Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Unspeakable

"I shouldn't have had them." ...It's such a huge thing to admit. And perhaps it was only a fleeting regret. Or perhaps it wasn't...

These were the words spoken by a friend of writer SA Jones, which led her to write a very interesting guest post for the Kill Your Darlings journal website. It raises the "taboo subject" of feeling regret at having children.

If you can snatch yourself a few moments to check it out, it's worth reading on through the comments, where readers have cited some stunning poems on the theme of maternal ambivalence...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Divided Hearts on the radio

Hey there loyal friends

Apologies for the lack of recent blogging. Rest assured, I have not run out of things to say yet... so watch this space.

In the meantime, Clare Bowditch is interviewing me (there's a little role-reversal for you) next Monday at 8.30pm on local ABC Melbourne 774AM.

She's doing the 7-10pm slot every night next week, BTW, so tune in.

We are going to have (yet another) chat about how to juggle family responsibilities with creative urges; the value of passing on creative expression to our children; the social benefits of creativity... That kinda thing.

It's a talkback, so please do call in if you can and tell us your own experiences/ideas on these matters. Be lovely to hear you (kind readers still checking in on me).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Dads and domestic labour

Yesterday the winner of the Most Mentally Sexy Dad comp, which I helped judge, was announced on Radio National’s Life Matters program.

I think it’s great when something started as a bit of a lark among friends finds, quite by accident, that it has tapped in to the cultural zeitgeist — and that is definitely true of this comp.

It has offered a really positive way in to discussing what can otherwise be such a banal, bogged-down issue for couples — i.e. who does what around the house.

Here is a bunch of couples changing the blueprint for what constitutes a contemporary family life; men who are fully up to negotiating with their partners how things are going to run in terms of work, housework and childcare.

In fact, I think the Most Mentally Sexy Dad competition might be one of the more powerful campaigns we’ve seen in calling on men to move beyond the lip service that gets paid to respect and equality towards acting like they mean it. Not for some abstract ideal, but because it is meaningful to the women and children they love, and gives their relationship a better chance of long-lasting passion.

What was so touching about most of the entrants was their basic awareness that to show true love and commitment to their partners meant sharing the load. In fact, they took this for granted.

These men aren’t just “babysitting” the kids or “helping out” around the home, but fully engaging in the realities of keeping the family juggernaut afloat, emotionally and practically, so that everyone has more time for their own interests and for each other.

Hopefully it won’t have to be such a conscious shift for the next generation, and there won’t be a need for such a competition, great as it’s been.

I also have an article on this subject — the division of domestic labour — in the latest issue of Kill Your Darlings.

The editors have ensured me my next copy will arrive in a plain brown paper bag after the previous one gave my son terrible nightmares. The poor darling thought I was reading a manual on how to kill off him and his sister!

It took me days to convince him that he could trust me enough to tell him what his bad dreams were about. Oh dear…

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ms Bowditch and the PM

Among the many great achievements of the women featured in The Divided Heart, the smokin' gun that is Clare Bowditch recently scored an interview with our first female PM.

You can watch an edited version of that conversation here.

She says her approach was to use the most of her "lay-persons status", and try to talk from the heart about all the same things we talk about at our thinking-people dinner parties.

"So yes, I did grill her on most of the big ones, as respectfully as I could (we had about an hour together in total)," she said. "On a lighter note, she touched my Lucky Cricket Ball, and even showed me how to improve my impersonationa of her with the "Karate Chop Talking Technique": see!"

Hope that cricket ball is secretly magic...

And while you are under the spell of our bewitching Ms Bowditch, please consider purchasing her new album "Modern Day Addiction" at your local record store or with two bonus tracks via itunes--that'd be here.

If you want to read a little about the album's design (another collaboration with Kat McLeod), Lucy Feagins has a great interview with Clare on her fabulous blog, The Design Files.

But the album is not all style. In fact it's all about substance!

Friday, July 30, 2010

Feminism and motherhood

The organiser of the Cherchez La Femme IV: Feminism and Motherhood event on next week asked me to suggest some themes for the evening.

This is the little rant I sent her:

OK, feminism and motherhood. I will definitely be able to give the personal account, I suppose, as I am no academic, though I have certainly given the subject a lot of thought.

To me, motherhood seems to be the final frontier for western feminism. It's the point at which it all falls down! (Hence, the conflation of motherhood, perhaps.) Women can be going along very nicely, and then *bang* they become mothers, find themselves alone all day with babies, drowning in domestic chaos, and wonder when they agreed to all this. (That's not to say that we don't all have to deal with the realities of life, or that having babies isn't also lovely, but I do think it is the point at which men's and women's lives can cease to resemble each others' in all sorts of confronting ways.)

