The novel After Birth is the story of a woman named Ari as she processes her birth and postpartum experiences. When Ari is 1 year postpartum, her friend, Mina, gives birth and has entirely different struggles. Their conversations are raw and beautiful and they shed light on what motherhood can look like in our modern day.
I’ve taken certain excerpts of this book and compiled them into a sort-of article. I find these excerpts to be cathartic. We mothers experience various things during pregnancy, labor, delivery, and postpartum. Hopefully, most of them are good, uplifted, joyful moments. But unfortunately, many aren’t. I found an outlet reading this book, even though I couldn’t relate to everything in it. That’s my hope for whoever reads this small collection: That it can be an exhale if you’ve had an unwanted C-section that you’re still processing. If you’re mourning the loss of liberties you appreciated pre-motherhood. If you’ve been scared of your own postpartum thoughts that sneak up. If you have the anxieties that come with motherhood. Or even if you’re simply wondering: Why isn’t new motherhood as it once was? What have we lost?
This author certainly doesn’t sugar coat anything. Instead, she simply says what we are all thinking, and what most of us struggle with. She brings light to isolation and missteps (by all of us) in new motherhood. Her prose is almost jarring with all its (warning warning!) swears and impolite verbiage. It’s unlike other narratives on motherhood. If you’re a mother – or just want to understand motherhood better – indulge and enjoy.
Postpartum Article: Excerpts Taken from After Birth by Elisa Albert
*All excerpts are fictional and not of memoir
The baby’s first birthday.
Surgery day, I point out, because I have trouble calling it a birth. Anniversary of a great failure.
Can’t handle a party, none of that circus shit. Baby doesn’t know the difference. We give him his first taste of ice cream after dinner, sing the song, blow out a candle on his behalf, clap, kiss. We forget to take pictures. The joyful chocolate-faced baby, lone candle, flurry of my desperate attempts at good cheer.
Will comes over with a bottle of good scotch.
We made it, babe, Paul says, toasting. Who exactly does he imagine as having made it? And to where? All we’ve done is get used to it.
Clink. I’m surrounded by sweet males. There is that.
I was on happy pills in college, but they messed with my memory and made me fat, so I ditched them. Regularly Paul wonders whether it might be time to check back in with some meds again, maybe “talk to someone.” I bristle. I want to feel things about things. Sad that I don’t have a mother and that the one I had was a total bitch. Mad at my ball-sack OB for gutting me like a fucking fish for no good reason. Surprised and frustrated that even the best man on earth turns out not to cure loneliness. Bored to tears by my own in-depth examination of a subject I once adored. Worn down the by the drudgery and isolation of caring for a tiny child.
He was born on a Tuesday after a long day of labor, but I did not “give” birth to him. He was not “given” birth. The great privilege.
Instead, the knife.
He was “late,” they said. Late, late for a purely invented date. So, he got evicted, and everything went south, and me too complacent to challenge, too stupid to question. Why so stupid? Why so complacent?
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 again 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 to somewhere hell itself.
I could barely move for days, let along entertain rational thoughts about the soft, small bundle of bottomless need they placed in my arms later, when I woke in the wrong kind of pain entirely.
We were sent home after the requisite, terrible bowel movement. In the shocking days that followed I saw the requisite awfulness: the baby harmed, the baby hurt, the baby suffering, the baby hurled to the ground, the baby’s head crushed against the wall, destroyed. Ongoing fever dream. In the grip of a kind of black magic for which I was entirely unprepared. Woke in a sweat from intermittent sleep to find him sleep – oh thank God, thank God – breathing.
He’s breathing okay he’s breathing okay he’s breathing okay. Okay. Okay. Okay. I wander too near the white-hot root of things. Flummoxed. Wedded now to a possibility of loss so extreme I could barely breathe myself.
The baby books said nothing about this. Days became nights became days became nights. The baby books said nothing! I held him tight, held him close. Would not let go. The harm that could come to him! The consequence of just one misstep! Unthinkable. Unbearable. What now? What next?
I’ll take him, babe, Paul would say. Give him to me. Try and get some rest.
My infected incision oozed, tight phony grin of a sadistic monster. The necessary course of antibiotics.
I had died, was dead, only a ghost, not fully gone. Watch him breathe: is he breathing? Hold him close. Move slow, wrap yourself around him. Easy, easy. Don’t hurt him. Careful. Is he alive? The world so hideously perilous and the baby a raw egg, only of its kind.
Paul’s mother in Ohio called every third day.
How are you doing? I don’t want to bother you.
