Features Published 19 April 2021

Naomi Sheldon: “A pregnant madness”

Playwright Naomi Sheldon chats to Rosemary Waugh about her pandemic pregnancy, sex, and channelling emotional turbulence into action.

Rosemary Waugh

Naomi Sheldon. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw

In the year 2020, Naomi Sheldon lost control. In a good way – mainly. The writer-performer of the award-winning Good Girl was heavily pregnant for the first time with twins, a daunting experience intensified by the ambient anxiety of the coronavirus pandemic and sweltering summer temperatures. “I felt like I was in this sort of pregnant madness, really,” she explains. “I was trying to wrestle with the feelings I was having, which were mainly anxiety.”

That febrile, fertile madness forms the basis of her new short film Venus of Whitechapel, directed by Annabel Arden for the multi-part Motherhood Project online via the Battersea Arts Centre from 19 – 25 April.

Prevented from seeing the friends and family who could witness her physical transformation and knowing that her husband wouldn’t be allowed to spend time with her or the children directly after the birth – never mind being able to bask in the yummy mummy Insta-vision of preggers yoga and colour-coordinated baby showers – Sheldon’s pregnancy often felt surreal and, at points, simply “really tough.”

The answer? To stop attempting to control the situation. “Where I really got to, most importantly, is accepting that I had to relinquish control,” Sheldon explains. “I felt like this stuff with the pandemic, this stuff with the pregnancy, was all about control. And I had no control of my body anymore. I had tapped into this ancient formula which had a life of its own – literally.”

Letting go of a sense of control, of course, is far easier said than done. Maybe because we’re so practiced at attempting to tweak, manipulate and master ourselves and the world around us. As Sheldon describes, “After years and years of training your body, honing your body, trying to get to know it, suddenly at age 35 [her age during pregnancy], it does its own thing!” And when it comes to pregnancy, “its own thing” is pretty remarkable-slash-shocking – depending on your point of view. “You have no idea that you’re going to go through all these different phases. I just hadn’t been taught about things like how it’s going to change your vulva, the colostrum that’s going to come out of your nipples waaay before the birth. All of this stuff, I felt I was completely in the dark about; it was just happening to me. And my body was just doing it.”

Venus of Whitechapel – named with reference to the glorious ancient Venus figurine the Venus of Willendorf – touches on Sheldon’s bodily metamorphoses, along with the multi-layered anxieties and accompanying guilt she felt in the run-up to giving birth. “I felt very guilty about being scared. Because I had been told this narrative that it was meant to be so joyful and Earth Mother and all the rest of it. So I felt ashamed that I was having a tough time, that I was anxious,” she says.

Likewise, the film mentions a fundamental guilt around the luck of having conceived not just one, but two, babies with relative ease – “It took about five shags!” – when other women struggle for years, and the various pressures to conform to an idealised picture of motherhood. With her characteristic humour, Sheldon’s script notes how these images of perfection are already at play from fertilisation onwards. “There was a lot of focus on the moment of conception,” she says near the start of the film. “I got this idea that to make a child, a really good one, the sex had to be, well, pretty much the best, most moving sex in which two people – to borrow from the Spice Girls – become one.”

Perfect sex equals perfect child, or bad sex equals bad start in life for a human being, is an anxiety I happen to share. Personally, I’d like to start bringing life into this world only in the immediate aftermath of an orgasm that made me feel like I had dissolved into the Milky Way. Where does this – admittedly bonkers – idea stem from, I ask her? In Sheldon’s opinion, the age-old mother-whore dynamic is partly at play here. On the one hand, babies should “be brought into life through a sparkling orgasm”, but on the other it needs to happen in a scenario that’s “not too sexy because, you know, it’s conception!” So what you’re really looking for, she laughs, is how to “have a sexy but motherly experience when trying to conceive.” And that’s a bizarre combination to even consider hypothetically, let alone put into practice because, “how do you be motherly during sex?!”.

Leaving aside strange thoughts of Oedipus and Jocasta, the real-world truth is that, when it comes to sex and baby-making: “It doesn’t matter! As long as one can keep the anxiety at bay about whether it’s going to be successful, and try to keep it tender and enjoyable with each other… then that’s OK.”