All that lip service paid to equality still doesn't seem to translate into the private sphere. Mothers are still the ones taking it all on, keeping their families afloat, emotionally, domestically etc., even though they are also (often equal) financial contributors.

Mothers are under an extraordinary amount of pressure from all sides. Society has not kept up with their expectations and then they are blamed for it--either punished for being a nag, or not a good enough mother, or not a dedicated enough worker... That's the guilty, vulnerable space backlashers step into and exploit--women (usually) who have decided that those old roles and divisions of labour made so much sense after all and wouldn't it be easier if we all just scuttled back to the kitchen. Which no doubt it would be... but at whose expense?

So yes, structural change is necessary. But also how do we go about changing men and women's own hard-wiring/patterns of behaviour? Will structural change send enough of a message to men that they will start putting on that load of washing without being asked?!

What do you reckon? If have other ideas of pressing issues that should should be covered, please let me know.

Thank the Lord it's being held in a pub. I think I'll need that drink!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Feminism in the pub

Cherchez la femme is a French phrase meaning "Look for the woman".

It originally referred to any case where a man behaved badly, out of character, or brought about his own ruination: look for the woman – she will be the cause. He will either be trying to impress her, possess her, or free himself from her clutches.

Don't ya love it when women are blamed for men's behaviour?!

Nowadays, in English usage, the phrase has come to mean "Look for the root cause of the problem".

No doubt both definitions will come into play at these regular "feminism in the pub" sessions in Melbourne...

Cherchez la Femme is a monthly digest of pop culture and current affairs from a feminist perspective. With regular guests and audience participation strongly encouraged, its organisers have created something more dynamic than a lecture, more stimulating than bingo, and more useful than shaking your fist at the sky.

As you know, women are not funny and feminists have no sense of humour, so I’m afraid there will be no comedic element. Take your medicine.

These sessions are on the first Tuesday of every month. The next one is on 3 August with the topic: Feminism and Motherhood.

I will be having a bit of a rant, along with Natasha Ludowyk and Louise Keogh, and anyone else who wants to put in their two bobs worth.

(Mothers are never short on opinions, so should be a feisty evening!! Or you could stay at home occupying yourself in a more demure fashion a la mademoiselle above...)

When: Tuesday, 3 August 2010, 7–9pm

Where: The Fox Hotel, cnr Wellington St & Alexandra Pde, Collingwood

Cost: $5 entry

Friday, June 25, 2010

Mentally Sexy Dads on Life Matters

If you didn't catch it this morning, you can now listen online to today's ABC Radio Life Matters talkback program, all about the Most Mentally Sexy Dad comp, of which I am lucky enough to be a judge.

My fellow guests, philosopher Damon Young and writer/competition organiser Clint Greagan are two very impressive blokes, as were the callers.

As producer Amanda Armstrong said: "It reminds me once again that there’s a quiet and positive revolution in gender roles happening out there."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Badinter and the tyranny of motherhood

When I first spotted this article about French feminist Elisabeth Badinter, I thought perhaps finally someone had put words to a largely unarticulated feeling I’ve had for a while: that in the push to reassert the value of mothering, a very self-sacrificial model of motherhood has re-emerged.

(The time it has taken me to get round to writing this ridiculously long post could be proof of Badinter’s point!…)

But in reading the article, although some of her arguments are sound, I think she has the wrong targets in her sight. And more than that, I couldn’t help feeling that her ideas are a denial of all that’s lovely about parenting.

For those who haven’t read the article (Badinter’s new book isn’t available in English yet), the central gist of her argument is that the rise of a new version of the “good mother” is creating unforseen levels of guilt and self-sacrifice among women.

A “subterranean ideological war” is how Badinter describes the push for so-called “natural” mothering, which she associates with breastfeeding, co-sleeping, the use of cloth nappies and other “masochistic” practices.

Ecologists, breastfeeding advocates and paediatricians are responsible for this return to “naturalism”, depriving couples of their sex life and even driving down birthrates, she says.

There is no doubt that when it comes to modes of mothering, there have been strong trends over the years — ranging from foolish advice to sinister attempts to control women’s behaviour.

But blaming breastfeeding “zealots”, the environmental movement and even babies themselves (mothers' "Great Oppressor" is how Badinter describes them) seems misguided to me. Sometimes it’s a case of weighing up a baby’s wellbeing against a mother’s sanity, certainly, but I would say there is now a pretty solid consensus on the benefits of breastfeeding that isn’t just a disguise for pushing women back into the home.

Badinter is speaking to women, like herself, who can afford wet nurses and nannies. Breastfeeding troubles aside, bottle-feeding can only liberate a mother in the way she describes if there’s someone to hand the bottle over to.