How am I. I don’t really know. I don’t know how people are supposed to do this. I don’t know how to do this.
New babies are a lot of work!
I need help, I told her. I can’t do this. My voice was low. She’s good people. Retired secretary, grew up on a farm, hardcore quilter, loves her some sitcoms.
Don’t be silly. Of course you can.
A woman who’s know her whole life how to grow fruits and vegetables, how to can them in the fall, how to sew a dress from a pattern, how to knit a sweater, how to care for the sick. A master of the womanly arts. She was my best bet. Surely she would hightail it over here immediately, show me how. Demonstrate so I might learn.
This child’s mother needs to come and get him now, I said. Someone needs to come and get him. Everything hurts. I’m so tired.
How’s the weather out there, she wondered. I’d better let you go.
A year later, now – happy birthday, moppet – and still I’m working hard to stand up straight, wearing pajamas all the time, avoiding the scar at all costs, suffering those surprise dunks in the rage tank. And occasionally people I barely know cheerfully wonder: are you going to have another? (15-18)
He wouldn’t sleep. I felt convinced that the surgery had damaged him, ruined his chances for a happy way in the world. He was always hungry. He needed to be held, he needed to nurse. He shat his diaper, he pissed his diaper. He cried, he needed to be held, he needed to nurse. Endless need. I did not understand how there could be no break. No rest. There was just no end to it. And I couldn’t relinquish him to Paul, not for a minute, because he was mine, you see, mine, my baby, my responsibility, mine alone. I had to stand guard over him, make sure he was safe and okay and breathing and loved and fine and very close at hand. There was an agony that bordered on physical when he wasn’t in my arms. Every cell screamed No! Murder! Where is he? Hold him close! Hold him tight! Don’t let him go!
Way more physically exhausting than I could have imagined. Just the sheer physicality of it, especially agonizing after surgery. Was the baby difficult because the mother was having a difficult time, or was the mother having a difficult time because the baby was difficult?
He refused sleep. Sleep, why wouldn’t he sleep? When might he sleep? We needed to sleep. All of us, sleepless. Lie down now and sleep. Nothing made sense. Sleep. Sleep, Sleeeeep. (49-50)
Finally, at my wits’ end, desperate one cold early evening, I knocked on Crispin and Jerry’s door with newborn in the sling. Paul was at office hours, late. Paul was always somewhere, doing something. Paul was still a part of the world. Paul was still in possession of his body, mind, spirit. It felt like he was avoiding me. I had begun to hate him a little because I wished badly to avoid myself, too.
They’d always been friendly, Crispin and Jerry. A pie when we moved in; a polenta casserole when we got home from the hospital. I thought I’d say thank you in person for the casserole, which was so very delicious.
When Jer opened their door, he was laughing at something Crisp was saying. Their house was bright and warm and smelled, I am not joking, of fresh bread. Rickie Lee Jones was doing a particularly jazzy number on the stereo.
His face fell the second he saw me.
Are you okay?
Thank you for the polenta. I forgot your dish, I’m sorry. I washed it.
That’s okay. You’re welcome. Want to come in?
I don’t know. I’m kind of losing my mind? A foreign keening in my voice. Walker asleep on me, bundled in my coat.
Come in, sweetie.
I’m sorry. I just need. I don’t know. Can I just hang out here for a little while? I don’t mean to bother you guys. If you’re busy. Because our house is … I’m just kind of losing my mind? You know what I mean? Are you guys, like, super busy?
Rickie Lee was bebopping, and Crisp shook his hips to show me how busy they were.
Yes, honey, we are absolutely swamped.
They fed me. They murmured and giggled over the baby. They threw this impromptu intimate little party, then sent me on my way a few hours later feeling almost human, almost whole. (52-53)
Hey, uh… sorry to bother you? I’m a friend of Mina Morris’s. We’re at uh… Crisp and Jerry’s? The water cut out this morning. The hot water. There’s no hot water. And the heat might be on the fritz. We can hear this banging? Can you call us? Thanks a lot.
Male voice. I listen to it three more times. It’s pretty amazing that these houses are still standing at all, when you think about it.
Will’s happy to see me, I could swear he is. It smells of Nag Champa in there. He gets his coat. We walk. Sunny, freezing.
She’s having a baby. Any minute. Like, she might be having it right now.
Cool. You can show her the ropes.
How deep in shit she’d have to be!
