Tuesday, October 28, 2008
Reconciling the Creative Mind and the Maternal Heart
Yesterday, Radio National’s Book Show aired a particularly warm and insightful take on The Divided Heart by feminist historian Clare Wright (downloadable here).
As a mother, writer and feminist, I pored through The Divided Heart with the zeal of a seeker—a seeker of truths, a lost soul, a fellow traveller. It’s the blind emotion contained in the book that runs so defiantly, so refreshingly, against the current grain of arguments and, dare I say it, motherhood statements about work–life balance, working families and diversity of choice in the marketplace. Rachel Power has achieved something precious and unique…
In seeking to resolve the irresolvable and confounding contradictions of motherhood, Rachel Power has asked some pretty darned impertinent questions. By doing so, she’s started a public conversation that will surpass the discrete kitchen table confidential and inspire artful solutions to a timeless predicament.
I was pretty humbled by this, to say the least, as Clare is someone I greatly admire—you might know her from the ABC quiz show The Einstein Factor or for her fantastic book Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australia’s Female Publicans (Melbourne University Publishing, 2003). Apart from her heartfelt personal response, she made a couple of important points that have not been made elsewhere.
I agree with her argument that The Divided Heart is a snapshot of class as much as gender realities (something Rachel Cunnean also touched on in her write-up). As Clare notes, money can make all the difference in enabling a parent to justify time away from children (and paying for childcare) to pursue a vocation that usually attracts an unreliable income at best—even for many with high profiles in their field.
First up, Clare mentioned American feminist and mother of six Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s lovely statement about being “anchored here, surrounded by small craft, which I am struggling to tug up life’s stream”. How much has really changed for women’s internal experience of combining mothering and a vocation over the centuries? It seems guilt and ambivalence remain almost universal characteristics in the woman artist’s experience of reconciling their twin passions.
I have been criticised by one reviewer for not being analytical, tough, rigorous—or indeed positive—enough in tackling the subject of art and motherhood. I can understand that this might be what some readers are looking for. But I wasn’t interested in entering other women’s houses with my investigative or scholarly hat on, summing up their choices and making judgements or creating theories; nor did I really have the distance from the subject to do so, still so mired in the very experience that I was writing about.
Nor did I want to pitch a utopian vision of how things should or could be. Instead, I was seeking the truth of women artists' experiences—and I think it’s that raw honesty that most readers have responded to, often with gratitude for the solace it has provided. Motherhood is, above all, an intense experience, whatever the context—and I think this has fascinating implications for an artist and her work.
Clare said she has found books on contemporary motherhood generally fall into two categories: “how-to manuals, aimed at self-improvement, or issues-based monographs, pitched in the national interest. The Divided Heart defies this trend—it contains not a whiff of polemic nor an ounce of advice—and unlike most motherhood books, it’s written from the frontline.”
She described the artists’ testimonies in the book as “honest, tender, intelligent, reflective”. When read together, she said, they “provide a fascinating, almost voyeuristic, window into the inner working of both the creative mind and the maternal heart, and the indivisible relationship between the two”.
The other criticism I’ve copped (in the current issue of Arena Magazine) is that in discussing motherhood in relation to an artist’s identity I risk binding her to the fact of her motherhood only. I’d be interested in what others think of this argument. Certainly some of the women in The Divided Heart are struggling to navigate a path between celebrating their womanhood (and motherhood) and yet not be defined by this in the public mind. But whose fault is this--individual women or society's limiting gaze? I find it pretty crude and even dangerous to suggest that we should avoid talking about the fullness of our experiences as women lest we undermine our broader cause. It seems akin to suggesting that we can’t question aspects of feminism without undercutting feminism as a whole. Should we limit ourselves to neutral territory, rather than talking about what differentiates us, in order to create an illusion of equality?
At the end of the day, The Divided Heart isn’t only about ambivalence—it is also about how the very intimate and profound experience of mothering impacts on an artist’s work and identity—a subject I find endlessly fascinating, and not at all limiting when dealt with seriously and not superficially. And it’s always important to have these debates…