A four-day-old baby in a hospital ward. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images
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In After Birth, Elisa Albert is putting the feminist action back into motherhood

Knowing, understanding and speaking about birth and its aftermath are clearly as important as the political narrative that surrounds it. In her novel After Birth, Elisa Albert seeks to do just that.

Whenever something is offered up as “the truth” about motherhood, I am wary. The truth is a cliché. It‘s a checklist of quite-bad-but-not-all-that-bad issues that mothers will run through in order to demonstrate that they are “real” women and not yummy mummies, earth mothers, members of the Breastapo or any other faction we’re hoping to dodge. Sleepless nights, mess, tantrums, low-level resentments tempered by kisses and hugs: it all feels terribly scripted and besides, women have been having babies since the dawn of humanity. What more is there to say?

Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth is one place to start. It tells the story of Ari, a woman still struggling to make sense of her changed emotions, body and relationships one year after the birth of her son. Challenging, humorous and – tentatively – uplifting, it goes far beyond the usual explorations of what it is to be a mother (or at least someone who watches herself “doing” motherhood). Moving from frustration and isolation to connection and challenge, with delightful bitterness along the way, it is what motherhood – or even womanhood – feels like when no one is watching: more angry, more physical, and hungrier for companionship than any of us would like to admit.

One of the ways in which Ari feels isolated not just from other women, but from herself as a mother, is through the trauma caused by a caesarean that she did not want (and, it is strongly suggested, probably did not need):

They cut me in half, pulled the baby from my numb, gaping, cauterized center. Merciless hospital lights, curtain in front of my face. Effective disembodiment. Smell of burning flesh. Sewn back up by a team of people I didn’t know, none of whom bothered to look me in the eye, not even one of them, not even once. Severed from hip to hip, iced, brutalized, catheterized, tethered to a bed, the tiny bird’s heartfelt shrieks as they carted him off somewhere hell itself.”

As the novel progresses Ari counters this lingering sense of alienation by becoming increasingly – perhaps excessively – absorbed in the physicality of motherhood, raging at second-wave feminists such as Firestone for seeking a disengagement with the maternal body (“Defeat the female body and be liberated from it. I’d like to send around a paper on this with a long, involved academic title. The entirety of the piece would just read: Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit! Bullshit!”). It’s a fascinating subject, dealt with in an extreme but often humorous way. For so many women, the liberation promised by reproductive technology has not been experienced as liberation at all, yet it remains difficult to discuss such things without sounding either deeply conservative or hopelessly naïve (“Please not all that earth mother goddess shit, Ari”).

I ask Albert for her own view on the difficulties of expressing this need for engagement with the maternal body. As a feminist, how can one express what might sound awfully like (but is not) a celebration of female pain?

People have to come to it on their own. It took me a long time to understand that it’s better a lot of times to just keep my mouth shut, which is so counterintuitive and so hard for me because for so long I would be at a dinner party and somebody would be talking about birth and I’d just want to burn the house down. Writing this book and working as a doula has helped me understand that you just can’t lead anybody anywhere with this issue, you just have to be an example of what you think is right and good and hope that that influences whoever is open.”

Albert decided to train as a doula after completing After Birth (“I thought, I’ll write this book then I can exorcise myself of this obsession […] and I finished the book and I was disappointed to find that I was still fairly obsessed”). While her main income remains from writing, she describes her more intermittent work with pregnant and labouring women as “a calling”:

I never thought of myself as a particularly religious person, maybe spiritual but unformed in those ways, and I feel like I found a religion in birth […] So far as I can believe in anything or feel like I know something in the pit of my stomach, it really comes down to women’s bodies and that we are not in charge and we are not the boss no matter how much we pretend we are, no matter how blustery we get, no matter what we can accomplish with our brains and our tools and our inventions, that there is something bigger than all that and renders that a little bit ridiculous.”