As for ecologists, I get very tired of the idea that environmentalists have some vested interest beyond the survival of humanity and the planet. It's hardly fun to be peddling the notion of our impending self-annihilation. (Just a little communist plot to drive us all backwards…) For Badinter’s generation, baby formula and disposable nappies might have been among the keys to liberating mothers. Now many of us are recognising them as part of a deeper crisis.

(And we know that milk powder has hardly proved liberating for third-world women, where far more horrific motives were at work in its introduction, with tragic results.)

For Badinter, feminism has always meant aiming for equality with men in terms of sharing in their privileges. But since the 70s, women (and some men) have begun to question many of the values attached to those apparent privileges. It has perhaps been one of the greatest surprises for older generations of feminists that, given the choice, many educated mothers are actively choosing to stay at home or work part time.

Rather than blind allegiance to fashion, could it not be women’s own instincts that are driving the take-up of natural birth, co-sleeping, staying at home during the early years and other forms of “attachment” parenting, at least in part?

The difference now — and this seems to be what Badinter fails to recognise — is that for most middle-class women, these are often active, informed choices rather than the result of a lack of options or a response to society’s expectations.

And many women are embracing motherhood as a significant part of their identity — for good reasons, as it is one of the few truly transformative experiences in life, and offers a unique opportunity for self-knowledge.

That said — yes, we’ve all seen examples of attachment parenting gone too far, where parents have failed to set the kind of boundaries that children and, arguably, parents need. But are these really the majority?

Surely the fact that twice as many women are childless now as were 30 years ago has more to do with a mix of choice, birth control and circumstances than an increase in fear about what mothering will entail.

So what does this mentality shift (which I agree with Badinter exists) represent? Is this move to more intensive modes of mothering about informed women making choices that match their instincts? Or is it driven by guilt? Part of a backlash against feminism’s “false” promise that we could have it all?

Worse, in trying to have it all, have women decided it’s just all too hard? That the lack of real choices is causing them to fall back on the path of least resistance?

Another question: is the pressure educated families now feel to run a sustainable household (food gardens, shopping locally…, i.e. time-consuming) falling at the feet of women? (For another post, perhaps…)

The pendulum is definitely still swinging...

Badinter may have children (three, in fact) but the tone of her argument has the same whiff of repulsion as her mentor's, Simone de Beauvior, who couldn’t even stand the sight of a pregnant woman.

While I wouldn’t have minded outsourcing the hours I’ve spent combing nits out of my children’s hair or the endless loads of washing that form like a monster in the corner — and though I am frequently frustrated by the lack of time for my own interests — I wouldn’t actually choose a more distant relationship with my children, a la the French model, even if I could afford one (in the form of a nanny).

Therein lies the bind for so many mothers.

In a sense, Badinter is suggesting that if you want to be truly liberated, you have no choice but to be a “mediocre” mother”. But most women don’t want to have to choose between being an involved parent, being engaged in meaningful work and being an active participant in public life — let alone having strong relationships and creative lives.

As Badinter says, the French have got it right with their state-funded crèche system. Whatever you think of her idea that the state makes up for men’s “deficiencies” (clearly French women gave up on men long ago, if Badinter is anything to go by), it is a system that respects women’s right to selfhood.

Surely there is an argument for progressive naturalism? In a form that doesn’t negate women’s independence and self-realisation.

As Christy outlines so eloquently here, in targeting children as the "tyrants" holding women back, Badinter lets the real culprits off the hook — that is a state and economy that still fails to properly support women's needs and rights.

I have whacked this out, and it's a bit of an immediate reaction to the tone of Badinter's argument. I also have a lot of sympathy for some of her warnings... But that will have to keep for a later post...

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Mother or masochist?

Many of you would have seen this story about French feminist Elisabeth Badinter in last weekend's Australian.

I had to nick the page from my local cafe because I had three kids vying for my lap as I was trying to read it. But finally got around to finishing it and have covered the paper in my fervent scribbles. Will try to weave them into a coherent response... Next post...

Monday, June 7, 2010

Reconciling the creative and maternal 'selves'

Thank you to those who responded to my “How do you do it?” post.

You’d think writing The Divided Heart would have quelled my curiosity about this — but I am just as fascinated as ever to hear about how people organise their lives, especially when it comes to parenthood and creativity.

I know that everyone’s lives are different — some of us work, some don’t, we have babies or grown-up kids, we have supportive partners or no partner at all…

But these are some of the possible strategies I took (and will hold on to) from what you wrote:

- When the kids are asleep that's your time. Don't do chores at night.
- Ask your parent/s to stay for a week and give you some time.
- Routine is the key; see it as work, sit down and work, work, work.
- Sequester a number of hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings when you refuse all other engagements and commitments.
- Continuity; two or three times a week, go off early in the morning to a local cafe for an hour, forsaking a shower for writing.
- Prioritise and work to a study-like timetable; like budgeting, but with time.
- Act as you would if self-employed: go to the computer and ignore the dishes/laundry etc, the same way you have to if you go out to an office with a boss.
- Catch public transport as consistent time for yourself.
- Set the kids up with their own craft cupboard so they can help themselves to what they need.
- Think about changing the medium you work in so it can be left safely about.
- Teach them to use the toaster and butter bread.
- Ignore the housework for as long as possible.
- “Gift” yourself a regular art class or course when overwhelmed by the day-to-day work and “should do's”; then you’ve paid for it and it is timetabled.

