Monday, April 20, 2015

Mother + artist = privileged?

It does seem that you’ve made a bit of a pact with the devil by trying to be both a parent and a fully functional working woman. For a start, nobody else recognises the writing as work – at least, they don’t round my way – and you have to buy your time for yourself when you have a child to look after. You have to justify each minute you’ve organised to do anything other than take care of them. That’s how it can feel to me, anyway, sitting mired in the middle of it, with the end of neither job anywhere in sight.

You’ve got to keep pushing the words out, having something to show for it, to keep the guilt at bay. Whenever I’d bought myself that time – when my daughter went to childcare, which wasn’t much: two afternoons a week – I’d be fretting with a feeling akin to trying to write while there was a taxi waiting outside with its meter on.

These are among my favourite words in Motherhood & Creativity: The Divided Heart. That description of writing under pressure – when every minute costs and so so every minute counts – is so spot-on!

I loved interviewing Cate Kennedy, and Kill Your Darlings journal is running a longer excerpt from our conversation on its online blog here.

Motherhood & Creativity received a fairly lukewarm review from one of the major dailies over the weekend, containing many of the same criticisms the book received following the publication of the first edition. It upset me a lot more the first time around. This time I know that the book has its own audience and it doesn't have to mean something to everyone. Also, I think it always suffers from being read in one sitting – which is what a reviewer generally has to do.

One of the main misgivings I've encoutered time and again is that the book is nothing but a bunch of priveleged women complaining about their lot. This latest review repeated that sentiment, arguing: "That the women of this book are blessed with babies as well as the muse should make them a privileged species – certainly not members of a set-upon minority group."

While I don't think I've ever attempted to paint creative mothers as a "set-upon minority", neither do I understand why they should be deemed "privileged". More privileged than any other parent (man or woman) who pursues a career in their area of interest?

In my experience, most mothers are working their arses off to maintain their success, or working their arses off despite a lack of success – against the external (lack of income and support) and internal barriers (self-doubt, guilt, isolation) – within a culture that still wants women, and especially mothers, to above all be attractive, gracious and ego-less.

To have a child is to enter into a strange new set of negotiations with society, our partners, our family, ourselves. And so, the venture to be both artist and mother raises some of the biggest questions about how we choose to live and view the world: self vs society, partnering vs independence, feminism vs masculine, sacrifice vs self-interest, creativity vs economics...

It seems to me that the very nature of art feeds into the feminist debate in a unique way, precisely because art is an expression of the self – something women have been denied for much of history.

In the workplace, it is much easier to see where the inequities lie and what the barriers are. When it comes to art, the issues are not merely those of workers’ rights, or structural barriers, or even just of family conventions. Because of this, I think the experience of artist-mothers cuts through to the the heart of the feminism debate at a much more subtle and sensitive level.

The lack of guaranteed compensation and the self-driven nature of art – to assert the need to create; to carve out the time and space that art demands; to feel confident in the validity of what you have to say – requires a special kind of drive and determination for anyone.

For a mother – who not only confronts the societal expectation that she fulfill the archetypal role of mother (the giving, selfless, nurturing woman, with its inherent degree of self-denial), but also genuinely loves her children and wants to be with them – it can be particularly challenging.

Yes, it's a wonderous thing to have children. And we all deserve to live in a culture that offers the freedom and opportunity to pursue our vocations. But when a woman strives to do both, why should this be seen as a privilege?


Jen said...

The concept of privilege is a very complicated one to be sure. But in the feminist discourse of today I would interpret it to mean that "we" (feminist, artist-mothers, western) have the luxury of seeing the conflict between our work as artists and our work as mothers while a large portion of the world's population of mothers do not. They spend the bulk of their day just surviving in a system of violence and/ or corruption. Not something that you or I can control per se but something we should always keep in mind when considering our lot in life. But the importance of the issues in the book is undeniable as well.

Rachel Power said...

Yes, as westerners, the context we work in is a privileged one. I think that is assumed - and, as you suggest, any discussion we have about the complexities of our lives has that assumption as its background, necessarily. In that sense, almost all Australians are extraordinarily fortunate. But my concern is that artist-mothers are being singled out here for particular privilege as if what they do is not real work.

Sam said...

That reviewer is exactly the reason we need this book. I am a stay at home mum and trying to build a small business making bags. It's not going well. But the compulsion to create is ever present, and to channel this into work I could do from home, thereby earning some extra money for my household, keeping me at home for our daughter, and providing me fulfilling creative outlet (notice I came last?) well, that would just be perfect. Hard work, certainly, priviledged, certainly not. I will have to head to an ordinary "pay the bills" kind of job in the meantime. I'll probably hate it, it will take me away from my daughter, and it will lessen the guilt of "not" working. Will that job be more important than one where I'm my own boss? Apparently so.
This particular problem is indicative of what all mothers face, it's just dressed in a more colourful outfit.