March 17, 2015
After Birth by Elisa Albert
No, listen, she says, the problem is no one cares about babies. I mean, they care about babies like “oh look at the cute baby” or “oh, ha ha, funny looking baby with an old man voice-over,” but no one actually cares about babies. I mean the details, it’s boring.
So let’s imagine that the ideas this book is concerned with do not matter. Let’s discuss it as a piece of literature, divorced from its subject(s). Elisa Albert’s third novel, After Birth, is an angry, passionate, gnarly and perfect mess of a novel that echoes Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper in style and tone (and exclamation marks!), and also Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and more recently Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs for the force of its rage. Its narrator, Ari, at one point references her favourite Grace Paley story (“Wants”). Which is to say that this is a novel constructed on a strong literary tradition. Its short clipped sentences are notes and dispatches from a place of confusion, attempts to reconcile life itself with one’s expectations of it, and other realities including people’s Facebook profiles and feminist theory. The notes and dispatches do not comprise a plot so much as a circling round of a fact, a record of a winter of inertia. So what moves the book forward then? Well, voice, first—Ari’s is distinct, disturbing, unnerving, frustrating, funny and smart. Second is her vision of the world, which is peculiar and her remarkable articulation of it. And third is curiosity—something’s gotta give. Will she be broken? Will her rage be quashed? And are these two questions actually one and the same? Albert’s first-person address is so solid, so realized, that it gives the impression of having been carved out of something larger, chiseled, rather than built up from the ground. Nothing is incidental or extraneous in her prose. The book and its narrator are exhausting to encounter, frustrating, untameable, and brilliant.
No, listen, though, the problem is with books, with novels about motherhood. Or even worse, those novels that purport to finally pull back the veil and “tell the truth about motherhood.” The problem, in addition to the fact that nobody cares about babies, is that a book about motherhood is rarely read (if it is read at all) as a book about a mother. Instead, it’s a manifesto. Read as a statement on an institution instead of a literary work about a fictional character. A story. We have a hard time grasping that there can be more than one story about motherhood, or if there is more than one, there’s just two then, always diametrically opposed. Two gals facing down on the cover of a magazine. One is always carrying a briefcase. When in reality, there are so many stories, and each of those stories comprise so many stories in themselves, the same way that a single day can hold more than one kind of weather.
“The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town,” is the first line of After Birth, which isn’t nuanced, but it kind of is. And readers and reviewers rarely know what to do with that.
No listen, the problem is that there are the early days of motherhood, and then there is what happens a while after that, when you’ve finally got it figured out, and you feel obligated to go out and deliver everybody else from the darkness. This was the point at which I sent my cousin a completely revised version of her baby registry, when I would start to hyperventilate at the idea of a friend choosing not to co-sleep, when I wanted to chase desperate looking women down who were pushing strollers down the street and put my arms around them, promise them everything was going to be okay. Which was surely the last thing these sorry people needed. And some of them weren’t even sorry. It took me a long time to understand that.
“In the cafe where I never work on my dissertation is the woman I’ve seen at the co-op with her brand-new baby. We smile./ Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”
No, listen, the problem is women. How we look at other women as mirrors, desperate for affirmation. But it’s always slightly unnerving to look in a mirror, and the reflection is inevitably backwards. Albert’s novel references a 1990s third-wave feminist utopia, Ani DiFranco. Dar Williams singing, “I will not be afraid of women.” But even when we’re not afraid, women are not always good to each other. Like people in general, women are like that. Perhaps more so because of the way in which we’re set up for failure in our engagement, taught to see others as opponents. Ari’s stepmother is an evil feminine archetype, her cousin becomes Bridezilla, and she herself occupied a nasty role as “the other woman” before she married her husband (though she’s not self-aware enough to interrogate this idea. Or is too much so.) She documents her history with female roommates at university, at a private girls high school, at Jewish summer camp, with not one but two moms’ groups. Women are ever disappointing.
Women are ever disappointing for a variety of reasons, both women in the book and women in the world, but part of the problem is that we’re forever looking for that mirror, for affirmation.
“Do you ever feel like you’re completely losing your mind?/ Her smile fades./ It’s okay if you do. It’s perfectly normal.”