I loved the image of Emma standing inside her pined-for studio, inhaling the aroma of leather and saying, “Hello studio, I miss you”.

But as she says, her “lil girl deserves a whole lotta cuddles from her Mum while she's so small”.

Perhaps this is what Frances is getting at with her question to me: “What did your mother fight for, Rachel?”

And her statement: “I suspect that the answer lies in Alix Kates Shulman: what mothers won't tell their daughters is that they will fall in love with their children.”

Frances (and Shulman) is right — no-one can explain to you how much you will love your own children. That is exactly why I struggle so much to reconcile my creative and maternal selves (which of course are not totally separate but do have competing urges at times).

It has taken me a long time to come to terms with the fact that I will not be giving my kids the kind of “ideal” childhood of my fantasies.

They deal with a lot of chaos, and maybe at times they pick up on my stress and frustrations. But I love them to death, and they know it.

If I had to pin down what my mum fought for, as a woman and activist of the 70s, it would be this: that I get the chance to make the most of my choices — including, but not only, the choice to be a mother.

I struggle with the limitations imposed by motherhood — that is true. That does not take away from how much I love my children.

What did my mother fight for? A situation in which women can love their children, and enjoy being mothers, without it having to mean a total negation of the self, as it too often required in the past.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Music, my love

I wonder if all artists are secretly (or not so secretly) envious of artists working in other art forms. For me, it’s music. As someone who writes and occasionally paints/draws, I am always conscious of music’s greater power; of its innate capacity to transport in a way that all other art forms aspire to but rarely attain.

Like so many people, I feel profoundly deprived in not having a good singing voice. I play the piano, and that’s lovely, but it’s not the same as being able to use your own body as your instrument of expression.

Recently I went to see Jen Cloher and Jordie Lane at my local, the Thornbury Theatre. Since then, Jen Cloher has been rocking my world. (Jordie already had a hand on the cradle.)

I’d heard Cloher on the radio a couple of times before this, but it wasn’t until I saw her live that I was properly switched on to her music. I’d forgotten how good seeing a someone perform live is for finally “getting it”, whatever it is a performer has to give.

In the case of Cloher, it was a revelation. How rare to see that combination of ferociousness and vulnerability.

I am now in that heady stage of infatuation with her latest album, where I just can’t get enough of it. I know that intensity will pass, but right now she’s singing the words that I need to hear.

When I listen to Cloher’s songs I get that absurd sense of disbelief that no one has written them before now; how is it that something so perfect would not have existed, would not have been made tangible if this person hadn’t been there to create it?

This thought always triggers a wild mix of gratitude and melancholy in me. The kind that has me pulling over to the side of the road and just taking in a big deep breath. Because I can. Because I've been given a life.

Ain’t that the wonderful thing about art: that strange sense of cathartic relief that comes with hearing/viewing/reading something that releases you; that reminds you why art is essential to the self.

How can you describe the effect great music has on us? I don't have the words. I just know what I feel: that music shatters you just as it makes you whole.

I killed the bird
With the bird
Killed the song
With the song

Killed myself

(Jen Cloher, "Birdsong")

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How do you do it?

OK, now I don’t want to compete with Reservoir Dad’s Most Mentally Sexy Dad comp (woops, I almost wrote “Most Sexually Mental then” — an entirely different contest, I should think…) but I have a little, non-competitive request for my wonderfully inspired and resourceful readers.

When I set out to write The Divided Heart, I was trying to be the next best thing to a fly on the wall. I wanted to know how other people “do it”, meaning maintain a creative life and raise a family (I really do mean to stay out of the bedroom with this post!).

People always ask me what I learned from meeting and talking to the artists in the book. And my usual answer is that, above all (and many of you will have heard me say this before):

YOU need to give yourself permission to be an artist (or creative worker of any kind). No one else is going to give you that permission — especially if you haven’t already staked a claim for it in your own heart and mind.

For mothers, this means being very strict with ourselves, which can be half the battle. It means carving out time, against all odds, to devote to our creative practice — because it’s the thing that connects us to ourselves.

For me, I only feel half alive if I’m not writing. When I’m not writing, I become horribly distracted, preoccupied and downright cranky — not very fun for anyone who has to live with me.

