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Mommy Darkest 

Elisa Albert Illuminates Women’s Lives

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Albert's own mother raised her three children on formula, after her doctor told her that breastfeeding was "very low class."

"She didn't question it," Albert says; her own generation did nothing but. In a 2014 column for Time, "Rich Moms of the First World, Stop Fighting About Breastfeeding," she discusses her own nursing struggles, the shaming of virtually every choice privileged women can make about breastfeeding, and the odious practice of formula marketing to third-world women. Her engagement with birth politics spurred her to train as a certified doula, along with poet and editor Rebecca Wolff. ("She was my doula doula.")

Albert has attended four births and is now working with her fifth pregnant client. "In a perfect world, no one would need to hire a doula, or a hospice nurse. We've created these vacuums," she says. "Women's bodies matter. How we're treated when we're vulnerable matters. If we're marinated in fear and treated like objects when we're that vulnerable, it has lasting consequences."

She's structured many of her bookstore events as conversations, appearing with Hudson Valley literati Jenny Offill, Chloe Caldwell, and Wolff, among others. A recent appearance with Orli Auslander at Woodstock's Golden Notebook "turned into a consciousness raising, a bunch of women and a handful of men, saying, 'Why doesn't anyone talk about this?' I love when that happens."

The daughter of two lawyers who met at UCLA, Albert grew up "surrounded by books. My mother taught by example. She was voracious. It was so obvious that there was this hunger she had, and the only way to sate it was a book. There was this whole universe of things to know." By nine or ten, Albert was reading her mother's novels when she finished them. "Amy Tan, Chaim Potok, John Irving—that was my language. I read all the kid Judy Blumes, then started on the adult Judy Blumes. I knew a lot. I got in trouble for educating my peers."

She also knew there were tensions that no one discussed. Her parents had split up, but weren't admitting it. "They didn't get divorced for 15 years. They were separated, but we never got sat down and told, 'Hey, kids...' My brothers were six and nine years older, maybe they understood. But that was a seed for me, that the reality and the conversation don't always line up."

Albert found solace in Ani Difranco songs. "I was turned onto her by a counselor I had a crush on at a Jewish summer camp in Ojai. She's a real lighthouse," she says, quoting lyrics from "Not a Pretty Girl." She attended "a very uptight private school," where she was an underachiever. "I couldn't be forced to care. I got Bs and Cs in math. It was a scandal. My family is very big on achievement. My mother would say, 'You'll have to go to community college!' like that was the worst thing in the world. Meanwhile I was reading my face off. I cared about that."

She went on to Brandeis, then moved to New York, where she earned an MFA from Columbia. Not long after, she sold her story collection and the then-unfinished Book of Dahlia as a two-book deal. "So I had to write the novel, and I was teaching and freelancing at the same time," she recalls. "The longest thing I'd ever written was a 20-page story."

After Dahlia, she edited an anthology about siblings called Freud's Blind Spot (Free Press, 2010). After Birth is a furious and triumphant return to the world of fiction.

But real life beckons. The sun is sinking, and Miller wants to go to the neighboring park with his mother and grandfather, who's visiting from California. As everyone dresses to leave—Miller improbably donning a seersucker jacket and royal blue bowtie—Albert describes how she came to own the battered metal sign in the hall, which reads "Parking for Planned Parenthood Only—Others Will Be Towed." When a nearby clinic moved to another location, she bribed the construction crew with a dozen donuts to rescue the sign. ("I asked Ed if we could put it over our bed," she reports. "He said no.")

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