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.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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