Unfortunately, that means I am all too regularly in this pent-up state, gazing longingly at my writing desk from what feels like a gaping, frustrating expanse. Most of the time I can't even see my laptop, it's so covered in a growing piles of bills, notes and press releases all vying for my attention...

It seems I am still failing that most basic domestic obstacle course. How to dodge the washing basket, unmade beds, grocery shopping, unread school notes, paid work, volunteering, exercise, waxing of a leg (or two)… and make a beeline for that desk, sit down and start wrestling with the blank page.


In the interests of sharing, I’d really love to hear from you about how/when/where you work. What has to be in order for you to get down to it? Or is it to hell with order — you just ignore the housework and get on with the creative stuff?

Do you involve the kids? Do you wake up at 4am (hopefully without the kids!)? Do you do most of your work in your head?

I really want to know what strategies other parents have for making time for their own creative work. Give me your best tips for keeping this little thing called art alive. In other words, HELP!!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Wolf at the Wheeler

As many of you would know, Melbourne's Wheeler Centre now has a fantastic website featuring lots of videos of their events and interviews.

A couple of weeks ago Naomi Wolf appeared at the Centre, and you can check out what she had to say here:

I liked her comment about how the mainstream media jumps on any chance to play women off against each other (i.e. her trumped-up dispute with Germaine Greer) -- that there is a “weird cultural erotics” attached to women fighting amongst themselves.

Must remember that one...

Friday, May 21, 2010

Women and friendship

The other day my friend Ms Treasure (and she is a treasure) sent me a story about a UCLA study which found that when women experience stress, their instinct is to gather up their children and seek out other women.

Before this, scientists believed the hormonally induced “flight or fight” response was a universal response to stress.

When women are stressed, more oxytocin is released, which produces a calming effect — what researchers have dubbed the “tend and befriend” response. Men’s testosterone levels reduce this effect of oxytocin.

Two female scientists stumbled across this idea talking one day in a UCLA lab.

“There was this joke that when the women who worked in the lab were stressed, they came in, cleaned the lab, had coffee, and bonded,” says Dr Klein.

“When the men were stressed, they holed up somewhere on their own. I commented one day to fellow researcher Shelley Taylor that nearly 90% of the stress research is on males. I showed her the data from my lab, and the two of us knew instantly that we were onto something.”

Their discovery that women respond differently than men to stress turned five decades of stress research on its head.

Not only that, the researchers found that female friendship was good for women's health, and might explain why women live longer than men. Strong social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol.

Apparently the more good friends women have, the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.

Ah, how lovely... Not that I needed proof that my women friends were special.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Can housework be sexy?

Perhaps it depends who's doing it!

I have a post about the link between sex and housework on the Most Mentally Sexy Dad Comp page today.

I know you all have plenty to say on this issue! Love to read your thoughts...

And while we're on the subject, I urge you all to read this great op ed piece by the ever-inspiring feminist poster-boy Damon Young.

It is also running on page 15 of today's Age newspaper.

His statement "I'm a feminist because I take my wife's selfhood seriously" is music to my ears. More than that, though, he translates that belief into action.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Yoghurt and strawberry

I hope someone in your household took Mothers Day seriously.

Mothers Day never quite lives up to my fantasies, i.e. a day when no-one lets me lift a finger and instead someone gives me a massage -- or maybe even leaves me alone for a few hours.

It doesn't help when junior footy starts at 9am. (And every Sunday at 9am for the rest of your life...)

The kids did wake me at 6.30 very excitedly with a lovely breakfast in bed -- a bowl of yoghurt and honey, sitting inside a baking dish full of lollies. Obviously their idea of the best breakfast you could ever hope for!

My yoghurt was topped with a single strawberry. I later found the rest of the punnet’s worth of strawberry leaves dumped in the sink... All pretty cute, really.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The quest to find Australia's Most Mentally Sexy Dad

I am honoured to be joining the team of illustrious judges for the (now international) Most Mentally Sex Dad Competition.

The comp was established by blogger Reservoir Dad as a bit of a local fun and has become bigger then Ben-Hur (probably not quite the right reference, sorry), even featuring on the Today Show last week!

It's based on the oft-repeated statement by mothers everywhere that the sexiest thing their partners could do is unstack the dishwasher.

As Reservoir Dad puts it:

Dads are beginning to realise that they have to take some responsibility for maintaining the passion in their relationship. The days of killing a beast and lolling around the campfire are over. Life is more complicated, busier and cluttered.

As Barbara Pocock, director of the Center for Work and Life at the University of South Australia, said, Australian working women found resentment over housework killed libido.

"If the resentment factor was high, that's when their sex life was not great. The best sex aid a man could use was a vacuum cleaner."

This quote inspired the Reservoir Dad team to coin the term Mentally Sexy to attribute to Dads who are the opposite of the men Barbara Pocock was talking about.

