Jeannie Gaffigan on slowing down, savoring the present, and what she learned from tragedy

Jeannie Gaffigan, producer, comedy writer, brain tumor survivor, bestselling author, wife of Jim, and mother of five talks to Liz about what her brain tumor taught her, how she found humor and joy in tragedy, and why slowing down and enjoying the present has become so important to her. She also explains why mothers, who so often put their own care last, need to remember to take care of themselves -- not just for their own health, but for their family's health.

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Liz: So Jeannie Gaffigan, welcome to the Motherly podcast.

Jeannie: Thank you for having me on.

Liz: So you are the oldest of nine kids.

Jeannie: That's right. I prefer eldest…

Liz: The eldest daughter. That's an important role in any culture. What did you think motherhood was going to be like before you actually became a mom yourself?

Jeannie: Well, I really thought that it was something that I wasn't going to be interested in to be honest.

Liz: Why?

Jeannie: Because, well, because of what it represented to me. Because I was too young to get the point of the absolute joy that one can find in selfless giving. So that's kind of the opposite of what a teenager, you know, thinks of as, um, you know, goals.

So, I remember it being tough for me. I guess my rebellion against the way that my mother's philosophy was, to be ultra-organized. And so my mother, like, first of all is she is the reason why I am, um, you know, alive. And got through my brain surgery because of the foundation that she laid of faith in my life.

So, at the time I didn't really understand how she could always be so positive in the midst of chaos because what I experienced as a, um, you know, the having, you know, constantly, she was constantly pregnant and having babies. We didn't have a fancy car like everyone else did. Uh, we had three kids in a room, and I kept, you know, looking at [00:02:00] these other kids who were only children and being like, why can't we have a nice car like them?

Or why can't, you know, I have this alone time with, you know, things like that. And so, I don't want to portray myself as this like, absolutely selfish kid, but I think that when we are young and we don't, you know, the grass is always greener type thing. I didn't really understand why somebody would want to have all these kids that, you know, we're such a major focus of their life.

So, I remember being very, not focused on what the important parts of having this like be the loving family and learning to share and learning to put other people before you. I felt like I was kind of thrust into it. And then as I got older, slowly I started to realize as I went out into the world that I had these tools that other people didn't have. I remember going my freshman year to high school and having, you know, to do laundry and just being like, okay, time to do my laundry.

And the other girls being like. How do you turn this thing on? And you know, so I mean, just basic things like that. And then also just kind of the ability to kind of go into situations and not be fearful. You know, having that kind of self, uh, that kind of autonomy and that self awareness, that comes from having to interact with a lot of other people and make sacrifices and share things.

Yes, I do have a big family. I do have five kids and there are a lot of similar elements. Like Jim is always saying, whenever I'm, you know, I'll invite people to go on trips with us or come over. He's like, you know, I feel like you're trying to recreate the chaos of your childhood. And I'm like, I probably am.

But, I think that same big family philosophy about sharing rooms and sharing experiences is a really positive thing.

Liz: Do you remember a time when you did become a mom, that what might have seemed in the past, like a sacrifice and just, you know, utter selflessness and, and a hardship even when that started to also feel like your purpose and your meaning and beautiful as well.

Jeannie: Yeah. I think that the first thing that happened, that kind of woke me up at night… I had, you know, my first baby, I was completely shocked that I had this vision. Of this kind of like, you know, what to expect when you're expecting, you know, babyhood and then the absolute connection that you had to this other human being.

And I remember what happened was the baby Mari, my first baby, [00:06:00] a few months old. So, what happened is that all of a sudden, my little -- you know, couple of month old baby -- went from being able to be put on the bed and me running around and like putting them, you know, in a way, a laundry to falling off the bed.

And it was like the way that I felt when she fell off the bed was more feelings than I'd ever experienced in my entire life. All at the same time. And now that I have five kids, I'm like, yeah, baby's fall. Like they're fine. You know? And I remember also my mom was saying babies and drunks don't get hurt when they fall down. Baby's and drunks, but this... feeling that was… it was love. It was fear, it was pain. It was joy, you know? It was like all these things at the same time that I felt when I picked up that baby off the floor, that made me feel more alive than I'd ever felt before and I'd never felt this feeling before.

