“Having a Baby Is Not Unlike Dealing With a Death”

The author of After Birth on the loneliness of new motherhood.

After Birth.
“My initial experience of motherhood was shock.”

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Elisa Albert, author of The Book of Dahlia and How This Night Is Different, has written a wildly insightful and hilarious new novel about motherhood and female friendship. After Birth tells the story of Ari, a young mother who’s dealing with something like postpartum depression, seeing through a newly polished magnifying glass what it means to be a woman in our society. Appropriately, the novel reads at times like a rant—sort of a feminist Portnoy’s Complaint set in a world where women squirt their breast milk into the air and cheer. Traumatized by the cesarean section birth of her 1-year-old son and by the isolation of raising a child in upstate New York without much family or community, Ari meets a kindred spirit—another flailing new mother and former rock star, Mina. The two women pass the days together in a kind of Utopian community of four. I talked to Albert about writing and feminism and what it means to not be “one of the girls.”

So, how did your own experience of motherhood inform the novel?

My initial experience of motherhood was shock. I had educated myself well about childbirth, but once that was over, I didn’t know which way was up. Everything was kind of sideways. You know, having a baby is not unlike dealing with a death. You’re in shock. You’re not necessarily sitting around sobbing and ripping your clothes all day—you’re just in a weird, wound-up, bizarre-o state that’s totally different from your “normal” life. One minute you’re laughing, the next minute you’re crying. It’s fine, and it’s also horrible, and maybe today is all right and tomorrow is absolutely not, and it takes a lot of time to assimilate the new world order.

I see a lot of women trying very hard to tamp that down, not betray any weakness or imbalance, not miss a beat, like God forbid anyone should know that I don’t have my shit absolutely together all the time. Or there’s this glib, Oh, do you have postpartum depression? And it’s like, no, silly, my life and body are unrecognizable and I’m just super extra confused and emotional. Back off with the pills and DSM-5, will you please? 

Even though the book is about motherhood, its central relationship is not between the mother and the child, or even between the mother and her husband. It’s between two young mothers—it’s focused on a friendship.

It’s a precious thing to find a true friend any time in life, but it’s a particularly stark need when you have a new baby. We live in a society where, unless she’s lucky or unique, a woman has a baby on her own. Even if she has a good partner, she doesn’t have the continuous support of a comprehensive community of women. She’s isolated. And that’s a problem. New mothers are extremely vulnerable: You’re sitting on your ass tending to the more or less constant needs of a helpless and likewise vulnerable new being. You’re exhausted. You look like shit. If you don’t have anyone to hang out with, that’s a bad situation.

Ari meets Mina. And that turns out to be all she needs: one friend. That’s how this whole experience can come to seem like a new kind of normal, and be funny and OK and maybe even kind of chill and nice. Sure, there’s a part of you that’s entirely focused on the child—you’re very physically connected in the early months—but when I was a new mother, I felt loneliest and most dissatisfied when I was sitting by myself nursing my baby. Nursing is very time-consuming in the beginning. I loved my baby. That goes without saying. But I would sit there all day thinking, Can someone hang out with me while I do this? My brain still works! I’m fucking bored!   

Yet you’ve written a protagonist who is complicit in her own exile—she rejects mommy groups, and she doesn’t like most women.

Something that comes up a lot is the idea that women should like all other women: We’re all sisters! We’re all subject to misogyny, so we’d better stick together! Together we’ll rise! But that’s not quite right; you have to figure out which women are trustworthy and which women aren’t. For example, someone might share your birth politics, but she might also be kind of mean.

Mommy groups are a lot like high school: Everyone’s flailing. It’s puberty all over again—hormonal highs and lows, changing bodies. Just like you do in adolescence, in a mommy group you find yourself identifying with others because of arbitrary factors—she also gave birth at home, she’s also breast-feeding, her family has the same amount of money my family has, we like the same kind of shoes—and you wind up negotiating relationships that are based on bullshit.

It’s unpopular to admit that one does not adore women as a whole. But realistically, do you automatically embrace every fellow Jew, every fellow brunette, everyone from your hometown?  Women have something major in common: vaginas. And, uh, OK, what else?    

Ari definitely is not “one of the girls.” And in your first novel, The Book of Dahlia, you have an equally insubordinate female protagonist. What’s so compelling to you about the angry, acerbic woman who’s everything a woman isn’t supposed to be?

It’s an underdog thing. I don’t think you can make vital work if you’re invested in the status quo or in being appropriately demure (aka “likable”). I’m drawn to the rebellious type precisely because they’re everything women are not “supposed” to be. We’re all imperfect, needy, messed up, and unattractive on some level. Why fake the placid exterior? Who’s it kidding, anyway? But the stakes are high for women who dare. Historically the punishment can be quite severe.

The idea that women “are not supposed to be” certain things is complex. It’s not just mainstream society that’s sending those messages. For example, Marianne, Ari’s academic mentor, behaves as though, by having a baby, Ari has failed as both an intellectual and a woman. As if motherhood is an affront to feminism.

Ari’s captivated by feminism that’s informed by the body, that inhabits the female body, that’s not in denial of the body. To her, breast-feeding and normal childbirth are feminist acts. She won’t medicate her menstrual cycle or her moods, she won’t farm out the care and feeding of her child, and she’s devastated that she was denied [vaginal] birth. That’s all a huge shift away from the second wave. In our mothers’ generation, Marianne’s generation, not having kids was considered a feminist act. And if you did have kids, you were NOT to engage with them in a mammalian way because that tied you to them, which was unfair, unequal.  

To Marianne, Ari’s feminism doesn’t make sense. Reclaiming the singular power of the female body is too radical or too way-way old fashioned or some weird combination therein. That’s stale thinking on Marianne’s part, and a pretty major failure of imagination. Problem is, a feminism that “liberates” women from biology turns out to not actually behoove anyone. Women still aren’t equal, and if we buy into that old feminism, now we’ve also divorced ourselves from something primal and arguably vital, and signed ourselves up for some pretty extreme new forms of violence in the process—forceps, shaving, enemas, episiotomy, the lithotomy position, induction, surgery.

Unmediated physical connection to childbirth and nursing is wildly magical. You see a lot of backlash to that idea, like, I don’t buy the magical birth/nursing bullshit, and you can’t make me, to which, you know, OK, to each her own, and Godspeed. But Ari wants to get back that essential connection to the body.

Those conflicting perspectives—biology is feminist, even magical versus biology keeps women down— reflect something larger: Society both exalts and alienates mothers.

It’s an old binary: Women are everything, mothers are sacred, versus women’s bodies are dangerous, not to be trusted, and must be controlled by whatever means necessary. At least since industrialization there’s been harm inflicted upon women in birth. The methodologies change with fashion, but the harm remains systemic. Which renders the supposed exaltation of motherhood pretty shallow. Hatred/fear of women’s bodies and pseudoexalting of women’s bodies go hand in hand. One can’t exist without the other. It’s a There, there little woman, don’t mind what’s being done to your body, you’re not authorized to question, but hey, what colors have you chosen for the nursery? dynamic. Focus on the surface stuff, ladies. Don’t trouble the waters.