Elena Ferrante: ‘Nothing is comparable to the joy of bringing another living creature into the world’

I was a terrible mother, a great mother. Pregnancy changes everything: our body, our feelings, the hierarchical order of our lives. The convention by which we have always considered ourselves one and indivisible fails. Now we have two hearts, all our organs are duplicated, our sex is doubled – we are female plus female or female plus male. And we are divisible, not metaphorically but in the acute reality of our body.

The first time I got pregnant, it was difficult to accept. Pregnancy was an anxious mental struggle. I felt it as the breakdown of an equilibrium already precarious in itself, as a revelation of the animal nature behind the fragile mask of the human. For nine months I was on a seesaw of joy and horror. The birth was terrible, it was wonderful. Taking care of a newborn, by myself, without help, without money, exhausted me; I hardly slept. I wanted to write and there was never time. Or if there was some, I would concentrate for a few minutes and then fall asleep fretfully. Until slowly everything began to seem to me marvellous. Today I think that nothing is comparable to the joy, the pleasure, of bringing another living creature into the world.

Of course, it took a lot of time away from my passion for writing. As a girl I’d imagined myself without children, entirely absorbed by my own yearnings. I admired women who were childless by choice, and I still understand the rejection of maternity. What I can no longer tolerate is the lack of understanding for women who do everything possible to get pregnant. In the past I had an ironic attitude, I thought: if you want children so much, adopt them. Today I think that the most extraordinary thing in my life was to conceive and give birth.

Men have always been jealous of that experience which is ours alone, and often dreamed – in myths, in certain rites – of forms of male pregnancy. Not only that: they immediately appropriated conception and birth metaphorically. They conceive ideas, give birth to works. And they have convinced us that since we already had the animal prerogative of maternity, the profoundly human prerogative of giving form to the world through sublime works was theirs alone.

But now we are demonstrating that we, too, are capable of metaphoric births, shadows are looming over maternity that seem to me threatening. A uterus can be bought. And among the countless prosthetic devices that will advance the connotations of the human there is one, the artificial uterus, that will free us from the annoyances of pregnancy.

I believe that in this case we should absolutely not be freed. Children are our body’s great, marvellous prostheses, and we will not give them literally to anyone, not to mad fathers, not to the country, not even to those machines that promise an inhumanly perfect humanity.

Translated by Ann Goldstein.

Fit in my 40s: ‘I hadn’t realised that fermentation is so vital to the gut’ | Zoe Williams

The problem with the science of diet is that if you’re only partially interested, gobbets of information go in and stick, surrounded by great gaps that you fill by whistling and not quite caring. So, I know that the microbial environment of the gut is crucial to good health and longevity. And that fermentation is vital to the gut, though I didn’t realise how vital until I spoke to Tim Spector, professor of genetics and author of The Diet Myth. It’s part of a suite of things that are good for you, along with “low-salt” and “very green”. “The complexity of adding fermentation to any food, as well as adding 10 times more flavour, releases more chemicals into the food; and the more chemicals there are, the more likely they are to be helpful to the body.”

The process works differently depending on the food type, but there are a few key principles; you can’t just pickle, you have to pickle in brine, not vinegar, because acid kills everything. The English were left behind by fermentation, having prematurely fallen in love with vinegar, which is why we’re not as hardy as the Hungarians. Problematically, if you like your health awareness with a side order of self-flagellation, fermentation is quite delicious.

Flat Three is a Swedish/Japanese fusion restaurant in London where they ferment in-house and pair their pickles with fermented juices, though you can have wine, if you like, because that’s also fermented. Miso looms large, but the flavour bomb is meju, a fermented bean paste to which you can add brine to turn it into doenjang, or fermentation squared. Something incredible happens to celery and cabbage pickled in brine: the intensity of flavour is like a dream, or the beginning of a stroke.

