Saturday, December 20, 2008

My love-hate relationship with Christmas

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I can get quite caught up in the fantasy of it all (which strangely enough seems to involve a vague vision of snow and candelight and open fires, which for an Australian really is a fantasy) and at the same time look around me and feel sick about the consumer frenzy Christmas has become--shops with signs saying "five days left to shop!" in the window, malls with competing Christmas ditties from each shop mingling into one hellish cocophany that seems to induce zombie-like behaviour... I can't tell you how many times this week I've been standing in queues surrounded by mothers with trolleys piled high with plastic crap you know is headed for landfill before you can say "Easter". One rolled her eyes at me, saying: "I only came in to buy a couple of things" before turning to the teller to ask what the damage is. Today, another told me she had five kids who keep changing their minds about what they're into, so she just keeps the receipts and returns the goods when the novelty wears off!
I can also feel strangely alone at Christmas. Not in any great, existential sense, so much as as in that: "I thought we were a team but why is it only me who seems to be running herself ragged trying to think up/buy the perfect gift for every distant relative (including yours); wrap/send said gifts; work out which friend I can dump the kids with because kinder/school close their doors two days before work does; crawl around the attic looking for that dusty bag of Chrissy decorations; try to fit in a leg wax in case I might make it to the beach one of these days?!" Yes, I'm starting to think Christmas is a feminist issue!
And then this morning we went for a coffee at our local, me heading out first with the kids, my partner to catch up. As I optimistically tried to pen some final cards, the kids tipped sugar on the table, raided the drinks fridge and assailed the waitress with their extensive Christmas wish list as she glanced desperately at the impending rush of customers making their way through the door. Twenty minutes in I rang my partner, muttering through gritted teeth: "Where are you?! You said you were coming straight away! Freya's stroppy, I've got stupid amounts of shopping to do and your coffee's getting cold!" before hanging up on him. When he arrived and told me he had just been waiting for my present to be delivered: "I was trying to be a bit surreptitious about it." I sat there, trying to pull my head in and yet stubbornly holding on to my anger, just like one of my kids might do. Later I came home to a fabulous new bike (early because we're going away tomorrow). Dear me, how humbling--and how exhilarating! I went for a ride around the block and felt so much better.
Now, presents sent and food sorted, I feel like I can get back to what Christmas can, at its best, be--a chance to slow down (eventually) and to be reminded that you are surrounded by people that you adore and who love you back, and who are all doing their best. (Though I am seriously pushing for a Kris Kringle option next year, and vowing to get better at not taking it all on!)
New Year's resolutions anyone? I wonder, after giving up vices and vowing to exercise more, what percentage of resolutions relate to getting more literary? Personally, I am pledging to get up at 5.30am every morning to write in 2009. Well, I've locked myself in now I've told you all. Might see you in the morning, come January 1...
Till then, hope it's a good one and that someone spoils you rotten (in a good way!).

Monday, December 15, 2008

A way too long post (sorry) about maternal ambivalence

In the talk I did at my local writers’ festival recently, I said something like: “I feel like it’s a sad and somewhat controversial thing to admit that I feel it would be a lot easier for me, as a mother, to have no ambitions.” One of my fellow speakers, artist Sarah Tomasetti, later admitted that she was expecting me to say what would have been much more controversial statement: that my life would be easier if I hadn’t had children.

Well, I think it goes without saying that a life without children would be an easier one. Except that, as someone who always wanted kids, I would have become obsessed with wanting them and had to go through a long process of coming to terms with my childlessness. That said, I have more sympathy now with those who choose not to have children than I ever did before I had my own—not because I have regrets, but because now I actually understand the sacrifices that are made.

The desire to have children is a peculiar force—a biological trick or animal urge perhaps, if you want to see it that way, but therein lies its legitimate power. Considering that getting pregnant is for most Western women a choice nowadays, if that biological compulsion was not there, I cannot imagine what other arguments you might pose to yourself in making the case for becoming a parent. It is not one that can be made on any logical grounds, on the basis of some cost-benefit analysis. Like art, the urge to create children is mysterious and unbidden, and the rewards unmeasurable.