A Mentally Sexy Dad is more family orientated, more aware of his partner’s needs and simply a better husband and father.

Dads, this is your chance to have some fun, impress your partner (and your mates!) and win some great prizes. Are you Australia's Most Mentally Sexy Dad? Send your entry to Reservoir Dad and let's find out...

My partner (who is sexy in every way) has been looking a little nervous about my new role...

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Who's chicken?

My kids have been playing out on the street a lot lately. It’s school holidays and so all the neighbourhood kids have come out of the woodworks and spend their days kicking footballs between driveways and disappearing into each others’ houses.

This is, I know, the model of a positive childhood — the kind of our memories; the kind people spend so much time lamenting the loss of. And in theory, I’m all for it. Certainly I was one of those kids that spent my early years building BMX bike tracks in the bush (no helmets back then), or eagerly visiting the homes of kids who were allowed to watch tele and eat chocolate biscuits.

So why do I find myself thinking (and having to work so hard not to behave) like one of those uptight modern parents we all rail against? All my own issues about control — or, more specifically, the lack of it — come up in the face of having to loosen the reins on my children. And the older they get, the harder this gets.

I understand the importance of freedom, of risk, of making your own mistakes... only now, when it comes to my own kids, I find myself in a constant state of low-level anxiety about their safety. What do you do as a parent? Do you decide what you can happily live with and only let the reins out only that far? Or do you give your kids more freedom than is always completely comfortable, and take responsibility for finding a way to live with this?

Last week I had three extra kids for the day (plus mine = five). At one point, two of them wanted to play footy out the front, while three wanted to cook muffins with me. We started baking in the kitchen and I kept checking on the two outside every few minutes, which got pretty tedious after a while.

In the end I hauled them inside and let them play games on the computer so we could get on with finishing the muffins. Really, I didn’t feel so good about sticking two 8-yr-old boys who were perfectly happy playing sport outside in front of the zombie-box for my own convenience — but I just didn’t feel I could ensure their safety (boys, balls, a road...) and I was sick of trekking back and forth.

When the rest of us had stuck the muffins in the oven, another one retreated to the study. I checked on them. The computer game they were playing looked pretty innocent: little chickens chasing other little chickens or something. It was one my son had played a few times at a good friend’s house. In the scheme of things it looked quite sweet and old-fashioned. I gave them another ten minutes.

A few moments later, I had a traumatised child running to me in the kitchen, asking me if that’s really what they do to baby chickens. “What do you mean, darling?” I asked her. “Was there something in the game?” “No, we won and then there was a video of people killing baby chickens. And they were so mean to them.”

The game was part of an anti-KFC site, dressed up like a site safe for children, but on closer inspection a clever way of drawing them in and then exposing them to some horrific images. I’m all for questioning the practices of multi-national food chains; and I’m all for being honest with kids about the way animals are dealt with so they become meat for our consumption — if and when they are in a position to take this information on board. But this was a sinister and underhand way of getting at children without parental awareness.

I felt completely naive and careless. A child in my care was traumatised, all because I thought, ironically, that she would be safer in my study than out on the footpath. I know most of us use the occasional bit of television or computer time or whatever to ensure a few controlled moments of sanity — a chance to keep our child quiet and in one place while we have a shower or make that phone call or whatever.

But in this case, this decision had come back to bite me on the bum. At the risk of coming over all moralistic, if there is one area worthy of uptight parental control, it’s the internet. As for the neighbourhood adventures, I'm still trying to work that one out...

P.S. My CAE writing intensive, Making Stories: Creative Lives, is on again 1/2 May. If you are a parent and you are trying to make space for writing, this course is for you!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Writing intensive for mothers

I am running a weekend CAE course in Melbourne on the 20/21 March called "Making Stories: Creative Lives".

It'll be lots of fun. We will look at published writing that uses motherhood as a central theme, and learn how to translate the experience of mothering into stories, articles, essays or memoir.

We will be sharing stories and articles by Helen Garner, Grace Paley, Doris Lessing, Rachel Cusk and many more who have used the experience of parenting to great effect in their work.

Please let anyone who you think may be interested know. Babes in arms are welcome, and for the rest of us I'll supply the jelly babies!

Sat 20 Mar: 10.00AM-4.30PM
Sun 21 Mar: 10.00AM-4.30PM

Venue: CAE Building A
21 Degraves St, Melbourne
Fee: $230.00 - Code: HAT54901

Thursday, February 18, 2010

More on the thorny Megan Basham argument

In response to Frances's comment on my previous post (and thank you everyone for your thoughts)...

I think it is all too easy to equate an argument against the ideas of someone like Megan Basham with devaluing motherhood.

It is exactly because I am concerned about the kind of society that I want my daughter — and my son — to inherit that Basham's ideas concern me.

