By Nicole Cliffe (SELF)
Let’s talk about the story of Alanis Morissette. To Canadians, she’s “Alanis,” and always will be. Alanis was born in 1974 in Ottawa, our nation’s windy and generally unpleasant capital (hate-mail me as much as you want, it’s terrible there). She started working at the age of 10, as an ensemble member of the very strange and very wonderful You Can’t Do That On Television, where as part of her job she would be doused with slime. Think of it as The Mickey Mouse Club, but if Tim Burton were in charge.
Alanis recorded her first song when she was 10, and then released her solo dance-pop album, Alanis, in 1991, at 17, cowriting every track. It went platinum. In 1992 she took home the Juno, the Canadian equivalent to a Grammy award, for Most Promising Female Vocalist of the Year. She toured with Vanilla Ice. Her second album, Now Is The Time, was a commercial disappointment, but signaled that Alanis was starting to chafe a bit with her image in Canada: She was experimenting with more complicated lyrics, trying out ballads. There are many, many artists who are exceptionally famous in Canada because of being Canadian, and in part because of the CanCon regulations that require our radio and TV stations contain a certain percentage of content created by Canadians in our programming. Some of these artists never meaningfully pop in the United States (The Tragically Hip, for example) and some of them manage to cross over (Alanis). But the Alanis we had in Canada was never your Alanis Morissette. Alanis was…both Olsen twins in one body. She was our Tiffany, (and more frequently referred to as our Debbie Gibson) but much more. She was Robin Sparkles. She was a tiny dynamo with wild dark hair and a mezzo-soprano voice you couldn’t possibly overlook.
Your Alanis Morissette, the Alanis Morissette who has one hand in her pocket and would go down on you in a theater, is an American. Her American career has been wildly successful, as Jagged Little Pill (which sold 16 million copies in the United States, 33 million total) was followed up in 1998 by Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie and her performance on MTV Unplugged in 1999. Her (totally baller) album Under Rug Swept dropped in 2002, topping the Canadian charts and selling a million copies in the United States.
I won’t list all the work she’s done between then and now (in addition to several subsequent albums, you may remember her as God in the 1999 Kevin Smith movie Dogma, or as the woman who confirmed Carrie Bradshaw’s heterosexuality on Sex and the City, or for her work on Weeds), other than to say she has maintained a level of production consistent with studio stars in the era of Louis B. Mayer’s MGM. For Alanis, a lot of it stems from being a workhorse from such a young age. “I always remember working my ass off 24 hours a day and looking out and seeing the kids playing in the backyard and thinking, Well, I can’t do that right now,” she said.
…Becoming a mother was not the easiest journey for her. “Between Ever and Onyx there were some false starts,” she said. “I always wanted to have three kids, and then I’ve had some challenges and some miscarriages so I just didn’t think it was possible.”
According to the Mayo Clinic, 10 to 20 percent of pregnancies end in miscarriage. We as a society have only recently (so recently!) begun to be more open to discussing miscarriages and reproductive struggles in general, and so it still comes as a shock to hear someone offer you the softest part of their heart to hold in this way. In a follow-up e-mail, she expanded on her feelings about her pregnancy losses: “I […] felt so much grief and fear. I chased and prayed for pregnancy and learned so much about my body and biochemistry and immunity and gynecology through the process. It was a torturous learning and loss-filled and persevering process.”
Being somewhat of a planner, Alanis was determined to take the reins. “I had done tentacles of investigation on everything, from hormones to physicality, every rabbit hole one could go down to chase answers,” she told me. “I have different doctors who laugh at the thickness of my files. So, for me I’ve tried every different version from heavily self-medicating, to formal allopathic medications, to now.”
“I’m also an over-preparer for those things,” I told her. “I always get that dreaded question, in the first meeting: Do you have a medical background?, at which point I have to be like ‘No, I just want to know.’ I want to know things, I’m curious.”
“I think there are certain archetypal creatures—sounds like you’re one of them—who are really research-based and just want to be as informed as possible,” Alanis said. “I’m a systems thinker, I love leadership, I love collaboration, I love every role in a system being at the top of their game. And it used to be really uncool to be an over-communicator, and now it is a boon for people and they are so appreciative with the level of accountability and the speed with which feedback is given, or answers, or responsivity. So now what people used to shame is something that people appreciate, which is the best part of evolution I guess.”
