Monday, December 28, 2009

Where's Santa when you need him?!

Phew! I barely survived that Christmas period--I don't know about you. The Santa fantasy must have been invented by desperate parents who never want to enter another shopping mall again as long as they live. Imagine how much more relaxing (and affordable) Christmas would be if Mr Santa Clause could only keep up his end of the bargain...

All that fluoro lighting seems to have killed off my brain. So luckily for me (and you), rather than write a lengthy post here, I can refer you to this piece philosopher Damon Young invited me to write for his fabulous blog series in which authors and artists talk about their favourite tools...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

A poem from Cate Kennedy to share

I seem to be constantly apologising lately for my lack of blogging action. This week, though I have a particularly good excuse, as I am doing an intensive novel writing masterclass--which, as it suggests, intensive!

It has been a rather humbling, daunting, confronting experience spending all day in a room full of accomplished fiction writers, when I feel like such a beginner, still trying to make the transition out of non-fiction and into fiction--and not just short stories, but a whole book. It has felt a bit like vomiting in public sometimes, sharing this very raw material so openly. (Sorry--that's not a very pretty picture, is it?)

What has really helped my (numerous) crises of confidence, though, has been the number of amazing messages I have been getting about The Divided Heart this week. I think this book must have just about the loveliest bunch of readers any book could hope for! I so appreciate the openness and generosity of spirit with which people write to me. Thank you Divided Hearties.

In the meantime, I just want to share this wonderful poem that writer Cate Kennedy (speaking of the wildly accomplished) sent me some time back after reading The Divided Heart.

I was sitting at my desk wrestling with a piece of writing one day, when up popped a message from Cate (that's her in the pic above), with this poem that summed up so exquisitely the very feeling I was struggling to articulate: the way children call on us/teach us to be present to the here and now--which is what is both so challenging and so wonderful about them. It was one of those synchronous moments.

Cate was one of the first women I approached for an interview for my book, only to discover she didn't then have children. (I felt mortified that I had been so presumptuous. Something about her writing had made me assume she was a mother.) She has since had a daughter, and now I wish I could do a second version with her in it!

(P.S. Just before you read the poem--for those still thinking/blogging/obsessing about housework issues, my sister has started a new blog, Work, Love, Play, and her latest post offers another interesting angle on the matter...)

Cate Kennedy

I have written this
with a body stretched and sore,
stitches swollen, torn by a crowning head
tongue thick with painkillers
and in the next room a cry for milk
to set my heart off like a caged bird against my ribs

And I have written this
dragging with me a lead apron of grainy exhaustion
page prickling through a stinging mist, mouth metallic with adrenalin
while she sleeps, frowning, tender as a camellia

I have written
all I could, in a gluttonous scrawling haste
hearing her call for me, crawling through the other room
written it washed with guilt, the soup burned to the saucepan
snatching just five illicit minutes to myself, for godsakes, just five

And I have written
as she sat under my feet pulling what’s hoarded from the shelf below
cringing at the sound of tearing paper
until the computer connection suddenly went dead
and she – gummy, triumphant, seated like the Buddha –
held the cable aloft, and waved it like a prayer flag

And I have written, like today,
as she stood by my leg crying with frustration
beating a tattoo onto my thigh with both hands
her face transposing everything, urgently seeking my eyes
demanding I turn away from this pointless thing
because out there, the whole humming world is waiting
See, says her fervent outstretched finger, see there
is the outside
trust me
everything you need is there

tell me you wouldn’t rise,
given that call,
and follow her
helpless and ardent
as a chastened disciple.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Innocence and experience

Thank you for those lovely comments on my last post.

I agree with composer Christine McCombe that sweeping statements about art and motherhood are dangerous. I wanted to avoid the term 'artist-mother' in The Divided Heart for this reason, but inevitably it was used just for the sake of convenience. That said, whether or not mothering has a direct impact on the themes of your work, there could be few more life-changing experiences, both in a material and emotional sense--and it is hard to imagine this not affecting your work, or at least your process, in some way.

As Christine writes on her great blog, she feels like she's now embarking on her 'Creative Life, version 2', post-baby. It is such an interesting transition when that often liberating permission to retreat from art/work after becoming a mother slowly gives way to a new creative urgency. "I find that I am approaching things in a different way, partly because of the imperative of time and partly because of a shift in the way I think about what I am doing and why I am doing it," she says. That about sums it up, doesn't it?!

As for the language we use around art and motherhood, it's fraught. I certainly had two women refuse to be in the book because they didn't want to highlight the fact of being a woman in the eyes of the public, let alone being a mother.

