How Not to Calm a Child on a Plane

And Other Lessons in Parenting from a Highly Questionable Source


By Johanna Stein

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Looking for the perfect book to help you survive childbirth and parenting with your sanity intact?

Look elsewhere.

For Johanna Stein (writer/comedian/forward/slash/abuser and occasionally neurotic/immature/way-too-candid mom), parenting is an extreme sport. Her stories from the trenches may not always be shared experiences — Have you ever wondered if your baby’s “soft spot” is like a delete key? Trained your preschooler for a zombie invasion? Accused a nearly nude stranger of being pregnant? Made sweet, bimonthly love to your spouse while your toddler serenaded you through the adjoining wall? Attempted to calm your screaming baby on an airplane with a hand puppet, only to have it lead to one of the most disgusting experiences of your life? — but they will always make you laugh.

So, no, this book won’t teach you how to deal with nipple blisters or Oedipal complexes. But if you want to learn why you should never attempt to play a practical joke in the hospital delivery room, then you’re in the right place.




It’s a gorgeous August day in Southern California, the kind that makes you think you’ve just stepped into a 1980s music video by the Go-Go’s. I am at a beach barbecue, surrounded by people in skimpy swimsuits. This being Manhattan Beach, we’re not talking Average Joes here; we’re talking the most perfect human specimens ever to have evolved from an amoeba with six-pack abs. My usual response to finding myself in a place like this would be to pluck my eye out with a spoon and/or cut off my dangly bits with a steak knife. But not today, because today I am CWC: Chubby With Cause. Today I am six months pregnant.

Six months: the sweet spot. Big enough to show, but not so engorged that I feel like a billboard for Alien 5: This Time It’s Serious. The second trimester has been kind to me, and I am feeling all of the things the books say I should feel: powerful, feminine, and intuitive, if maybe a little gassy. But most of all, I am in a state of perpetual emotional ecstasy. I spend the majority of my waking moments thinking about, talking about, and fantasizing about my future perfect motherhood with my future perfect baby, and when I do it’s always in soft-focus, with lots of drapey material, dappled sunlight, and James Taylor music. I feel so happy, I could puke a friggin rainbow.

I’m sitting at a picnic table with some friends—some single, non-incubating friends—when a woman in a bikini walks over and asks if she can borrow a bottle opener. She is friendly, attractive, and very fit, except for her very exposed tummy, which is taut yet full; there’s no mistaking it, this is a belly full of arms and legs. Sizing up the bulge, I take her to be four, maybe five, months along. Then again, she’s in such great shape, she may be deep into her third trimester. For all I know, she’s fixing to squirt that kid out in the next ten minutes.

I smile and give her a knowing wink; she smiles and gives me a knowing wink back. You know that wink, the wink that is shared between Mac owners, Volkswagen drivers, Canadian tourists, and closeted gay rugby players. That wink that says, “Hey, you. . . . It’s me! We’re members of the same tribe! . . .” (in our case the pregnant-sister-goddess-life-givers tribe). “. . . And aren’t we fan-friggin-precious-tastic?”

So we’re smiling and winking and squinching and basking in our perfect pregnant goddess-ness, when finally I touch her hand and lean in to speak, but this time with actual words.

“How far along are you?” I ask.

She tilts her head, blinks, and says, “I’m not pregnant.”

You might think that the force of my sphincter rising up into my throat would have rendered me speechless, but no, not so. In fact, before I can stop and take a moment to either (a) slam my head into the lifeguard stand or (b) throw myself into a smoldering barbecue pit, my mouth opens to let yet another ingenious question flop out:

“Oh!” I say. “So, did you just have a baby?”

Exactly like that.

“Did you just have a baby?”

With added guttural emphasis on the word “have.”

“Did you just HAVE a baby??”

Bikini Lady looks so intensely into my eyes, so deeply into my being, that she makes contact with my dead ancestors and shames them for having contributed to my gene pool.

“No,” she says. “I did not. Just. HAVE. A baby.”

“Oh,” I say and then feel a sharp pinch on my leg. It is one of my friends, who, in addition to having just welted me, is mentally recording this moment so that she can remind me of it on a monthly basis, apparently until the day that one of us dies. Her talonlike grip inflicts a bolt of pain that wakes me from my moron trance, at which point the verbal tripping begins: “I’m sorry, it’s just that . . . you’re so fit . . . and gorgeous . . . I just thought . . . you’re so fit, except for the . . . you’re just so gorgeous and fit!”

Bikini Lady says nothing. So in order to fill the awkward silence, I reach into myself and pull out the last tool left in my useless, rusting tool box: “I’m sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying. I’m drunk.”

