We Are Family Podcast Season 2, Episode 5 with Ben Feldman: You Don't Have to Love Babies to be a Great Dad
Star of Superstore, Mad Men, and Monsters at Work, Ben Feldman is also dad to Charlie, 4, and Effie, 2, with wife and fellow actor Michelle Mulitz. In his chat with host Julia Dennison, Parents digital content director, Feldman keeps it real about fatherhood, why he couldn't be happier that the baby stage is finally over is in his house, and the one thing he tells many dads-to-be:
"The kid's going to come out, and you're going to be like, 'Oh my god, something in me has changed. I love this thing,'" he says. "If you're like me, that won't actually be the case. If you're like me, you'll look at the kid, and you'll go, 'Yeah, on paper, I love this thing. And I get that I would do anything for it or whatever.' But secretly, you're thinking, 'Am I incapable of love? Am I a narcissist? Why do I see my wife having this unbelievable just physical animal connection to this kid, and I'm just sort of like, 'Yeah, all the boxes are checked, but I don't have that feeling. I'm happy to walk away from this thing, and it's just a thing to me.' And then somewhere around 6, 7, 8 months or whatever, that dissipated... At some point around the that time, something changed for me. And I was like, 'Oh, OK. I get it. I would jump into traffic for this thing.' And it's no longer a thing. And now they're all I think about."
Check out Episode 5 now for more with Ben Feldman!
Upcoming episodes and topics this season include:
- Episode 6: Tan France
Listen to Season 2, Episode 5 right now:
Plus, follow along here:
Julia: Hi, I'm Julia Dennison, host of We Are Family, and I just wanted to give you a heads up that the episode this week covers adult subjects and contains some adult language, too. Thank you!
Ben: My name is Ben Feldman and, to me, family is exhausting.
Julia: Hello, and welcome to We Are Family. I'm here with actor and producer Ben Feldman. You'll know him as Jonah Simms on Superstore, Michael Ginsberg on Mad Men, Ron LaFlamme in Silicon Valley, and Tylor Tuskmon in Monsters at Work. He's also starred on Broadway in The Graduate, among plenty of other things. He's dad to son Charlie and daughter Effie with his wife and fellow actor Michelle Mulitz. Ben, welcome to We Are Family.
Ben: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Julia: So my first question is ... You all can't see him right now because, obviously, podcast. But I see a giraffe head behind you. So I'm guessing that's not your room, is it?
Ben: It is not. Although some of my friends might argue that I have a bit of a giraffe fetish. So it would not be unlikely that that giraffe head would be in another room in the house. But I am in Charlie's room. He just went to school. And I'm giving my wife the rest of the house. And also I figured it was appropriate to do a family podcast next to my son's bunk bed.
Julia: It's a requirement. But we should also just specify that that is not, as far as I can tell, a real giraffe.
Ben: No. That is paper mache. That is a paper mache giraffe. God forbid we actually had taxidermied beautiful, exotic, amazing animals in our house.
Julia: Oh my goodness. So how old is Charlie, and how old is Effie?
Ben: Charlie's going to be 4 at the end of October. And Effie turned 2 at the end of April already.
Julia: Got it. OK. So they're pretty close in age, so that's a handful. Two under...
Ben: They're extremely close in age. I think that's why it's so exhausting. They're a year and a half apart, which is insane. I don't recommend it. But it'll pay off at some point.
Julia: Do you remember anything from sort of those first two years of parenthood, or is it a blur?
Ben: No. No. I mean, I think my wife would argue that I don't remember anything anyway. Everything's a blur until about last week. But yeah, the first couple years are a total blur. There are bits and pieces I remember. And then came along. Effie came along. And then I just haven't slept in a year and a half maybe or so. It's not conducive to memory.
Julia: What is sleep? Yeah. I have a daughter. She is 5. And I will say, 5 is good. I like 5. I think I like 5. I mean, 5 comes with opinions, lots of them.
Ben: But I look forward to opinions. I like questions. I've been waiting for them to ask ... At first, when they're really young, they're just cocky. They just pretend like they know everything or they're uninterested in what they don't know. And somewhere around Charlie's age ... I mean, Effie says why a lot, but I feel like it's almost a nervous tick.