The guy who opens Crisp and Jer’s door is upper forties, short, wool socks, handsome, glasses, flannel. Self-conscious, you can see it immediately in the clothes, which are just slightly too too. Hates his father, wants to impress his father. Not quite enough self-loathing to cancel out the narcissism. Deeply admires people less materialistic than he, can’t quite give up on impressing people more materialistic than he. You grow up among the rich, you become a veritable Jungian psychic where material self-representation is at hand.
Hey, the guy says.
He steps aside to usher us in. Teeth-grindingly cold. A space heater is doing very little to help matters. Mina is bundled so thoroughly in blankets on the couch that at first I don’t see she’s holding her newborn.
They look like hairless rats when they’re this new, like soft mechanical dolls. The most riveting, shocking hairless doll rats you ever saw. So intense, what happens when there’s a newborn in the room. This negative energy charge, this weird, blessed pall. Difficult not to whisper, tiptoe, nice and easy, forget what you were going to say.
Hi, I say.
Four days ago, she says, not looking up.
So small and tender, shockingly close to nonexistence. It’s a whole lot like dying. It’s almost exactly the same. Inspires quiet. I worship babies, it occurs to me. This is what worship does: fucks you all kinds of up.
She gestures at the space heater. Sort of bad timing.
How are you? Redundant; I have eyes.
Um. I’ve been better. I’m okay? She’s asking: am I? Her hair is wild.
Will and the guy are standing at attention, like they’re at a funeral for someone they barely knew, no idea what’s required of them.
Then the guy remembers to introduce himself.
I’m Bryan, he says.
Baby daddy? Boyfriend? Relative?
Will leads the way to the basement. Their footfalls thud on the stairs.
Midwife went home the other night, a few hours after. Said she’d stop by again, see how we’re doing. Haven’t heard from her, though. Left a message. She picks up her device and sets it back down.
You have him here?
Yeah, she says, like duh.
Where’s your family? Or whatever. Are they coming? I feel faint, standing over her. A hundred feet tall. And claustrophobic, like when I was a kid, with the panic attacks. A war zone, this: life and death and doing a maddening polka on your soul.
She laughs. Laughs and laughs, shakes laughing, tears up, downright glittery. My family. My family! This is the funniest, oddest idea she’s ever heard. My family! She sighs gratefully, happy for the laugh. Laughter is the great transfusion.
Ah, she says, calmer now. My family. A bit less crazy-eyed, a pinch more present. She stares and her animate bundle. Shakes her head, grins, bugs out her eyes like a soap actor’s interpretation of nuts.
She just needs us to sit with her. Process. Not to terrifically much to ask. Not so big a thing.
We’re supposed to have mothers, I say. We’re supposed to have sisters. But what if you don’t have a mother? What if you don’t have a sister? (69)
Why couldn’t I just enjoy it? Why couldn’t I be calm and at peace and fulfilled and engorged and certain and calm? Why did lack of sleep make me feel like I was going to die? And why then couldn’t I simply hand the baby over to someone else and take a nap? And why, when he cried, when I had nursed and burped and hugged and kissed and changed and nursed and burped and changed again, when he kept crying, when the crying went on and he wouldn’t sleep and the days unwound sunrise to sunset, when I hadn’t eaten or changed clothes or bathed, when I had no one to talk to, no one to sit with, did I feel like putting him safely down in his crib and walking out into the park and sitting on a bench without my coat on until I died? Why so numb, so incapable, so enraged, so broken?
It’s in your blood, my mother said, and laughed.
Rest for a while, Paul would say.
No, there would be no rest for me. There was no rest to be had There was no escaping the brutal enormity of it: I had had a baby. I had been cut in half for no god reason, and no number of dissolving stitches was ever going to make me whole again. The hysterical imperative was to Feed Him from Myself continuously, no compromise. I had to be vigilant. Omnipresent. I had fallen victim to a commonplace violence, and now I had this baby and there was too much at stake. I had failed him out of the gate. Deprived him the vital, epic journey through the birth canal, my poor doped-up kitten. Poor helpless boy. (92-93)
You know why I hate women?
No, doll, tell us, Bryan says to me. Why do you hate women?
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.
Thank goodness we don’t have daughters, Mina says.
Thank fucking God we don’t have daughters, I agree.
Sheryl told me she played cards in labor. Reported in without affect. Beep went the machines. Beep beep beep. And I said, oh look I must be having a contraction. She giggled when she said it, like she was talking about someone else’s body, someone else’s birth.
Maybe having given birth, you don’t have to fear death anymore, Mina says.
Bryan is typing. My mother leans over and squints at his screen, her arms crossed.
