Deeply intelligent and incredibly open, the groundbreaking musician opens up about motherhood, self-care, and her postpartum experience.

By Bethany Heitman
April 07, 2020
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Credit: Kayt Jones

An interesting thing happens when you mention Alanis Morissette’s name to, well, just about anyone. You’re instantly met with stories about the personal impact her music has had. Some will fondly share that hers was the first album they ever bought, while others will explain how certain songs helped them get through heartbreaking life moments. People feel deeply connected to Alanis—in large part because of the visceral honesty and raw emotions she has shared through her music.

For proof of this, look no further than 1995’s groundbreaking Jagged Little Pill, which sold more than 33 million copies worldwide and won a Grammy for Album of the Year. From the fury that ricochets out of “You Oughta Know” to the aching yearning in “Perfect,” Alanis made it OK for women to admit they feel emotions like anger and sadness—two things women have often been told not to show. Taylor Swift and Demi Lovato, among others, have credited her with forging a path for women in music to express the full spectrum of their feelings.

Everything Alanis has done in her career since has radiated equal candor. It is now on display in the musical Jagged Little Pill, which opened on Broadway late last year, and on her new upcoming album, Such Pretty Forks in the Road.

Credit: Kayt Jones

But it’s not just within her career that Alanis has shared her truth. The 45-year-old has spoken publicly about her history with trauma, disordered eating, and therapy. She has also been extraordinarily open about her postpartum experience after the births of each of her three children—most recently after giving birth to her son Winter this past summer. It’s for all of these reasons and more that Alanis made the perfect choice for Health’s cover in May, which is both Mental Health Month and the month in which Mother’s Day is celebrated. And we could think of no better way to showcase the beauty and strength of where she is now than to shoot her breastfeeding. Here, Alanis discusses everything from her history with depression to teaching her own children to take care of their mental health.

Your new album will be released soon. It’s been eight years since your last studio album. Is the process of making an album different now that you’re a mom?

It’s a little more integrated. In my late teens and early 20s, I was very particular about what the environment needed to be. There could be nobody looking at me. If I was doing vocals and there was someone walking in the other room, I’d be like, “Stop moving.” Now it’s like, my son is sitting on my head and I’m singing. And my daughter comes running in, and I’m like, “Just a second. We’re doing one more take.”

The first single, “Reasons I Drink,” touches on some really deep topics—drinking, isolation, and emotional eating. Do you ever get nervous putting such meaningful and personal lyrics out there?

I used to be afraid. The night before the release of a record, I would have full-blown anxiety attacks and be trembling. But the other option would be what? I wouldn’t be able to write. And I’ve also realized that the more I share vulnerably—it makes life easier. I feel more connected with other human beings. Fame has a way of completely isolating and ripping you away from other humans. So when I’m writing about these topics and people come up to me, I’m able to go, “Oh. Yeah. Me too.”

You’ve talked about your postpartum experience. Can you explain?

My first two children, it was mostly depression, suicidal ideation, and anxiety. But the depression was so in my face that the anxiety was just background music. With this one, it’s mostly anxiety and almost no depression. I’ve come to understand that this is purely animal. With breastfeeding, your oxytocin goes sky-high. Then cortisol goes sky-high because you’re trying to protect the baby from, you know, a potential saber-toothed tiger. You’ve got these two competing hormones. Ideally, we’re supposed to be ensconced with, like, 51 women, broths, soups, and warmth as the body is reconstructing—as your identity is reconstructing. Cut to modern times, where the world is very masculine, very alpha, which is completely the opposite. On that animal level, you’re just supposed to be up all night feeding your baby and sleeping all day when they’re napping. Who the f--- does that? I don’t know any mom that is like, “I totally sleep when they sleep.”

Does it affect how you bond with your child?

It wants to. Basically, there is a voice that goes, “Just go to a hotel and make sure the walls are padded, and don’t come out.” I rely on the oxytocin and on knowing that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. And the bond just keeps growing over the years. It’s kind of like meeting someone for the first time—this person comes out of your body and you’re like, “Hi. Holy s---.” But the PPD definitely challenges the bond.

You’ve been open about dealing with depression prior to your pregnancies, too. How is that depression different?

It’s not that different. It’s depression-plus. Throughout my life I’ve had depression, but I wouldn’t have those invasive thoughts as much. It’s invasive thoughts of these horrible, horrifying images, and they often come at night. So it’s depression, plus you’re panic-attacking every 10 seconds. Depression and anxiety are kind of bedfellows, really. There’s also this thing where some of us go into “lacto menopause” right after birth. So I’m sweating all over; I’m a cranky bitch.

Credit: Kayt Jones

Why did you want to appear on the cover of this magazine while breastfeeding?

Because I love women. I love moms so much. If I talk about it too much, I’ll start crying. I just think moms are so selfless day in and day out—women are just killing it all the time. And they are so often quietly suffering, or not-so-quietly suffering, and still going—functioning sufferers. And if there can be even one moment of respite that my humor around it or my validation of it can help—that’s why I did it. Plus, I love education and teaching.

