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).

She said:
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…


Clare said...

Thoughtfully put Rachel. The book is a wonder - it has brought and will continue to bring a new depth to this discussion of what it is to be an Australian female artists who also happens to be a mothers, and these precious words from all of those incredible women are what they are precisely because you so skillfully AVOIDED judging them, simplifying them, picking them apart. What other public forum have invited Australian women artists who are also mothers to enter the discussion this deeply before? I love it, I bloody well love it.

Damon said...

I've not read the Arena review, but I have read your book - properly.

The charge of 'binding the artist to the fact of her motherhood only' is an odd one. You're not suggesting this is all artists are. It's not a manifesto of What Always Is and Must Be.

Instead, you're looking into the ambivalent, changeable, genuine lives of artists who struggle with motherhood.

Are they bound to the fact of their motherhood only? No, and that's the point. Are they nonetheless bound to the fact of their motherhood, as well as a grab-bag of other 'facts'? You betcha. And that's the point also.

Am I missing something; some hard, clear, inexorable, universal truth in your book?

Anonymous said...

If your book had been written in that awful academic language then I would never have read it! I might have tried, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect on me.

The fact that your book spoke so honestly and openly and in a voice so familiar to me that it could have been me speaking, made your book perfect.

I’m not an ‘artist’ (yet-still working on it), I’m not a scholar, I didn’t want advice, I just wanted to know that I wasn’t alone in harbouring some of these feelings (you know, especially the ones that involve disappearing children/husbands/pets).

I relate to checking out other mothers in the park and wondering if under that scene of joy, there was actually a deeper, much darker picture of despair. I was one of those that smiled through everything publicly and then cried on my own where no one could see, thinking I was different, somehow a lesser-mum.

I felt ‘bad momma’ feelings if I left him at daycare for an extra hour so that I could finish writing that song, (hang out that laundry, wash that floor, read that novel, listen to that CD). I love him to bits, but I love me too (now) and I love the process of creating so much that I cannot fathom not participating in a creative life on some level.

Fortunately he is old enough now (12) that I can negotiate time with him but I know he misses me…he’s told me so, but clever boy that he is – he also knows how important it is for me to do all this ‘mum stuff’.

shannon said...

When you are a mother of young children and an artist you ARE defined in many ways by motherhood. Your book is so important in acknowledging this hidden fact. I wonder if those who criticise your book for only defining women in relation to their motherhood have children. It is scary that both society and your own brain focuses so much on being a mother once you have children and even more frightening that you feel alone, struggling to stay afloat in the sea of love and anxiety. Your book is like a life rope...

Rachel Power said...

Thank you so much all of you for responding. It's late, I have to be up at 6am tomorrow, so can't say all I'd like to say right now, but just want to let you know how much that feedback means to me (i.e. a lot)!

Anonymous said...