The awkward relationship between what is understood as ‘motherly’ and ‘sexy’ was experienced first-hand by Sheldon when she would witness men on the street staring admiringly at her enlarged breasts only to register her pregnant belly a moment later and “their expression would change completely”. It’s also explored in Venus of Whitechapel, when Sheldon takes a voluptuous nude destined for social media à la Demi Moore in Vanity Fair or that insanely gorgeous Beyoncé shoot with the flowers. Rather than being an attempt to conform to celebrity-induced ideals of sex appeal pregnancy, Sheldon felt that taking pictures of her pregnant body was “a fucking radical act!” in how it challenged “what I was meant to be like as a demure mother” and how the female body is generally encouraged to look. It was also, she adds with a laugh, “a great excuse to post pictures of your naked body.”

Open and honest conversations about sex and the body are something Sheldon is used to having. Alongside her writing and acting career on stage and screen, she co-hosts The Pleasure Podcast with Dr Annan Patel, a sexual function specialist. The pair originally met at an after-show panel discussion about sex and emotion which followed a performance of Good Girl. As someone who normally approaches the topic of sex from a medical perspective, Patel was fascinated by Sheldon’s ability to describe the emotional, lived experience of sexuality and suggested it would be interesting for them to collaborate. So far, The Pleasure Pod has interviewed guests including Emma Thompson, Paapa Essiedu, Leïla Slimani, Susan Wokoma and Sara Pascoe on topics ranging from the politics of pleasure to Lad Mag culture to women’s rights in Morocco.

The Pleasure Podcast. Photo: Laura Dodsworth

The cliché of buttoned-up Britishness around talking about sex still, to an extent, prevails, perhaps due to the limited sex education offered to young people. Sheldon believes the taboo isn’t sex per se, but pleasure. In essence this is because pleasure – in whatever form you want to take it – sits in opposition to the tightly-wound, productivity-focused capitalist ethos. “Pleasure is not, unless it’s done in a lucrative way and in an industry way through pornography, a capitalist thing. It is something that is leisurely, that takes time, that takes time out of your work [and] productivity.” And it’s pleasure – as the title suggests – that the podcast is most interested in.

In his role as a medical practitioner, Patel notices how many patients feel deeply reticent or embarrassed about describing their problems. One of the (many) positive things about the podcast is how it allows people to engage with the discussions however they want – including in private. “People can listen with impunity! They can listen in secret, they can listen on the bus, they can listen in whatever way they want to without necessarily having to have those difficult conversations with family or with friends if they don’t feel comfortable. And, of course, they can then use these podcasts as a springboard to speak to people about things that maybe they’d felt very isolated about.”

The healing power of simply realising you’re not alone in your experiences, emotional or physical, was similarly key to the success of Good Girl. The solo show, which transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in 2018 following runs at the Edinburgh Fringe and Vaults Festival, charts the life of GG from early-teenage fanny conferences to guerrilla genitalia drawings and onwards to a sad Uni-age period spent perfecting the suppression of emotion at all costs to be the eponymous ‘good girl’. “What I was surprised about, was how many people – women in particular – had similar experiences,” Sheldon explains. “I just didn’t know how many people had felt the same – had felt that they had been told that they were too much, or not enough. That they’d been ashamed of [their] feelings.”

Good Girl in performance. Photo: Felicity Crawshaw

Like Sheldon and the semi-autobiographical GG, I’ve always struggled with feeling like I’m a wrecking ball of emotional turbulence seeping out into the surrounding world, while imagining that everyone else has got their shit calmly, coolly and neatly together. And I remember the flood of ‘It’s not just me!’ relief when watching Sheldon on stage. Because Good Girl not only acknowledges the existence of those Big Feelings, it also celebrates the crucial role they play in helping us decide what’s fundamentally ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. In other words, the importance of having a ‘gut instinct’ to help you navigate all situations, sexual or otherwise.

Sheldon pushes the point one step further. These overwhelming emotions aren’t just “normal”, she points out, but potentially “really powerful when channelled in the right way.”

Find the right outlet and, “You’ve got a lot of horsepower behind you to throw into projects or things that you feel passionate about, whether that be political movements or be simply looking after your kids or your friends,” she says. “You’ve got a lot of strength, I think, when you’ve got that amount of emotional power behind you.”

Venus of Whitechapel is available to watch online from 19 – 25 April. Find out more here

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

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