You’ve said you’re a highly sensitive person (HSP). Would you share more about that?

About 20 percent of humans have a highly sensitive temperament—it’s a trait. It’s like having brown hair. A nonsensitive temperament will walk into a room and pick up 50 pieces of information. A sensitive person will walk into a room and get 500 pieces of information. So is there any question as to why highly sensitive people get overstimulated really quickly? It doesn’t mean we can’t contain it, but we might go a little crazy. Then, of those people who have highly sensitive temperaments, an even smaller percent are empaths. [Ed. Note: Broadly defined, empaths feel other people’s feelings.] 

Are you an empath?

Yes—it’s so beautiful and challenging.

Your music means so much to so many. People must approach you to share what it means. As an empath, that must be a lot to deal with. How do you make sure you’re taking care of yourself?

Straight-up solitude, and water. It could be a shower or a cup of tea or some soup—I just need water. And most HSPs like to be near water. I don’t get a lot of solitude. So, to be honest, it’s my main thing right now—“How’s Mom going to get more time alone?” I’ve been getting it at night.

What has been your journey with therapy—you’ve seen therapists since you were young, right?

Yes, since I was 15. I went to find my own therapist for my eating disorder, and it was awesome. And I also read so many books as a kid, and they were my best friends—when I wasn’t seen and felt invisible, these books were the best. I’d read them cover to cover and think, “See, they understand.”

How do you talk to your kids about mental health?

Oh, we talk about therapy all the time. Where’s Dad going? Oh, he’s going to therapy. What’s therapy? Oh, therapy is where someone really helps you understand your heart, and your soul, and your mind, and your story, and your thoughts. And then with feelings, it’s a big deal for me to let them feel all the way through. I want to give them the feeling that they’re not alone, that I’m right here and they can feel it all the way through. Right now I’m reading a book about emotionally focused family therapy—it gets into the crazy clinical nuts and bolts. I think that’s the new thing. I really think the earlier you get your family into therapy, the better.

In the musical Jagged Little Pill, sexual assault is touched on. As someone who has her own history of sexual trauma, was it difficult to watch those scenes?

There was a lot of crying. I was crying, the actors and dancers were crying. We were processing it. But I still have barely begun the sexual-abuse-recovery journey. I feel like I’m at the beginning of it. I feel like I have barely even begun.

Credit: Kayt Jones

You practice unschooling with your children—can you explain what that is?

Unschooling, for me, is child-led education. So if there’s some agenda like, “Let’s play with these magnet tiles,” and my daughter is like, “F--- those tiles. I want to put glitter on that thing and cut the tree and put the thing,” boom—we do that. I basically get inside their eyeballs. I’m constantly watching their eyes and what they’re pulled toward, and then we do the deep dive. My husband and I create pods all over the house—here’s where the spelling area is, and here’s where the fake animals are. There’s probably a better definition of unschooling, but there’s no rigidity to it.

So you really can’t ever check out?

No. If my son is going to bed late on tour and he asks me three really huge, existential questions, there’s no, “Ah, we’ll talk about it in the morning.” That is the moment. Unschooling is 24/7. When I share with people that I unschool, a lot of people I’m close with say they’d love to do it but just can’t. And I get it. I’m like, “Yes. I understand, and I think it’s a smart choice not to do it.” It’s a major commitment.

Credit: Kayt Jones

In terms of caring for yourself, do you meditate? 

Yeah. Mostly at night. But sometimes meditating, for anxiety, isn’t the right thing. So I want to qualify that sometimes I meditate. But sometimes meditating is not actually what I need. Being still is the nectar of the gods. Other times it’s like, “Oh I’m just going to fall into a pit of anxiety attack right now.” I read this amazing article—I go down rabbit holes every night doing research. Mindfulness—God bless—is having a huge moment. But this article I read said something like, “Forget mindfulness.” Mindlessness: I used to call it brain rest. For those of us who are cognitive, I think intellectualism is also a defense mechanism. Everything that was going on in my life, any chaos, I would just siphon it through my intellect to go, “Well, is this interesting?”

Where are you in your journey with food?

For me, my recovery has been around a combination of free eating, nutrients, and of just letting myself be regulated by food. But I still have the voices, every day. Sometimes they can be channeled into humor. But mostly it’s just this quiet little torture. I think as I get older, too, I value this instrument. My focus has shifted to vitality—that means a lot to me with three little kids running around. The eating-disorder conversation is a really long, beautiful one. I’m still on that journey.

For many, art can be a healing force.

Art—it’s cathartic, it moves energy when I’m onstage, but it doesn’t heal the relationships. I actually have to look at somebody; I have to actually talk with someone. I have to share shame, and when it’s received with nonjudgment and inquiry, I’m like, “Oh, human beings are safe. They’re not dangerous.” Because human beings have always felt dangerous to me. It’s so sweet. That kills me that that’s the answer. The answer is humans.

This article originally appeared in the May 2020 issue of Health Magazine. Click here to subscribe today!

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