Knowing, understanding and speaking about birth and its aftermath are clearly as important as the political narrative that surrounds it. Rather than offer up misery memoir cliché as “the truth”, in After Birth Albert has found a narrator who is willing to engage with the blood and guts. There is little time wasted talking around “that which we don’t talk about”. In conversation with a male friend, Ari expresses anger at other women for not initiating her into her new, post-birth life:

“Because they didn’t prepare me. Because they didn’t help me. Because they let me do this alone. Because they avoided knowing, mostly, themselves. How could they let me fall down this rabbit hole? They knew what was going to happen. Every woman who’s ever lived is supposed to know.”

While not expressing the same rage, Albert herself describes her shock at reading the notebooks of Susan Sontag – “this voracious intellect who wants to know everything about everything in the world” – and discovering that Sontag chose to give birth to her under twilight sleep, stating only “I wanted not to know”. Albert argues that in her doula work, it is the women who shy away from knowing what is happening to them or why who are most prone to feeling angry and defensive. When one creates such a void, one is left having to defend it at all costs.

One of the most powerful and disconcerting elements in Albert’s novel is its almost exclusive focus on relationships between women. Ari desperately needs female companionship and support, but struggles to maintain the intensity of the various friendships she forms (at one point claiming that “women are competitive ragey cuntrags with each other”). Her relationship with one woman in particular offers her the chance to heal – a little – yet Albert resists the temptation to idealise. Ari is dealing not just with her own demons, but with the increasing fragmentation and factionalisation of mothering communities around her. It’s a dilemma that rings very true, even for those of us less in touch with our inner misogynist. I ask Albert if she sees a way around this. How do we form and sustain these essential relationships amidst so much mistrust?

“I think we almost have to insist on finding connections,” she says, adding that it still requires a great deal of determination. “You just have to be patient and try to hold on tight until you find a few simpatico women you can be with in the experience. But I do share with Ari a great deal of frustration. […] I can remember feeling, like, come on, ladies, let’s cut to the chase, let’s stop bullshitting, let’s stop eyeing each other competitively and eliding each other based on what kind of stroller we’re buying, let’s get down to what really matters […]. And that kind of rage at the women who don’t seem to want to do that or who just refuse to do that, that’s very real and very deeply felt, the women who buy into the idea of a Mommy War.”

The “Mommy War” trope is particularly frustrating for mothers seeking to overcome the practical and psychological barriers keeping them apart. In Backlash Susan Faludi was keen to highlight its fundamental destructiveness, working as a means to divide and conquer, yet 25 years later it is still with us. Albert sees it as something women may never overcome – “it’s just a dynamic that is somehow innate […]  we’re being pushed into a corner, okay, we’re going to push each other into further corners within that corner” – yet something that comes through very strongly in After Birth is that there is hope. Ari’s relationship with Mina does not transform her, but by the end of the novel there are hints that she is learning to forgive and accept other women. As Albert says, “there’s not a black and white resolution but you see a ten degree change. Where the window was closed and locked at the beginning now it’s wedged open just a crack so that the end of the book is almost like the beginning of another story.”

The US reception to After Birth has been extremely positive. The has been a small degree of controversy regarding the position taken on Ari takes caesareans,  with her calling any obstetrician who performs over 9 per cent “an official motherfucker”. Yet as Albert points out, there is something wrong when a procedure that may be necessary to one in ten women is being carried out – with questionably levels of consent – on one in three, as is the case in the US. One other criticism has come from older women, some of whom have accused Albert of being a “complainer”: “like, ‘in my in my day we just had our babies and we didn’t talk about it and we got through it and it’s over and why do you have to complain?’” Albert’s response? “Frankly I don’t believe that. I think if you had been in these women’s kitchens you would have heard quite a lot of complaining.”