Julia: Oh, right.
Ben: She'll just say, "Why? Why?" And literally, I can answer with anything, and she'll go, "Oh." But Charlie genuinely is asking a lot of questions. If he doesn't understand a word in a book we're reading, he'll ask. Some mammoths showed up in a book the other day, and he was clearly alarmed, and had a lot of questions about mammoths. And I had to explain to him what extinction is. So we're getting to that phase, which I'm into.
Julia: We're going to rewind a little bit since this is a podcast about family. And I'd love to hear about your own family. Can you tell me a little bit about your upbringing, your earliest memories? What was family life like for you as a kid?
Ben: It's funny, I only recently learned because I only recently started therapy, that it's not normal to have zero memories from before you were 8. I just thought nobody ... I was like, "Oh, yeah, we don't remember things before we were 8." But that's when my parents got divorced. So who knows what was going on pre that? I can't imagine it was an incredible environment. But the divorce was great. And they live near each other, and they both remarried. I have no bad memories. So fortunately, my defense mechanisms in my brain have just kind of, I guess, blocked them all out, if I do have any. But my dad remarried, and I got a stepsister out of it as well. And they're still around and married to this day. My mom dated about a million people, and then married this Irish Catholic construction worker who was racist and blew things up for a living. He was very charming, but he lived in the basement, and he had a Bronco with a license plate that said 'Boom'. And he was an amateur stripper, I learned later. So that was fascinating.
Julia: Father figure right there for you.
Ben: Yeah. The craziest thing is all of the different ... There's certainly elements of my personality that I'm not thrilled about that I can attribute to the various father figures I had. But I also think that he was useful. I mean, I think until this super construction workery conservative weight lifter guy, I was kind of a wuss. And he was the one that was like, "Quit whining about this. Get outside. Join the whatever team." And I think there were elements that he added to my life that I'm grateful for, even though I'm sure they're outweighed by some of the uglier ones.
But I dug it. I was happy. If you asked 10-year-old me if I was sad, I never ... I remember being really happy that my parents were divorced. I had this line I remember as a kid saying it was like two different sitcoms that I would travel back and forth between each week, which I guess shows how much television I watched when I was a kid. But if I was in trouble with one family, I knew that on Thursday, I'd be going to dad's house, and I wasn't in trouble over there. If I needed to borrow money and dad didn't want to lend it to me, I knew I was going to mom's house on Sunday. For some reason, I made it work, and I really dug it.
Julia: OK. Well, that's reassuring.
Ben: I liked my childhood.
Julia: That's good. I'm a divorced mom. And so I co-parent half the time with my daughter, and she goes to her dad's. So that's reassuring. So what would you say to divorced parents? As a kid of divorce, is there anything that you would kind of wish that your parents had done differently, or something that…
Ben: No. I mean, again, who knows? Maybe I blocked out anything they did wrong. But I genuinely had a very happy divorced child life. They got along. They communicated. Even then, I think I understood that that was important. I understood that that was a plus in my situation that they lived near each other and that they communicated. They were cool with each other.
I was on Drew Barrymore's show, and she was really into, as another divorced parent, she actually brought this ... I must've talked about this somewhere in the press. I don't remember talking about it. But she brought this up, so I had to, because I am not Drew Barrymore's friend. But there is the greatest birthday present I ever got, when I was 16, my mother, or my ... One of them took me out to dinner, and the other one was at the restaurant, which was surreal to me. And the reason being is that they sat down, and they explained to me my 16th birthday present. And it was a trip to New York without them, with a friend of mine.
They handed me this little book. And every single page was an instruc ... So it'd be like, "Walk outside. Turn left. Catch a cab going west. You've got a reservation at blah, blah, blah. And then you're going to this afterwards." And it was a whole weekend that they had planned every single moment of together. And it was the coolest. I remember being like, "I have the coolest parents ever."
Julia: Oh my god, that's really adorable. I'm kind of into that.
Ben: Oh, it was crazy. And the coolest part about it was, I was super into theater at the time, and they got me tickets to two shows. One was A Funny Thing Happened with Nathan Lane, which is like old school Broadway and whatever. But the other one was a brand new show that had just transferred to Broadway that everybody was talking about called Rent. And so I got to go see the original cast of Rent, right after, when it was brand new, alone, without my parents, unsupervised on this awesome, super overly planned trip to New York. It was like the greatest gift ever.
