The ProsenPeople

Five Simple Ways To Be Good To A New Mom

Thursday, February 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Elisa Albert shared what she's been reading (and watching) lately. Her new book, After Birth, is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Judaism has very clear, widely practiced proscriptions for how to support the bereaved, but strangely we don’t talk much about how we support women who are about to or have recently given birth. Which seems remiss, given that birth and death are so clearly on the same continuum, sacred portals at opposite ends of life. If how we process and honor death matters, then how we deal with birth must matter in direct proportion. Probably the Rabbis weren’t so concerned with how women get through the childbearing year because hey, the women had it under control. But given the dire state of childbirth and early motherhood in the here and now, perhaps it’s time we brought these issues into the light, so as to better address them. Here are a few simple ways to be decent to people who are working very hard to bring forth and nurture new life.

1. Don’t spread negative thoughts and feelings about birth.

It’s a nightmare just get the drugs do whatever they say don’t even try you’re so tiny that baby looks huge are you having twins I almost died it’s the worst pain ever you can’t even imagine I would have died if not for ETC. If we or our sister or mother or friend had a terrible experience giving birth, that’s a real shame, and we should have plenty of space to process that experience. But please understand that terrible birth experiences are not inevitable. Birth is normal and healthy and when properly supported tends to go beautifully, so scaring or threatening pregnant women into submission to all-too-typical terrors and interventions is nothing but a cruel and careless way of avoiding our own regret, confusion, ignorance, pain and/or guilt. KNOCK IT OFF. She’s about to do something heroic and amazing and must summon every iota of her courage and stamina and focus. Unless there is something abnormal about her pregnancy, there is no reason she won’t be absolutely fine with good care. Would we hold up a “You Can’t Do This And You’re Crazy for Trying” sign at a marathon? We would not. So let’s be absolutely sure we keep our perverted birth mythologies to ourselves (and maybe even strive to educate ourselves about where those mythologies come from).

2. Bring Food

When in doubt, bring food. This might be obvious when we’re very, very close to the people in question, but is sometimes less so when we’re more general friends or acquaintances. Too often we fall into the easy trap of thinking “oh, I should leave them alone, I’m sure they don’t want to hear from little old me.” Wrong. Try organizing or participating in a Meal Train (check out the handy-dandy website, which allows you to coordinate with any number of friends, relatives, neighbors, co-workers). Buoy a new mother with all the lasagna she could ever consume. While we’re at her place, why not do the dishes and tidy up and make some tea? Offer to hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom, takes a shower, takes a nap. Take a good look around. What needs doing? Do it. Fun fact: in many parts of the world, women traditionally do not get out of bed for the first thirty days postpartum. They nestle in with their babies and are attended to, fed, and kept company by grandmothers, sisters, friends and relatives. Interestingly, there is very low incidence of postpartum depression where this custom is widely practiced. Perhaps we should rename it “abandoned at her most vulnerable ” depression.

3. Don’t Write Her Off

It’s easy, especially if we’re not in the exact same phase of life, to let friendships fall through the cracks at times like these. Maybe we have older kids and have mercifully forgotten much of what it’s like to have a new baby. Maybe we don’t have kids and the whole idea of new babies makes us a little uncomfortable, or a lot. Maybe we’re defensive because she doesn’t want to go to brunch and hear about our recent J-Dates just now. (Is J-Date still a thing?) Maybe we’re hoping to have a baby of our own and the thought of hers fills us with ugly thoughts. Maybe we philosophically disagree about the particulars of pregnancy or birth. Newsflash: none of that matters. If we truly love her and are decent friends, our ego is beside the point. Let’s go back to #2, while firmly reminding ourselves that this is not about us. “Like” every single social media post about the baby. Let her know she’s in our thoughts. When she feels up to it, accompany her on walks and short outings of her design. Love the baby. Coo at the baby. Exclaim over the baby. The beloved friend we used to know will return, if slowly, over some months or years. Give her time, and celebrate the new world order with her. Real friends don’t expect each other to stay exactly the same forever.

4. Be Okay About Her Body

If breastfeeding makes us uncomfortable, in theory or in practice, we should seek therapy. More immediately, we are called upon to pretend that it does not. Making a vulnerable woman who is struggling to master the art of feeding her child in a biologically appropriate manner feel weird or unwelcome or gross or like a political or sexual spectacle is the opposite of a mitzvah. Is there a way we can help her get more comfortable? It’s a safe bet to bring her a glass of water. Be kind. Read her signals. Intuit what she needs. She is nursing a baby: this is important work. We shouldn’t make our hang-ups or projections or ignorance about breasts her problem. We should not make ourselves her problem. She has enough to deal with. If we suggest she go nurse her baby in the bathroom we are officially not decent human beings, the end.

