Whenever something is offered up as “the truth” about motherhood, I am wary. The truth is a cliché. It‘s a checklist of quite-bad-but-not-all-that-bad issues that mothers will run through in order to demonstrate that they are “real” women and not yummy mummies, earth mothers, members of the Breastapo or any other faction we’re hoping to dodge. Sleepless nights, mess, tantrums, low-level resentments tempered by kisses and hugs: it all feels terribly scripted and besides, women have been having babies since the dawn of humanity. What more is there to say?
Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth is one place to start. It tells the story of Ari, a woman still struggling to make sense of her changed emotions, body and relationships one year after the birth of her son. Challenging, humorous and – tentatively – uplifting, it goes far beyond the usual explorations of what it is to be a mother (or at least someone who watches herself “doing” motherhood). Moving from frustration and isolation to connection and challenge, with delightful bitterness along the way, it is what motherhood – or even womanhood – feels like when no one is watching: more angry, more physical, and hungrier for companionship than any of us would like to admit.
One of the ways in which Ari feels isolated not just from other women, but from herself as a mother, is through the trauma caused by a caesarean that she did not want (and, it is strongly suggested, probably did not need):
They cut me in half, pulled the baby from my numb, gaping, cauterized center. Merciless hospital lights, curtain in front of my face. Effective disembodiment. Smell of burning flesh. Sewn back up by a team of people I didn’t know, none of whom bothered to look me in the eye, not even one of them, not even once. Severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed, the tiny bird’s heartfelt shrieks as they carted him off somewhere hell itself.”
As the novel progresses Ari counters this lingering sense of alienation by becoming increasingly – perhaps excessively – absorbed in the physicality of motherhood, raging at second-wave feminists such as Firestone for seeking a disengagement with the maternal body (“Defeat the female body and be liberated from it. I’d like to send around a paper on this with a long, involved academic title. The entirety of the piece would just read: Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”). It’s a fascinating subject, dealt with in an extreme but often humorous way. For so many women, the liberation promised by reproductive technology has not been experienced as liberation at all, yet it remains difficult to discuss such things without sounding either deeply conservative or hopelessly naïve (“Please not all that earth mother goddess shit, Ari”).
I ask Albert for her own view on the difficulties of expressing this need for engagement with the maternal body. As a feminist, how can one express what might sound awfully like (but is not) a celebration of female pain?
People have to come to it on their own. It took me a long time to understand that it’s better a lot of times to just keep my mouth shut, which is so counterintuitive and so hard for me because for so long I would be at a dinner party and somebody would be talking about birth and I’d just want to burn the house down. Writing this book and working as a doula has helped me understand that you just can’t lead anybody anywhere with this issue, you just have to be an example of what you think is right and good and hope that that influences whoever is open.”
Albert decided to train as a doula after completing After Birth (“I thought, I’ll write this book then I can exorcise myself of this obsession […] and I finished the book and I was disappointed to find that I was still fairly obsessed”). While her main income remains from writing, she describes her more intermittent work with pregnant and labouring women as “a calling”:
I never thought of myself as a particularly religious person, maybe spiritual but unformed in those ways, and I feel like I found a religion in birth […] So far as I can believe in anything or feel like I know something in the pit of my stomach, it really comes down to women’s bodies and that we are not in charge and we are not the boss no matter how much we pretend we are, no matter how blustery we get, no matter what we can accomplish with our brains and our tools and our inventions, that there is something bigger than all that and renders that a little bit ridiculous.”
Knowing, understanding and speaking about birth and its aftermath are clearly as important as the political narrative that surrounds it. Rather than offer up misery memoir cliché as “the truth”, in After Birth Albert has found a narrator who is willing to engage with the blood and guts. There is little time wasted talking around “that which we don’t talk about”. In conversation with a male friend, Ari expresses anger at other women for not initiating her into her new, post-birth life:
“Because they didn’t prepare me. Because they didn’t help me. Because they let me do this alone. Because they avoided knowing, mostly, themselves. How could they let me fall down this rabbit hole? They knew what was going to happen. Every woman who’s ever lived is supposed to know.”