Julia: Oh my god. That is so cool. I love that. I might emulate that idea.
Ben: You should. And 16-year-olds are more capable. That's what's horrifying to me is that in like 10 minutes, my kids are going to be old enough for me to send them to a major city without me, and they'll be fine. They won't die.
Julia: Oh my god, totally.
Ben: Everybody did that stupid cliché that's so boring to me about how it happens so fast. Then you become a parent, and you're like, "Oh, it's," ... I mean, it's on my mind. It's a part of every single day. I'm constantly being reminded how quickly this goes by. And all the things that I'm complaining about now, I'm going to desperately miss when I'm older. If my in-laws and my parents are any indication, it's all I'm going to care about.
Julia: Yeah, no, totally. Speaking of your dad, so your dad runs an advertising agency, right? Is that right?
Julia: And so obviously your big role with Michael Ginsberg in Mad Men where you played a copywriter in an advertising agency, what was that like to take on that role? Did you feel like you were playing your dad? Or what were your thoughts there?
Ben: Actually, more playing my mom. They were both in advertising. But my mom, coming up, my mom was essentially Lizzie Moss' char ... was Peggy, essentially.
Julia: Oh, wow.
Ben: And my mom traveled back and forth between New York and D.C. and she was a copywriter. Both of them, they both loved the show, and they were both really excited when I joined the cast.
Julia: That's so cool.
Ben: Yeah. It was really, really cool to sort of be play acting my parents' history.
Julia: Yeah. That's how my parents always felt too. So now I have to ask a question. So on Instagram, you posted a note that you wrote to your mom. Think you know where I'm going with this.
Ben: I do.
Julia: When you were 12. Was I think maybe at camp or something. But you were asking about a certain magazine, i.e., Playboy, and about the subscription I think that she needed to pay for or something. Can you talk about that? What the heck?
Ben: What was it? Did I say that I did it behind her back?
Julia: I think I'm going to pull up...
Ben: OK. Pull up the note.
Julia: Mom, I know you're going to kill me but there's nothing I can do about this Playboy thing. I didn't even prescribe. Subscribe.
Ben: I didn't even prescribe.
Julia: I didn't even prescribe. I didn't even prescribe to it. Anyway, I owe $21.93. Can you help me out?
Ben: I'm sure I prescribed to it. Actually, knowing my mom, she probably got the subscription for me. It's unconventional, and I'm not recommending anything to parents, but I will say this. My mother was super, super cool about that kind of stuff. When I was in sleep away camp, she sent us something. I forget. I don't know if it was like a Playboy or something. Look, I get it. There's a million parents that are probably listening to this and going, "Oh my god, that's horrible. She should be arrested." But I will say this, my mom was super liberal about a lot of stuff, whether it was Playboy to like weed. And I never really had problem ... Like I had a lot of other friends who had super conservative parents who were highly protective of things like that. And those were the guys in college that were wasted and disrespectful and had problems and addiction and whatever. Maybe not addiction. Addiction is a disease. But they were reckless. And I never found myself to be reckless. So take that for what it's worth, but she was really cool about that stuff. Now, should you send a 12-year-old porn at camp? Probably not. My mother was on one end of the spectrum. But there are lessons, I think, to be learned from her side of the spectrum.
Julia: I think so, too. I mean, that reminds me of when I was in France at 16, and I was drinking wine with my French family. It's like and over in America, kids are binging because they're having to do it in the woods somewhere.
Ben: And that's funny. My mother moved to France. She moved to the south of France when I was in college, and I would go and visit all the time. And the kids that I hung out with there were just so much cooler. They didn't need to get wasted. They thought that Americans were ridiculous. And I'm sure this is still our image to France and everybody else. But in retrospect, I think they imagined that we were all just like loud frat boys. They were just so disgusted by our overindulgence in all of the things that were so completely normal and casual to them. That was a big lesson that I took whenever I used to go visit my mom in France.
Julia: Right. And I think talking about sex with your kids, they often say that when you think it's time, it's too late. They're already talking about it with their friends.