And I looked at the baby and I looked at you know (after I calmed down from crying and I realized that she was fine). Like I was on the phone with my mom and she's like, what? Did the baby throw up? She was giving me the whole thing. I'm like, no, everything is like.. nothing happened, but I was afraid, you know? I had these visions of pushing a wheelchair around, you know what I mean? I was like, I destroyed, I broke my baby. And then I looked at the baby and then Mari smiled at me and I felt like God was there and was saying this baby is a living, breathing manifestation of my love for you and my mercy on you and this baby's going to teach you what it's like to be alive. And I was like, Whoa, okay, thanks God. Gonna follow that one.

[00:08:00] Liz: And I think so many of us can relate to like life, beginning to make sense when when you have a child and you become a mama, and that our kids are such teachers, they are their own beings, but they're also like our greatest teachers through what we go through with them.

Jeannie: Yes. Yes. Just the growth that… and, and it's not like, okay, now I'm done. Now, I understand what it's like to be a mom. I mean, every day, and there's always like the people will tell you things to expect and it's never the same. Like I've never really been like, well, then that happened, of course. Because you have this unique person and every kid is different.

Liz: Yes, I'm totally with you on that. They're such gifts, and I know that motherhood has been such a great teacher for you. And I also know that what you went through, you had a health crisis that you wrote a memoir about called When Life Gives You Pears. But one of the things that really stuck out to me in the book was, you know, you wrote that as a busy mom… You wrote: I didn't have time to get sick. And you know, there were signs that something was wrong for a few years before your doctor forced you to go to a specialist and figure out why you were losing your hearing. And I think it's so important for other women and mothers to hear your story because we so easily can deprioritize ourselves and our own health. So tell us what happened and what that experience taught you.

Jeannie: Okay. So, you know, I want to go on the record and say that the symptoms that I was experiencing except for the hearing loss were very similar symptoms to early pregnancy. Okay. So there was that. There, there's that [00:10:00] possibility... there were also the symptoms of somebody who didn't drink enough water. Someone who didn't like, you know, take care of themselves.

So. I think that, and I can only speak for myself, but since my book resonated so much, I really feel like this might be a universal thing with our mothers. (I don't want to eliminate men either… but, I mean, I don't know any really…) But those who just focus so much on running their life, house, career and all that stuff, that they're just not on the agenda. Their own care.

I was not the one going around saying, oh, I'm so tired. Because when I was a mother before my surgery and brain tumor, that just seemed like a sign of weakness. And I think that I had a lot of ego involved in my pre-surgery, motherhood life. But essentially I was just, you know, busy all the time. And if I wasn't busy, I found myself in a situation where I was saying yes to taking something else on to make me even more busy. I frankly did not have time to get myself checked out. I had been producing a TV show, so when I was doing that, I was away from the home for, you know, just a gross amount of time.

I was just not with my children that much. They would come to set, but if I was shooting on location and the school nurse called my assistant got the call, but I wasn't able to leave and be with the kid. So, when I decided that this type of life was making me unhappy, and I wanted to move back into working from my home to start producing from home, I brought with me the same type of parenting style, even though I was physically there. So, I was there and I had more quantity time with my kids, but I don't really feel like I was experiencing the quality-time with my kids.

So, when I was in that Well-Check appointment with my five kids, my PCP who is my pediatrician family, practitioner, she would notice. She was like, what's wrong with your ear? Because she -- I kept turning and couldn't hear her -- and I said, well, I've just lost some hearing. And she was like, that's not really something that you shouldn't bring up to a doctor. And I, I kind of thought just because you know, you get old and things, you know, start to go. I was like, Oh, well that happened. Let me just like, pretend it didn't.

Liz: I don't have time for that.

Jeannie: Exactly -- I don't have time. Like it wasn't like it was really affecting my life that much. I explained it away. So, essentially she was very like, you know, you can't just accept that. She gave me a little pep talk and she was like, you're going, to check this out. I see what you're doing. You know, I see that you're getting your priorities out of whack and what good are you going to be to these kids if you don't get yourself checked out? So she gave me a little bit of a lecture and I felt like I wanted to make her happy and follow the rules and go to the doctor.

So, long story short, eventually I wound up seeing an ENT who couldn't find anything wrong and ordered an MRI. After the MRI, it was discovered that I had this like a massive brain tumor on my cranial nerves and I had to get it removed immediately. So I had like two days to get my stuff in order and then go into this brain surgery where I didn't know what or how I was going to come out on the other side.

