Story by Richard Price
February 4, 1990
She’s been good at all of it.
‘Hilarious comic, versatile actress, great singer. She put a song on top of the charts just last summer; she’s always a hit on stage. She’s been up for an Oscar, and she’s on a string of five straight box-office winners for Disney. Bette Midler doesn’t do things halfway. When the Divine Miss M sets a goal, she flies into it.
That’s why she wound up in the parking lot bawling her eyes out. She sat in the car outside her daughter’s school, and the sobs tore through all 5-reet-l-inch of her. Tears flooded her cheeks. She wailed, she shook, she questioned her entire reason for living. Her heart had been broken, snapped by a 3-year-old girl who has been teaching Mom all the tough lessons of parenthood. That day’s class:
Don’t Try So Hard, Mom.
The occasion was Sophie’s 3rd birthday, which has turned out to be an important day in Midler’s life as a mom, and not so distant from the theme of her newest role as an actress. In Stella, a movie that debuts this weekend, she plays a woman who would do whatever it takes to give her child a better life, even give her up. Midler’s that way. For Sophie, she’d do anything, sometimes too much.
*Tm crazy about her,” she sighs. “Fm telling you, we (she and her husband, actor Harry Kipper) come down for breakfast every morning, and we just look at her, the two of us, like where did she come from? What is she doing here? We’re absolutely mad, mad, mad about
her, to the point that we almost don’t see each other, we’re looking at her so hard.
We’re so lucky, because she is enchanting. She smiles all the time.”
Well, not all the time. On the morning of her 3rd birthday, Nov. 16,1989, Sophie woke up, made a face, burst into tears and threw away the crown Midler had made her. At breakfast, when she found her boosterseat wrapped in foil (it was to be a throne) she ripped it off and threw it on the floor. She announced she didn’t want to be 3. She hated the cupcakes Midler had baked for the kids at school. She didn’t like the drinks. She didn’t like anything. She was miserable.
Midler crumbled. She had worked feverishly to pull off the ultimate birthday, and it had bombed. “Oh, I was so hurt, oh, it was so horrible, horrible, horrible,” she says, laughing at herself now. “Oh, I can’t tell you how horrible.”
Midler made the standard painful error. She had tried to be a Perfect Mom. For about two weeks, nothing else mattered, not even multimillion-dollar movie deals.
While meeting with the heads of Walt Disney Studios, all she could think about was the birthday. “They’re talking to me about this script and that script, and I’m thinking, ‘Well, I could have a musician come, and I could have someone play the piano.’ And so they’re talking to me, and I’m going yes, yes, yes, but my mind is going a mile a minute, and I’m thinking, I’ll make the invitations myself? ”
So she cut and pasted and painted invitations, then she agonized over whom to invite from Sophie’s school. “First I was going to have the whole class and my husband said, “You can’t have the whole class, because they won’t pay attention to her.’ And then someone called me up and said, ‘Oh, when she’s 1, she’s supposed to have one friend, and when she’s 2 she’s supposed to have two friends.’ And IÂ thought, God, that’s a brilliant idea, but I can’t give her just three friends, so I’ll give her 10 friends.”
Then she had to make ruffles and pompons for the clowns, because she had picked clowns for the party theme, so she went to the knitting store and realized that she didn’t know what to do there.
“I’ve never been in a knitting store, I’ve never bought yarn, I have no idea what’s going on. It’s the most, expensive yarn store in the world. It’s like $9 for two yards… all I know is I’ve got to get out and make those pompons.” Midler grew up poor and still thinks about price, but she finally bought just a little bit of what she needed â€” and was up half the night working on pompons.
