“A baby opens you up, is the problem. No way around it unless you want to pay someone else to have it for you. There’s before and there’s after. To live in your body before is one thing. To live in your body after is another. Some deal by attempting to micromanage; some go crazy; some zone right the hell on out. A blessed few resist any of these, and when you meet her, you’ll know her immediately by the look in her eyes: weary, humbled, wobbly but still standing. Present, if faintly. You don’t meet her often.”
If you saw my copy of Elisa Albert’s fierce & funny After Birth you’d see that it’s sprouted little florescent pink tags out of nearly every page: time after time when I thought, yes, that! that’s how it felt, that’s how it was. Because Albert is great at capturing the stripped-down rawness of new motherhood, the visceral, physical, all-consumingness; the relentlessness and exhaustion and isolation. And with uncompromising honesty, she captures a place and time where many of us have been, though we perhaps seek to distance ourselves from that self, growing a narrative over those early days that glosses and makes safe a transition that has shaken us to the core. A transition that at many points it seemed we might not survive in any recognisable form.
And that’s the stage Albert’s protagonist, Ari, is at. Her son (“He’s an awesome baby, a swell little guy. Still a baby, though, of which even the best are fascist bastard dictator narcisists.”) is turning one & when her husband says they’ve made it through, she thinks, “Who exactly does he imagine as having made it? And to where? All we’ve done is get used to it.” Isolated in upstate New York for her husband’s job, ostensibly working on finishing her thesis on feminist organizations, Ari is angry at pretty much the whole world, herself and her dead mother included.
“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. Still and quiet, endless Interneters, quiet, quiet, quiet.
How to be alone, how to shut up and be with ourselves for five minutes, how to listen, how to be still, how to mark and process passage, how to riualize, bare feet in the earth. Basic knowledge in shocking disuse while we tap away at our devices.”
After Birth circles round the winter months — November, December, January — as Ari tries to find a way back to herself. As much as it’s a book about early motherhood, it’s also a book about female friendship, about mothers and daughters, and about how the past seeps into the future. A book about rage, and the politics of the female body, and the ways in which community can sometimes fail us, and can othertimes be found in the most unlikely of places. It’s a book that I wish someone had tucked into the car seat with my newborn daughter on that sunny May morning almost eight years ago when, shaken to the core, split open like a Russian doll, dazed and elated and exhausted and tender, we brought her home. She wasn’t quite twelve hours old. We knew nothing.
Pair with Albert’s wonderful essay in The Guardian on her own experience of new motherhood.
And, I’ve raved about this before, but if you haven’t read it, do! — Elisa Albert’s essay Where Do I Write? All Over the Damn Place.
And finally, my favourite review of After Birth from Kerry Clare.