It is not her assertion of the worth of being at home and involved with family that is at issue here. It is the emphasis and attitude of the argument that I find disturbing: the idea of women (and she only ever refers to women in this role) putting their energy and focus into supporting their husband’s career so he is free to earn more.

I strongly believe in a woman’s right to choose to be at home, or to have flexible working arrangements — and, just as importantly, men’s right to work-life balance and to be involved with their families.

It is the tenor of her argument that bothers me. To me, it seems this kind of theory has lost rather than gained perspective on what’s important, as the ultimate goal seems to be money, as opposed to finding ways to live well and stay connected to each other and your children. It buys into an economic system that is inherently unfriendly to work-life balance for both men and women (excuse the over-used term).

In terms of role-modelling, I want my kids to see both me and my partner focused on the things that are meaningful to us not only as parents, but as individuals — which includes loving and nurturing them, as well as nurturing ourselves and each other.

In a sense, I am the kind of woman Basham is speaking to — my partner works full-time and I work part-time. I work for money but also because I get personal satisfaction from it. I work part time because I want to be with my kids and because I can’t imagine how to keep the household running and retain some sanity otherwise.

Of course those of us who stay at home full or part time already support our families in all sorts of ways. By default, I do more washing/shopping/hands-on caring than my partner — though when he's around, he does these things too.

Every family chooses what they need to do to keep themselves functional and financially afloat.

But there are limits to this supporting role — I do not want it to take over my life, or my psyche. I don’t want to set up a dynamic that turns me into my partner’s devoted backer/servant, freeing him up to go out and conquer the world and gather more pots of gold.

After having my babies, I stayed out of the workforce as long as my family could afford for me to, and wish that could have been longer. And since then, I have been privileged enough to only need to work part-time. I breastfed both of my babies until they were 2.

I don’t think any of what I’m saying is an argument against the value of these things. I think parenting is one of the most important and complex roles any of us can have — that is exactly why I write about it so much.

In answer to your question, Damon, my ideal would be for both my partner and I to work part time, so both of us could have more time with the kids and more time to spend on our creative interests — and paid work could take its place as one, but only one, of the necessary and fulfilling aspects of our lives.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Modern Marriages of Convenience

We are in the middle of major renovations at my house right now. Unfortunately nothing fancy — more like a getting back to zero scenario (sealed walls, doors that close, upgrading the 70s mushroom brown paint, though that won’t stop me downing a few glasses of serious bubbly when it’s done).

As a result, we currently have no internet access at home. We have been spending our nights, once the kids are asleep (on the loungeroom floor), listening to the radio and painting walls. It has been strangely cosy and kind of a relief to be barred from the computer for a while.

The only downside is that I keep hearing things on the radio I’d like to comment on without the time, or easy means, to post something.

One subject I seem to keep hearing (and thinking) about is the issue of mothers judging other mothers. I am flagging that up as something I want to write about.

But more urgently—despite being about six months late on this one—I recently listened to the repeat of Megan Basham talking on RN’s Life Matters about her book, Beside Every Successful Man.

It could be seen as one of a spate of post-feminist books coming out of the US over the past decade about “modern marriages”.

You can read an article I wrote for Arena Magazine back in 2004 on this subject here.

Also, definitely listen to Monica Dux's great follow-up comments.

Basham is arguing that, since most mothers are choosing not to work full time, they may as well shift their focus on to supporting their husband’s career, as this makes economic sense all round.

Hers is the kind of conservatism that can dress itself up as pure “reasonable-ness”.

She seems flabbergasted that anyone would feel troubled by what she sees as a simple idea: the idea that you help your husband’s career so that more money is flowing in for the whole family.

We all know that statistics show most mothers of young children choose to stay at home, at least part time. This in itself is not in itself a controversial notion (though the basis for that choice can be very complex).

It is Basham’s leap to the idea of exploiting the “marriage premium”, as it’s called, that is so disturbing.

Her “supporting your husband” idea is based on “personal experience” (ie. as a woman surrounded by other women married to men with high earning capacities) and economic data that shows the presence of a “wife” at home has a positive impact on a man’s professional success and income.

The economic argument is a no-brainer. This is the division of labour that has traditionally characterised the neo-liberal economy. But at whose expense?

Hasn’t she watched Mad Men lately?

Basham quotes data that shows a man with wife at home will make 20–60% more than single man with the same job/credentials. The more hours a wife works, the smaller that marriage premium, or “advantage” becomes, she says.

She calls this teamwork.

This is surely the most expedient notion of teamwork I have ever encountered. Instead of a partnership being about individual growth and development, it’s about privileged couples milking the current system to suit their economic ends — no matter the impact on women generally.

