One of the toughest jobs a comedian has is to find out who he or she is onstage. For years, Bethany Van Delft was almost there. She’s been a local headliner and played festivals, but there’d been something missing. That has changed in the past year or so, as she has figured out how to address her own experiences with motherhood, interracial marriage, anxiety, feminism, and more with a new emotional honesty. And she’s done it just as she is releasing her debut album, “I’m Not A Llama,” out Friday.
“Those feelings were there, but . . . I didn’t know how to go from me to the stage,” she says. “I feel like this year, I do know how to do it. Every single thing I’ve ever done has come together.”
The shift to more personal material is reflected on the new album. Take, for example, this bit from “Financing a Family” about not feeling immediately connected to her first child. “I always heard new moms say, ‘Oh my God, when I laid eyes on my new baby it was love at first sight,’ ” she says. “But when I laid eyes on my baby, it was like a drunk hook-up.” The baby was a stranger to her, and she worried that was the wrong thing to feel.
“That’s what we’ve been seeing our whole life — woman has baby, woman stares at baby, woman loves baby instantly,” says Van Delft in an interview. “But that is not true. There’s a huge percentage of woman that suffer postpartum depression, and they don’t look at their baby and have that connection. That is a really typical feeling.”
One turning point in Van Delft’s comedy came in 2014 when she told the same story about giving birth to her daughter at a Moth storytelling event, but from a more sobering perspective, remembering what she said to her husband, Jayme. “They put her on my chest, and I soaked in this little person that I’d been carrying around. And I saw her little chin and her heart-shaped mouth, her button nose and her folded ears. And I saw her almond eyes, and my heart stopped. And I asked Jayme, 'Does she look like she has Down Syndrome?’ ”
The approaches between the stand-up routine and the Moth story are different, but they hold equal weight for Van Delft. “They’re both completely true,” she says. “They’re both exactly what happened. People think you either have to be devastated or you have to think it’s funny. That’s not true. There’s every single range of feeling that you have when you go through anything.”
She hadn’t counted on the outpouring of support she’d get from around the world once the story aired on the radio. She also learned something as a performer. “Because there was no expectation for me to be funny, necessarily, I was free to just be me,” she says, “which I had never been on a comedy stage, I don’t think, up until that point. I was versions of who I thought I should be.”
Being more of herself onstage had always been a goal. Van Delft remembers speaking with fellow comedian Ken Reid, who often draws on stories from his life in his stand-up. “I’d be like, ‘Just wanna be like you, man. I just wanna tell stories that are funny and talk about real stuff in my life.’ And Ken would say, ‘You do it all the time — you just don’t do it onstage and I just don’t know why.’ ”
As Van Delft has opened up more, she had become less-self-conscious about her stand-up. “It’s like I’m more comfortable in my skin,” says Van Delft. “Or I’m more comfortable being uncomfortable."
To Reid, the motherhood routine on the album is more brave of Van Delft than the Moth story. “I think in some ways,” he says, “her doing that onstage with that joke in there, is more real and also more vulnerable than not making a joke, because she’s showing how she uses humor to process difficult things more onstage.”
The change has paid off. She frequently headlines her own club shows, and she’s opened for the likes of Maria Bamford, Robert Klein, Rob Delaney, and Jake Johannsen, to name a few. She’ll open a sold-out show at CitySpace on Dec. 19 for Michelle Buteau. After “Light and Hope,” her story about giving birth to a child with Down syndrome, became one of the most popular stories on “The Moth Radio Hour” in 2014, she started hosting Boston StorySLAM events once a month. Lately, she’s been adding speaking engagements about children with special needs to the mix.
And there is plenty more for Van Delft to explore onstage. She jokes about being in an interracial marriage. “My husband is white, so I know who the Lumineers are,” she says, cheering. “I’m the first in my family, they’re so proud of me.” Her daughter has, as Van Delft says, “blue, blue eyes and milk-white skin,” which is a disconnect for some when they meet her. “It’s really really hard to tell she’s a person of color,” says Van Delft. “I always have to be telling white people, ‘Listen, I am black. That is my daughter. She is black. You need to be racist to her.’ ”
Van Delft has battled depression and anxiety
, and she experienced postpartum depression a second time with the birth of her son. This time, though, she sought the support of her therapist and family. “It just really re-emphasized the importance of getting help, the importance of seeing when you need the help, getting the help.”
That part of her life has made it to the stage, too. She talks about using mindfulness practices to manage anxiety. “I think it really, really works when you smoke a lot of weed,” she says. She turned to Google to find other methods, which was a mistake. “I think the first thing that should pop up is, ‘Stop Googling,’ ” she jokes.
Van Delft had dismissed the idea of making an album earlier in her career, when her confidence was low and her anxiety was high. Now she is saying “yes” more often. (She’ll host an album release party on Dec. 21 in Davis Square, Somerville, at a venue to be named; details will be released the day of the show at www.donttellcomedy.com. ) She has one project in the works she can’t talk about but should reveal soon. She might write a television pilot or a book of essays.
“I don’t know what will happen next, but I do see there are possibilities everywhere,” she says. “But I will have to keep putting work in, and I’ll have to take care of myself.”
Nick A. Zaino III can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org