Bikini Lady looks at me like I have just sprouted a testicle on my face. She uses the bottle opener to crack the beer that was in her left hand all along,* then walks away, kicking up sand with her perfectly pedicured, unpregnant feet.

Now, I’ve done stupid things in my life, but nothing in recent memory that compares to the blatant douchebaggery of this moment. And, while I do believe that Bikini Lady led me on during our “we-are-the-pregnant-world” wink-a-thon, even a brainless jellyfish knows you never ask a lady if she is “with child,” even if said child is bungee jumping on the end of an umbilical cord that’s dangling from said lady’s lady bits. But no, I couldn’t even stop there; I had to travel the extra creepy mile of accusing her of having just birthed a baby, as if that were the only reasonable explanation for the remarkable potbelly on her otherwise perfect bod. For all I know, she has a tumor the size of a volleyball growing in there . . . Then again, maybe she just has weak abs; maybe she’s eight weeks into a twelve-week workout regimen, and next week she’s going to start working on her core. Or even worse, what if she is/was/is trying to get pregnant? Oh, God, I can’t even go there . . . And then to try to skate out of it with the old “I’m a pregnant alcoholic” excuse? Wow. Now I’m embarrassed for my ancestors.

As I sit in the suddenly way-too-hot California sun, I take a moment to contemplate my grand mal faux pas. Just moments ago, I was basking in the glow-y image of myself as an intuitive, benevolent, patchouli-scented earth mother. And now—approximately eight minutes and one throbbing leg later—I’m a jackass who makes bad decisions, speaks without thinking, and has an annoying need to be right all the time.

In other words, I am still me, only fatter.

Now, several years later, I have grown strangely grateful for my beach-blanket blooper, and even though it causes me to sweat profusely just thinking about it, I am compelled to tell the story again and again to anyone who will listen. I think it’s because that was the moment I realized that nothing about parenthood would conform to my expectations. Sure, pregnancy and parenthood may have changed me, but not in the hippiefied, wind-chimey ways I’d expected. I was no more intuitive, serene, or feminine as a pregnant person than I was before I reproduced. Other than being a few sizes larger, in the most essential “me” ways, I was still the same dopey “me” I’d always been. And most days, that’s an oddly comforting thought—though probably not to a certain bikini-wearing lady with weak abs and bad posture, who just wanted to enjoy a cold beer on a hot day.

*Because apparently, I’m not only insensitive but legally blind as well.



It starts with the money shot.

No preamble, no intro, no warning. Just a high-res, point-blank shot of a pair of legs stretched to maximum capacity. Smack-dab in the middle of them, at the point of juncture, is the bulbous, misshapen knot of flesh that is responsible for the presence of every single person in this delivery room right now.

Yes, there is a birth video.

I recently had the opportunity to view said video,* the one that the husband made five years ago to commemorate the birth of our child.

It took me a moment to understand what I was looking at—we’d never actually watched it, and when I finally did comprehend what it was, I called for my husband with the manly bellow that I reserve for occasions of such magnitude. He rushed into the room, because (a) he’s a caring and responsive spouse and (b) he enjoys the sound of panic in my voice.

When he saw what was on my computer screen (and therefore on our afternoon agenda), he took a deep breath, looked down at the floor, and said, “Wow. Okay then. Let’s do this.”

We’re not “those kinds” of people. We don’t take romantic photos, gaze into each other’s eyes, or leave loving notes around the house for the other to find. Not that we don’t have those feelings—it’s just that we’re incapable of expressing them like most normal human beings.

We are, what you might call, “unemotional anti-romantics.” Once, before we were married, the then boyfriend was freelancing in an ad agency office alongside a litter of hipster frat-boy types, and I refused to end a phone conversation with him until he told me that he loved me. After several minutes of cajoling, he gave in and whispered a sweet “I love you” into the phone, at which point I yelled, “YOU SAPPY BASTARD!” then hung up on him and cackled myself into a lengthy coughing fit. You may find this distasteful, and honestly I can’t disagree. My behavior was deplorable—yet he would be the first to tell you it was the moment he realized that one day he would make me his bride. Such is the effed-uppitiness of our relationship.