But of course, we – modern women, mothers, especially middle-class mothers – don’t spend as much time in one another’s kitchens any more, so how would we know? And this is the nub of it: unless women are able to form open, fearless connections with other women, how can we ever get beyond the official “harsh truths” of motherhood and on to what we really need to talk about? It’s a question that After Birth explores through Ari’s changing friendships and one that Albert expands on when discussing the isolation mothers that experience:

We can all theorise about why that is and what makes that possible […] but what’s more interesting to me is where do we go from here and what does it look like if we refuse that, we refuse to be isolated from each other and competitive with each other and insecure about our own choices based on other people’s choices. What if we opt out and just don’t let anybody tell us how to be? What if we recognise those dynamics on the threshold and reject them outright?”

The questions are complex but sometimes the answers are simple. We have the blood, the guts, the political debate, but we also have the immediate human context of motherhood. And as Albert puts it, “it’s actually a feminist action to approach another young mother with a wide open smile and no hidden agenda, no competitiveness or insecurity, and no bullshit.” Whatever our backgrounds and choices, as mothers, we could all be feminists right now.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

GRAHAM TURNER/GUARDIAN NEWS & MEDIA
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How board games became a billion-dollar business

A new generation of tabletop games escaped the family table – and fuelled a global industry.

In Birmingham not long ago, I watched a political catastrophe take place. A cabal of academics was clamouring for a liberal manifesto and an anti-capitalist government agenda. The working classes were demanding authoritarian rule with fewer socialist policies. And the ruling party, beset by infighting and resignations, was trying to persuade everyone that it had their interests at heart. It all felt disturbingly familiar – except that these politicians were brightly coloured cartoon drawings, their policies were drawn from a fat deck of cards and the people pulling the strings of government were a young family and a bunch of cheerful twentysomething men in T-shirts.

This was Statecraft, one of hundreds of board and card games on display at the UK Games Expo (UKGE) in Birmingham last summer. Now in its tenth year, UKGE is Britain’s biggest event in the increasingly crowded and profitable world of tabletop gaming and, with its milling crowds, loud music, packed stalls and extraordinary costumes (I spotted Judge Dredd, Deadpool, innumerable Doctors Who and more sorcerers than you could shake a staff at), it felt like a mixture of a trade show, a fan convention and a free-for-all party.

For anyone whose last experience of board games was rainy-day Monopoly and Cluedo, or who has doubts about the place of cardboard in an entertainment landscape dominated by screens, there was no better place to come for a Damascene conversion.

Statecraft’s creator, Peter Blenkharn, a gangly and eloquent 23-year-old with an impressive froth of beard, was in his element. “Our game also has one-party state scenarios,” he explained, brandishing a colourful deck of terrifying political events. “Sectarian violence. Hereditary establishments. An egalitarian society. Each one tweaks the mechanics and the mathematics of the game. There might be a housing crisis, a global pandemic, extremist rallies, a downturn in the economy, and with each you get a choice of how to react.”

Blenkharn is one of many new designers making careers out of the current boom in tabletop gaming. He founded his company, Inside the Box Board Games, with Matthew Usher, a friend from school and Oxford University, and raised £18,000 on the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter to make their chemistry-themed puzzle game, Molecular. It was manufactured in China and shipped to Blenkharn’s mother’s house, where his family helped to send copies to the game’s backers. Last year, a second Kickstarter campaign for Statecraft made more than twice as much money, prompting Blenkharn to go into the business full-time.

“Publishing your own games is definitely profitable,” Blenkharn told me. “The profit margins are enormous on medium runs, and there’s a huge amount of room for more indie publishers . . . People collect 20, 30 or 40 board games at £20 or £30 a time. You can play with a range of different people. And while video games have a fairly niche age range, as you can see . . .” – he gestured around at the milling crowds – “. . . these games appeal to everyone. The market is exploding.”

The figures appear to support this optimistic prognosis. Last August, the trade analysis magazine ICv2 estimated that the “hobby games” business in 2015 – that is, board and card games produced and sold for a dedicated “gamer” market, rather than toys – was worth $1.2bn in the US and Canada alone. On Kickstarter, where independent designers can gauge interest and take pledges to fund production, tabletop games made six times more money than video games in the first half of 2016.

