Michelle Buteau on Her 5-Year Fertility Struggle: ‘I Didn’t Realize I Was in a World of Hurt’
The Welcome to Buteaupia comedian opens up to fellow mom of twins Wanda Sykes about parenting during the pandemic, her journey to have kids, racism, and her take on mom friends.
Michelle Buteau is one of my favorite comedians—and not just because we both have twins. She is a singular voice in comedy and can always get me to laugh. That’s not easy. Onstage and off, Michelle is warm, honest, and fearlessly funny. In other words, she has no shame, which is my cup of tea … well, more like my shot of tequila. If you loved her one-hour Netflix special, Welcome to Buteaupia, (produced by me and Director and Executive Producer Page Hurwitz), then you are in for a treat! Why? Because I know you want more Michelle, and she is giving you all of it in her new book, out in December. This fall I had a little Zoomy Zoom with her to catch up and talk about motherhood, and why we’re always tired.
Wanda Sykes: My kids are 11. How old are your twins now?
Michelle Buteau: Hazel and Otis are 1, soon to be 2. So they have the moods of a teenager but the strength of a 35-year-old man. It is crazy just even trying to change a diaper—it feels like I’m fighting an emotional rotisserie chicken. Parenting them can be overwhelming at times, like I’m the only waitress working Thanksgiving at a diner. But then when they play with each other, I’m like, “This is so beautiful,” because I’ve always wanted someone to play with. I’m an only child, and I think it’s a miracle that they will always have each other and have this bond. Plus, people are into twins. I get stopped in the street. Twins make people happy.
Sykes: Twins are just the best. You and [your husband] Gijs can sit and have a glass of rosé while they entertain each other. Do they still share a room?
Buteau: We just separated them over the summer because they kept waking each other up and I was becoming a madwoman.
Sykes: What’s been your pandemic parenting low point?
Buteau: Probably the two-week mark, when we realized that this was not going to be only two weeks. I didn’t know if I could do it. Up until then I had always had help with the babies. So being alone with them, it felt like I was snorkeling for the first time and didn’t know how to breathe yet. I felt bad for being impatient. I don’t want to be that parent yelling all the time. I was so tired that I had to write down who pooped! But I quickly learned that it’s all about taking five in the bathroom, recollecting your thoughts, putting on the TV, giving them a crayon, letting them eat the crayon. Don’t quote me!
Sykes: Oh, you’re getting quoted. What’s been your high point, do you think?
Buteau: Realizing that I can do this. Up until the pandemic, we had an amazing nanny, and I had friendships. Now that we’re really broken in as a family, I feel like, “Oh wow, I got this.”
Sykes: In your memoir, Survival of the Thickest, there’s a great chapter on the different kinds of friends women have, like “The Work Wife” and “The Bad Influence.” It sounds like you have good mom friends now.
Buteau: Oh man, I could write a whole book on mom friends. There’s a granola mom that I check in with to ask, “What does the lavender really do?” And there’s the mom working 100,000 hours a week who tells me, “They’re fine. Their heads are the strongest part of their body.” European mom friends just leave their kid in a stroller outside a restaurant when they go inside. My mom friends in comedy really hold it down for me emotionally because I think my kids ate their first solids, oatmeal, when I was on the road. And one of my friends was like, “It doesn’t matter until you see it. That’s the first time.” I was like, “Yes, I’m going to put that on a magnet so I remember it.” I mean, I learn from everybody, but it’s always important to make your own way too. Take the good and the bad, and then figure out what works for you.
Sykes: You went through a five-year journey to have your babies, from IVF to, ultimately, surrogacy. What do you want people to know about parents struggling to conceive?
Buteau: All you really have to say is, “I’m sorry you’re going through this, and I hope it works out.” Nobody needs your statistics, your opinions. We just need a hug and perhaps a glass of wine. Honestly, sometimes people going through it don’t even know what they’re going through. I didn’t realize I was in a world of hurt until the kids arrived. Then I thought, “How did I just walk around with bruises all over my body and needles in my suitcases, trying to be funny onstage?” That is wild. But to get back to that question, it’s mostly not even in what you say, it’s in how you say it.
