The Rumpus Interview with Elisa Albert

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Elisa Albert’s piece on breastfeeding in public had just gone live at TIME Magazine when I saw her read from her novel After Birth at the Rensselaerville Library’s Festival of Writers this past August. Away from my 11-month-old son for the first time since his birth, I recognized myself in Albert’s themes on pregnancy and motherhood, and recalled my own birth plan, along with memories of the difficulties that arose after my son’s arrival, which I didn’t anticipate.

A searing depiction of postpartum alienation, After Birth is filled with a keen intelligence and wit that dismantles the culture and practices associated with contemporary motherhood. In After Birth, Ari, a doctoral student in women’s studies, struggles to finish her dissertation after a traumatic birth experience. She suffers from postpartum depression, which contributes to her difficulty in integrating her new identity. Isolated from her husband and academic colleagues, Ari finds friendship with the college’s visiting writer, Mina Morris. In supporting Mina through pregnancy and the challenges of caring for her newborn, Ari overcomes her fraught history with women, allowing her to connect to her own innate wisdom.

Albert teaches at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She is also the author of The Book of Dahlia, as well as a short story collection, How This Night Is Different.

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The Rumpus: When did you begin writing After Birth? How long did it take you?

Elisa Albert: It began on a cold, rainy day in February of 2010. Melodramatic! A little over a year after my son was born. I was living in the Netherlands on fellowship. That first year of motherhood had left me with a lot to say, and my wellbeing seemed predicated on saying it all, now. I had a draft of the first third of the book when I returned to the U.S. that fall. The rest took longer, as I settled into life in a new, different city and slowly got some balance. I sent it to my agent in early 2013, then worked with my editor through the end of 2013.

Rumpus: At the Festival of Writers event this past summer, you talked about writing After Birth so you could “feel less angry about birth when talking about it at dinner parties.” Can you please talk about this anger, as it is reflected in your main character Ari? What motivates the frustration that Ari feels with other women who choose to outsource their birth experiences to medical providers and to avoid educating themselves on their options? Why do you think women and society choose to ignore the empowering and transformative aspects of giving birth?

Albert: It’s a taboo, talking about women’s bodies in birth, because it brings us dangerously close to having to negotiate simplistic ideas about choice and control. Who controls women’s bodies? We don’t want to be raped or executed for adultery or denied the right to terminate pregnancy. We want rightful dominion over our bodies. But when time comes to give birth, it all goes out the window. We’ve collectively bought into some big misconceptions: that birth is problematic by nature, that it is likely to go awry and must therefore be handed over to the “authorities,” that it is “safe” to be completely passive in birth, that if we question, we put our own lives and the lives of our babies at risk. It’s a very old lie. The methodologies used to implement this lie have shifted over time, but the lie remains the same.

The rituals of birth in 21st century United States are harmful to the majority of women and babies. These rituals not only don’t improve outcomes overall, they actually cause injury and illness when used routinely. They are rituals of a culture that fears and despises women’s bodies. That women comply so willingly is perhaps the strangest part.

Why? That’s harder. Because to insist on embracing and embodying the magnificent power of normal birth would be to inhabit the kind of exclusively feminine power that has so threatened patriarchy since time immemorial? Because we remember trans-generational trauma from having been burned at the stake? Because pathologizing normal pregnancy and birth is quite profitable? Because fear is so seductive and overwhelming? I don’t know. This stuff runs wide and deep.

The more I learned, the angrier Ari got. Ari is a victim of this system, and I felt that she should have the chance to really let fly. Anger is a real creative catalyst. Anger is fertilizer. Ari grew out of rage at the idea that women need to be “saved” from childbirth.

My mind was blown by reading about birth. Robbie Davis-Floyd, Barbara Ehrenreich, Jennifer Block, Ina May Gaskin, Rachel Zucker and Arielle Greenberg, Naomi Wolf, Penny Simkin, etc. This vast wealth of knowledge and experience and common sense and evidence that huge numbers of people—educated and literate and privileged people—are ignoring. Why? It really gnawed at me. Ari became my vehicle for thinking it through.

To bear a child one really needn’t be at peace with being passive, drugged, immobilized, battered, broken, scarred, cut open, or otherwise violated in an institutional bed. That shit is not about childbearing. It’s about a society that wants women silent, threatened, compliant, and afraid.

So what can one say to a woman who chooses that kind of birth? It’s her choice, after all. It’s her body. She lives in a culture that believes birth is a life-threatening ordeal best controlled by whatever means necessary. She then quite obviously finds it comforting —her community likely reinforces this in big and small ways—to give her will to a trained pathologist “just in case.” Lo and behold, pathology arises, no coincidence. You can’t argue with any of that, though. Which brings us right back to where we started. Choice. Control. Dangerous complexities.

Birth trauma is completely acceptable in our culture. Ari’s anger is predicated on the certainty that it doesn’t have to be that way, that the majority of women in this system are in fact getting screwed.