Particularly among the artistic community, there are still many for whom their work takes the place of children, or at least who feel kids would be too great a spanner in the artistic works. (The whole time I have been writing this, with my computer on my lap, I have also been playing shops with my three-year-old daughter, ‘scanning’ items with the phone and taking her ‘money’, with her occasionally grabbing my face between her hands and saying: “You’re not looking at me!” The only alternative is letting her cut up my partner’s music magazines, which wouldn't be worth my life.)

Of course children are, among other things, a constraining force in an artist’s, or in anyone’s, life. There are those who would say this is just the reality, and there are those who would say this is a limited way of seeing things—a great failure of imagination—and, in a sense, both are true. Or the truth lies somewhere in between. And doesn’t this just some up the maternal experience? For many, if not most of us, to be a mother is to be mired in a state of contradiction.

Which gets to the theme of this post: maternal ambivalence. The other day I was thinking what a marvel is that such a word exists in the English language that so perfectly sums up the experience of mothering—and one I still associate with poet Adrienne Rich’s description of mothering as the the "murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness". I was pondering this while listening to a BBC Women’s Hour program about Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (which I haven’t yet read), groundbreaking for many reasons, but partly because of its honest depiction of mothering. One of the commentators on the show was Lionel Shriver, whose book We Need to Talk About Kevin (another on my stupidly long list of ‘must-reads’) made her the unintended spokeswoman for maternal ambivalence.

I wrote quite a long section in The Divided Heart about whether an artist’s imaginative powers might be one of the very things that stops them from having children—it later got cut. But Shriver was one of my main case-in-points. “What has continued to frighten me off children for all these years?” she has asked, rhetorically. Among other things: “The relegation of one’s own ambitions so far to the backburner that they fall off the stove. A precipitous social demotion that I inferred from the chuckle of those smarmy adults who discounted my renunciations at eight: You say you want to be a writer but you’re a girl, and all you really want to be is a mommy.”

She had long ago decided that her mother got the raw deal in her family, and went on to readily embrace her hostility (her word) toward motherhood. “…when a reporter from Birmingham asked tentatively in a phone interview, ‘Wasn’t refusing parenthood a little ... selfish?’ I bellowed into the receiver, ‘Absolutely!’” As she admits elsewhere: “They [kids] would have siphoned too much time away from the writing of my precious books.”

In an attempt to resolve her repulsion for motherhood (her word again), she wrote her bestselling Kevin, which describes an antagonistic relationship between a mother and son, who at fifteen goes on a horrific killing spree at his school. “The massacre is and isn’t the mother’s fault,” she says, i.e. that's up to the reader to decide.

You can check out two of her articles for The Guardian here and here.

In part, her lack of maternal desire was a reaction against the “unwritten gag rule” that expected her mother to bury her real feelings and instead present a rosy picture. A remarkable number of readers, Shriver says, expressed their gratitude that “someone in modern literature has put motherhood’s hitherto off-limits emotions into print”. As she puts it, she wanted to get away from novels’ routine portrayal of children as adorable moppets who come out with nuggets of wisdom at the dinner table. Also, she rails against the idea of childhood innocence; the belief that kids’ behaviour is out of their control and purely influenced by environmental factors.

“While we may have taken the lid off sex, it is still out of bounds to say that you do not like your own kids, that the sacrifices they have demanded are unbearable, or that, perish the thought, you wish you had never had them.”

Shriver is a powerful and talented writer, and I do not have a moral objection to her views per se. But it does seem to me that they only paint half the picture—something that makes sense, I suppose, Shriver having chosen to remain child-free and basing much of her beliefs on her mother’s experience (which wasn’t a good one) and her memories of herself as a child.