5. Listen

This is usually concurrent with #2 (all roads lead back to BRING FOOD). But here is where we are called upon to be even more open, more gentle, and even more grounded than perhaps we are used to being in everyday life. And here is where our customs around death are perhaps most apt. What do we do at a shiva? We give the bereaved space to talk, laugh, cry, joke, reminisce, or be silent. We hold them in a safe space, a transitional space, in which we ask nothing of them. We create and hold that space, and we do not budge for a set period of time. We cover the mirrors, because it does not matter what we look like right now. We don’t tell them how to grieve. We don’t try to set the tone or impose our thoughts or feelings. We simply make space for whatever feelings, whatever process, whatever idiosyncratic mess of emotion characterizes this particular situation. A new baby is a great simcha, to be sure. A new baby is also a great upheaval. Everything is raw and different and new, and it’s hardly an exaggeration to suggest that these first few days and weeks after birth will likely inform a lot of what’s to come. Let’s be sure to honor this time with the greatest reverence and utmost sensitivity. A revolution of happy, healthy, well loved and well cared for mothers can change the world.

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night is Different, and editor of the anthology Freud's Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fellow and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

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Into The Stew

Tuesday, February 17, 2015 | Permalink

Elisa Albert is the author of the novels After Birth and The Book of Dahlia, the short story collection How This Night is Different, and editor of the anthology Freud's Blind Spot. She is a 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fellow and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

People frequently ask us where a given novel came from, as though novels have clear origin stories (well, the daddy novel and mommy novel love each other very much, and they do a very special hug…). There is, alas, no simple way to answer this kind of question. I’m not trying to be coy or evasive when I shrug and change the subject, I promise. It’s just, well, how much time do you have?

Novels are noble and doomed attempts to answer very long, impossibly broad, and childish-in-the-best-sense questions. Why do we have to die? What’s up with this man versus nature thing? Why don’t I feel what I’ve been instructed to feel? Why do I love someone who doesn’t love me back? Why do we lie? Why can’t I stop thinking about X, Y, Z? Novels hopefully beget new, unpredictable questions, which echo long after you’re done reading. Novels are smarter than their authors. Novels are woven from almost untraceable sources. Novels sometimes reveal more than we wish they would. I think novels are magic that way. Good novels, that is, but “good” is subjective, so feel free to get angry and wag your finger in my face at a reading! Happens all the time.

I’m a voracious consumer of culture, but only what I absolutely want to consume. I feel no compunction to keep up with what anyone else thinks is important unless it speaks– no, shouts—directly to me, wherever I happen to be. The alchemy of how we find our way to connection with particular works of art at different times in our lives is not subject to will, untold eyeballs on social media notwithstanding. Timing is everything.

I went to a party at a writer’s apartment once, and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves were filled with every pristine hardcover novel the New York Times had reviewed over the prior decade. Most of the spines hadn’t been cracked. Mere set dressing, alas. It made me sad.

In a perfect world, our bookshelves would be idiosyncratic, singular as fingerprints. Each inner life fed a steady diet best suited to its unique metabolism. That way, finding commonalities on a friend’s bookshelf would mean a lot, wouldn’t it?

Anyway, sometimes I like things I’m “supposed to” like, more often I don’t; I’m not averse to trash, and it’s been a very long time since I forced myself to finish a book that does nothing for me. As a novelist, every single thing I read, hear, and watch goes into the stew. I can’t trace or diagram precisely how, but trust me. So, while what went into After Birth is by now long gone, blessed and ephemeral as eye contact on the subway, there’s a new novel in the offing, and it demands to be fed.

Herewith, a brief and somewhat random consumption survey of late. The next novel should be ready in, oh, shall we say three years? (I’ll aim for that, unless fate intervenes. The uterus is a mysterious joker.) Regardless, it all goes into the pot, and hopefully the stew will be tasty.