In her follow-up e-mail, she suggested that this multipronged research- and information-based approach to understanding her body ultimately paid off: “When I […] chased my health in a different way, from multiple angles—[including, among other things] extensive consistent blood work monitoring to trauma recovery work to multiple doctor and midwife appointments to many tests and surgeries and investigations, things shifted,” she wrote. And then after all that, thanks to a combination of luck and resources, Alanis found herself pregnant at 44, having had doubts that she would get to this point, but ready to get back on that particular merry-go-round.
Pregnancy is a big fucking deal. In a very real sense, her pregnancy at the age of 44 (now 45) is why I sat in that villa talking to her. Every single one of us on this planet is the result of a successful pregnancy, but it’s still an experience you cannot explain until you’ve been through it. Ask someone about their colonoscopy (probably do not do this) and you’ll get a clear answer. Ask someone about their pregnancy, and you’ll feel like you’re overstepping, and they’ll be hard-pressed to know where to begin, or how to communicate it.
Pregnancy can change your body, forever. I think we’re getting better as a society at acknowledging the physical nonsense: Your feet may get bigger and flatter, you may never again be able to laugh without peeing a little, you may grow way more hair and then it may fall out into your bathtub drain and through your fingers over the course of your first month after giving birth. What’s harder to talk about is the shit it can dredge out of your heart. “It’s this whole chemistry of emotions,” Alanis said. “Hormones and chemicals that are just coursing through your body. It [can] be triggering, or flashbacking, or re-traumatizing.”
Some of the body changes also turn back the clock. I have a metal rod and some screws in my left leg, and during each of my pregnancies, by the second half of my second trimester, I was acutely aware of them, as though the accident had occurred the week before, and not 10 years prior. I relayed this to Alanis, and she understood. “There are so many ways pregnancy can affect you,” she said. “I was ready for the ride. My first two pregnancies have been gradually becoming more proprioceptive, more attuned to the subtleties that are going on [in my body].” Subtleties like the feeling that her sacrum is a little off, or suspecting when she may need some extra Vitamin D.
…She gave birth to her first two children at home. For Ever’s entrance into the world, she says the birth lasted 36 hours in total, with 12 hours of intensity. I nodded knowingly, having personally followed up 24 hours of labor with three and a half hours of pushing (which is…too much pushing). The intensity.
“Oh, yeah, when you’re fully in the shit,” I said.
“Yeah, sometimes literally,” she said.
“People tell you that but you don’t really believe it until it’s happening to you,” I said.
“And you don’t care,” she said.
“Not even the tiniest bit.”
…Alanis also said that she tries to parent her children with their empathy and sensitivity front of mind. “It’s a lot of oh sweetheart, yes your heart is broken for that person and that person’s going to be okay,” she said. “And I’m so grateful for those moments because I get to notice and I get to support my children in a way that sometimes I wasn’t, just because I was in a different generation. Those weren’t conversations being had 44 years ago.”
…The pace of motherhood, which obviously varies tremendously in those early months, isn’t easy but it is…simple. Feed, clean, hold. And that can hit you hard, it can make you feel incredibly inadequate about all the things you’re not accomplishing (showering, laundry, not eating over the sink, etc.) “The days are long and the months are short,” as older parents love to tell you, translates in your day-to-day life as a sometimes blissful, sometimes agonizing slowdown of whatever your life looked like before.
“Oh, it does slow you down—chemically, circumstantially, financially, in your marriage, in your career,” Alanis agreed, reflecting on her own experiences with caring for newborns. “I think a lot of women who had one way of life, myself included, and [having a baby created] a complete sea change overnight.”
…The Cut recently published an essay challenging a recent uptick in mothering memoirs by white, mostly affluent women, who have greater freedom to throw away the rules and take three-hour walks with their children without wondering who’s preparing dinner and if he can finish it before his swing shift starts. This doesn’t make anything Alanis does or says less interesting, but there are, among her many challenges, the kind of privileges that allow her to bypass a large cross-section of the problems that face the majority of American mothers: She’s not pumping in a bathroom with a broken lock, she’s not food-insecure, and she’s not raising her children without a partner, or with a partner who’s failing to pull their weight. If only we could all face our hardships within this context.