While not expressing the same rage, Albert herself describes her shock at reading the notebooks of Susan Sontag – “this voracious intellect who wants to know everything about everything in the world” – and discovering that Sontag chose to give birth to her under twilight sleep, stating only “I wanted not to know”. Albert argues that in her doula work, it is the women who shy away from knowing what is happening to them or why who are most prone to feeling angry and defensive. When one creates such a void, one is left having to defend it at all costs.
One of the most powerful and disconcerting elements in Albert’s novel is its almost exclusive focus on relationships between women. Ari desperately needs female companionship and support, but struggles to maintain the intensity of the various friendships she forms (at one point claiming that “women are competitive ragey cuntrags with each other”). Her relationship with one woman in particular offers her the chance to heal – a little – yet Albert resists the temptation to idealise. Ari is dealing not just with her own demons, but with the increasing fragmentation and factionalisation of mothering communities around her. It’s a dilemma that rings very true, even for those of us less in touch with our inner misogynist. I ask Albert if she sees a way around this. How do we form and sustain these essential relationships amidst so much mistrust?
“I think we almost have to insist on finding connections,” she says, adding that it still requires a great deal of determination. “You just have to be patient and try to hold on tight until you find a few simpatico women you can be with in the experience. But I do share with Ari a great deal of frustration. […] I can remember feeling, like, come on, ladies, let’s cut to the chase, let’s stop bullshitting, let’s stop eyeing each other competitively and eliding each other based on what kind of stroller we’re buying, let’s get down to what really matters […]. And that kind of rage at the women who don’t seem to want to do that or who just refuse to do that, that’s very real and very deeply felt, the women who buy into the idea of a Mommy War.”
The “Mommy War” trope is particularly frustrating for mothers seeking to overcome the practical and psychological barriers keeping them apart. In Backlash Susan Faludi was keen to highlight its fundamental destructiveness, working as a means to divide and conquer, yet 25 years later it is still with us. Albert sees it as something women may never overcome – “it’s just a dynamic that is somehow innate […] we’re being pushed into a corner, okay, we’re going to push each other into further corners within that corner” – yet something that comes through very strongly in After Birth is that there is hope. Ari’s relationship with Mina does not transform her, but by the end of the novel there are hints that she is learning to forgive and accept other women. As Albert says, “there’s not a black and white resolution but you see a ten degree change. Where the window was closed and locked at the beginning now it’s wedged open just a crack so that the end of the book is almost like the beginning of another story.”
The US reception to After Birth has been extremely positive. The has been a small degree of controversy regarding the position taken on Ari takes caesareans, with her calling any obstetrician who performs over 9 per cent “an official motherfucker”. Yet as Albert points out, there is something wrong when a procedure that may be necessary to one in ten women is being carried out – with questionably levels of consent – on one in three, as is the case in the US. One other criticism has come from older women, some of whom have accused Albert of being a “complainer”: “like, ‘in my in my day we just had our babies and we didn’t talk about it and we got through it and it’s over and why do you have to complain?’” Albert’s response? “Frankly I don’t believe that. I think if you had been in these women’s kitchens you would have heard quite a lot of complaining.”
But of course, we – modern women, mothers, especially middle-class mothers – don’t spend as much time in one another’s kitchens any more, so how would we know? And this is the nub of it: unless women are able to form open, fearless connections with other women, how can we ever get beyond the official “harsh truths” of motherhood and on to what we really need to talk about? It’s a question that After Birth explores through Ari’s changing friendships and one that Albert expands on when discussing the isolation mothers that experience:
We can all theorise about why that is and what makes that possible […] but what’s more interesting to me is where do we go from here and what does it look like if we refuse that, we refuse to be isolated from each other and competitive with each other and insecure about our own choices based on other people’s choices. What if we opt out and just don’t let anybody tell us how to be? What if we recognise those dynamics on the threshold and reject them outright?”
The questions are complex but sometimes the answers are simple. We have the blood, the guts, the political debate, but we also have the immediate human context of motherhood. And as Albert puts it, “it’s actually a feminist action to approach another young mother with a wide open smile and no hidden agenda, no competitiveness or insecurity, and no bullshit.” Whatever our backgrounds and choices, as mothers, we could all be feminists right now.