One of the most startling of these Kickstarter success stories was Exploding Kittens, a simple, Uno-like game illustrated by the creator of a web comic called The Oatmeal. This unassuming deck of cards, crammed with daft cartoons and surreal humour, earned nearly $9m in the month of its crowd-funding campaign, making it the seventh most successful project in Kickstarter’s eight-year history; so far, the only products on the platform to raise more money have been four iterations of the Pebble smart watch, a travel jacket with a built-in neck pillow, a drinks cooler that ices and blends your drinks – and a reprint of another board game, the fantastical (and fantastically expensive) Kingdom Death Monster, which costs $200 for a basic copy and is taking pledges of up to $2,500. It has already raised more than $12m. The figures for other games are scarcely less impressive: a game based on the Dark Souls series of video games, for example, raised £4m in crowd-funding pledges last April.

Touring the aisles of the UKGE, I started to wonder if there was any subject about which someone hadn’t developed a board game. A family was deep in a new edition of Agricola, a German game that involves scratching a living from unforgiving 17th-century farmland. “I’m going to have trouble feeding my child this harvest,” I heard one of the players say. Nearby, two people were settling into Twilight Struggle, a tussle for ideological control set in the Cold War, in which the cards bear forbidding legends such as “Nuclear Subs”, “Kitchen Debates” and “We Will Bury You”.

I spotted three games about managing fast-food chains, one about preparing sushi, one about eating sushi, one about growing chillies and one about foraging mushrooms; I watched sessions of Snowdonia, about building railways in the Welsh mountains, and Mysterium, a Ukrainian game in which a ghost provides dream clues to a team of “psychic investigators” using abstract artwork. A game called Journalist (“‘Where is that promised article?’ roars your boss”) seemed a little close to home.

Spurred by the opportunities of crowd-funding and the market’s enthusiasm for new ideas, a legion of small and part-time designers are turning their hands to tabletop games. I met the Rev Michael Salmon, an Anglican vicar whose football-themed card game Kix, a tense battle between two players with hands of cards representing their teams, has echoes of the Eighties classic Top Trumps. Nearby was Gavin Birnbaum, a London-based driving instructor who designs a game every year and carves them individually from wood in his workshop; 2015’s limited edition from his company, Cubiko, was Fog of War, in which perfect little tanks crept around a board of wooden hexagons, zapping each other.

Perhaps the most impressive prior CV belonged to Commander Andrew Benford, who developed his hidden-movement game called They Come Unseen beneath the waves in the Seventies while serving on Royal Navy subs. Sold at UKGE in a snazzy cardboard version by the war games company Osprey, it had come a long way from the “heavily engineered board covered with thick Perspex and secured to an aluminium board” that the nuclear engineers prepared for the original. Benford, now retired, was already thinking about an expansion.

This surge in innovation has also made these interesting times for established creators. Reiner Knizia, one of the best-known names in board games, told me, “There are enormous changes in our times, in our world, and this is reflected in the games. It’s wonderful for a creative mind.” Knizia is a German mathematician who quit a career in finance to become a full-time designer in 1997. His interest in games began in his childhood, when he repurposed money from Monopoly sets to devise new trading games, and he now has more than 600 original games to his credit.

Knizia’s games are frequently remarkable for a single innovative twist. In Tigris and Euphrates, a competitive tile-laying game set in the Mesopotamian fertile crescent, players compete to win points in several different colours, but their final score is calculated not on their biggest pile but their smallest. His licensed game for the Lord of the Rings series developed a method for co-operative adventure – players collaborate to win the game, rather than playing against each other – that has become a separate genre in the 17 years since its release.