The week before the birthday, Midler and Sophie went to a party for Candice Bergen‘s 4-year-old daughter, Chloe, at Kiddieland, a child entertainment center complete with children’s rides and video games. “She was smart,” says Midler, sick of pompons by then. “I’m saying this is what I should have done, then I see there’s a K mart across the road and I say I’ve got to get out, I’ve got to leave thisÂ party and get to the K mart Maybe they have yarn. So I go to Kmart, and I’m in heaven. Everything is 90 cents, like two miles of yarn for 90 cents. I’m saying, this place is fantastic!”
But when she returned to the Bergen party, there had been a setback. Sophie didn’t like the Kiddieland clowns. In fact, she’d decided she hates clowns altogether.
“But Sophie’s party is going to be a clown party,” Midler said despairingly. When she rushed home, she called the woman who was going to play the clown. “I say, Grace, mere’s a crisis. Do you do anything besides downs? She starts telling me what she does. Oh, she does Mary
Poppins, she does this and she does that. And then she says, ‘I do Dorothy.'” Magic words. Sophie loves everything about The Wizard of Oz. “We’ve been in Oz Land for over a year,” says Midler, who has dressed up and played every part a hundred times for her daughter. So
when Gracie mentioned Dorothy, Midler yelled, “You do Dorothy? You do Dorothy? I’m saved! I’m saved!”
Intense? Credit part of it to the natural comic in her, but it’s clear that Midler really does sweat the details of bringing up daughter. Everything has to be right.
Food, for example. Midler has hooked Sophie on the healthies. Fish, tofu, vegetables. Sophie even likes broccoli; she calls it “the tree.” Her only steady vice is chocolate. “My husband is German, so he’s got German chocolate on the brain,” Midler says with disgust.
And clothes. She and Sophie already are fighting about those. Sophie wants to wear skirts and to twirl and tap dance â€” in fact, she wore tap shoes to bed all last summer â€” and Midler wants something down to earth: “I want her to wear pants and get grubby and to run around.”
When Sophie hits elementary-school age, Midler’s sending her someplace that requires uniforms. “I’ve had enough of these trendy dothes. These are years when they should be absorbing as much as they possibly can and not thinking about stupid things like, “What do I lookÂ like?’ and ‘I want that jacket because Bobby has that jacket.'”
No television, either. Midler thinks the programming is too violent and the commercials too sexual. She’ll let Sophie watch a classic on the VCR now and then, but that’s it.
“We just do stuff together. We do a lot of construction paper, a lot of drawing, a lot of chatting, a lot of dancing around and making up stories and games and stuff. I really enjoy that because when Tm with her, I’m really with her.
‘Tve got to say we’re on the pompous side. At first, I thought, ‘Well, gee, everyone’s going to think I’m a jerk.’ And then I thought I don’t care what they think. I want her to have a foundation in things the world considers good and artful I want her to have a certain innocence. I don’t want her to be jaded at 8, so I keep a lot of things away from her.”
That includes material things. She rarely allows Sophie gifts that fans send, and she’s cautious about her own giving for fear she’ll spoil Sophie. She wrestles over whether to guide her daughter into show business. Sophie’s already come up with her own whirling dance routine that Mom and Dad call “The Sophie.”
“My daughter sits in the makeup chair and yells mahkey-mahkey-mahkey (her word for makeup). She wants powder and paint, and she thinks that’s a fun life, and what can I do? She doesn’t see what I have to go through screaming at people on the telephone and all that stuff.”
What Midler really wants is to raise a capable daughter who could survive rich or poor, so she’s constantly teaching. “I want her to beÂ able to solve problems. I want her to know how to use a hammer and nail, how to sew and to cook. I don’t want her to slough off numbers like I did. I want her to understand math and physics and all that stuff, because I think that’s part of understanding the universe.”
She tells Sophie stories, endless stories, all the great fables of history, drawing heavily from Greek and Indian mythology, and embellishing them with her own “half-baked theories of the world. And we’re always counting, ‘Oh, my goodness, I dropped FOUR peas,” you know.
And ABCs: “Happy, happy we shall be when we know our ABCs.’ ”
She worries, as most moms worry.