More broadly, on that matter of how we talk about mothering to those who aren't parents, I have two old friends who are pregnant for the first time at the moment, and I really have to watch myself--to just take a step back and let them have their own experience without imposing my 'worldy' own. And to just listen to them talk about their expectations without being smug (something I remember hating other mothers do before I had my own babies). It's amazing how hard this can be: to find the right balance between offering advice and not being a know-it-all.

When I was pregnant and ran into parents I knew on the street, they tended to talk in extremes: either telling me it's the most wonderful thing you'll ever do; or prepare for your life to be fucked--no sleep, no time for yourself etc. Now I know that it's both these things--and everything in between--and it probably just depended which day I caught them on as to which feeling was dominating.

Ha ha--just now I've opened to a page in my notebook and found my 7-year-old son has started a list called: "People who are as smart as me." It's a very short list, I can tell you. And my name's certainly not on it. Ah well, I must be doing something right, 'cause he certainly doesn't lack confidence, does he?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

From one mother to another

I have had a number of readers contact me almost apologetically to tell me that they initially avoided reading The Divided Heart because they had assumed it would be a negative take on motherhood when they enjoy having kids so much.

Fortunately, they have come to read it anyway — because it was recommended to them, or in one case because she was on the judging panel for one of those many prizes it didn’t get.

So it is lovely when someone gets in touch to say the book defied their expectations. And even more exciting when someone tells me the book inspired them to get moving with their own work, or even fed directly in to their art.

One example is this fab-sounding exhibition at the University of Florida. Four Squared is an exhibition by four artist-mothers and their experiences of making art amongst the chaos of raising young children.

Motherhood is also the theme of their art – “the push & pull of motherhood, domesticity and creativity. It is work created on an emotional rollercoaster, while burning the midnight oil, with the use of favours from friends, with the constant awareness of dishes to be washed.”

Most recently I was contacted by Iranian-born, British-raised, LA-based photographer and mother, Parisa Taghizadeh. She has made a series of works entitled “Mother”, one of which is in an upcoming show in New York, MOTHER/mother at the A.I.R. Gallery in Brooklyn, New York.

MOTHER/mother is an exhibition of work made by artists from around the world within the years immediately following a pregnancy or the birth of a child.

If you are lucky enough to be visiting the US over the coming months, these shows look well worth a visit.

Just the other day, I came across a review of The Divided Heart that ran in the April issue of Art Monthly (check out the great cover!). Reviews by artists always make me nervous, so it was great to read Denise Ferris’s comment that the book made her feel “uplifted”.

“This book normalises the mother and artist combination by presenting women who continue to practise their craft in spite of social or their own confused expectations to choose one role over the other,” she writes.

“These women have continued to make work in spite of difficult personal experiences, and in spite of potent mixed emotions, self-doubt, confusion and exhaustion. To continue to work as an artist is not always as seamless as we hope. And that is the reality presented in this book.”

One criticism, though, was the lack of single mothers and gay parents in the book. Funnily enough, there are both in The Divided Heart. Perhaps it’s an indication of just how universal the issues around art and motherhood are that this wasn’t more obvious.

Friday, October 30, 2009

A portrait of the artist as a mother

I hoard my clean washing (note I say ‘my’, meaning ‘my family’s’, hmm…) till it reaches a pile big enough to justify a night spent folding it in front of the box — which in my case, not having a telly, means a DVD on the computer.

Having finished the first series of Mad Men — and since this week’s pile had grown to a size equalling a full feature-length movie (see how fun it can get?!) — I decided to watch Alice Neel, a haunting documentary about this extraordinary American painter.

Neel made portraits — of friends, family, lovers, poets, artists, and ordinary people... anyone who crossed her radar — infused with emotional intensity, her sitters challenging the viewer with their direct gaze.

I actually wrote a long section about Neel in The Divided Heart, which was cut out in the final edit. Embarrassingly, my first draft of the book came in at over 120,000 words, more than double that requested by the publisher, so there was plenty of material left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak, much of it investigations into women artists I admire.

As a woman and single mother, Alice Neel (1900–1984) did it tough, but remained utterly dedicated to her art.

The question of whether her obsessive devotion to painting — and the instability that came with that — was to the detriment of her children becomes the unintentional focus of the film, which was made by her grandson, Andrew Neel.

Neel spent much of her life on welfare and was isolated as an artist until the late 1960s and 70s, when the women’s movement embraced her.

In the film she says: “I always felt in a sense that I didn’t have the right to paint because I had two sons and I had so many things that I should be doing and here I was painting.

“… I wanted everything. I didn’t want just art; I wanted everything. Everyone wants everything but then they have to get practical and settle for a certain amount. But maybe I was never that practical.”