What became clear to me as Ari became real in the world of the book, however, is that a woman who can undergo birth trauma—necessary or otherwise—and more or less “get on with” her life is probably a pretty emotionally healthy woman.

Would we ever say that about a survivor of rape, though? It still gnaws at me.

Rumpus: Ari describes herself as a “desperately isolated hausfrau scrounging for simpaticos.” Many of her friendships with women throughout the book, with the exception of her friendship with Mina Morris, seem uneasy. While Ari suffers from postpartum depression and struggles to integrate her new identity as mother, there seems to be real difficulty in making authentic connections with other women, whether or not they have children. What is it that separates women from connecting and finding common ground? Why is Ari unable to connect with her husband’s colleague “Kabuki face” until the final pages of your book?

Albert: There’s a wild defensive streak in Ari. She’s quick to judge and quick to lash out at the possibility of being judged. She’s threatened by differences, because they call into question her own identity and her identity is built on quicksand. She was unlucky with regard to female energy growing up. Her mother was a hard woman. She’s never had a friendship that didn’t eventually fade away or devolve. So it’s what she knows: be wary of women.

Mina and Ari offer each other something vital and precious: safe space to be vulnerable. No hardness, no moldering insecurities, no competition, no passive aggressive obnoxiousness. Which I think is incredibly healing for Ari, and I hope provides the central movement of the book.

Rumpus: Paul’s ex-girlfriend toils at a teaching job in a far corner of Indiana and gives up having kids. Ari’s dissertation advisor Marianne eschews family and takes Ari less seriously when she becomes a mother. In academia, women seem to postpone or forego having children to achieve tenure and a measure of “success.” What have your experiences been as a mother and writer navigating the academic world?

Albert: I have recurring adjunct and occasional visiting writer gigs, so I can’t be said to navigate the academic world. Go where it’s warm and take what comes, more like it.

In general, though, yeah, postponing/forgoing children is posited as almost prerequisite to any kind of achievement or accomplishment in so many careers (only for women, of course). Which is another troubling lie that brings to the table another host of problems.

Meanwhile, “women’s work” is commonly devalued if not outright mocked. The expectation is that motherhood should be invisible, safely confined to home or playgrounds or story hour at the library or a café in Brooklyn at which people sans kids roll their eyes. You can have one or the other, satisfying work or the smugness of a stroller. If you fully inhabit motherhood, adios, no one gives a shit about your “mommy problems,” have fun down in that boring rabbit hole with the other irrelevant, frustrated mommies. If you fully inhabit satisfying work, you get nagged from within and/or without about missing out on The Most Important Thing In Life. If you try to have both (aka “it All”), you miss out on a lot of what’s rewarding about both, and you’re exhausted all the time, and you’re probably not doing super hot at either, and you have to pay someone else to do at least some of the “women’s work” for you, and that person is likely invisible, consigned to home or the playground or etc. Contrary to yet another lie, running a household is work. Nicer work if you’re not panicked about money, certainly, but work regardless. And making a happy, healthy home is not easy or insignificant work. You actually can’t do it if you’re an emotional/psychological wreck. If we all grew up in homes that were happy and healthy, the world would be a very different place.

It’s strange to think of childbearing as separate from the rest of one’s life, a sort of pit stop or parenthetical. An inconvenience. It’s strange to bifurcate life in such a way. It shortchanges the whole experience for everyone, and I think contributes to the cast-off misery so many new mothers experience.

What if we declined to be hidden and excluded? What if the lines between “staying at home” and “going back to work” weren’t quite so stark? I was overjoyed to see photos of Licia Ronzulli, a member of the Italian Parliament, attending sessions with her newborn wrapped up on her chest. Ronzulli continued to regularly bring the child to hearings; you can watch this child grow into a toddler on her mother’s lap at Parliament meetings. Have you ever seen a member of the US Congress doing that? We will not begin to enjoy full civil rights as women and mothers in this country until we encourage and accept this sort of thing as normal. Inclusivity, fluidity, hospitable working conditions for mothers, subsidized high quality childcare… don’t get me started. Childcare is not a dirty secret.

Welcome to biological feminism: not powerful in spite of inhabiting a female body, but because of it. Every time a nursing woman gets shamed or ejected from a shop or restaurant because ignorant people want her out of sight—in a bathroom stall or closet or confined to home—I see that as a violation of civil rights. Women still don’t have equal rights in this country, let us remember. The ERA never passed.

But you asked about postponing/foregoing motherhood. I can easily relate to women who don’t want any part of childrearing as it’s commonly represented. It seems pretty contemptuous, doesn’t it: a rather dull parallel universe, replete with its very own obnoxious materialism and cliquishness. The whole bourgeois narcissistic zombie thing, wherein the mom’s thwarted desire/ambition gets shunted onto the kid’s accomplishments/aesthetic? What self-respecting thinking person wants in on that? Massive bummer.

