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I’m In a Trance, Ask Your Father

Monday, February 22, 2021

By Liz Astrof

Apparently, it’s impossible to be an absent mother during a pandemic.

It’s 11:59 a.m. on a Tuesday. In less than one minute, the door to my eleven-year-old daughter’s room will fly open. I will hear a current of air being forced inside, followed by a slightly annoyed, almost accusatory, “Mom! What’s for lunch?!”

Though this has been happening every day for over ten months, I still shudder when Phoebe appears in the doorway of the spare bedroom I have converted into my makeshift and (god-willing) temporary office. She stands there, hands on her hips, lips pursed, eyes narrowed (she got her father’s smile and my eyes), furious that I haven’t answered her question in the time it took her to stomp over.

Sitting at the card table I am using as a desk, I tell her that she can also ask her father, who is downstairs.

“But, he’s working,” she whines.

I am scandalized. Just because my husband, Todd, has a corporate job and has to wear a button-down shirt with his sweatpants to Zoom meetings, he is considered uninterruptible from 9 to 6.

“Well, I’m working too,” I say, furtively shoving a magic marker into a coloring book and sticking it under my laptop. She tilts her head and gives me a leery once-over, dubious that I have an actual job.

I explain to Phoebe that my job is as essential as Daddy’s. I’m a writer, and just because I don’t have meetings like “some regular office person” (a low blow, but I’m resentful), I’m working all the time in my head.

“Like, right now, it looks like I’m coloring, but I’m actually working.” Of course, this is a lie, meant to convince both of us.

In all honesty, I have not done any writing or thinking because I can’t hear myself over my 13-year-old son, Jesse, who is “at” a new middle school in his bedroom, on the other side of a shared wall.

“Excuse me!?” Jesse says, repeatedly, in a high-pitched voice with increasing urgency, to a teacher who is merely a bobbing head. This “head” doesn’t know he suffers from anxiety and needs to be told to breathe, or that he also suffers from ADHD and needs to be given instructions more than once before they sink in. I white-knuckle my card table to restrain myself from running in and screaming “CALM DOWN!” into his worried face.

On top of that, I am constantly interrupted by the dogs, the phone, and Amazon. If I’m not interrupted, I’m waiting to be interrupted — all because I don’t wear a buttoned-down shirt with my sweatpants.

“I want mac n’ cheese with hotdogs, but the hotdogs IN the mac n’ cheese and grapes and ice water, and can you bring it to me? Thanks!” Phoebe chirps this soliloquy and turns on her heels back to her room, where she takes her meals. The food that doesn’t land on her school computer winds up stuck to her floor or decomposing behind her bed. Recently, I found bones in her closet that may have belonged to a chicken at some point, but I’d have to send them in for forensics just to be sure.

I serve Phoebe lunch in her room. I throw the food down as if I am tossing meat to a lion at the zoo and slam the door behind me, afraid she’ll demand something else or otherwise maul me.

Shuffling back to my card table, I hear Jesse call me into his room. When I get there, he disdainfully pushes a bowl of penne towards me without making eye contact. “It’s too dry. You know I like it floating in butter and olive oil with heaps of parmesan cheese.” He frowns, and returns to his math class.

I want to lecture him about the fact that people are sick and dying and losing their jobs and houses; that he’s so lucky to be healthy, have a roof over his head, food to reject. Since he is unmuted, I merely whisper-hiss, “This isn’t a restaurant!” and scurry off to make him a new bowl.

The fact that my kids are missing out on a conventional existence is not lost on me. They left school that fateful day in March, and have yet to return. Jesse didn’t have his elementary school graduation. Phoebe didn’t go on the long-awaited class trip to Sacramento or the Girl Scout’s father-daughter dance. No sleepover parties or soccer games, no summer camp. Life as they knew it was put on hold. But they are young and resilient, malleable, able to adjust. I, on the other hand, am none of those things. I am old and set in my ways.

Recently, I found bones in her closet that may have belonged to a chicken at some point, but I’d have to send them in for forensics just to be sure.

I constantly mourn the old days, when I’d stroll in from work — which I did at an actual office — and then off to yoga. Maybe a frozen yogurt run afterwards, once my kids had already done whatever kids do between school and bedtime. I didn’t know precisely what that entailed; I just knew they were well taken care of. Until that day in March, I was, for all intents and purposes, an absent mother, so much so that I wrote a book about it. But it is impossible to be an absent mother during a pandemic.