Neel lost her first two children, one through death, the other taken from her for complex reasons. These traumas permeated her work, its themes of motherhood, loss and anxiety, for the rest of her career.

In the film, her remaining, adult children have a complex relationship with Neel — loving her as a mother and friend, full of admiration for her work, and yet both nursing hurts that have profoundly shaped them as people.

“I don’t like bohemian culture,” her now very right-wing son, Richard, says. “People are hurt by it. I was hurt by it. People who are engaged in it don’t care about, or feel responsible for, those who are around them, or who depend on them.”

Her second son, Hartley (now a doctor), was badly abused by one of Neel’s long-term partners, and Richard’s father, communist intellectual Sam Brody. It is not stated directly but is suggested that Neel ignored this abuse because she desperately needed Brody’s belief in her as an artist at a time when her work had fallen out of public and critical favour.

And yet, through all his sadness, Hartley has the insight to say: “If she had been satisfied with the paragon of what women were supposed to be in her era, she would have accomplished nothing. She might have been the greatest mother and housewife and all that… [but] this was the other side of the coin in terms of the way Alice saw things. She didn’t want that stuff.”

By the end of this, I tell you, my washing was neatly folded but my heart was a complete shambles.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cop this--apparently women can't write good sex

I realise this is veering into completely different territory, but I was just wondering if anyone took any notice of the recent debate fuelled by the comments of Kate Copstick, the new publisher of British magazine Erotic Review, who said women a not naturally good writers of erotic fiction?

You may have heard her talking to Ramona Koval and Linda Jaivin on Radio National’s Book Show a few months back.

Basically Copstick (what a name, eh?) said she doesn’t want her magazine “drowning in oestrogen”. That women “complicate, they add layers to sex, and sex in the Erotic Review I think is a beautiful, pure thing which deserves to be written about, celebrated for itself, and it doesn’t need a subtext, it doesn't even need a context.”

She also complained of young women who think they’re writing about sex but are actually writing about sexual politics, which is “not very sexy”.

“The Erotic Review is not there for women to have a go,” she told the BBC. “I don’t believe in equality, I believe in elitism. I want the very best writing and women are not passionately devoted to sex.”

What do others think about this? Surely it’s a bit scary that the owner of the world’s leading erotic journal has concluded that only men can write sex well.

Or is she just judging from the perspective of her predominantly male readership? (Maybe female readers would like a bit of context and subtext if she was interested in catering for them. After all, her target reader is "a dirty old man with two PhDs"...)

Surely some women are passionately devoted to sex (at least some of the time). And besides, when sex becomes “complicated” does it automatically cease being a beautiful thing?

Isn’t erotic fiction without any subtext or context really just porn? Albeit perhaps well-written, literary porn, as Copstick would argue.

I'm not really sure of my stance on this one, but I'm intrigued by this argument nonetheless...

Monday, October 12, 2009

The burden of time

Sorry that it’s been a while between posts. I have been on a family holiday. And I use that word advisedly. I mean, I do appreciate a change of scene and all, but ‘holiday with children’… more like shifting the whole shebang to somewhere with fewer distractions and less support.

At one point, I even found myself fantasising about having myself thrown in gaol for a couple of weeks (months?). I was thinking new exercise regime, learning a new language, perhaps even one of those creative writing courses they teach in prisons nowadays…

Sorry, I exaggerate (a little). The holidays were mostly fun. And how good to have a couple of weeks without the crazy school/kinder/work/drop-off/pick-up/make someone’s lunch/dinner routine. But, oh, how I miss a lazy morning in bed reading a book...

So back to reality. Or perhaps the reality we create.

In the post today, I received a review copy of the latest Buddhism for Mothers book, the somewhat awkwardly but straightforwardly titled Buddhism for Mothers of Schoolchildren by Sarah Napthali.

I have to admit I have not properly read the original book, though other mothers mention it in conversation all the time. But I took a quick peek at this new one, read the first line of the first chapter (titled ‘Stress’ — ha ha, why would that be?!) and think I have to read this book.

“Mothers of schoolchildren can have a tense relationship with time and, in some cases, an obsessive attachment to using it efficiently,” writes Napthali.

Isn’t this the wonderful thing about writing — someone else always manages to describe some emotion or thought or idea you believed was just your own particular neuroses, and suddenly you realise it’s a common, explainable feeling?

Tense would be putting it mildly, for me. I have a perverse relationship with time — almost as perverse as my relationship with housework (and very much related).

I now find myself regularly writing time as ‘TIME’. Sorry, I’m not yelling, exactly, but time has come to be one of those hugely loaded terms for me. One of those big words, like LOVE or MONEY.