She says women who do want to work full time and get to the highest levels should be able to, without a glass ceiling preventing her — but she doesn’t acknowledge that her argument is one of the very ideas that creates such ceilings.

It is all about encouraging an economic system that sees people get ahead by working long hours, unimpeded by family responsibilities — the very thing feminists have been trying to transform for three decades.

It is this deeper, underlying conservatism that poses the real danger for women. Along with the whole tone of the argument: men and women reverting to their most traditional roles; leading separate, if mutually serviceable, lives.

Personally I don’t want to be at home all day alone with the kids from 7am till 9pm and a husband we only see on weekends, sacrificing my own interests to his career purely so that he can make us some more money.

Is that really what life is all about? Is that the life my mother fought for me to have?

After all that, you better hope he won’t leave you for a younger model…

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Is there such a thing as women's writing?

There was the most wonderful article, “A Voice of Her Own”, by Rachel Cusk in yesterday’s Age newspaper about “women’s writing”. It is one of those pieces of writing that makes me want to shout ‘Hurrah!’ because someone has found a way to express things that I have felt in my bones but not managed to describe to myself.

I love Rachel Cusk's work. When I read her novels, I feel like every sentence is teaching me how to write. I discovered her non-fiction book, A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother, late in the process of compiling The Divided Heart, and it was a complete revelation to me — full of the kind of brutal honesty she advocates in the article.

At the time, her book stirred up all sorts of controversy and was vocally rejected by certain readers repelled by its rawness, or what they saw as its indulgent self-obsessiveness, just at that moment when a woman is supposed to be giving herself over without reserve. As Cusk says (somewhat obliquely): “She can find herself disowned in the very act of invoking the deepest roots of shared experience.”

I think it will take me at least two more reads of her article to fully comprehend all that she’s getting at (it is refreshingly dense for a newspaper article), but I urge you all to read it. I think it spoke to me particulary now as I have found myself in a strange state lately when it comes to writing. Not merely feeling stuck, but actually silenced, somehow, by the realities of life.

Funnily, this state descended on me following a period where I was writing furiously, and now I find myself having to not resist, but just wait for the emptiness I've been feeling to once again be invaded with words.

What strikes me in Cusk's discussion of women’s historical “silence" is the idea that it may not always have been characterised by conscious frustration, but rather by the dominance of a culture that makes a woman unknowable to herself, that bars a woman from realising herself.

There was a gap in what women were able to imagine and their lack of “wordly power” to enact it, she writes. “Yes, she might produce literature out of this conflict in her being. But she is more likely to produce silence.”

She describes a Doris Lessing story about a mother of four who begins to want a room of her own. She doesn’t know why she wants it or what she wants it for, but the desire for a space where “no one can get at her” becomes an obsession. A designated room in the house doesn’t work: the kids can still find her there. So she regularly starts renting out a room in a hotel.

Cusk’s point is that the woman in the story doesn’t go to this room to write bestselling novels. Or to create anything at all. Perhaps the most powerful “women’s writing”, she is saying, is that which describes its opposite: women’s silence; the experience of someone who does not have the means to articulate the source of her own restlessness to herself.

When I read Cusk’s A Life’s Work, I remember finding it intriguing that she didn’t specifically identify herself as a writer, or suggest that a lack of time for writing might be a central cause of her frustrations as a new mother. At the time I saw it as a kind of oversight, especially coming from someone with such keen self-knowledge.

With this article, though, I see it was possibly deliberate. A way of universalising her experience for the reader, but also trying to get at what is, in actuality, a more general sense of confusion about what it is and means to be a woman feeling the “integrity of her life” suddenly at risk.

For contemporary women, “Marriage, motherhood and domesticity are regarded as so many choices, about which there is a limited entitlement to complain,” she writes in her article. In other words, now that we are equal, superficially at least, we are also successfully disenfranchised. As women, we no longer have a powerful, unified movement to join when we find ourselves thrust into situations that make us realise our lives are, after all, still defined by the fact of being a woman. All the more shocking for modern women who have convinced themselves of their equality, and fiercely protect this belief.

Cusk’s idea that this might be the reason for a writer to “risk taking femaleness and female values as her subject”, could entirely describe my own impetus for writing The Divided Heart.

As she says, it is the work that deals in the eternal — motherhood, domesticity, family life — that the most honesty is needed, and that you can expect the strongest rejection, because so many women don’t want to return to these questions, or admit that their lives might be affected by them, or lose some of what they feel they have gained from effective assimilation.

I have a dear friend (one of five siblings) who tells a story about watching some video footage of her family and suddenly being struck by what their lives have meant for their mother. She turned to her and said, “But Mum, we’ve ruined you!”

Her mother’s answer: “Yes, but what a way to be ruined!”

When it comes to thinking about the "integrity" of my own life, this anecdote often comes to my mind.