Without wanting to take away from the validity of what Shriver does have to say—she is a writer of great imaginative powers and her words clearly speak to people—can you actually be the voice of maternal ambivalence when you haven’t experienced maternity?

To me, ambivalence implies not only that adverse reaction but, in motherhood’s case, the wild swing between—or even simultaneous sense of—overwhelming frustration and surging joy and adoration. I don’t doubt that there are those out there who genuinely regret having children—and for those whose children go on to commit terrible crimes, this must be a particularly fraught and painful question. But to suggest that some children are just born bad, and that some mothers indeed dislike their own offspring, while perhaps occasionally true, overall seems a little simplistic.

Shriver bases this notion partly on her recollection of intentionally giving her mother a hard time. I’m no expert on childhood, and as a parent I am painfully aware of my deficiencies—just as I am aware that children are not always innocent. Kids can behave badly, it’s true (as can adults), and they are often wilful. The fact that discipline may often be an appropriate response, doesn’t automatically make the child’s actions merely "bad". In developing an identity separate to their parents, a child will test boundaries and limits. That’s the nature of growth.

For those who do not have regular contact with them, kids can be a bit intimidating. But to say that you don’t like kids seems to me a denial of life. You may as well be saying that you don’t like people; that you don’t like yourself.

Shriver looked at the question of maternal ambivalence through a fictional account of a worst case scenario. The Divided Heart was also an attempt at getting to the ‘truth’ (if there can be such a thing) of the maternal experience—its pitfalls and its pleasures—and I hope provided similar solace for readers. (And in saying that I do not mean to be putting me or my book in Lionel Shriver’s league, or to suggest they are directly comparable in intention.)

In presenting a frank account of motherhood, in all its complexity of conflicting emotions, women will always attract criticism and contempt. (I have copped my fair share of this, and have had to remind myself of British author Rachel Cusk’s assertion that she didn’t write her troubled and exhilaratingly candid memoir, A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother, for “all those Alice-band-wearing mumsies out there”.) In general, an environment now exists where mothers have greater permission than ever to express their feelings of despair as well as gratification.

Occasionally someone at my partner’s work will ask him whether or not it’s worth it: having children. He tells them: “It’s bloody hard work but you’ll laugh more than you’ve ever laughed in your life.” And that much is true.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Stephanie Meyer's fantasy novel (and what happened to Ann in Novel About My Wife?)

Acclaimed novelist Susan Johnson, who has a great blog of her own, wrote a truly gripping memoir, A Better Woman, about writing, motherhood, illness and the dilemmas of choosing a creative life. I recall being reduced to tears of gratitude frequently while reading it. Susan really was in the vanguard of this discussion and, though I didn’t discover her book till I was halfway through writing The Divided Heart, it became a huge inspiration for my book and I recommend it to anyone interested in the art and parenting theme.

In her (characteristically priceless) comment on my previous post, Susan mentioned Stephanie Meyer, author of the colossally successful Twilight series of vampire books (now film), who apparently wrote the first book amid the bedlam of mothering two toddlers and a baby.

Of course I felt compelled to follow this up, and found these fascinating words on Stephanie Meyer’s site. There Meyer says she knows exactly what date she started writing Twilight, which was inspired by a particularly vivid dream, because it was also the first day of swimming lessons for her kids.

“Up to this point, I had not written anything besides a few chapters (of other stories) that I never got very far on, and nothing at all since the birth of my first son, six years earlier,” she writes. “Though I had a million things to do (i.e. making breakfast for hungry children, dressing and changing the diapers of said children, finding the swimsuits that no one ever puts away in the right place, etc.), I stayed in bed, thinking about the dream.”

She went on to write that first book in a matter of months. Hers is a compelling example of way the adrenaline of obsession can get you through. She mentions being in love with the lead male character and caring for the main female character like a daughter. (Stephanie Meyer has three sons.) I found this notion intriguing--the way a character might be like a sort of crush, with that associated flush of energy.