As I wrote in The Divided Heart, I don’t think I even had a relationship with time before I had children. Now that every moment alone has to be bought, borrowed, begged or stolen, I feel like I’ve gone to the other extreme — unhealthily attached to making every minute count.

Which of course only becomes it’s own burden — because even when you’ve “decided just to relax” (how’s that for an oxymoron), you’ve still got the clock ticking in the back of your head.

Multi-tasking has become such a habit for me now that I find myself doing it obsessively at times when it is just not useful. For example, when trying to write — which would actually benefit from a bit of single-minded focus.

It can become a tad ridiculous when you find yourself trying to brush your teeth, make a phone call and do the dishes at the same time. And, no, unfortunately I am not making that up! It wasn't until the other person answered their phone that I realised it just wasn’t going to work.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The neverending housework debate...

So much juicy stuff in those housework comments. My partner and I went out last night and your feedback gave me the strength to wade in to this thorny territory and try to decide on some solution.

I have wondered whether if I didn’t work, I would feel clearer about this. Would it be a case of, ‘OK, he works to bring in the money; so this is my job.’ But that ignores the fact that being home with kids is as much of a full-time job.

My feeling has always been that if there is still work to do in the evenings (as there always is), then let’s just get in there and do it. Together. It’s not like as a mother at home, you’ve been slack all day and just haven’t completed your jobs in some allotted work hours. Household chores can roll on and on without end most of the time.

What intrigues me is all the underlying, unconscious assumption at play. I know my partner considers us equal in his conscious mind, but how hard is it for us all to really get out from under the backlog of history that has shaped us and our in-built cultural assumptions?

A writer friend of mine was saying the other day that it’s kind of sad this situation where we know that in many ways that traditional division of roles worked for a good reason. But at what cost?

The problem is our economy still relies on having someone looking after the house, but women now have different expectations for their lives — that they will be able to fulfil all those needs and desires that once had to be suppressed.

You just should never have taken “that bite of the apple”, another (male) friend said. There is no turning back now.

So why are we stuck half way? We have (tacitly?) agreed that it is not fair for either gender to be stuck in those old-fashioned roles without choice, but somehow that full exchange just doesn’t seem to have occurred, especially domestically.

Home Girl’s comments about feeling that the domestic space will be seen as a reflection of her state of mind really resonated with me. So much about having children is surrendering to a lack of control. But this is something I struggle with every day.

As for Susan's comment that anyone can do the laundry but no-one can paint that picture is so true, but always comes with a big 'but' for me (unless you can pay someone else to do your laundry)...

So many times people have told me to ditch the housework in favour of creativity. But how long can that go on before everything just starts falling apart? And at what point is that just not conducive to anything?

I have spoken to other writers who say they have come to terms with the fact that the house has to be clean before they can settle down to writing — and that’s just the way it is.

When I am completely bogged down in housework, though, and can see the creative work retreating further and further from my grasp, the thought that really gets me down is that, at the end of the day, no-one will congratulate me for this. Have you ever heard at a funeral the line: ‘She kept a beautiful house.’ Well, maybe that happens.

But you are far more likely to be remembered for the grand-scale, publically recognised work that you did. Doesn’t this just sum up history for women?

Oh, God, I could just go on and on...

But thank you all so much for your inspiring comments. Women never cease to amaze me with their wisdom and insight!

Anyway, this is the way the conversation went: ‘Can we agree that we put the kids to bed at 8. We decide what jobs have to be done tonight and what can be left for later (i.e. the weekend). We go hell-for-leather getting them done, with the pact that we will aim to have them done by 9 or 9.30. Then we both stop and get on with what we want to be doing. Full stop.’

How does that sound?

He agreed. Will keep you posted...

Friday, September 18, 2009

From the local to the global

I love the comments I got about my last post and I am definitely going to respond to them in my next post (don't worry -- I haven't done with housework yet!!)

I know this seems a long way from that issue. But I just feel compelled to get down my somewhat wayward thoughts on this larger catastrophe we are confronting...

At my writers' group last night we ended up having a very lengthy discussion on art in the face of climate change. Does it make writing a novel, for example, pointless -- or is it in fact the most important thing we can do right now?

One of the group mentioned a comedian she heard the other day who said he's just waiting for the day when we destroy ourselves and the planet can get back to doing what it does best -- existing. Without us.

This idea sets my head spinning ('scuse the pun).

Humanity’s presence on this earth raises the most fundamental questions about existence.

What is it all for?

Does this planet need us? Almost certainly not.

Do we need this planet? Absolutely, yes.

Would this planet be better off without us? In our current mode of operation, yes.

So why are we here then? Is there something meaningful about the human ability to comprehend beauty, to reflect on it, to translate it into art, which perhaps then deepens our experience of it?