She’s nervous because Sophie doesn’t like reading. She frets when Sophie fights with friends. She wonders what will happen when Sophie reaches grade school and can’t come along on Midler’s trips. And she’s still sorting out how to handle religion. Midler’s Jewish, and she plans to teach those traditions, but her husband was raised by two atheists, and he wants Sophie exposed to a variety of thinking.
Lately she’s been struggling with rebellion.
Sophie has learned to say no, and she says it every night at 9:30, her bedtime. So Midler is learning the discipline business. But she’s doing OK. She knows the kind of relationship she wants with Sophie. “I don’t want to be my daughter’s buddy, I want to be her mom …
someone she can look up to.”
Sophie has completely changed Midler’s life, and most parents will recognize the symptoms. Midler has no time to think. “When I work, I have to be quiet, to stare off into space and try to get some ideas. When I Like Bananas Because They’ve Got No Bones is playing in your ear, it’s real hard to sit and think about how you’re going to make this project that’s going to elevate the human race.”
It’s affected her outside relationships â€” “I don’t have any,” she moans â€” and she’s tired all the time. She partly blames “Attila,” her workout trainer, but mostly it’s the old story of balancing job and family. She and Harry devote two hours each morning to Sophie and she spends the rest of the day dashing back and forth between meetings to be with her. She does the cleanup after dinner (Dad cooks), and parents swap bathtime duties, not a house favorite, “The baaaatthhh,” Midler calls it, rolling her eyes and collapsing on the floor in mock agony.
“Every day is full. I get into bed and I read for five minutes, and my eyes get so heavy I just pass out.”
Will there be more kids? Probably not. She and Harry are trying, but Midler thinks their chances are slim because of her age: She’s 44 and has gone through one miscarriage. She’s considered adoption, but Harry is cool to the idea.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s umbilical cord is preserved and floating around somewhere in a virtual library of motherhood memorabilia.
When it was time to cut a lock of hair, Midler cut two. There are hundreds of baby record books, piles of pictures. It’s no wonder Midler has no friends left, she says: Tm too busy putting pictures in albums.”
Then there are all those strangers in her house â€” an endless parade of nannies who leave as soon as they’ve become a part of theÂ family. ‘There is chaos, just chaos.”
Her husband keeps telling her to relax.
“He gets on my case a lot. He is so convinced he is it in the father department. Once in three years he’s said he did the wrong thing.Â The rest of the time I do the wrong thing.
He thinks I overreact, I spoil her, I’m always trying to push food down her throat”
But she admits he was right about one thing. She overextended herself on me birthday.
Obsessed is the word she uses. All she could think was, “I gotta, I gotta, I gotta.”
She was in a frenzy right up until 2 a.m. on the last night, baking those cupcakes, hanging those decorations, putting on those last touches.
Next morning came the disaster. And after dropping Sophie off at school with the hated cupcakes and drinks, she trudged off to theÂ parking lot for her big cry.
Still, there’s a happy ending. Two things finally turned it around. One was her husband’s idea: For the party at the house, he filled the dining room with a waist-high sea of wadded-up newspaper so the kids could jump around. They loved it!
The other triumph was Dorothy.
“Thank God,” Midler says. “All of a sudden this disaster turned into a huge success. I have to say this was my fault I went nuts. IÂ just went nuts. I won’t do this again … I learned a lesson. No one cares as much as you do, aad they’re usually happy with a little, so you don’t have to knock yourself out”
Someday Bette Midler may write down these lessons. She’s been invited to write a book on motherhood (somebody told her she could be the Bill Cosby of her generation) but Midler’s holding off. She doesn’t have time, she says, and besides, if she’s learned one thing about parenting, it’s what kids have known all along: Parents don’t understand much.
‘Tm just flying by the seat of my pants. I don’t even know what I’d say. All I have are experiences, but I won’t even have time toÂ think about what happened before we’re on to the next birthday.”