Now, in summary, the surgery was extremely successful as in the brain tumor came out. Um, flash forward two, three weeks later and the pathology in the lab finding that it was benign. So that was all in three weeks: finding out if I had brain cancer waiting. But then, flashback three weeks. Two days after the surgery, I had a critical incident. Because of my surgery, my vagus nerve was impacted. This is the nerve that regulates like speech and swallowing. That whole mechanism got all messed up when the tumor was removed. So, when I was sleeping in the hospital, I breathed in my saliva instead of swallowing it and almost drowned. And then I got double lung, strep pneumonia.

So, that complicated the recovery really immensely. So I then was put in the ICU on a breathing machine and feeding tube. There was nothing by mouth. The pneumonia wasn't resolving itself with the antibiotics they were using. So, even though the whole thing of going into brain surgery and getting this massive tumor removed was, seemed like the scariest thing, it was actually the recovery where I was in the most jeopardy and during that time I was extremely frustrated because I was wondering who was running things because clearly if I wasn't running things, things were going to fall apart.

Liz: You were in the hospital, you were in the hospital a long time. You had your whole family there. Your husband was doing things that he hadn't had to do. In fact, you talk about this idea, you discovered, um, that you had been what you called a "momist." I think this is super interesting. What, what does that mean and what did you discover about yourself and your family?

Jeannie: I came up with the… the concept of the "momist" because I really did think that people who did not have kids did not know how to take care of people. And I was like, it was a secret, you know, it was, like I said, I was a closet "momist." Because I'm, you know, a comedy writer, I kind of parallel it with obviously like being a racist.

It is like I had these secret prejudices against people without kids that weren't revealed until I was in the hospital and I realized I was wrong. So, the truth of the matter was, is that I at the time had siblings that did not have any children. I'm the eldest, right? So I have like younger people in my family who, you know, who just got married or were in the beginning of their marriages, or they're dating or they're in an entirely different phase of life than I am. So my sisters and I who have kids bond over the phone and sometimes at family events and we're like "Oh, like they don't know. They have no idea." You know? We're the ones who have the secret bond. And the truth is, is that when I was in the hospital, my siblings that didn't have kids were actually able to be the most present. Because they didn't have to to home to their babies.

Liz: You needed them.

Jeannie: And, and, and they, and they were actually pretty good at it.

Liz: And it sounds like, you know, in the book you, you sort of describe the tumor ultimately as a gift because it just gave you a new perspective on so many things, including. The way that you approached motherhood or the way and the way that you're approached, like the day to day moments in life with your kids.

Jeannie: It's like, it was such a blessing and that is the theme of the book: gratitude for my tumor. And I also want to make no illusions that I think that I'm done with that -- that I went through that really hard thing and you know, now it is just smooth sailing from here. I mean, it's like, I had this unawareness. And I'm really at just the bottom of the mountain of life's difficulties. And it's not just like nothing bad is ever going to happen to me again. Now, there's just a kind of heightened alert, a lantern-lit way that I'm approaching life, because when you realize that every single thing in this world that's good is a gift, and it could go away at any moment, you're able to enjoy those moments more purely and more intensely. Because if you just fall asleep, you just get stuck going through the motions and get caught up in the minutia of things that don't really matter.

And by the way, it's a constant battle for myself. I'll get stressed out over the dumbest things. And then at least now, I'm like, wait, I'm getting stressed out over dumb things again. I'm sweating the small stuff again, you know?

Liz: So how have you made specific changes since your recovery in your life?

Jeannie: Yeah, I think that I'm still like a complete psycho-worker. Like I still work really hard and I get involved in projects, but now I feel like the, the discernment, the choices and the changes that I've made are more about what type of things that I'm putting my work into. I mean, I just... I'm not going to, you know, move to a farm and be like, we're not having a schedule anymore.

Liz: Right. This is who you are.

Jeannie: Yeah, it is. I mean, I kind of wish that I was like, "I'm just going to move to a different place and have no schedule and no agenda, like have life slowed down," because I'm really aware that this goes so fast, right? Like when I got sick, when I went into the hospital, my oldest daughter was about to turn 13. But there was something about going into the hospital and then as I recovered -- you know, I worked really hard at my recovery and I had to let go of all my duties that I was doing previously. And it was like I was forced -- I was forced to let go because I couldn't do anything. I was in the bed, I couldn't move. You know? So after I had this forced season in my life of letting go and then was able to walk around again and look at things again with fresh eyes, I realized that my daughter was a woman and that I didn't have much time before she was in college and I wanted to enjoy the time I still had with her.