“I’m v happy to see women engaging and disagreeing. Most necessary. Interrogation is essential,” wrote my friend Anakana Schofield in a tweet last week, in response to Jessa Crispin on Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams and being tired of female pain (and I’d noted that Jamison was tired of people who were tired of it.)
I think that this is a very good point. We need to know how to look at other women without looking for our own reflection. We need to learn to disagree and not end up shattering glass.
“Two hundred years ago—hell, one hundred years ago—you’d have a child surrounded by other women: your mother, her mother, sisters, cousins, sisters-in-law, mother-in-law. And you’d be a teenager too, too young to have had any kind of life yourself. You’d share childcare with a raft of women. They’d help you, keep you company, show you how.”
No, listen, the problem is we have no rafts of women. With After Birth, as with so many other books about mothers, the problem is not motherhood itself, but instead a motherhood that puts a woman apart from the world, both in practical terms (Ari is removed from familiar surroundings in a new town, isolated while her husband is oblivious and busy with his work) and theoretical ones (remember? No one cares about babies. Ari’s concerns are nobody else’s, her’s alone). Her own mother is dead (and Ari’s memories of her are rife with anger at her mother’s anger—interestingly, it doesn’t seem to occur to her to wonder what her mother was so angry about) and she has no sister. She’s estranged from her Aunt, and her from her heritage (it seems) but marrying a man who isn’t Jewish.
“Here’s the problem: we are taught nothing. / How to sew, grow food, preserve food, build things, fix things, make fires, birth babies, care for babies, feed babies, move through time, grow old, die, grieve, change, sit still, be quiet.”
Here’s another problem though: was there ever really a raft of women?
Two hundred years ago, I thought as I read this, you probably would have died.
Moreover, while Ari craves the idea of this raft of women, she has spent much of her own life setting herself adrift from any semblance of one. She doesn’t wish to be anything like her own mother, or be the same kind of mother. She sees her baby as the chance for a fresh start. She wants a natural birth, to breastfeed, to eschew all things toxic and synthetic—her mothering to be nothing like the way her own generation was mothered. She wants a link that’s wholly illusory.
After Birth is a fascinating companion to Eula Biss’s On Immunity. I couldn’t help but wonder what Ari would have done had she met a woman like Biss in one of her moms’ groups, a woman who in her book thanks the mothers with whom she’d shared the conversations and preoccupations of early motherhood: “These mothers helped me understand how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are… I am writing to and from the women who complicated the matter of immunization for me…In a culture that relishes pitting women against each other in ‘mommy wars,’ I feel compelled to leave some traces on the page of another kind of argument. This is a productive, necessary argument—an argument that does not reduce us, as the diminutive mommy implies, and does not resemble war.”
Albert too demonstrates how expansive the questions raised by mothering really are. This isn’t really a book “about” motherhood at all, but instead, motherhood is its starting point.
Like many of the women in Biss’s book, Ari feels, and indeed has been, failed by the medical establishment. Her unhappiness in motherhood she puts down to the trauma of her c-section. When her friend acknowledges the experience as a kind of rape, Ari feels gratified for just a moment. And perhaps this is the link to her maternal lineage, Ari’s own particular raft of women: her own mother died from cancer caused by drugs her grandmother had taken in pregnancy to avert miscarriage. Those same drugs had left her mother with mutilated reproductive organs so that Ari herself was only conceived and born by remarkable chance. The rape too—her grandmother was raped by Nazi soldiers during the Holocaust. Survived only, Ari tells us, by having sex with them.
Naturally, the idea of witches appeals to her, of women back in history who banded together, who possessed the wisdom of how to deliver babies and cure illness (and even vaccinate, as Biss tells us). She rescues a new friend, Mina, from the throes of early motherhood by nursing her baby, an age-old practice. The two of them set up a raft of their own, and for a time, this is everything.
(I was once so angry at having had a c-section that I was given a pamphlet for a support group that helps women heal from and grieve their c-section experiences. “What kind of bullshit is this?” I was exclaiming and my terrible husband with an evil glint in his eye said, “I think you should go.” I protested and he shrugged calmly: “You’ve been grieving your c-section for four years,” he said. My fist shook at the ceiling. “I am allowed,” I told him, “to grieve my c-section and find c-section support groups totally stupid.” You can see how Ari was someone for whom I had great empathy.)