Sykes: We did IVF too. Well, my wife, Alex, did. At the doctor appointments, there was a weird vibe because everyone in the waiting room was hopeful, but everything was extremely private. You just make eye contact with people to try and communicate, “I hope it all works out.”
Buteau: I remember feeling as if all the women in the office were my sisters in this thing, like, “Wow, this is what we’re doing just to have a family.” It’s crazy.
Sykes: You’re candid about racism. But this has been a heavy year for race discussion. What can all parents do to help raise the next generation to have more awareness and sensitivity?
Buteau: Yeah, that part; awareness and sensitivity. For me, growing up in a very working-class Irish- and Italian-Catholic part of New Jersey, it was really annoying that I felt like the Obama at every dinner table, where I had to explain to people what colonialism is and how diverse the Caribbean is. There’s no excuse for us not to know anymore. There’s Google, there’s YouTube. The world does feel smaller with social media—that’s probably one of the good parts. It’s important to be educated and have conversations about derogatory words and colorism. I don’t ever want my kids to feel bad for being who they are. Damn. What about you?
Sykes: It’s hard. I want my kids to be able to have a clean slate and judge through their own eyes and their own experiences. But when my 11-year-old son said something about Christopher Columbus “discovering” America, I said, “That’s BS.”
Buteau: I really hope that history books will be rewritten. I don’t know if it’ll be in our lifetime, or maybe even in their lifetime. But now that I’ve moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in the Bronx, it’s on me to show my kids who they are and where they’re from, and to celebrate their culture. Before, I didn’t understand what the work of parenting would be. I knew I had to change diapers, figure out meal plans, and do drop-offs at a game or something, but now, when they’re old enough, I have to teach them about science and viruses and politics and being mindful of other people. And also justice.
Sykes: How can we make people laugh, Michelle?
Buteau: I’m still trying to figure that out. I miss being petty. I miss being mad at people for no reason. I miss stand-up and realize now how therapeutic it was for me to connect with people —just to yell righteous stuff onstage. I’m glad my special is out—it was taped right before New York City was locked down. Remember when my mom tried to make a toast at the after-party? She said, “I’m so proud of my daughter. She graduated school and had a job that paid six figures and didn’t need to do comedy.” I’m like, “No! Get to the toast, woman!” If I ever give a toast to my kids, I’m going to keep it short and sweet.
Sykes: What are the holidays like in your house?
Buteau: I like to start early, get it done. I like themes. My parents are from the Caribbean, so they string lights on a plant and that’s it. As a kid, I wanted a big American Christmas, and they were like, “Go to the Dollar Store and do your thing,” and I just learned how to be crafty. I think there’s an inner plus-size Martha Stewart somewhere in my body. Around Thanksgiving is when I start with the tree because you have to go early to get a good one.
I really want us to make our own traditions—I just don’t know what all of them are yet. We are not really into gifts, and it’s not just because my husband is Dutch, though that’s part of it. We’re into living our lives like it’s a celebration all year long.
Everything You Need to Know About Michelle
All I Want For Christmas Is… A clean kitchen
Favorite Christmas Traditions: Sipping champagne, playing Christmas music with a fire (in the fireplace, hi!), and decorating the tree
Dressing Twins To Match: Yes Or No? Sadly, no. I’ve tried, but they have such different personalities and therefore different vibes.
What My Almost-2-Year-Olds Are Into: Swimming—like they know how? Dutch cheese. Airplanes in the sky. And The Wiggles. Lots of Wiggles! And hugs.
Favorite Book To Read To Them: You Made Me a Dad, by Laurenne Sala
First Place I’ll Go When I Can Travel Again: Florida, to see my parents, and Jamaica, to see my extended family
Best Movie Set I’ve Been On: Ah!!! Trick question!!! They’re all magical.
On New Year’s Eve, I’ll Be… In bed by 9:45 p.m., hoping for a better year for all
This article originally appeared in Parents magazine's December 2020 issue as “Michelle Buteau: The Mom Friend We All Need.” Want more from the magazine? Sign up for a monthly print subscription here