But Knizia is no doctrinaire purist. The design experiments he conducts from his studio in Richmond, London (“I have 80 drawers, and in each drawer I have a game, but no sane person can work on 80 products at the same time”), embrace new methods and unusual technologies – smartphones, ultraviolet lamps – in their pursuit of what he calls “a simple game that is not simplistic”. When I mentioned the assumption common in the Nineties that board games would be dead by the millennium, he raised an eyebrow. “That clearly wasn’t going to happen,” he said. “Just as if you said travelling would die out because you could see everything live on television. There are basic needs of human beings: to socialise with other people, to explore things, to be curious, to have fun. These categories will stay. It doesn’t mean that we have to have printed cardboard and figures to move around: we might lay out a screen and download the board on to the screen. The act of playing, and of what we do in the game, will stay,
because it is in our nature.”

This question of the appropriate shape for board games – and how they are to utilise or shun the glowing screens that follow us everywhere – is one that many game designers are asking. Later in the summer, I had the chance to play the second edition of a game called Mansions of Madness, a reworking of an infamously complex board game based on the work of the horror writer H P Lovecraft. In its original incarnation, players navigated a series of terrifying colonial mansions, encountering monsters and events that needed to be drawn from piles of pieces and decks of cards by a human opponent. Like many games that involve huge numbers of interacting decisions, the first edition was a horror of its own to manage: the set-up took an eternity and one false move or misapplied card could ruin an entire game. For the second edition, its publishers, Fantasy Flight Games, streamlined the process – by handing over responsibility for running the game to an app for smartphones and tablets.

“To some, I’m the great Satan for doing that,” Christian T Petersen, the CEO of Fantasy Flight, told me when we discussed the integration of apps and games. “There was a portion of the gaming community that resisted it for various reasons: some on the basis that they didn’t want a screen in their lives, some on the basis of interesting thought-experiments that if they were to bring their game out 50 years from now, would the software be relevant or even possible to play? Maybe it won’t. I don’t even know if some of these inks that we have will last 50 years.”

Also a designer, Petersen was vigorous in his defence of the possibilities of mixed-media board gaming. “We’re trying to use technology to make the interface of games more fun,” he said. “Too much integration and you’ll say, ‘Why am I playing a board game? I might as well be playing a computer game.’ Too little and you’ll say, ‘Why is it even here?’ But I believe there’s a place in the middle where you’re using software to enhance the relevance of what this can be as a board game. We’re still experimenting.”

Other experiments have gone in different directions. The program Tabletop Simulator, released in 2015, is a video game platform that represents tabletop games in a multiplayer 3D space. Players can create their own modules (there are hundreds available, many of them no doubt infringing the copyright of popular board games) and play them online together. A recent update even added support for VR headsets.

While designers debate the future of the medium, tabletop gaming has been creeping out of enthusiasts’ territory and into wider cultural life. In Bristol, one evening last summer, I stopped by the marvellously named Chance & Counters, which had recently opened on the shopping street of Christmas Steps. It is a board game café – like Draughts in east London, Thirsty Meeples in Oxford and Ludorati in Nottingham – where customers pay a cover charge (£4 per head, or £50 for a year’s “premium membership”) to play while eating or drinking. The tables have special rings to hold your pint away from the board; the staff read the rule books and teach you the games.

“When I was growing up,” explained Steve Cownie, one of the three owners of Chance & Counters, “board games were associated with family time: playing Monopoly at Christmas and shouting at each other. Now, it’s been repositioned as a way for young professionals, students, just about anyone, to spend time with each other. It’s a guided social interaction, where there’s a collective task or a collective competition.”

There is barely a smartphone in the place. “People aren’t sitting around checking Face­book,” agrees Cownie. “They’re looking each other in the eye, competing or co-operating. It’s amazing to see, really.”

A board games café is an odd social experience but a compelling one. Before taking our seats at Chance & Counters, my companion and I were ushered by a waiter towards a wall of games that ran down the side of the building, past tables of other people bent in rapt concentration or howling in riotous disagreement over rules. “Would you like something light?” he asked. “Something heavy? Something silly? Something strategic?” The rows of gleaming boxes stretched out before us. Somewhere in there, I knew, was exactly the game we wanted to play. 

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era