We’re as fearful of childbirth as we are of death, I say. Why else do we do everything to try and numb and control it? Why else does no one like to talk about it? Everyone’s scared. They’re so scared they don’t even understand they’re scared, that everything’s about fear.
That’s good, Bryan says. “Everyone’s so scared they don’t understand they’re scared.”
My mother rolls her eyes.
People have always feared childbirth, she says. And people have always feared death. Since always and forever. There’s nothing new under the sun.
The local NPR affiliate is replaying some Gifts of the Magi special. Think only of what you have, booms a beautifully deep and frayed male voice, and give no thought to what you lack.
Hey, Bryan says later, before I go up to bed. Mina is passed out on the couch, Zev on her chest. The first embers are still crackling. Level with me here. Do you think she’s, like, depressed?
Uh … yeah.
Do you think she’s, like, okay? Because I said I’d come back, but I can’t stay forever.
I think it’s not normal to have a baby and be by yourself.
She’s not by herself. She has you! What am I supposed to do?!
You’re supposed to hang with her. You’re supposed to marvel at how nuts it is. Be indulgent. It takes time. That’s it. Keep her company. Feed her.
I am indulgent. All I do is support her. Yesterday she starts in crying out of nowhere, tells me she’s exhausted and she needs to find a humane way to kill them both. It’s bananas. And I don’t know if this whole thing – he grabs his own tit as if to offer it to me – is really helping. Why not give the kid some formula and get on with it.
That’s not what she wants.
She’s lost her mind.
She’s not the first.
Are you some kind of witch?
Yup, I reply, and stare him down.
Paul kept the mood light waiting around for labor to begin, waiting and waiting and waiting, with out giant old thesaurus. I was not simply huge. I was arched, bellied, biconvex, bloated, bold, bombous, bossed, bosselated, bossy, bowed, bulbiform, bulbous, clavated, corniform, cornute, gibbous, hemispheric, hummocky, in relief, lenticular, lentiform, maniform, nodular, odontoid, papulous, projecting, prominent, protuberant, raised, salient, tuberculous, tuberous, timorous.
He got out his guitar and made up a song. I took issue with bossy, and somewhere between bulbiform and odontoid the whole thing began to sound kind of obnoxious. You get sort of oversensitive toward the end.
My due date passed, and officially we were behind schedule. They ordered a sonogram, looked for problems, told us about possibilities and problems. Made concerned faces and laid of the unacceptable possibilities.
You hear enough monitor, low-fluid, toxicity, big, proactive, posterior, count kicks, strip membranes, and you think, Jesus, okay, fuck, do whatever you have to do, whatever you people say, just make it okay.
Even though I had told that goddamn OB I wanted to “try” for a normal birth.
Sure, he’s said. Nothing bad was going to happen to me with this guy on duty. Give it a try. I’m all for that. That’s great. So you’re a tough girl. Gonna muscle through.
I played along, practically batted my lashed.
I’d like to try.
Good for you. He turned to Paul. I like that. Tough cookie.
And fine: I had failed to watch the documentaries. I was superstitious. I didn’t want to jinx things. I was overwhelmed. I never got around to it.
(Lazy, my mother says. Always were.)
Folks. Here’s the husky OB, dude I had once, just one time, early on.
It is upon us to get this show on the road. Sexy salt-and-pepper, scrubs, fluorescent rubber gardening clogs. Congenial enough, confidence like a birthright. Baby’s gettin’ pretty big. Looks pretty well cooked. Don’t want him getting much bigger. Lots can start to go wrong. We need to take this show on the road. You ready to meet your baby?
I mean, listen. Historically I got that you had to own your body, that they’d take it from you and tell you not to trouble your pretty little head about it. I’m supposedly on my way to a doctorate in women’s studies, for shit’s sake. I had some awareness that Barbara Ehrenreich had done early work on midwifery, the witch hunts, the medical industry’s treatment of women’s issues. I’d heard Ani DiFranco had given birth at home.
But there I was: huge, disoriented, impatient, scared. Bellied, biconvex, bloated. I handed myself over. Gave them my precious protuberance to deal with as they saw fit.
Yes, I’m ready to have this baby.
No more free lunches for the little one, joked an obese nurse in puppy scrubs while hooking me up to the Pitocin drop, which I’ve since learned is synthesize from cattle pituitary.
Induce: trigger, arouse, wheedle into, set in motion, cajole, encourage, prompt, prod, prevail, spur, generate, instigate, trigger, engender, foster, occasion.
Move by force.