Is beauty meaningless otherwise?

Is it not enough that plants and animals exist for the sake of existence, feeding off each other and living in a kind of harmony, albeit based on an often brutal, primitive exchange?

How could humanity be the only creature created with such a fatal flaw — the capacity to destroy the very thing that sustains us?

Are we just an experiment — one that will make way for a better version in the future? A version with some genetic wisdom, some intrinsic understanding of the need for respect for this earth?

But then how could this experiment ever be repeated? Could the same precarious conditions that provided for our evolution ever exist again?

Has our so-called ‘civilisation’ not in fact relied on the most brutal exchange of all?

If it wasn’t for my children, I could almost be content with the idea of humanity wiping itself out, as if we have proven that to be the natural order of things. We have proven our unworthiness.

Apart from love of children, though, is my love for art and ideas. Imagine a world with no art or ideas.

And for art and ideas to thrive, first we need the freedom provided by food and shelter.

I know I’ve been scaring a few of my friends lately with my dark thoughts. But these are the questions that are keeping me awake at night.

Scientists are telling us that if we achieve a global agreement on climate change in December at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, we may be able to save the Barrier Reef, stop 100 million people from being displaced and minimise the number and intensity of cyclones, bushfires, floods and droughts.

A Climate for Change is a fantastic site co-ordinating action on climate change. Check it out.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The housework blues

I have been getting the serious housework blues of late. There are weeks where I feel I work, I hang out with my kids, I clean, I clean, I clean... and that is the substance of my life.

My partner 'helps out' and feels I don't recognise all he does. Perhaps that's true. But maybe that's because no matter what he does, I seem to do so much more!

He will certainly do the jobs that I ask him to do, but once that's finished, he goes back to what he'd prefer to be doing, while I seem to just find more and more chores to deal with until I basically drop from exhaustion--emotional exhaustion, largely, as I find myself in a state of constant suppressed rage.

As a friend of mine said to me the other day, if she has a spare 10 minutes she will use it to clean, while her partner will pick up his guitar.

It feels like a trap: to be forced into becoming the kind of nag no-one chooses to be, and then punished for it by the very person we feel has pushed us into this role.

I put off raising the issue for as long as I can stand, because I can hardly bear finding myself back in that all-too-familiar, intractable and horribly mundane debate that never seems to go anywhere.

Why can't men see that the fact this issue is so common might mean it's not just his partner's particular uptight neuroses he's dealing with?

It's a terrible thought, because I love my partner so much, but sometimes I even think it would be easier to be a single mother, because then at least there would be no-one else to blame or resent, and life would have a clearer order. But I know that's just bullshit, too.

Sadly I feel like I've been facing the choice of maintaining the house, or maintaining a writing life. Again and again, I seem to be coming up against this struggle to give myself permission to write; to just drop the other responsibilities and make writing a priority. I am sucked back into this working mother/housewife vortex that seems to have a stronger and more forceful pull than the delicate thread of creativity which, for me, is so easily broken.

Is there a solution to this problem? Have any of you found some harmony in your households when it comes to this matter? I would love to hear about it...

Friday, September 11, 2009

Talking 'bout my Divided Heart...

For those of you in Adelaide, I’m going to be talking with Cath Kenneally on Radio Adelaide’s Arts Breakfast tomorrow morning at 9.30 (your time), 101.5FM.

Hope she’s nice to me so early in the morning! I’ve done a bit of this radio stuff now, but still it scares me witless (to put it nicely).

Now, to caffeinate or not to caffeinate myself first, that is the real question… (Tune in if you can.)

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Family Guy

Some time back, curator Brett Adlington contacted me to say that he thought I might interested in an exhibition he's been working on for a few years -- and that is now on at the Lake Macquarie Art Gallery in New South Wales.

I was--and am!--and have been very remiss in not posting about it before now.

It's called Family Guy, and the idea emerged for Brett when he was home full time with his kids while his wife worked. He said he was struck while waiting at the school gate by how many fathers there were picking up their kids, unlike when he was at school, but that the hours between 9 and 3 made him realise "how in many ways things hadn’t changed that much, and that being a male at home with kids in the day was a pretty lonely experience."

Which made me think that, although it can be a pretty isolating experience for mums too, at least we have each other. Women are great at forging those networks of support in a way that doesn't come so easily to most men.

Brett started thinking about visual art through history, and the fact that most of the works depicting scenes of domesticity and family were by female artists. He then wondered if many male artists have created work that reflects the changing ways in which men involve themselves in family.

Hence, this fascinating-sounding exhibition, Family Guy, on now until 11 October.