Ben: You missed it. Yeah. I never had that birds and bees conversation with my ... Does that happen? Does anybody actually go, "Mom," ... I know Charlie said to Michelle the other day, "Where do babies come from?" But he's not really having the conversation. He went on to posit that women have boobs because that's the baby's knees.
Julia: I love that. It's like you don't even want to correct it.
Ben: Yeah. Like he's just trying to understand the basics of anatomy. I think by the time you really have questions about sex and reproduction, whatever, you figure them out with your friends. I don't know anybody that's having that 11-year-old sit-down talk with Timmy.
Julia: Right. Right, right, right. But at the same time, it's like, as a parent, you want to be the kind of parent that they could talk to you about it.
Ben: Yeah. Exactly. They shouldn't feel scared. These things shouldn't be taboo.
Julia: Right. Right. Totally.
Ben: I remember there was a moment in high school where my mom said something like, "I'm sure your friends, everybody's smoking weed. And I'm sure you've done blow," and blah, blah, blah, and this and that. And I remember thinking, "Oh no, I haven't ... Is my mom going to be disappointed in me that I've never tried blow at this point?" But it was so normal to her that it became normal to me. And so it was never taboo.:
When I was a 20-something in L.A. and I was overcompensated for doing TV shows, yeah, maybe I did a little too much blow then. But I don't attribute that to bad parenting. I think I attribute that to L.A.'s bad parenting, Hollywood's.
Julia: OK. So talking about sort of dating, growing up, and everything, after seeing your parents get divorced, did that kind of change your concept of marriage and whether or not you even wanted to get married?
Ben: Yes. For sure. It was interesting because it wasn't just that they got divor ... When they first told me they were getting divorced when I was 8, I thought I was going to be Annie, because I had no real context. And so I just assumed. My only sort of reference point was a musical orphan. So I think I thought that's what I was going to be. But once they separated and life went on, everything was fine. Honestly, what I think messed with my head for a little bit, and probably to this day there's a lot of shrapnel, was not that they got divorced, was watching them, really my mother, date a lot of people. And I would walk in on her accidentally in ways that you want your kid walking in with the guy who inevitably became her husband. But I'm sure there are others that I've, again, blocked out. So I think that shaped ... That was right around when I was 8 and 9 and 10. It was right around those formative, at least sexual years. They're not sexy years. But when you're sort of learning about it.
Julia: Learning about sexuality.
Ben: Yeah, exactly. And so I think I took more away from sex and monogamy than I did about marriage or anything like that. But that said, yeah, for a long time, I didn't understand the concept of marriage. To this day, I still think ... Look, I'm married happily and will be forever. But I can both be that and think that marriage is a ridiculous antiquated concept that start a gazillion years ago when it was about a dowry. You married, and it was about money. People lived in tiny towns of like six people, and so you had to marry anybody. What else are you going to do? And women died at childbirth anyway. It's an entire system that comes from a different era. And I think it doesn't necessarily belong in our era. But within the construct of how families work and sort of the rules and whatever of society, I'm perfectly happy in it, and so is Michelle. And if this is a way of saying, "Hey, I'm committed to you. I'm going to do it on paper," fine. If you need to change your last name, whatever needs to happen, great. Whatever.
Julia: Right, right. I'm with you on that. Having gone through divorce, and seeing how long that can take, as opposed to getting married. You can get married really quickly, but getting divorced takes years. And just the legality of it all. I'm just like, "What?" It's so bizarre that lawyers get involved in my relationship.
Ben: It's so silly.
Julia: It is bonkers. But yet I'm with you. I mean, I could see myself getting married again. It's kind of funny how that works.
Ben: Yeah. I imagine, and I don't know this because I have not been divorced, but I imagine it's probably like childbirth in that it's probably horrible, and then some weird thing in your brain allows you to forget how horrible it was in order to do it again.
Julia: Right. Something like that. So how did you meet Michelle? And then how did you decide that marriage is for you, et cetera, et cetera?