Rumpus: Throughout the book, real-life news stories creep in. Yue Yue, a toddler in China, is struck by a car. Dying on a busy street, she is ignored by the people around her. A six-year-old shoots himself with a gun. As a mother, these kinds of stories preoccupy my imagination. Why did you bring these narratives about children into the space of your novel?

Albert: Oh God, you know her name. I think of that poor child so often. These kinds of stories preoccupy my imagination, too. I’m kind of a bad-news whore.

A sick impulse, on the one hand, to get so involved in the travesties that befall the children of strangers. And one cannot fool oneself into mistaking these preoccupations for activism. The world is a brutal place where terrible things happen with absolute regularity. None of us is safe, though some of us are lucky. On the other hand, maybe it’s indicative of an empathy that has been infinitely broadened. By motherhood? By an unmedicated menstrual cycle? Are women more in touch with the duality of nature—birth/death, light/dark? A lot of mystical traditions seem to think so.

To bring forth a new human being requires almost indescribable patience and effort; to end a human being takes next to nothing. It takes your breath away, to sit with that. I once very ill advisedly tried to have that conversation with a brand-new mother before I realized what idiotic timing I have.

I think it’s hilarious that I can text a certain circle of women friends about something horrible in the news and each of them is obsessing about the same horrific thing, and it becomes a kind of trope that circulates among us, which in time turns out to be a comfort.

Yue Yue. I’m infinitely sorry this world was so cruel to you.

Rumpus: None of the men in this book, with perhaps the exception of Paul, or Ari’s neighbors, are particularly sympathetic or well-rounded individuals. Can you please talk about how you chose to characterize men in After Birth?

Albert: Men are not central to the issues at hand, and so do not warrant our in-depth consideration just now. Also, it occurred to me that it might be fairly radical for men to be beside the point. We’re not going to talk so much about men, and the world will keep turning! I mean, men are great: fine, flawed, sexy, complex, they exist, rest assured, but they happen to be elsewhere, having other struggles, and there is no shortage of narrative about said struggles, so… what else?

I conceived of this book as a sort of female war novel. Men are certainly not the enemy, but they are not part of the action. They’re safe back at home, so to speak, waiting faithfully for the women to return from the war. Some of the women won’t ever be the same. Etc.

Rumpus: Will’s character seems to be something of a romantic ideal—the opposite of Paul, Ari’s intellectual husband. He rejects the lifestyle of his academic parents to pursue more physical work, and other kinds of knowledge. Ari feels an intense attraction to Will—what experience or knowledge does Will represent to Ari?

Albert: Amazing question. It’s primal knowledge. Ape knowledge. Knowledge that is literally useful, of use. Will knows how to meet basic monkey needs. Eye contact. Food. Shelter. Fucking. Ari and Will would make such an amazing ape couple.

It’s this intense desire to cast off the artificial, and all the unfulfilled promises of the artificial.

Ari was born to a drugged and passive woman, isolated in a plastic tub in a room with artificial light, fed artificially. When you stop taking those things for granted, they start to seem like bizarre and sad denials. Is it any wonder that a lot of us spend our lives distancing ourselves from the fact of existing in our bodies? It’s why Ari’s so righteously pissed off about having had birth taken from her. She doesn’t want to be spared the experience of her body any more, the experience of, simply, for better or for worse, living in a body, with all the irrationality and limitation and ecstasy and pain that entails. Will is in his body. Mina is in her body. Ari is waking up to what that means. It’s a liberation.

Rumpus: Outside of your life as a writer, you trained as a doula. When and why did you decide to become a doula?

Albert: At first I was motivated by an activist mentality, like I can’t in good conscience not become a doula, given what I’ve learned. I thought writing After Birth would exhaust my obsession with these issues, but as I neared the end I found myself no less obsessed. I thought, okay, fine, I’ll train to doula, and put all this wild excess energy into the work of protecting women, or at the very least witnessing firsthand what happens to women.

Doula training turned out to be a disappointment, though, because there was very little activist mentality in that room. It was very much “yeah, the system sucks but it is what it is, let’s do our best to work within it.” I was appalled by that complacency. I kept thinking nope, no way, no how will I ever work from within the system.

But the first time a woman asked me to attend her in birth, I was so moved, and everything changed. All that motivating activist rage began to dissipate, and I realized I wanted to work as a doula not to combat of all the closed-minded people in the world, and not because of misogyny, and not because complacency is so rampant and depressing and I want to blast it to smithereens, but because I wanted this woman to have a phenomenally supported birth. And moreover because I aspire to be the kind of person—the kind of steady and warm and patient and calm and lighthearted and generous and compassionate and fully present person—who makes a good doula. You can’t effect change by shaking your fist at people or institutions or the sky; you can effect change by embodying the alternative.

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Featured image © Phillip Angert.


Shin Yu Pai is the author of several poetry collections including AUX ARCS, Adamantine, Sightings, and Equivalence, as well as numerous limited edition artists books including Hybrid Land and Works on Paper. Her personal essays have appeared in Thought Catalog, Medium, ParentMap, and International Examiner. For more info, visit http://shinyupai.com. More from this author →