The exhibition draws together work by 14 contemporary male artists, examining the way men see themselves today as fathers, sons, partners and brothers. Some of them illustrate the experience of being a new father, while others describe their separation from family members, particularly children.

Artists include Vernon Ah Kee, Alan Jones, Alex Kershaw, Richard Lewer, Shandor Marosszeky, Laith McGregor, Ben Quilty, Aaron Seeto, Ian Smith, Kris Smith, Martin Smith, Roderick Sprigg, Christian Thompson, Jamil Yamani.

Bravo Brett!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The new you

Today I was standing in the toilets at my daughter’s dance studio putting on some mascara, in the vain hope that it would make me look more awake, when one of the women who works there stepped out of a cubicle.

“Sorry,” I said sheepishly, stepping aside so she could get to the sink. “One of those things I never seem to manage to do before leaving the house in the morning...”

“I know,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I’m not ready to have children yet, because I see all the mothers here and I know what it’s like. So hard to maintain your own life.”

“It’s still your own life,” I told her. “It’s just a different life.” And part of me believed me — in fact knows that this is life, real life, perhaps more real than I ever would have known it otherwise (in the best and worst senses of the word).

I sometimes find myself arcing up at this notion of “maintaining your own life”, perhaps because I feel its sting: the implied criticism levelled at women seen as losing themselves in mothering. Not that this was the tone of the woman I've mentioned — it wasn't at all — but I have felt that pressure to prove that I can readily separate myself out from my kids without missing a beat as if it shows some kind of strength of character, some self-respect.

But, at the same time, another part of me felt a little disingenuous with the “different life” comment — like I’d just trotted out one of those lines us all-knowing parents employ to hearten prospective parents.

I knew exactly what she meant about that struggle to do your own thing — and admit there are times when I feel completely absorbed by pointless imaginings of what I might be achieving if I didn’t have kids.

Last weekend I had one of those days when I had work deadlines looming, but the day was dominated by the kids' various activities. I spent the whole weekend feeling hamstrung, not quite able to get at the thing preoccupying me (workwise) and struggling to sink into just being present with the kids. Those are my most miserable days — the ones when I really feel like I’m failing on all fronts.

“Oh, I know I want to have children,” my dance studio friend assured me. “That it’s probably the most beautiful thing you could do in life…”

“You know, people without children have good lives too,” I said. It’s an obvious thing to say. And true. But also something I feel I can say with complete authority now, having been on both sides of the equation — before and after children.

As I’ve said before, now that I know what parenting asks of us, I have more sympathy than ever with the choice not to enter into what is an altogether more intense and intensive life.

But now that I’m here, I can’t separate my life out from that of my family in that convenient way that the modern world likes us to do. By that I don’t mean that I don’t relish spending time alone (which I do!), that I don’t value my time with friends or that I have lost sight of my own interests and career. It doesn’t mean that I want to talk about my kids all the time. It doesn’t even mean that I wouldn’t mind the occasional pedicure.

What I’m getting at, I suppose, is that I refuse to pretend that mothering hasn’t changed me — which it has, entirely. In some ways for the better; in some ways, no doubt, for the worse. Whatever I do or say or think has, absorbed within it, awareness of this altered reality.

And so, yes, it is a different life. In some ways less free. In some ways more. The "most beautiful thing you could do"? Perhaps.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Opping on

Damon Young alerted me to this article by Helen Razer suggesting that "comfortable parents" can all tut-tut about Cotton On because as a brand it's a bit cheap and nasty, but that a "crass t-shirt is no less offensive than a tot in head-to-toe Prada".

(Although, funnily enough, I think Cotton On had earned itself a bit of cred lately -- at least, before this saga shot it down in flames. It's a weirdly nuanced thing the way these kinds of "High Street" brands (as the Brits call 'em) can redeem themselves from time to time.)

Anyway, as I said in my comment, I agree with Razer that parading babies around as billboards or status symbols of any kind is pretty off -- and that, yes, we're all prone to this kind of consumer hypocrisy to lesser or greater degrees. Though a pretty minuscule percentage of parents (even those in the comfortable category) could afford to dress their kids in Prada, even if they wanted to.

But this brought us to the issue of op-shops, Damon linking us to this story by sociologist and blogger Ruth Quibell, who reminds us to look beyond our bargain-hunting instincts and remember why and how op shops exist.

When it comes to the very fraught ethical questions of how, where and why to shop nowadays, op-shops have long been my get out of jail free card, or so I thought. (Though I've never bought fur, even second-hand, and never bartered either, I promise.)