Liz: You really noticed her.

Jeannie: Yeah. I was like, this is like, I mean, she's going to college too. Like I don't have that much time. I just started to look around and be like -- because you know when you're in the baby land and the everything seems to take forever.

Liz: And it feels like it's going to be for the rest of your life.

Jeannie: Yeah,

Liz: but it's not.

Jeannie: It's kind of like, I mean, you kind of get the sense of it when you're putting away the six month clothes and you're like, wait a minute, they were just a baby. Then, it seems so fast. But then there's these other chunks that are like, when are we going to get over this?Like, the waking up in the middle of the night phase. Like, when are we finally going to get to this next phase? It seems a little long. But then in retrospect, you have this enlightened feeling. You look at it like and think, oh wait, it does go really fast. Especially when they're like, you know, 12, 13, 14, 15. It's unbelievably fast.

It's like what happened? And you have all these other little kids because that's going to happen to you. You're going to be where I am. So, what changed was as I started focusing on how I could distro my time better between the youngest and the oldest -- and not be so like, "all right, now it's your turn because you're the youngest."

There's an obligation to do that because you know, babies can't take care of themselves. You don't have to change your, you know, teenagers diapers. But, it was like, um, what else, what can I do for these older kids?

Liz: I, you know, even for women who aren't executive producers of a TV show, I know, like so many mothers are juggling so many responsibilities and therefore put their health, you know, at the bottom of the to do list day in and day out. So what do you want those women to know?

Jeannie: I want them to know that if [00:24:00] they don't go to the doctor and if they don't listen to that voice in their head, that they're doing a disservice to every single thing that they're living for.

And you know what the worst thing that can happen is that you're going to go to the doctor and say, I have this weird pain in my side, and the doctor's going to be like, yeah, that's nothing. That's your imagination. Like that's what we're all afraid of. Right? So it's like, I think that we all suffer in silence and you know, there were so many women, after they read my book, they came up to me and said, I walked around with this awful tooth things for like six months.

And then when I finally had to go to the doctor, it was the emergency room and I almost lost my tooth and my jaw was infected. It's like, there were so many stories like that. Because it's like we just in our head go, "Oh, it's just probably nothing." And then if I, I take time away from what I have to do to go to the doctor, and there's nothing, they're going to be like, what a waste of time.

Like, what are you waiting for? So, because I have this built in schedule now where I have to go to the doctor. Like I have a pulmonologist, I have a ENT, I have a otolaryncologist, I have a brain surgeon. I had to get MRIs all the time. I have to take care of myself now and I still don't take care of myself!

You know what I mean? I still am like, "oh well I'm going to drink three cups of coffee because I can't move this morning or whatever." So this is my advice. I wanted to say to women who had babies and now are neglecting themselves. Okay. Remember when you're pregnant? Okay. How if something went wrong or you felt weird or you were faced with whether or not you should like, you know, drink alcohol or smoke crack or whatever your thing is, you'd not do that? If something is weird with the way my baby feels, I'm running right to the doctor -- you know, it's like, why can't we feel that way about ourselves?

Liz: But I think there's two really interesting themes here in our conversation. And I know you need to go in a sec, but there's two real interesting themes. Number one, how much beauty and purpose you found in sacrificing for your children and number two, knowing when you are sacrificing yourself to a degree that you can't be good for anyone anymore, right?

And that both things can be true, in, in your life. Getting well and taking care of yourself in order to just be there for the children that you love so much.

Jeannie: Yeah. Even if you can't fathom taking care of yourself, think of it as taking care of your child and that will help you -- that you're doing it for someone else. If you can't love yourself in that way yet, you'll realize it once you put it in the light of,I love this kid. What good am I going to be if I'm not there for them at their high school graduation?

Liz: Thank you. I am booked… I have to go to the dermatologist and get a full body checkup. It is on my list and it was increasingly on my mind because of this conversation. Jeannie, so thank you so much for being so open and sharing your story for writing When Life Gives You Pears and for spending time with us on the Motherly podcast.

Jeannie: Thank you so much for having me.

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