Ben: Michelle and I met, actually, it's so dumb. My stepmother sent me an email a long time ago. Well, no, she called me and was like, "There's this girl." My stepmother was always trying to set me up with people in my 20s, even when I had a girlfriend. And one of those times, I was in a car with a girl, and I was like, "Can you just email me?" And she was like, "All right." And so she emailed me, and she's like, "There's this girl moving to L.A. She just got there. Right up your alley. Blonde, blue eyes." Which, false. My girlfriend just before was like super Jewy, dark hair, not the blonde, blue eyed whatever. She was like, "Please, take her out. I'm begging you. If it sucks, I'll owe you. She comes from a great family," which might as well have been underlined and italicized. It was just this kind of ridiculous email.
So I just copied Michelle's email address and forwarded this email to Michelle. And I thought, "If this girl is at all cool, she'll appreciate this ridiculous email from my stepmother." And she wrote back something like, "Yeah, my mother said that you're, like, a douchey actor." And we hung out that night. And that was like 15 years ago.
Julia: Oh my god, I love it. And then in 2017, you became parents to Charlie. Right?
Ben: Yes. Yeah, yeah. I think so. Whatever was almost four years ago.
Julia: So what kind of surprised you about fatherhood, just generally? Did you have a concept of what it would be like? Do you feel like you're becoming your parents at all?
Ben: Yes. No. Yes and no, I guess. Obviously, the old cliché. Being a parent is just trying to undo all of your own parents' mistakes. But there's a lot of things about my dad and my mom that I emulate as well. Although it is kind of funny to me that, one day, Charlie will be married to a woman or a man ... At some point, he'll be in a fight with his husband or wife or whatever, and they will say, "OK, Ben," and they'll mean it as an insult, and he'll storm out of the room.
Julia: You're thinking of that moment. I love it.
Ben: Like that is just inevitable that someone will use my name to insult my children by saying, "You're just like Ben." Like I know that's going to happen. Because that's every relationship.
Julia: What do you think that they're going to be doing...
Ben: Oh, god, it could be so many things that they could be doing that would be like me and the wrong thing to do. I'm sure it'll involve complaining or saying something inappropriate. Who knows? But yeah, no. You asked was I ready. I don't think anybody is. I think anybody who says that they're ready is lying. And anybody who says that it's easy or that anything has gone smoothly is lying.
One thing that I tell a lot of ... I have a friend who's going to be a dad soon. And I was just telling him what I tell all of my guy friends that are going to be. I say, probably, the kid's going to come out, and you're going to be like, "Oh my god, something in me has changed. I love this thing." Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. If you're like me, that won't actually be the case. If you're like me, you'll look at the kid, and you'll go, "Yeah, on paper, I love this thing. And I get that I would do anything for it or whatever." But secretly, you're thinking, "Am I incapable of love? Am I a narcissist? Why do I see my wife having this unbelievable just physical animal connection to this kid, and I'm just sort of like, 'Yeah, all the boxes are checked, but I don't have that feeling. I'm happy to walk away from this thing, and it's just a thing to me.'" And then somewhere around 6, 7, 8 months or whatever, that dissipated. Maybe I am a narcissist. Maybe it started with when the kid, when Charlie, because he was our first, started laughing at my own jokes. And I was like, "Oh, this thing appreciates me. Now I love it." But whatever it was, at some point around the that time, something changed for me. And I was like, "Oh, OK. I get it. I would jump into traffic for this thing." And it's no longer a thing. And now they're all I think about. My wife and I are going away for a couple nights to Mexico, in a couple weeks. While I cannot wait to sleep past 6:30 a.m. and to day drink, I know that I'm going to be thinking about them and desperately missing them the entire time we're there. And that's not something I could've pictured one month into Charlie's life.
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Julia: Oh, I think that's such an important message though. It hits different people at different times, just that flood of parent love right there.
Ben: Yeah. And there's a little bit of a learned, not to belittle the mother's experience, because that's just one of sort of the miracles of human nature is that they can make that connection so quickly, but a lot of times, with the dad, a lot of times, not always, it's almost a learned or earned kind of love. Because you're irrelevant for months. You're so irrelevant. You're a housekeeper. You're the grocery store goer to her. You're whatever needs to happen, but you're not necessary to the kid. You're in the way a lot of the times. So it can be scary, I think, and a lot of dads won't admit that because it's such an ugly thing to say. Like one month in, everyone's saying, "You must be so excited. This is so special." You can't say, "Yeah, I guess." But that's sort of how I felt.