In The Divided Heart, Nikki Gemmell talks about writing becoming her space for fantasy when day-to-life is all about sore nipples and wiping bottoms. I think there’s a lot to be said for this—the need for escape coming to the fore when our life is at its most routine and prescribed. For Nikki, the sensuality of mothering and the new relationship with her body also played a part, creating its own form of liberation.

If only all our dreams could wind up making us millions—might help in avoiding the madhouse, whatdya reckon, Susan?

P.S. If anyone else out there has read Emily Perkins’ brilliant psychological thriller Novel About My Wife, do you want to send me your theories on what happened to Ann?! The only online mention of this I have found is on Kerry Clare’s blog, Pickle Me This—a great site with an interview with Perkins, in which she also talks about writing and motherhood (but purposely doesn't answer the 'what happened' question). Mind you, the further away I get from finishing Perkins’ novel, the more I realise that it doesn’t matter (knowing what happened), but it’s fun to theorise…

Friday, December 5, 2008

Who Does She Think She Is?

I was lucky enough to be sent a preview screener for the US doco I mentioned in my previous post, Who Does She Think She Is?, and I can tell you I pretty much sobbed my whole way through it. I found it incredibly moving—saddening, inspiring, galvanising all at once.

All of the women featured in this film are particularly impressive in their strength and determination to keep their art at the forefront of their life, despite the personal risks and in some cases the devastating fallout, particularly for their relationships.

It brought to mind writer Brenda Walker’s comment in The Divided Heart that in trying to be artist, mother, worker and wife, something had to give—and it wasn’t going to be her child, her writing or her job (which she needed to pay the mortgage)...

In the documentary, some husbands were generous supporters of their partner’s work. Others wanted a wife, in the traditional sense, and were threatened by their partner’s creative success, or the way it took her away from the family. As one of those featured suggests, as a woman art takes you to places that are not safe.

I was particularly taken with the work of sculptor Janis Wunderlich. On the surface, her life is one of domestic normality—a Mormon with five children and a husband—yet she manages to have between 10 and 15 shows a year. Her phenomenal sculptures show women beset by mischievous creatures with rabbit ears clambering across her body, or sometimes birthing one child as others hang from her arms and shoulders. She puts her stress and conflict into her work, she says, so that she can stay sane in her day-to-day life. Her work is done in such a frenzy (placed in galleries before it gets broken around the house!) there isn’t time to look back and assess her work before moving onto the next thing.

She is a great example of the way motherhood allows women to avoid the trappings and vagaries of the art market—or at least the ‘art scene'. Here are women making art on the kitchen table while the kids nap or draw at the table beside them. Beyond the need to make a living, these women remind us of what the artistic imperative is really about—an unstoppable force that must be heeded or, as one said, “I go crazy”.

That said, they also continue to suffer for this, with statistics showing that women still don’t command equivalent prices to their male counterparts and represent a tiny percentage of solo shows in America’s major galleries.

Perhaps the most powerful story here is that of Máye Torres, who decided she and her three kids could live on US$24,000 a year if she lived as self-sufficiently as possible. Her struggle to be both mother and artist has meant guilt, divorce and a struggle to be taken seriously. But her incredibly articulate and caring children are a great testament to her; their recognition of her needs as an artist and their pride, admiration and respect for her almost brought me undone.

I read a scathing review of this film in Time Out New York recently, which accused it of encapsulating “everything that gives feminism a bad name, from whining about patriarchal society to celebrating the goddess within”. Isn’t it fascinating the way some women react so vehemently against this theme, offended that artists-mothers might have the audacity to make a special case of their situation? Anyway, rather than repeat myself, you can check out my response here.

As I said in my Time Out rave, clearly we as a culture still have a long way to go in understanding what can often be subtle, almost indefinable barriers for contemporary women artists—their own fear that their creative compulsions make them ‘bad’ mothers being one of the most powerful and complex. And as this film shows, artist-mothers’ stories are a great way in to some of the big questions we all face about how we live and what we choose to value in life.

Will keep you posted on local screenings...