In a Perfect World
I just finished reading Elisa Albert’s After Birth while recuperating from acute bronchitis and walking pneumonia. I’m still not sure how you can have both? But when you’re feeling close to death and the all-knowing doc holds up your chest X-ray and tells you this is why you feel so crappy you believe him and take whatever toxic drug prescriptions he hands you and practically run, if I could run without gasping, to the nearest pharmacy. No questions. Just make me feel better. I think this is how most of us roll. We just want to feel better.
And so it goes for the narrator in After Birth. Albert’s novel is not a bronchial infection, but it’s not a warm and fuzzy account of motherhood either. Ari, the mom, loves her newborn son and her husband but has doubts about her ability to stay sane after relocating for her husband’s job—“The buildings are amazing in this shitbox town”– and leaving her childless friends and partying past behind. It’s an authentic story of the loneliness and pent up frustration and anger that many women experience after their baby’s birth.
We hear the anguish and confusion Ari feels “to a culture that turns its new mothers into exiles and expects them to act like natives.” She intellectualizes the reasons and brings up so many familiar feelings I remember having but didn’t give myself permission to communicate when I was going through them twenty something years ago. I was a bad mother because I had trouble breastfeeding, and I knew, instinctively, my colicky baby hated me. I was ill equipped to mother since she wasn’t gaining weight and she once slid under water while I was trying to hold onto her slippery body during a bath? There is more damaging examples, trust me. I was ill equipped but who isn’t with their first baby? And, really, where were the directions in every language, and the mysterious Book of Baby Raising Secrets every mother should be given, like a prayer hymnal in church, when you leave the hospital? My God, look at the warnings posted on McDonald’s takeout coffee, or the insipid Do Not Remove By Penalty of Law stickers on mattresses.
So my daughter (yes, the colicky one I almost drowned) and I decided, over a phone call this week, that in a perfect world there would exist a luxury spa property in every state for new moms and their babies, like in Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent, except without camels and flies. Your husband would drop you off at the curb (because he has to get right back to work!!) and you and your baby would be transported to a darling cottage with a gigantic bed and a staff of caretakers with broad smiles at your beck and call. All female of course, because men can only heat up canned soup and stare at you for hours while mentally willing you to get out of bed and take a shower (this transpires during bronchitis/pneumonia phase as well), or in the middle of the night pretend to be in a deep sleep (which means the snoring has stopped and he holds his breath so you’ll think he’s dead asleep) when you both hear the baby giving the first eh, eh, eh, eh, of hunger pains through the baby monitor.
Yes, so back to the spa. The food brought to you, home-cooked with only fresh ingredients, would arrive with a flower of the day, cloth napkin, and a wet nurse to take care of your baby’s needs while you eat your breakfast, lunch, and dinner in peace. Massage therapists would work on those sore shoulders, back, neck—whatever area was wretched out of shape during delivery. And an elixir of tonics sipped on all day would help to release the Pitocin toxins the OB insisted on administering a week after your due date because God knows that Due Date Chart is the Holy Grail.
Exercise would involve strollering your newborn around the beautiful garden grounds or a mild yoga class that let’s you move at a snail’s pace because that nine months of baby bulge doesn’t disappear for like nine more years. And you are told by everyone on staff to wear the weight proudly, like women from the Renaissance Age. (They don’t call it the Renaissance for nothing.) If you were unfortunate enough to have your baby in the dead of winter, well, fear not, the spa has seasonal lighting to imitate the best sunny, cloudless, June summer day.
Of course, it goes without saying that there are pools everywhere—mineral, chlorinated, hot, cold, saltwater . . . . any kind of water you can think of for you and your baby to relax in. This allows the baby its own spa privileges since he or she is still not used to kicking at air and not a placenta filled with fluid. There is a nurse on call to whisk the baby off for a bath or a feeding or to sit for hours rocking your bundle of joy while you nap or read or gaze at the area that once was your navel all while sipping herbal tea or a nice dry martini if you’ve elected out of boob feeding.
Once the staples, stitches, or forcep-torn female genitalia (although this is a year-long recovery process—take my word for it) has healed, you can start your one on one Baby for Dummies fundamentals’ sessions with the elderly midwife and doula with over fifteen thousand births a piece under their belts. You hear and are taught the invaluable secrets about nursing babies, feeding babies, bathing babies, changing babies, and what to do when that crusty eruption falls off into the diaper (I called my pediatrician thinking something was wrong—yes, I needed the Dummies book).