And so this videotape—I’m not sure what made us think that filming the birth of our child was a good idea. In the first place, I can’t stand having my photo taken, and that’s at the best-haired-and-complexioned of times; I have one barely tolerable camera angle (15 degrees to the right of center, chin tucked, half-open-mouthed smile) that has taken me years to perfect, the result being that in most photos, I tend to look like a brain-injured wax version of myself. So why I thought that having a video camera trained on me, during a wildly uncontrollable medical procedure, from what is a terrible angle for anyone not starring in a porno flick . . . well, I really can’t say. Another thing I really can’t say is that there was an ulterior goal in the making of this birth video—i.e., that we hoped to show it to the child’s first boyfriend on her prom night . . . or that we were planning to upload it to YouTube in hopes of my junk becoming the next v(ag)iral sensation. There was virtually no good reason to film it.

And still we filmed it.

And now, God help us, we are going to watch it.

         “Using your mind it is possible to enter into a state of relaxation so complete that your delivery can not only be easy and enjoyable, it may even be a pleasurable experience.”

That was what the hypnobirthing brochure promised.

Now, I am generally pretty suspicious of anything that smells even vaguely New Agey; I am so anti–New Age that just the sight of a man’s naked feet in sandals makes me nauseous.

And then there was the obvious question: did we need a birthing class? Does anyone, really, considering that birth is the single most common act of the mammalian species, next to dying, taxes, and seeing the musical Jersey Boys? It was going to happen whether or not we attended a five-week, $250 hippie fest fifteen miles from our home, right?

On the other hand, I am a big believer in formal education; I’d take a workshop in armpit farting if I thought it would improve my technique enough to include it on a résumé.

But the real reason I signed us up is that when it comes to hypnosis, I am, what you might call, the ideal candidate.

When I was in junior high, our school was visited by a mentalist-hypnotist known as “Reveen!” who performed his entire routine for three hundred seventh and eighth graders just before lunch. Although it didn’t carry the titillating potential of a Friday-night dance-and-heavy-pet-athon, the event was exciting enough to draw a full-house crowd (if you don’t count the twenty or so kids who sneaked out to the basketball court to get high).

When Reveen! took the stage and asked for volunteers, I threw my hand into the air and stormed the stage. That’s how I became a featured player in Reveen!’s “stage hypnosis act.” I was later told that during the forty-five- minute presentation, I shouted “BOCK BOCK!” and laid a nestful of (mime) eggs, I played a (mime) drum solo during the biggest rock show in history, I (mime) canoed across a gator-filled river, and when Reveen! directed me to leap into the (actual) arms of the nearest male teacher and hug him as though he was my long-lost love, that’s what I did.

I don’t know exactly how or why his techniques worked, but the fact is that I was clearly “suggestive” to this portly, jet-black-toupeed man, on what amounts to pretty thin grounds (i.e., my desire to help him entertain a mob of prepubescent teens in a gymnasium that smelled like feet).*

Now that I actually have a good reason for undergoing hypnosis—i.e., I am preparing to pass a pumpkin through the eye of a needle (and a flappy one at that)—I believe that my suggestibility will be stronger than ever.

With six weeks to go until D(ue) Day, the husband and I took our spots on a carpeted classroom floor with five other couples in various stages along the pregnancy continuum. We went around the room introducing ourselves, and it didn’t take long for the husband and me to realize that we were surrounded on all sides by people who use words like Empowerment, Nurturing, and Sacred Space, and say them frequently and often with closed eyes and weird, serene smiles.

After a few minutes, a woman floated into the room, dressed in a flowing muumuu-esque outfit that had no clear beginning or end. This was our instructor, Linneah, and as she pulled out a bunch of sage and then set it on fire, wafting the smoke around the room “to remove the negative energies and unwanted spirits,” for a moment I wondered if she was talking about us.

There were phrases to chant (“Innnn . . . Ouuuuut . . . Gentle waaaaaves of waaaaterrrrr”) and breathing techniques to help “breathe your baby out of your vagina.” There were videos to watch and diaries to keep. And there were relaxation tapes, voiced by Linneah herself, which we were instructed to listen to every night, despite the fact that Linneah’s speaking voice sounded like Fran Drescher on tranquilizers.

And although the five-week course challenged every bone in my immature (SHE SAID “BONE!” HAW! HAW!) body, and every week I came down with a stress headache from struggling not to giggle every time Linneah spoke, lit incense, or cupped my cheek in her hand while recommending a brand of olive oil to rub on my perineum,* we persevered because we both felt that, considering we were about to be parents, it was important that we rise above our juvenile tendencies. Also, Linneah had a strict no-refunds policy.

During the fifth and final class, we learned that one of our classmates had gone into labor early. Linneah reported that, not only had she done it all without medication and in near silence, but her attending nurses had been so impressed they’d dubbed her a “Hero Warrior Goddess.”

I couldn’t wait to be a Hero Warrior Goddess.