I was just talking to someone last night about how you now have to expect to pay pretty much the same amount at oppies as you would for new gear -- but that you're hopefully paying for better quality stuff, especially when it come to kids (well, mine anyway) who seem to trash their clothes faster than I can stuff the little would-be nudists into them, as well as buying a bit more ethically, just by the nature of the wares being second-hand, and hopefully putting your money somewhere useful.

That said -- though (as Ruth points out) I know people who shop at op shops aren't just the very poor (there are even those running op shop tours now!) -- I would struggle to dress my kids in similar quality clothes bought new. The choice would be op-shop or the likes of Target, where I do admittedly shop from time to time, but always means wrestling with that ethical problem of whether to buy cheap imports made in China that fall apart in the wash and were probably made by a kid about the same age as your own.

The other issue is the way op-shops now get trawled through by some funky vintage outfit across the road who then on-sells for three times as much -- for profit, not charity. Where does everyone sit on that one? All part of keeping the whole thing ticking along, or just ripping off the everyone involved -- the charities, the poor, and the bargain-hunters alike?

... Oh dear...

Sorry, this post was started half an hour ago but was interrupted by my daughter stepping into the study looking like she'd spent too long on a horse. Yep, pooed her pants. Sorry, I know, that's a bit gross, but in the interests of truth and honesty about this parenting caper... Phew -- lucky the pants weren't Prada!

Friday, August 14, 2009

My my... (and cotton off)...

The lovely Mia Freedman has posted about The Divided Heart on her massively popular blog, mamamia. She has described it as a “book that changed her life”, which has made me feel quite overwhelmed. Thank you Mia!

But equally overwhelming (for very different reasons) was her next post about clothing label Cotton On's tasteless new line of kidswear sporting 'slogans' like "I'm a tits man", "I like big boobs and i cannot lie", "I'm living proof my mum is easy" and - no, I'm not joking (though they think they are) - "They shake me"!

There is no excuse (not even "we're just being funny") for turning children into platforms for sick adult jokes and sexual innuendo.

So, so not on.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Stay-at-home versus working mum--how has it come to this?!

Divided Heart artist Sarah Tomasetti once told me that when she became pregnant for the first time, one friend’s response was: “Congratulations! From here on in, everything you do will be wrong!”

We all know that motherhood and guilt may as well be interchangeable terms, but this seems to be doubly true when it comes to the issue of work.

A while ago I was chatting to Charlotte Young, co-editor of Barefoot Magazine, who admitted to me that she used to be pretty hard-line on the issue of whether or not women with young children should work. She wouldn’t be alone, among the educated middle-class women I know, in feeling that babies and toddlers should be at home with their parents and not in childcare. More than that, I would say there’s a largely unspoken but palpable disapproval of preschool-aged kids being in full-time care at all.

Like breastfeeding, the modern ethic says that thinking, conscientious parents will stay home with their babies — and with good cause. I too have felt the terrible pang when seeing tiny babies at childcare centres and the sense that it is just not right. But I also understand that it’s highly likely they are there because their parents feel they have no choice.

This absence of choice, though, is something I think we tend to reserve for the battling working class.

What of the woman who is on a strong career trajectory and feels she can't drop the ball? Or one who simply finds she's climbing the walls at home with small children? In my experience, this is often treated not only as short-sighted and un-evolved, but a definite moral failing.

When talking to Charlotte, she seemed a bit surprised by the fact that I, as a middle-class woman, might not have a choice about whether or not to work. Which got me thinking about whether I would still work, given the choice.

I held off going back to work for as long as my family could afford it (basically, until my kids were in turn at least two), and then have worked part time. But, within my immediate circles, I have found myself to be in a minority of women whose families actually rely on their income (in my case, it would be that or sell the house).

Since my son has started school, I have become increasingly conscious of the gap between those mothers who are in the paid workforce and those who are at home full-time. (And believe me, I know that caring for children and running a household is a huge workload in itself — one which unfortunately doesn’t go away whether you are also in the paid workforce or not.)

Something I have noticed myself doing, when talking to mums in the playground, is to play down the fact that I actually enjoy my work — as if this is some terrible admission that I don’t value mothering enough, or that I have taken a selfish path. Sometimes I wonder whether, in the (generally positive) push to reassert the value of mothering as the very important thing that it is, we haven’t lost sight of the fact that work is also meaningful in women's lives — and that that’s ok.

We still seem to be on a bit of a pendulum swing away from the (equally important) feminist push for women’s right to work, which had the unfortunate fallout of leaving some women feeling ignored or shamed for wanting to stay home. I don’t know that we’ve got the balance right yet.

Surely it’s a great thing that most women now feel they can make a genuine and active choice about whether or not to work when their kids are very small. And that those women who need or want to work have access to meaningful jobs.