On my way into the kitchen, I pass a large hallway mirror. Out of the corner of my eye, I observe what I have become: a bloated shell of myself, in the same coffee-stained tank top with “Spiritual Gangster” scrawled across it and stretched out Valentine’s Day pajama pants I’ve been wearing for days or weeks on end; my hair, what’s left of it, is half gray, my skin has returned to its natural state since the Botox has left my system.

Behind his closed office door, I hear Todd laughing and having a casual conversation with other adults. Then I hear the creaking sound his chair makes when tilted backward. He’s reclining. He’s reclining and laughing and having a casual conversation with other adults while I’m out here waiting tables by myself just because I work in my head.

I’m livid. The blood rushes to my face, my eyes narrow, my heart bounding out of my chest. I need to do something violent, and I do. I wing the bowl of dry penne across the room. It bounces off of the hard tile, scattering bits of stale pasta everywhere.

I crawl around on my hands and knees, picking up the dust and dog-hair-covered noodles and placing them back in the bowl. This will be my exercise for the week. I try again; this time, I aim for the countertop, and I get the same result. And again. And yet again. I can’t even break an unbreakable bowl I got on Etsy.

“What’s going on?!” Todd rushes in from his cocktail party in the other room.

“I am supposed to be an absent mother!” I shout.

“You know I want that for you.” He flashes an approving smile.

I tell him it’s not fair that I have to take care everyone just because I work in my head. I plead that what’s in my head has to wind up on my laptop at some point in order for my career to be viable, hoping he’ll discount the penne lodged between my toes.

He sweetly offers to make Jesse a new lunch floating in butter and olive oil so I can go do my work.

He’s reclining and laughing and having a casual conversation with other adults while I’m out here waiting tables by myself just because I work in my head.

But I’m not using this time for work. No. Instead, I’m leaving and going to another realm because an insufferably spiritual friend recently gifted me a session with her witch. At the time, I thought this was ludicrous, but now it’s my ticket out of here.

I lie on my bed in the dark, on top of rumpled sheets and clothes I was supposed to wash, or fold, or whatever. The witch, Bekah, is on speakerphone. I follow her instructions: close my eyes, take deep breaths, and imagine my body (in skinny jeans that have never fit me, because why not?) floating up and away. It was happening. I was actually floating, past both Dippers and that constellation named after a bear. Then, just as I was approaching Mars:

“Mom, can I have a snack?!” Phoebe’s voice rises into the ether.

“Just get to Mars,” I told my floating self, shutting my eyes tighter.

But then, Jesse joined in, “Mommy, can I buy a Minecraft upgrade?!”

“Get. To. Mars.”

A chorus of grubby “moms and mommies” gets louder and louder, closer and closer, I take a deep breath in and exhale a guttural, “Ask your father, I’m in a trance!”


“Okay, Bekah, take me away,” I say, settling back in.

Our time was up. The witch had other clients to service.

That night I got a text from CVS alerting me that my son’s meds were ready. I had just changed into clean, “going-out pajamas” and let Todd know I’d be picking them up. Todd had gotten the same text and was already at the door with his car keys in hand. Our desire for five minutes alone resulted in a shoving match over who would get to risk their life to stand in line at CVS at 9 p.m.

“I have Zoom burnout and need to breathe fresh air,” he pleaded, his eyes going in two different directions.

“Too bad! I didn’t get to Mars today! I wasted a session with a witch!” I say, out of breath, running in place while he held me back by the waist of my pajamas (also counts as a workout). Using super-woman strength, the kind you have when your child is trapped under a car or when you’re stuck in a house with two of them, I free myself and make a break for it.

I may not have left the universe, but sitting in my car in the CVS parking lot, shoveling women’s hair support gummies into my mouth, washing them down with warm Diet Coke, had me over the moon.

I’m soon pulled back to earth when I get a text from Phoebe asking if we’d be watching Gilmore Girls. I’m surprised she has my number, but I’m even more surprised that I actually want to watch TV with my daughter, that this is fun for me. I race home, wondering the whole way what had become of me? I’m supposed to be an absent mother!


Liz Astrof is an award-winning executive producer and one of the most successful sitcom writers in television today. Liz has written for The Conners, The King of Queens, Kath & Kim, 2 Broke Girls, Jesse, Welcome to New York, Whitney, Becker, Last Man Standing, Trial and Error, among others.

While she can rarely be seen at her kids’ school, Liz is often seen driving by it. She lives in California with her family, two dogs, a gecko and at least three turtles.