I mean, we use motherfucker in all sorts of contexts. We’re pretty liberal nowadays in our collect use of the word motherfucker. But let’s corral it now, shall we? Reclaim it. If you are an obstetrician or obstetrical nurse and your C-section rate is over, say, 9 percent, you are henceforth an official motherfucker.
I pity you, Mina says, her eyes wet and sincere.
Well, that’s direct. It stings. Pity is so goddamn inescapable, infinitely sadder than scorn.
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 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. Then you’d do the same. Not just people to share in the work of raising children, but people to share in the loving of children.
Now maybe you make a living, maybe you get to know yourself on your own terms. Maybe you have adventures, heartbreak. Maybe you nurture ambition. Maybe you explore your sexuality. And then: unceremoniously sliced in fucking half, handed a newborn, home to your little isolation tank, get on with it, and don’t you dare post too many pictures. You don’t want to be one of those.
Paul meant well. Paul is the embodiment of decency. But Paul couldn’t help me. You have to know what people are capable of, and forgive them for whatever they’re not. (173-174)
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 gonna write about it if everyone doing it is lost forever within it? You want adventures, you want poetry and art, you want to salon it up over at Gertrude and Alice’s, you’d best leave the messy all-consuming baby stuff to someone else. Birthing and nursing and rocking and distracting and socializing and cooking and washing and gardening and mending: what’s that compared with bullets whizzing overhead, dazzling destructive heroics, headlines, parties, glory, all that Martha Gellhorn stuff, all that Zelda Fitzgerald stuff, drugs and gutters and music and poetry pretty dresses more parties and fucking and fucking and parties?
Destroy yourself, says my mother. Live it up. That’s what makes for good stories.
She should know.
Nurturance, on the other hand…
The time it takes to grow something…
Crisp and Jer hosted a party for last year’s visiting writer, a Dutch poet.
Come, Jer said. Mothers need to party, too. So I brought my tiny Walker bundle, and Paul helped me limp over there. What a gift: invited somewhere nice with my terrifying appendage.
The Dutch writer was sweet but standoffish. He spoke to me just once.
In Holland we have a saying, he said, gesturing at my bundle. The Tropical Years. When the Dutch colonized Indonesia, you see, military service there counted for double time. Because you must understand it was terribly hot. And the malaria and the disease, and so forth. So it was that one year of military service in the tropics counted for two. Tropical years, it was called. This is what it is to have small children, you understand?
What scared me late at night is that Walker’s a person; he hears what I say and looks up at me and wants to love me but doesn’t yet have any clue to fucked up I am. Here he is, we brought him here, he’s one of us now, the living. It’s pretty simple: an infant is to be held and bundled up and carried around. Fed, tended, protected. Helpless creature. You learn to humble yourself to him, pie-faced god. And you want to feel the enormity of that? Want it to hit you square? Imagine him hurt. Imagine him suffering. Imagine him taken. Imagine him dead. Imagine your arms empty. Imagine it, imagine it, imagine it.
These tiny people, they’re not about you. They are not for you. They do not belong to you. They are under your care, is all, and it’s your job to work at being a decent human being, love them well and a lot, don’t put your problems on them, don’t make your problems their problems, don’t use them to occupy empty parts of yourself. (188)
Two. I’m pregnant. I am terribly upset. Beyond hysterical. I will procure an abortion immediately!
I’m looking up the number and dialing and pressing 4 for more information and waiting on hold while the bullshit music plays and I start to count the months. August, it’ll be. Everything hot and lush, nights in short sleeves. A new girl, fresh and soft and naked on my chest.
How smart she’ll be. How free. Open and kind. Happy, secure. She won’t sneak a peek at herself when passing any reflective surface. Rarely threatened. Know what she deserves.
One day she’ll grow gray. Rarely paint her face. Eat slowly, move her body often, all sweat and love. Do as she pleases, disregard the superficial, listen more than she talks, stay calm. Be good to herself. Make things. Fix things. Grow things.
Finally someone picks up.
I will be her shining example. I’ll become it, so as to never let her down.
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
And oh yeah. And I’ll give birth to her. DO the work, earn her. No avoiding the pain, but I can’t wait to make its acquaintance, see its face, square with it. Exciting. What is pain if you don’t suffer it? I will make myself worthy.
Harlan, is that you? Listen, I told you I was going to report you if you called more than twice a day. Harlan, are you taking your meds? You know I have to call your caseworker if you harass us, Harlan.
We’ll do it together – me and this baby girl. She’ll be here in the dog days of summer. We’ll claw our way grunting screaming moaning ecstatically toward each other. A girl.
I hang up.