  • Amy Poehler’s memoir Yes Please. Adorable, if a bit of a bummer in making light of interventionist birth trauma and fear. Mostly adorable. Of her many accomplishments, the Upright Citizens Brigade is especially admirable. I love how she describes being asked by chirpy pseudo-friends, as her career begins to take off, “Can you believe it?” Yes, she deadpans. I can believe it. I’ve been working my butt off for years.

  • HuffPo article about addiction and connection, specifically a fascinating new rat study that seems to trace the roots of addiction not to the chemical grip of substances themselves but to lack of connection and community, which makes so much sense. I like to refer to these kinds of revelatory studies, confirming our most primal instincts, as Bears Still Shitting In The Woods.

  • Ani DiFranco show at the Egg in Albany. I’ve been to maybe thirty Ani DiFranco shows since my fellow Rohr Prize nominee and former camp counselor Ari Y Kelman introduced me to her music at Camp Ramah circa 1992. (Thank you forever, Ari.) It’s been thrilling to witness her evolution over the years, and more than a little uncanny to be aware of my own in relation. I brought my husband along to this one. He was a great sport, especially given the, ahem, intensity of crowd, the sing-along aspect, and my tears of joy throughout.

  • "Broad City." Adore this show. Makes me nostalgic for being young and careless in NYC. (But not too nostalgic.) What insouciant hilarity. “There’s no need to stress,” in the wise words of Ilana Glazer.

  • "Wild," the movie. Woman versus nature: what an idea. Beautifully done. Great story.

  • Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! This was one of my brother David’s favorite books. It’s been more than sixteen years since he died, and when a friend happened to recommend it, I realized: hey, it’s about time I read that. Delightful. I can feel David absolutely all over it. Reading very slowly so it lasts as long as possible.

  • Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. A collection of poetry from a scarily brilliant poet. This conversation about the book between poets Joy Katz and Erika Meitner is an excellent examination of what Shaughnessy is up to. Devastating and celebratory and a welcome reminder of what poetry can do.

  • Us Weekly magazine. Just read on the train because I’m tired and truth be told tabloids relax me like a hot fragrant bath. Should I buy The New York Times instead? A cursory glance at the front page reminds me that I will be crying and/or buzzing with rage/fear/hopelessness if I involve myself too deeply with its contents, so… Us Weekly it is. I no longer recognize half the celebrities featured therein, which weirdly does little to lessen my total enjoyment of this dumb rag.

  • Ruth Fowler’s piece on Al Jazeera America, which offers an important overview of exactly what’s going ever so wrong with our society’s treatment of childbearing women. I’m grateful for Fowler’s ongoing confrontation of misogynistic taboos regarding women’s bodies in birth.

  • Rebbe, by Joseph Telushkin. I grew up with Telushkin’s books, and was curious to know more about Schneerson. What a delight to find, in this engrossing portrait, a riveting human being whose insight, intellect, and infallible ability to connect changed the face of world Jewry forever, one yechidus at a time. I happened by the Chabad Sukkah in Washington Square last fall, and felt compelled to duck in and say the blessings. The three young orthodox men inside were friendly but slightly robotic until I asked them if they’d read Rebbe. Then they stopped what they were doing, looked at me with surprise, and agreed: what a phenomenal book, what a phenomenal biographer, what a phenomenal subject. We probably didn’t have much else in common, me and those boys in the sukkah, but we connected for a minute, and exchanged genuine good wishes, as I went on my way I felt uplifted by our shared appreciation of Telushkin’s achievement, and renewed in the certainty that art and literature have the potential to unite us all, sooner or later, one way or another, if only we let it.

Read more about Elisa Albert here.

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Elisa Albert on Siblings

Tuesday, January 04, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Finalist Elisa Albert (How This Night Is Different and The Book of Dahlia) has a new book out on siblings: Freud’s Blind Spot: 23 Original Essays on Cherished, Estranged, Lost, Hurtful, Hopeful, Complicated Siblings.

The New Yorker‘s Book Bench wrote it up in December:

The personal essays included in “Freud’s Blind Spot” prove what we already suspect—siblings do matter, and often have a decisive impact on the lives we lead. The book’s theme allows for endless variation… Continue Reading

And, browse inside here.

JUF Interviews Elisa Albert

Wednesday, June 17, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Stefanie Pervos of Jewish United Fund News posted an interview with Elisa Albert (The Book of Dahlia) on Monday (sorry for the delayed post…).

Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Elisa Albert

Thursday, February 05, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our third installment of “Words from our Finalists”…Elisa Albert

Elisa…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Elisa

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

The wide-open possibilities, I suppose. When you’re not bound to facts, the “what-really-happened”, those endless open roads can be daunting. How to make the right choices for your characters? How to be true to life while making the whole thing up?

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I fell in love with books as a kid and always felt driven to express myself in such a way as to honor what I found in my favorite writing. Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Be a Writer” (from Self Help, 1984, click to read) struck me like a bolt of lightening in high school. And I have an extremely dog-eared copy of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff; I must’ve torn through that thing a hundred times.

Who is your intended audience?

I actually try to avoid thinking about audience altogether; it can hobble me in a lot of ways. The real or imagined expectations of real or imagined readers (your mom, your mom’s friends, your friends’ moms, your teachers, your friends, your enemies, the lady at the drugstore, that guy who wronged you a decade ago,ad nauseum) seem to serve only as a limiting, censuring force, and to write fiction I believe one needs to be free of all that.

Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?

My work transcends time and generation, speaking to the core of universal human experience. Okay, no, sorry. I really couldn’t say, but I do feel fairly rooted in this present moment, both as a reader and as a writer. Who knows how that might translate over time?

Who is the reader over your shoulder?

Some conglomeration of the teachers I’ve been so blessed to have (Binnie Kirshenbaum, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stephen McCauley, and David Gates, especially), and some best version of myself — a reader who is sympathetic, empathetic, aware, well-versed, and capable of holding two opposing ideas in her head at the same time. Basically, a presence I adore and trust, and with which I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious or afraid.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Well! I just finished an opus: his name is Miller David Schwarzschild and he’s nine days old as of this writing. Next up, I’m editing an anthology of original personal essays by literary authors on sibling relationships, under contract to Free Press. Working title is Freud’s Blind Spot, and contributors include Erica Jong, Julie Orringer, Peter Orner, and Joanna Hershon. I’m also taking notes for a new novel about travel (the notion of the wandering Jew looms large), playing with a couple short stories, and writing two essays for upcoming anthologies, one on my feminist “click” moment and one on sex.

What are you reading now?

I finished Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland recently and was utterly charmed, moved, and delighted by it. An absolutely elegant and perfectly wrought book. So very deserving of its reception.

Very different, but no less excellent, is Gilad Elbom’sScream Queens of the Dead Sea, which I found at Dove and Hudson, Albany’s wonderful used bookstore, and picked up on a whim. A wacky, wild, very funny and perverse ride through a few days in the life of an Israeli metalhead working at the local mental institution.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I don’t think I decided to be a writer so much as decided that my attempts to be anything else were just not going to cut it. I did decide to go to grad school while temping at a really depressing little literary agency, though, and taking that step was a big commitment, in my mind, to giving the writing a serious go.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

A steady and constant writing life is the ultimate goal for me. Pushing forward and quite simply doing the work, day in and day out. It’s a huge challenge for me: I tend, quite honestly, toward rather dramatic bursts of productivity book-ended by periods of creative despondency and self-loathing. I feel like I’ve conquered the world and the worst in myself when I can just do the work, do the work, do the work, and let the chips fall where they may.

Also, lately, I very much aspire to breastfeed and nap at the same time.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I circle around it pretty elaborately: a walk to the store, a cup of tea and a snack, the window shades just so, the soundtrack extensively mulled, the laundry done, the house clean. (See also, above: creative despondency.) Then, when there’s nothing else to be done, when I have no choice but to face whatever I’m trying to write, I write. And if it goes poorly, at least I have the solace of some nice music in a clean house.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I suppose the answer depends on the reader. On the broadest level, and at its best, fiction can do miraculous things: show us bits and pieces of ourselves in stories with which we might not otherwise immediately identify, expand our capacity for real-life empathy by forcing us to empathize with characters we’ll never actually meet, and make us think about how vastly different perspectives on the world can form a really vibrant, if challenging, harmony.

You can read more about Elisa Albert by visiting her website here.

2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction Finalists Announced!

Tuesday, January 27, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

The 2009 Sami Rohr Prize Fiction finalists have just been announced!

Congratulations to:

Elisa Albert for The Book of Dahlia (Free Press)

Sana Krasikov for One More Year (Spiegel & Grau)

Anne Landsman for The Rowing Lesson (Soho Press)

Dalia Sofer for The Septembers of Shiraz (Ecco)

Anya Ulinich for Petropolis (Viking Penguin)

Coming soon…words from our finalists…