Kombucha, the black tea, is brewed from a live culture called a scoby; Merlin (of course the restaurant guy’s called Merlin) has a culture at home that was his grandmother’s (though we may have been talking about a yoghurt by then; something in the ineffable proliferation of the microbes makes it hard to track which superfood you’re on). “Did you get the scoby?” Spector asks. “I bought a kombucha in Hackney at the weekend [of course it was in Hackney], and it had this little blob of microbes and fungi, all living together, at the bottom.”

That living community will react with your own microbes to produce something new. But they’ve recently found that the microbes don’t even have to be alive: chocolate and sourdough both undergo fermentation, which is long dead by the time you eat it, but they’re still good for you, because the process has started breaking down the food before you try to digest it.

“We can’t prove it yet,” Spector says, “but there’s a theory that even dead microbes can have a signalling effect, that makes your own microbes want to copy them.” I started to think of my gut as like a 1990s rave, the mad vivacity of partially intelligent life forms all mimicking each other. It’s a strangely hedonic health kick.

What I learned

A British Gut survey of 3,000 people found there is not much to choose between vegetarians and non-vegetarians, but there is a clear difference between people who eat a varied diet and those who don’t

Addicted to digital technology? Here’s how to beat the habit | Oliver Burkeman

Banning yourself can have the perverse effect of making your phone more enticing. What you need to do is make it boring

Illustration by Michele Marconi

‘Smartphones are a diabolical mixture of bad and very good.’
Illustration: Michele Marconi for the Guardian

Recently, I bought a piece of digital technology to help me conquer my low-level addiction to digital technology. Yes, yes, I know this makes me sound like a sucker, no better than those techno-junkies who queue overnight at the Apple store for an early glimpse at the meaninglessness of their lives. But bear with me: Ditto, which costs about £30, is a thimble-sized contraption that clips to my belt and vibrates when I get texts or calls from specific people. So I can stash my phone in my bag, out of sight and reach, confident I’ll be contactable for, say, a baby emergency. (Or by the editor of Guardian Weekend. Obviously!) You can use the iPhone’s “do not disturb” feature to do something similar; but last year, researchers showed that just having a phone in your sightline impairs your cognitive capacities. By contrast, Ditto replicates all the secret joy of accidentally leaving your phone at home, with none of the accompanying panic.

Readers even more curmudgeonly than I am may mutter that if I have such a tortured relationship with my phone, I should just get rid of it – downgrade to a dumbphone, maybe. Didn’t we manage fine before smartphones came along? The trouble is that smartphones, like most technology, aren’t simply bad. They’re worse: a diabolical mixture of bad and very good. I love receiving photos of the baby while I’m at work; I love FaceTiming with faraway friends; I just hate the compulsion to stare absently at the web every five minutes. That’s the smartphone’s whole trick: all those addictive apps are essentially parasites.

“Hundreds of daily activities that used to be performed in separate locations, with different gestures, and through a range of interpersonal interactions, have now all been collapsed into the smartphone,” says Jocelyn Glei, in a recent episode of Hurry Slowly, her podcast on slowing down and cultivating attention. “Our brains have been trained to allot a substantive portion of our ‘automatic attention’ to our smartphones.” Every time I use the phone for something indisputably meaningful, such as tending to a friendship, I’m reinforcing the allure of all its other functions, most of which aren’t.

The frequently touted remedy is a “digital detox” – banning yourself from connectivity for hours or days at a time. But that can have the perverse effect of making the banned object more enticing. What I love about Ditto is that it makes my phone boring: if I know I’ll be buzzed for the important stuff, where’s the excitement in checking it?

That’s also the effect of another tip, featured in Catherine Price’s useful book How To Break Up With Your Phone, published next month: switch your display from colour to greyscale. (This is apparently so threatening to the addiction business model, it’s hidden five levels deep on the iPhone: go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Display Accommodations > Colour Filters.) Instantly, your phone is vastly duller. Perhaps that’s how we’ll find a sane relationship with tech: not through self-discipline, but by making it too tedious to bother with.

Listen to this

Stephanie Brown’s book Speed: Facing Our Addiction To Fast And Faster gets at the deeper psychological reasons we’re keen to reach for our smartphones, even when it makes us miserable