KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The experience of having a baby is both a singular and a universal event. These days it's an experience that elicits all kinds of emotions that fall somewhere in the range between warmth and vitriol. In her latest novel, "After Birth" Elisa Albert writes about motherhood and friendship. The main character is named Ari. She lives in a town in upstate New York. She's supposed to be working on a Ph.D. in women's studies, but she has major postpartum depression. Then a pregnant woman moves in down the block. They become friends and things slowly start to get better. And then they get more complicated. Elisa Albert joins us now from Albany. Welcome to the show.
ELISA ALBERT: Thanks.
MCEVERS: Give us the broad strokes of this book. The main character, Ari, she's happily married, mostly. She's got a 1-year-old. How are things going for her?
ALBERT: Things are really bad for her. She's lonely and isolated and feels very cut off from her former self and from the people around her who can't fully relate to what she's been through and what she's going through. So it's pretty dire.
MCEVERS: She's in this town. Her husband teaches at the local college. I mean, that's why she's there. She's left New York City and her sort of creative life behind. Is that right?
ALBERT: Right, she's entered an entirely new self and it's unfamiliar.
MCEVERS: I mean, one of the things that struck me about Ari is not just how lonely she is, but how angry she is, especially at other women, right? I was wondering if I could ask you to read a passage. Ari has decided to go to, like, a mommy group after her baby is born.
ALBERT: (Reading) Who knew motherhood could be a mostly material experience? We'd sit in Starbucks rooting around in pastel-camouflage diaper bags for chew toys and muslin wraps while women without babies gave us endless dirty looks. Me and this one silent, dark-eyed woman the only ones breastfeeding; the others busy with chemistry experiments - powders, cold packs, bottles. The poor babies were beside the point, like half-forgotten elderly consigned to our care. The girl babies looked like drag queens: ruffles and bows, a flower-and-rhinestone headpiece. One thusly adorned kept giving me a hilariously cranky like can you believe this? She was cool. I winked at her like sorry, honey. I know, but it's not forever, I swear.
MCEVERS: (Laughter) I mean, that's funny about, you know, she's communing with the baby because she's so sort of alienated and angry with these other women. And I guess I want to ask you - what is Ari's anger all about?
ALBERT: Female anger makes us very uncomfortable as a culture, historically and in all kinds of strange ways. Female anger is dangerous and very hard to take because we are conditioned to disown it and to pretend that, you know, as women we don't have full range of emotions somehow. It's not ladylike; it's not appropriate. So female aggression is a fascinating subject for me as a novelist, and I think Ari's - she wants a lot from women, from her elders, from her peers. She wants guidance and sisterhood and wisdom and she's not getting any of that. She's pretty let down. There's the sense of, like, you're on your own with this pretty enormous, powerful and very vulnerable transition, and I think that is what underlies her rage.
MCEVERS: Right, there's these lines that keep coming up in the book. Like, these previous generations didn't tell us. Like, they got drugged when they were giving birth. They fed their babies formula. But, you know, our generation wants to make different choices and yet nobody is giving us a manual for how to do that. I mean, is that sort of a fair characterization for why she's so angry?
ALBERT: Yeah, and also it's a question of what do we owe each other as people, as women? What are our responsibilities to each other? And I think everybody has a kind of a different idea about that. You know, to each her own, but I personally believe, and I share this with Ari, that we owe each other some measure of support and sisterhood and openness and honesty. And when we are bereft of those things, things get bad. Things get rough quick for all of us.
MCEVERS: But yet, when you start to talk about what we should do and what we shouldn't do, it all starts to sound kind of judgmental, right? I mean, then it starts to kind of sound like this thing we all know about, right? The mommy wars.
MCEVERS: You know, Ari weighs in on a lot of this stuff. She had a traumatic C-section that she hated. She won't even call it a birth. She's anti-formula. She's anti-IVF. I mean, are you basically saying some things about these choices that other women make with this book?
ALBERT: No, I'm not. This character was a vehicle to kind of let fly on a lot of things, and the point, I think, is that ultimately it doesn't matter what choices anybody makes. And that's where the, quote, unquote, "mommy wars" is such a distraction and a rather enormous copout for everybody. It's a way of avoiding the actual issues, which is that women don't have enough support for any of the choices that we make. We are pitted against each other and ultimately then we're pitted against ourselves. And everybody's unhappy and everybody feels judged. And it doesn't have to be this way.
MCEVERS: You live in upstate New York and you've had a baby and I know you've been asked this question. How much of Ari's experience is like your own?
ALBERT: We have a lot in common - Ari and I. We have sons. We're married to academics, but a lot of her story is not my story. Her background is not my background. Her birth experience is different from mine. She's kind of an exaggeration of a really bad day. She's like a distillation of the worst tendencies that I can own up to in myself and I saw myself in the writing of this book as, like, a reporter from the trenches of motherhood. And I was paying very close attention to all the women around me and all the different ways that people deal or don't deal and all the dynamics that come up. And it was where I put, you know, all my creative energy while I was trying to keep a small part of myself alive as a new mother.
MCEVERS: Elisa Albert, thank you so much.
ALBERT: Thank you.
MCEVERS: That's Elisa Albert. She's the author of the novel "After Birth."
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