During the final class, after a little in-class potluck celebration that featured six varieties of lentil salad (and one box of Fig Newtons hastily thrown into a Tupperware bowl in an attempt to appear homemade—thanks, us!), Linneah showed us one more movie, the pièce of vidéo de résistance.

The documentary subject was a woman in labor awaiting the arrival of her midwife for what was to be a simple, sweet home birth with her husband and toddler by her side. But just as her contractions began to build, she learned that the midwife was having car trouble and would not likely make it in time.

I leaned forward on my yoga ball and watched through my fingers as the woman on the screen squatted on her bathroom floor. From behind the camera, a shaky male voice asked, “W-what do you want me to do?” The now-panting and mostly nude woman looked into the lens and answered, “Oh, just hold the camera.” And then she proceeded to reach down and deliver the first baby.

Oh, did I fail to mention that she was giving birth to TWINS?

After handing off the first* baby to the father/cameraman, she then REACHED BACK UP INTO HERSELF and uttered a quiet but emphatic, “Ah, shit. She’s breech” (i.e., upside down; i.e., not optimal; i.e., HOLY CRAP-CAKES).

This naked-from-the-waist-down Hero Warrior Goddess then delivered her second baby, single-handedly, deftly and ably, and, aside from a few well-placed grunts, without complaint. By the time the midwife (who really should be chewed out for not getting her oil checked before heading out to deliver a G.D. baby or two) showed up, there was nothing left for her to do, aside from enjoy a spot of tea along with a play-by-play of the missed event.

Aside from the fact that it was more dramatic than anything Michael Bay could pull out of his own vagina, watching that movie in Linneah’s classroom that night instilled in me a powerful combination of confidence and self-assurance in my own ability to handle my impending labor. If this woman could self-deliver twins in her bathroom (and not a very big bathroom at that), surely I could deliver one baby in the comfort of a well-lit hospital with medical help, plenty of ice chips, a yoga ball, and Austin Powers* playing in the background.

My due date came and went with not a contraction in sight, at which point a number of homeopathic “labor-inducing” tricks were employed. They included, but were not limited to:

         Some vigorous nonsexual massaging of my perineum (again, sorry), mostly by me, but occasionally by husband, on days that he could be persuaded with the aid of beer, ice cream, and/or the promise of sexual activity at some later date, TBD.

         The eating of a particular salad at a particular café in the San Fernando Valley said to guarantee labor within twenty-four hours. If “guaranteed labor” means uncontrollable gas for two days straight, then the salad was successful. Otherwise, it was not.

         “Uneven walking”: the act of walking along a curb with one foot on the curb, the other on the street, in the style of a drunken sorority sister.

         “Cervical sweeps,” an ob-gyn procedure/medieval torture by which one’s doctor sweeps a gloved finger around the inside of one’s bajingo, with the intention of “softening” or “ripening” the cervix, which, despite being a “natural,” homeopathic technique, leaves one feeling as though one is a ventriloquist dummy and that someone is reaching up into one’s soul by way of one’s vagina.

         Sex. Lots and lots of it. Some good, some bad. Most of it very, very ugly.

         Yelling “COME ON ALREADY!!!” directly at my navel.

Unfortunately, none of these methods seemed to work, and after two more noncontraction-filled weeks passed, my doctor recommended induction with Pitocin.

“Marvelous,” I said. “Let’s get this party started so I can breathe this mo-fo out” (or words to that effect).

My doctor cautioned, “You should know that induction can be a little ‘intense.’”

“Yeah?” I interrupted. “Well, so can I. LET’S DO THIS!!!”

The doctor interrupted my interruption, “You should also know that most induced women,” 95 percent was the number he floated, “end up requesting an epidural* to control the pain.” Sure, I thought. That’s because 95 percent of women didn’t spend five weeks listening to hypnosis tapes, learning how to breathe out their pain like wisps of multicolored smoke, or visualizing their babies rolling out of them like gentle waves of water.

I just smiled and said, “I’m not going to need the epidural. I’m pretty sure I’ll be fine.” And then I patted his arm in my most confident, bordering-on-condescending way.

Induction Day.

We are in the labor room. I am feeling confident, alert, alive. Like a quarterback ready to run, catch, and spike my team to victory. This is a great day to have a baby, and I mean that in the most crunchy-granola way possible.

The doctor fills my IV with induction sauce, breaks my water, and informs me that the contractions should start any minute.

