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The Week in Books: After Birth

after birthI recently finished After Birth by Eliza Albert, a book that struck me because it was described as being honest about the period after a baby is born, which is always portrayed as being this beautiful joyous angelic time, but in reality is anything but.  For a lot of women (myself included) it was a period of sleep-deprived madness, walking around like a zombie and being freaked out about everything because suddenly this little person is wholly dependent on you, and you’re so damn tired and would kill for a nap, but you can’t let someone watch her for a minute while you take a nap because she might die during that period; and it all seems so real in part because for some people the sleep deprivation is just a killer.  Add in to that the hormonal changes, the physical changes (breastfeeding is not this beatific scene), the stress of the crying, the fact that you’re caught in this bizarre time warp where the world seems to move at warp speed and at no speed at all, and even the most “together” mom’s could be tearing their hair out.  If you have any kind of propensity towards depression or anxiety, like I do, it’s enough to send you right over the edge.

I wasn’t crazy about this book, but it’s a book that moved me.  I didn’t much like the main character, Ari, who has a one year old son and moved from nyc to a small town upstate where her academic husband got a job.  She’s meant to be working on her thesis, but she can’t get motivated to do anything but facebook stalk people when she has time alone.  She’s a bit of a breastfeeding evangelist.  She’s pissed off that she had a c-section.  It’s kind of like The Business of Being Born in novel form.  She even mentions a “documentary” she meant to watch while she was pregnant, but never got around to it.  See, that pissed me off.  If you’re going to be so angry about your c-section, you should have read Ina May Gaskin and seen the documentary before you had a kid, when you actually had time to do that sort of thing.  The novel explores her background with her parents, with her family, her relationships, and it’s written in a stream of conscious way so that you’re actually experiencing it with her.  When a woman that Ari knew of when she was a pseudo-famous rock star moved in next door, practically full term pregnant, gives birth in a hot tub with a midwife, Ari thinks she has a friend and they can be a little commune together, breastfeeding each others’ babies.  That was her thesis, she thought.  The feminism of communal breast feeding.

At the same time I was reading this book a friend of mine, who is seriously into the anti GMO movement, posted something on facebook about the ingredients in formula and how it’s a form of child abuse to give it to your child.  For the love of Christ, people.  Can we all please calm down?  That’s what I wanted to say to Ari as she complained about her c-section and made snarky remarks to anyone who questioned her pulling her boob out at cocktail parties, or made fun of the “chemistry experiments” other mom’s had going on (ie mixing formula).  But right after you have a baby, no, you can’t calm down.  You just can’t.

So as a personal note, my baby never really breastfed.  She was in the NICU where they gave her bottles early on, and when she realized she could get milk without working for it, she decided that she would not, in fact, work for it (German efficiency coming out at an early age).  So I pumped exclusively, 8 times a day, to give her my milk.  Oh, we saw lactation consultants.  Many lactation consultants.  We stumped the most experienced lactation consultant at Loma Linda.  My girl is nothing if not stubborn.  So when I say I pumped exclusively, that means that 8 times a day I got out the pump, hooked it up to my boobs, pumped for at least 15 minutes to keep my supply going, during which time I was often also trying to juggle holding the baby (thank goodness for hands-free pumping bras), immediately afterwards would put the milk in the fridge, and wash the parts (or put them in a ziplock in the fridge so they would be ok to use again, but then they were frigging freezing on my boobs the next time).  I did this eight times a day.  At 7am, 10am, 1pm, 4pm, 7pm, 10pm, 1am, and 4am.  I was tethered to the pump.  We couldn’t go out much because I had to get home to pump.  I was at a work conference, speaking on a panel, pumping with my hand pump in the bathroom beforehand.  The whole thing was misery.  And I did this so babygirl wouldn’t have the Evil Formula.

You know what?  Formula saves baby’s lives.  A hundred years ago babies died from being malnourished.  We seem to forget that in our “developed world” problems of getting organic quinoa. Yes, breast milk is best.  Absolutely.  No question.   But what my girl really needed was a healthy rested mama.  Maybe I could have dropped a few pumps and she could have had half formula, half breast milk.  I’ll never know how I would have felt those first six months without having the stress of pumping, but what I can say is that it made things a hell of a lot harder.  Nobody exclusively pumps.  Like .01% of the population.  Nobody does that.  Her doctors were always amazed at each checkup when they asked what she was eating and I said I was still pumping.  They eventually told me that a little bit of formula wouldn’t hurt her, probably thinking that having a crazy mama was going to hurt her way more than some enfamil.  But I was determined that for the first 6 months she wouldn’t have anything but my milk.  I wasn’t going to fail her in this way.

So yeah, now that I’m a year on from it, and my healthy girl had formula for several months before switching to almond milk, I kind of want to tell the breastfeeding crazy’s to bite me.  And that includes Ari in this book.  And you know what?  C-sections also save lives.  And in my hospital, they let me push for damn near 6 hours before they finally used forceps because my girl was so stuck.  Maybe if I’d have not been so “Ina May” about the whole thing, tried pushing for say 2 hours then given in to modern medicine, maybe had an epidural, maybe my poor beaten up girl wouldn’t have wound up in the nicu with the bottles.  Who knows.

The thing is, as I was reading this book, it brought to mind a number of things that I’ve thought about in terms of why the post partum period was such a rough adjustment on me.  I kind of pinpointed it to the fact that I’m older.  I was 37 when she was born.  I have a great career.  I’ve traveled.  I’ve settled into a life I love.  And then she came and disrupted it all.  If I’d had her when I was 22, before I did stuff, before I became my own person, maybe it wouldn’t have been as hard.  I always thought that having children older was better, because you get to get all of that stuff out of the way so that you can fully give yourself to your kids.  But that’s the paradox because when you have so much that you’re giving up, it makes it so much harder to do just that.

So this bit really stuck out at me:  Ari asks what it would have been like a hundred years ago, just thinking.  And the response is, “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 hare 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.”

Yes.  That exactly.  That’s why this book is worth reading when it will be released.  Because of thoughts like that.

Note: I got a free advanced reader copy on netgalley in exchange for an honest review.  The book will be released in March.