No, listen, the problem is that no one ever talks about this stuff. Or maybe that when they do talk, nobody listens. See point one: Nobody cares about babies.
“Adrienne Rich had it right. No one gives a crap about motherhood unless they can profit off it. Women are expendable and the work of childbearing, done fully, done consciously, is all-consuming. So who’s going to write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it?”
(Or perhaps it’s that even those who are listening have no context. [“Could it be true that one has to experience in order to understand? I have always denied this idea, and yet of motherhood, for me at least, it seems to be the case.”—Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work].)
Here is something I love about After Birth: Albert doesn’t think that a novel about new motherhood need read like the catalogue for a hipster baby boutique. The stuff is not the stuff, she knows. Stuff is lazy shorthand. It’s a way of getting away from the point.
There is so much I love about how Albert captures the crisis of new motherhood in After Birth. (Her non-fiction piece on this in the Guardian is one of the best things I have ever read about this topic.)
“The baby books said nothing about this. Days became nights became days because nights.” And, “So the dissertation thing is pretty much a lie. But you need an identity, some interest and occupation outside having a kid, you just do. Otherwise the kid will be your sole interest and occupation, and we all know how that works out for everyone.”
And, “I did not understand how there could be no break. No rest. There was just no end to it. It went on and on and on.”
And, “When I see pregnant women, I want to take them by their shoulders and shake. I mean shake. Are you ready?”
And, “I nurse while she pumps to encourage supply. She says something about it being difficult to get out when the weather’s so shitty and I say something like yeah, winter’s a shitty time to have a baby and she says something like it’s always kind of a shitty time to have a baby though isn’t it?”
The problem, sweetheart, is you.
This is a line delivered by the ghost of Ari’s bitch mother near the end of novel when Ari finally confesses, “Fine, I do hate women… They’re so obedient, traitorous. Descendants of the ones who gave up other women as witches.”
Her mother’s line is important because it’s kind of true, in particular as suggested by the novel’s final sentence. The problem is Ari, because she is a specific literary character and not a statement on womankind or motherhood (and many a commenter on Goodreads seems to have difficulty understanding this distinction). She’s a fascinating, messed-up, smart and self-destructive literary character. She doesn’t affirm anything. You will think she is wrong about a lot of things. But this doesn’t mean she’s not worth reading. In some ways, it makes her so much more worth reading than any literary character whose story can be tied up in a perfect bow.
The line is also important as a statement on motherhood though, an idea I’m still teasing out. That while indeed the problem is that women are all too isolated in early motherhood (and they are), it’s not just that other women don’t save us, but that they can’t. That every woman has to discover her own way through. Naomi Stadlen writes about this in a book called What Mothers Do that I found troubling for its simplistic notions and failure to understand maternal ambivalence, but the following passage in one of the smartest I’ve ever encountered on the subject:
“If she feels disoriented, this is not a problem requiring bookshelves of literature to put right. No, it is exactly the right state of mind for the teach-yourself process that lies ahead of her. Every time a woman has a baby she has something to learn, partly from her culture but also from her baby. If she really considered herself an expert, or if her ideas were set, she would find it very hard to adapt to her individual baby. Even after her first baby, she cannot sit back as an expert on all babies. Each child will be a little different and teach her something new. She needs to feel uncertain in order to be flexible. So, although it can feel so alarming, the ‘all-at-sea’ feeling is appropriate. Uncertainty is a good starting point for a mother. Through uncertainty, she can begin to learn.”
And she does learn—this is the thing. Perhaps even Ari will. And not long after the end of the first year (which for me was when storm had ceased, I could see the shapes of things, but trauma was still so recent, and I wrote this) those early days begin to fade. Motherhood itself becomes less all-consuming (literally and figuratively), one’s rage at having a c-section or not becomes less potent, the baby becomes a human, breastfeeding is no longer such a preoccupation, sharing parental duties becomes easier, you sleep more, and it’s all less boring and shattering.
Which is to say that Elisa Albert has documented a very particular moment in motherhood in After Birth, instead of motherhood in general. And that this insistence upon specificity—in spite of her narrator’s generalized wailing in collective pronouns (which is what trips less-careful readers up, I think), in spite of the moments in which our identification with her is visceral—is the novel’s greatest strength. Specificity is what turns a political statement (and oh, this is one) into literature.