“Who can say I’m not a good mother? Who can say I don’t read the subject headings in the books? The How to Care for Your Child if There Is Absolutely No One with Any Primal Knowledge Around to Guide You guides. What to Expect When There Is No Received Wisdom Whatsoever. I keep them in an out of the way drawer, like porn.” So says Ari, the sardonic narrator of Elisa Albert’s provocative and darkly humorous novel After Birth. One year after baby’s arrival, Ari is still struggling to make sense of her shattered identity. She is sequestered in a “shitbox town” in upstate New York on the brink of winter. Her only friends are a gay couple who supply her with the marijuana that has been her salve. Now they are taking off on a yearlong sabbatical. Additionally, a new mom support group, suggested by a pediatric nurse when Ari fesses up to feeling a little down (“I didn’t say I imagined shooting myself twenty times a day”) only exacerbates her grief that her birth experience—a c-section—was not as she’d hoped or expected.
Anyone with a child can dash off platitudes about baby’s first year: Everything changes! Sleepless nights! Your heart is outside your body! What makes Ari such a compelling narrator is her willingness to say things that, spoken aloud, would merit permanent blacklisting by mommy groups everywhere. For example, Ari, who usually refers to her son, Walker, as “the baby” instead of by his name, describes him as a great kid, but: “Still a baby… of which even the best are oppressive fascist bastard dictator narcissists.”
New motherhood is not merely a shift of identity, it is a loss, it is an obliteration of independence, of the body, of the self—the self’s very purpose. Ari rips one mommy group to shreds when, “A sippy-cup brand disagreement devolved into a fight in which one predicted a life of crime for the other’s child. Just take care of business, ladies. Don’t make a fucking hobby out of it.”
Ari is ruthless, at times offensive, at times embittered, but always honest, and her voice is one that we mothers desperately need to hear. Hanna Rosin’s Atlantic cover story last spring, “The Overprotected Kid,” was a reality-check on the effects of helicopter parenting. Children turn out less resilient, less creative, less confident, less any number of excellent traits when over-parented. But there are other victims in our culture of obsessive mothering: the mothers.
My own induction into motherhood was an assault: an unplanned pregnancy that ended in an emergency c-section and premature birth, with a two-month NICU stay for my son. I was twenty-seven (a child myself by New York City standards) and had no friends with kids. I sought support—from in-laws, from mothers at the playground, from total strangers—only to have my parenting scrutinized. Judgments were disguised by questions or couched in studies conducted by an elusive “they.” Did I really think it was a good idea to stop nursing so soon? They say breast milk strengthens the immune system. What about infant classes—music, gymnastics, Chinese? They say foreign language exposure develops the brain.
Worse than any of these sly criticisms was the emotional narrative others forced onto my experience. When I hinted that I was miserable or angry, that I’d been crying a lot lately, the listener often said, “But you must be so happy that he’s home from the hospital.” What did my relief that my child had survived have to do with how hard it was now? And why wasn’t I allowed to feel more than one thing?
Sometimes I wanted to say very rude things to the people who offered free advice or told me how to feel. Sometimes my journal festered with as much venom as Ari’s internal monologue. I wanted what Ari wanted: affirmation that I could be a good mother while making mistakes and having ugly, difficult thoughts. Like Ari, I’d failed the birth part, and I was desperate for redemption. I combed the books and the blogs, because I wanted to do this motherhood thing not merely well, but perfectly. On the inside, I might be a mess, but by god, on the outside, I would be spotless.
For Ari, transformation comes at the end of the novel when she observes, “What scares 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 how fucked up I am.” Our children are not extensions of us. They are not here, as Ari says, “to occupy empty parts of [ourselves].”
Mothers: you can’t save your kid from being a person. Not whether you had a c-section or a natural birth, not whether you breastfed or mixed formula or bought a certain brand of sippy cup.
What changed for me? I figured out I couldn’t save myself from being a person—a flawed, mistake-making, trying-and-failing person—either.