Julia: No, you're not allowed. You just have to go, "Uh-huh. Yeah."
Ben: You have to go, "Yes. Oh my god. Something in me is different. I'm a new person now. The world is different to me. The sun is always shining." Blah, blah, blah. And it's bullshit. Or at least it was for me.
Julia: Yeah. Maybe more of us should say, "Yeah, I guess." maybe we should be a little bit more honest about...
Ben: Yeah. And what was great with Effie, the second time around, was I knew that's how it would go. And so the confidence in knowing that that will come if it's not there at the beginning kind of makes everything so much easier and more relaxing and happy. And it allowed me to actually sort of develop whatever that connection is with Effie sooner, because I wasn't constantly worried that it just would never happen.
Julia: Yeah. No, totally. And you know what? I'm a mom too. And I've just discovered that I don't think I'm a big baby person. I loved her as a baby, but I think I love her even-
Ben: Oh, fuck babies.
Julia: Fuck babies.
Ben: I hate babies so much.
Julia: Did I just say that? No. No, no, no.
Ben: Babies suck, man.
Listen, I feel like I have to back up a little. Babies are great. My daughter was the best baby in the world, naturally.
Julia: But 5-year-olds? Way better. Definitely recommend...
Ben: Yeah. I want someone who I can have a conversation with.
Julia: Same. Same.
Ben: Babies don't do anything. And they just take and take and take. And if they're not taking, they're crying. I don't know. That's the other thing. Maybe that's what it was is I just couldn't pretend that I was happy to have a baby in my house. And the second Effie, once the diapers went away, all the little sort of milestones that say she's no longer a baby, to my wife, it was depressing because it's like, "This is the last time this'll ever happen." To me, it was like, "Great. This is it. This is the real beginning for me."
Julia: Right, right. So you guys are done. Two kids, done.
Ben: Done. Done.
Julia: So speaking of done, we're almost done here. And thank you so much, Ben, for chatting.
So now, as a family, has the pandemic kind of changed? What are you kind of looking forward to in the future. If anything, has it kind of changed your outlook on family at all or changed your perspective?
Ben: Yeah. My wife and I, this is another thing that we sort of say in hushed tones, but the pandemic really kind of was, and a lot of parents would probably agree with us, a really magical time for us. We didn't have 6, 7, 8-year-old ... I feel bad for the families that were, A, having to do all the classes at home, and had to work on homework, and the most important time for these kids to be around their friends wasn't happening. We were lucky in that our kids were an age that kind of made it just really nice. We were forced to stay at home. Everybody else was too. We spent a lot of time ... My wife said very early on in the pandemic, she's like, "We're going to look back on this and say, 'Oh my god, what an exhausting time. Thank god that's over.' And our kids are going to look back, as much as they can, and be like, 'That was the greatest summer, whatever, of our lives, of our three or two years in existence.'" And I think we learned a lot. I think we learned a lot about being together as a family. We had a lot of incredible times and spent a lot of time together that we would not have were it not for a worldwide pandemic. So there are silver linings and things to be grateful in certain situations. Of course, it was an awful disaster, and it continues to be. And I hate to say that anything about it was nice for us. But there was something about that that was really kind of great.
Julia: Yeah. I think that's a universal feeling, for sure, the ups and the downs of the pandemic for parents.
Ben, Ben Feldman, thank you so much for coming on We Are Family. This has been so awesome. It's been so great to chat. I feel like I could go on and on and on.
Ben: Thanks for having me. I hope it gets edited down to just me talking trash about babies, and then porn and drugs. And then I'm like, "But the pandemic was great." And then you just go onto someone with an actual real person life.
Julia: And then I'm like, "Cool." Anyway.
Ben: So gross.
Julia: No, this is good. This is awesome. Thanks, Ben. All right. It's been great.
Ben: It was great to talk to you.
Julia: Thanks for listening to my conversation with the hilarious Ben Feldman, what a joy to speak to him.
Come back next week when we will be talking to one of the Fab Five from Netflix's Queer Eye: The fabulous Tan France. Tan and his husband Rob have just become parents and Tan shares his surrogacy journey, along with stories from his first frantic weeks of fatherhood.
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