I stick my headphones in my ears, sit on my yoga ball, and begin to bounce while I wait for the first one, wondering whether it will feel like a wave or a surge, or maybe a strong splash? Luckily, I don’t have to wait very long, because within thirty seconds the first contraction arrives, less like a surge or a wave and more like a canoe paddle being swung full force at the side of my head. My knees buckle, and I hit the deck with an all-over body sensation that is so intense the word pain does not do it justice; it requires a word that has not been invented yet, like blundikad or krevdentious. That’s how beyond pain it is. It is krevdentious.

Sweat—not merely beads, but actual spigots of it—springs from every one of my pores, even as the contraction ebbs. From my mouth comes a yowl-y moan/scream, “EPIDUH-EPIDUH-EPIDUHHHHH,” and my husband, whose face now looks like that of a scared rabbit says, “The epidural team is coming. Please let go of my arm.”

But then, after I’ve had a few minutes to recover, in a startling turn of events that shocks even me, I tell my husband that no, I will not be needing the epidural. I just hadn’t been prepared for that first one . . . Now that I knew what a contraction felt like, I was sure I could handle it.

I sit down on the yoga ball and brace myself for the next contraction that I am going to manage with the breathing and visualization exercises I’ve learned from Linneah.

In . . . Out . . . Gentle waves of water.

In . . . Out . . . Gentle waves of water.

In . . . Out . . . Gentle waves of water.

. . . And then the next canoe paddle wallops me upside the head and knocks me twenty thousand leagues under the sea, and that’s when I reach for my husband with the strength of a rabid chimpanzee and instruct him to bring the epidural team to me within the next five minutes or I am going to tear the linoleum off the delivery-room floor and eat it.

Within minutes the team (there are two of them, and they work on me in tandem like a pair of circus acrobats) has me intubated, and they send the invisible canoe paddler on his way. From this point on, the delivery is a friggin party (the kind of party where people cheer when you poop on the table, anyway) and that’s when the camera comes out.

Watching the video now, I feel so disconnected from those people on the screen. I don’t remember any of it, even though consciously I know it happened, and there’s plenty of proof—i.e., a small dictatorial human living in our house—to support that conclusion.

As I look at the image of my poor, poor crotch, so unaware of what is about to unfold . . . from its folds . . . I experience a level of discomfort probably not unlike what men must feel when witnessing other men being kicked in their baby-makers. I can’t watch without wincing and squinting through one barely open eye, the way I might watch the outtakes of a Jackass movie or scenes from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

A blurry figure steps in front of the camera; I recognize it as my mother. My father, on the other hand, is not in attendance. This is probably for the best, as between the two of us, there has been no acknowledgment that I am, in fact, female.

My husband comments, “I forgot that part! Your mom stepped right in front of the camera—we almost missed the whole thing!” But to be honest, I am grateful to her backside for giving me even a brief reprieve from this Salvador-Dalí-melting-vulva horror show, the sight of which is now making me lightheaded.

“Okay, now I want you to push,” says the doctor.


  • "Johanna Stein's essays make me laugh way too loud, way too hard, and way too long. She's like the David Sedaris of moms."—Annie Mumolo, cowriter, Bridesmaids

    "These stories will make milk shoot from one of your nostrils and a martini from the other. Johanna Stein brings to mind the unflinching honesty and compassion of Nora Ephron."—Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, New York Times bestselling author, Instant Mom

    "Johanna Stein is one of the funniest women on the planet."—Alanis Morissette

    "It is dangerous to read her any place where it is inappropriate to laugh uncontrollably. It is also dangerous to read her if your bladder control is not what it once was after childbirth. But once you soldier through and do read her, you have made a friend—one who 'gets it' and makes 'it' easier to do because she's on your team."—Lisa Belkin, bestselling author, Senior Columnist, Huffington Post

    "Much more than 'mommy lit,' this book will make any reader laugh so hard they'll pee a little. Or maybe a lot."—Beth Littleford, actress and The Daily Show correspondent

    "Johanna Stein is lovely, insightful, and a big bowl of funny."—Jeff Garlin, comedian/writer/producer, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Goldbergs

On Sale
Apr 29, 2014
Page Count
256 pages

Johanna Stein

About the Author

As a writer, director, and actor, Johanna Stein‘s work has appeared on Comedy Central, Nickelodeon, PBS, HBO, CBS, the Oxygen Network, VH1, the Disney Channel, and all across the Internets, where her comedy shorts, PSAs, and popular Yahoo! web series Life of Mom have been viewed millions of times. In addition to her TV and film work, Johanna’s essays have been published in such outlets as the New York Times, Parents Magazine, and the Huffington Post.

Johanna lives in Southern California with her husband, their daughter, and a tiny boy-faced dog who once ate a couch.

Learn more about this author