And the best part? Every woman with a newborn gets the privilege of checking into this heavenly spa free of charge under our health care system because what’s more important than the sanity of new moms trying to parent while trying to heal while trying to take care of that voice in their head that tells them they are doing it wrong or half-assed or not up to what your mother did or didn’t do, or your sister, or best friend, or your co-worker, or neighbor who looks like she’s got it together. Trust me, no one has it together. Not-a-one. Some hide their horror better than others. Some, the smart ones, beg or hire or insist on all the help they can get.
Yes, it takes a village. And if you don’t have a village of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, girlfriends who’ve been through it and are willing participants in the care and feeding of you and your baby those first few months, you’re screwed. You wake up in drenched sheets, sleep deprived, sore as hell from every orifice and from your bleeding nipples and wondering if that screaming/crying eight pounds of matter in the other room is not, seriously, the devil incarnate.
And then maybe you’re one of the lucky ones, the one woman out there that finds she’s okay and her baby is okay and her mental stability is just that, stable. I got it, she says. This is all I dreamed of and this is exactly how I thought this shit would go down. Me and my baby. That’s all I need. Peace out. Brava! I say.
That woman is my friend, Kim. College roommates, soul sisters, heck, we share a birthday. For five years we lived either in the same apartment or across the dormitory hall. Her first baby came four months before mine. On our first visit (she came to visit from her home in California) I couldn’t help but compare mothering techniques. We didn’t have air-conditioning but Kim barely broke a sweat when her almost one-year-old ginormous son, who was still breastfed, knocked his head on the brick fireplace hearth I still had yet to baby proof. He napped when she put him down, slept through the night, and smiled at her like a lovelorn teenager. When she bragged that she could squirt breastmilk like a garden hose I wanted to throw my unhappy looking daughter’s warmed bottle of Enfamil at her.
This is a woman I love dearly to this day. And guess what? All our children, the five between her and I, are healthy, bright, caring, wonderful, respectful citizens of this planet. Even though we raised them with a different hormone cocktail.
Kim also claimed PMS was a made-up excuse to eat too much, drink too much, and cry and rage for nothing that important. Oh boy! We are just hours apart in our own births, but in those few hours the planets surely aligned differently for both of us. My mother (who, oddly enough, shares the same birthday as Kim and I—or as she would have it—we share a birthday with her) was the PMS queen. A plate thrower, a tiptoe around mood-eruptor, who my father once told during an especially loathsome monthly curse, “I think you’re insane.” Decades later she laughs about it. A badge of honor she wears like the Purple Heart.
In my house growing up, then living with menstruating women in a small cramped apartment, I understood Albert’s take on the PMSing woman:
For a few days a month I want to jump every man I see. Then I get bloated and the belly rounds. Then I want to shovel food into my face for a while, resort to sugar. Then I get suicidal. Truly hopeless, scary sad. Start to want my mother. Relate to her. I am her. She was me. And that’ when I start to really loathe Paul (her husband). Can’t stand the way he looks at me, speaks to me, touches me. Want away. Imagine setting myself on fire. Feel lied to, kept down. Am sure that when he’s sweet to me he’s faking it, doing his duty. That in his truest heart I am an inessential outline.
The rusty wheel keeps turning as if cranked by some invisible arthritic hand. Tomorrow or the next day or the day after that I’ll bleed. And it’ll be immediate, a lifted veil. All light and peace and the headlines won’t destroy my day. Everything is, will be, has always been okay.
Volumes upon volumes on exploration, war, violence, the life-threatening transformative journeys of man. But you can’t talk about this. The fucking, the sadness, the dark, the blood, the light. They will burn you at the fucking stake for this shit.
If this is Ari’s experience with menses you can just imagine the narrative on the birth and After Birth of her son? It’s not for the faint of heart. It’s like reading the fine print on the contract you just signed before taking your baby home and realizing before the ink has dried that you gave up your spotlight in the world. The big reveal when you step over the threshold that it’s never going to be just about you anymore.
That’s life. But wouldn’t it be grand, in this world, our imperfect world, to at least show a little tenderness to the miracle that is the woman’s body? To do whatever we can to make her feel better by sending her and the baby home rested, happy, with a set of mothering skills passed down through the ages and phone numbers to call in case something goes south in a hurry? Yes, it would be. Yes, it would