at college." My mom blanched with fear. "You mean you'll be allowed to go out whenever you want in New York City and no one will know where you are?" Her glorified finishing school in the 1960s had had a strict curfew, so it never occurred to her that I would be allowed to come and go as I pleased. Thankfully, my mother had already paid the housing deposit or she might not have let me leave.

I started my college career confident, cocky even. I was finally free from my mother's watchful eye! But that quickly deteriorated (see previous Lenny essay for more details on that debacle). As my self-esteem took a nosedive, I realized Joan's apartment was close to my school, and it became my refuge. She'd feed me, let me cry on her shoulder, advise me on school, and counsel me on boys.

We had frank, if awkward, conversations about dating. I remember Joan had to order a double Scotch to get through some of these. Although I'd read and reread Our Bodies, Ourselves, I had a lot of questions about sex that I made Joan answer. I could be more vulnerable and open with her than with my own mother. I'd been so sheltered that I was experiencing many things for the first time, like dating, going to parties, and being around drugs and alcohol, that most kids did in high school.

Joan made me feel safe in the city. I retreated to a series of her couches — first, a brown leather number, then a red pull-out with a full mattress — after bad breakups and bouts of food poisoning. In fact, once I fainted at a bodega and called my mother from the ambulance, my mother called Joan, and Joan stood up from her dinner in Greenwich Village and took a cab all the way uptown to the hospital at 212th St. For the non–New Yorkers: That is an expensive cab ride.

***

Cella followed Joan. She was my first boss after college. I'd never held any job outside of acting besides babysitting, so I looked for a job as a nanny.

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What started as simply a job turned into much more. I quickly bonded with both kids, but also with Cella and her husband, Hart. Cella was a successful executive who had her kids in her 40s. Because my mother was a single parent who struggled to keep us afloat financially, I viewed parenthood as a source of stress and worry. From my limited perspective, mothers sacrificed all of their personal time, friendships, and romance for their children. I didn't know if it was possible to be a mother and still have fun. It gave me hope to see Cella move through a stressful work life — she was the first female high-level executive in male-dominated fields I had ever met — while still enjoying her children and having a social life.

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During my time babysitting for her family, she worked at several companies in the tech and media fields. Cella started her career in Silicon Valley in the 1990s and was an important member of the New York City tech community. Knowing what I know now about the lack of women in tech, I find her career remarkable. At the time, I had little interest in the specifics of her job but looked to her as an example of how to handle stress. No matter how bad her day may have been, she walked through the front door smiling. Cella would hug her kids and joke around with me.

Cella always believed in me and seemed convinced I would succeed. I was glad she was so sure, because I was not. I worked as an actor only sporadically during those years, and every job felt like it could be my last.

She would brag about me to friends and family. "She's just out of Juilliard and already booked a movie." I'd qualify that with "But it's a crappy independent film." "Doesn't matter. You're working!" To have a smart, successful woman practically shout from the rooftops that I would make it was so reassuring. Cella seemed right about everything else; perhaps she was right about me too.

Even when the kids gave me lice, it wasn't that bad. It turns out that Cella and I had all been afflicted. For two weeks, I went over to their apartment every day, whether I was working or not, and we combed out each other's hair. As we sat in a row applying baking soda and Pantene conditioner to each other's scalps, I felt weirdly happy. As an only child, I always longed to feel part of a larger family than just my mom and me. It felt nice to be part of a family activity, even if it was something as gross as combing dead lice.

I feel even more nostalgia for these moments now, because Cella has passed away. She died last year from cancer, leaving behind her two amazing kids, Giovanna and Hudson, and her wonderful husband. Although we had remained in touch after I stopped babysitting for the family, I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to Cella and thank her for not only employing me but mentoring, loving, and uplifting me.

****

Cella's death has made me reflect back on all of my bonus mothers. There were others, too: Pat, who pushed me out of my comfort zone to try writing and directing and introduced me to artists and great food; Ms. Keene, my ninth-grade English teacher, whom I loved so much that I burst into tears on the final day of class. They saw my potential, and in their eyes I saw the woman I could become. At times, I mistrusted their faith in me because I felt so lost and aimless. My career was stalled, I was making bad decisions, and I was depressed. Who was this Gillian in whom they believed? Was I tricking them, or did they see something I couldn't?

Occasionally I avoided their company because I feared their judgment. I didn't want to disappoint them or face their criticism. I've since realized that no one expected me to be perfect. They'd all been confused and lost at some point in their youth. They could see I was flawed but loved me anyway.

These days, I feel more stable and secure, although I don't pretend that I've got it all figured out. I still rely on my real and bonus moms (I talk to Joan every other day and still sleep on her couch in New York), but I'm ready to take on some bonus daughters of my own. For a long time, I was the youngest: the only child in the play, the baby of my class (my nickname was actually Baby GiGi), but I looked around one day and realized I'm no longer "the kid." I don't have children of my own, but it's time to give back some of the support and love I've received. That feels like the best tribute I can conceive of to honor all the Joans, Ingrids, and Cellas of the world.

Gillian Jacobs is an actress (Love season two is on Netflix) and director (The Queen of Code is at fivethirtyeight.com).

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