So why are we still in this place where women feel so guilty, no matter what they do? Who do they perceive to be judging them — their partners, friends, children, society as a whole?

Women are beset with such an avalanche of mixed messages — from the media, politicians, our mothers, our workmates and friends — that it can be almost impossible to dig our way back to our own intuition on things, or to feel solidly confident in our decisions.

A shame, when there’s so much to celebrate — like the fact that I can sit here musing on this subject while my washing machine chugs away, a pot of soup is bubbling away on the stove, my daughter will soon return from a playgroup which is today being hosted by a dad, and my son is down the road at the great local school where his teachers last year got a big fat pay rise in recognition that what they do is not “just women’s work”.

Friday, August 7, 2009

It's 3.30...

It’s 3.30, and I'm imagining my son leaving his classroom and making his way out into the schoolyard. He will find his way to after school care, or they will find him. He is an autonomous being. His own person, with his own life to live.

I know that. So why am I so frequently struck by this notion and so destabilised by it — the thought that my children are at this moment out there in the world where I can’t see them?

It makes me feel like a constantly unravelling ball of string — the further the kids roam, the more diminished I am, but the more liberated also. I find the levels of trust and faith I have to employ as a mother overwhelming sometimes. If only freedom — mine and theirs — didn’t seem to come at such a price!

Yesterday my daughter’s kinder teacher told me she was being targeted for bullying by a little boy she’s known her whole life. That day he had tipped a vase of flowers over her head, and when he was told that it was now his responsibility to clean it up, my daughter offered to help him.

This broke my heart — even more so, somehow, after a full morning of such appalling tantrums that I was driven to think: ‘Jeez, you’re lucky I love you so much, because this is the kind of thing that drives less adoring people to murder children!’ (Can anyone describe those unbearable hours when a child won’t stop whinging and screaming and throwing things at you? At those times, some part of me is forced to shut down, just in order to cope.)

I still worry that I haven’t got the guts for it. That I don’t have what it takes to override my own desperate fears in order to give my kids the space and trust they need to grow. That I haven’t got the discipline to avoid succumbing to lazy strategies — or rivalling my children’s behaviour with equally juvenile behaviour of my own.

Nothing rang more true for me than the wonderful Mindy Sotiri’s notion that parenting requires “a superhuman effort. Sometimes a more than superhuman effort.” Oh, how I agree with that! Superhuman effort — on a daily basis. And I have the great luck of having children without significant problems.

This is a very sentimental post, isn’t it? Must be the afternoon light…

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who's in Control?

I re-watched Control recently, the biopic about Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.

I've watched a lot of films about male artists, and it is always fascinating to look at the impact of their obsessiveness — and their fame — on their family. This one is no exception.

In Control, which tracks the short life of cult figure Ian Curtis, there is a party scene where a woman talking to Curtis's wife enviously acknowledges how famous he has become. “Not to me,” Deborah Curtis smiles. “I still have to wash his underpants.”

Here, the music scene is a masculine world; Deborah is the long-suffering, marginalised wife, bearing the brunt of her husband’s creative talent, while he winds up the tragic hero, despite his domineering behaviour towards his wife and almost total negligence as a father.

Although the teenaged Deborah was also writing poetry when she met her future husband, he was always the focus of the relationship, she has said. “I don’t remember him ever asking to see what I was writing. That’s partly my own fault — I stopped writing after we got married. But I think he was so powerful that our lives were sort of centred around his art, and what he was going to do.”

In her response to the film, British novelist and art critic Bidisha argued that: “Great men attract subservient women and are forgiven for their unkindness because of the marvellous gifts they present to the world”.

She accuses recent artist biopics, such as those celebrating Bob Dylan, Jackson Pollock and Ian Curtis, of passing off acts of rebellion, arrogance and cruelty as reflections of greatness in men, while female artists are “neurotic nut-jobs … called by their first names” — think Sylvia, Iris, Frida — almost always in thrall to some more famous (though, history shows, not necessarily more talented) man.

Do you agree with this? Can anyone recommend some positive biopics about artists who wove their art into full lives as partners and parents?

One wonderful antidote is The Beaches of Agnes, French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda's film-memoir (currently showing at the Melbourne Film Festival) about her very full life as an artist and mother.

Placing herself amongst extracts from her films, and images and interviews recalling her past, the unstoppable Varda offers a fascinating and playful account of her creative work, her feminism and her family life.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Save Aussie Books

Between homebirthing, uranium mining and whether or not Michael Jackson was murdered (oh, sorry, everyone was over that one before it began, really, weren't they?), there's a lot to be fired up about at the moment.

But top of my list right now is the issue of parallel imports for books--because there's still a chance we can do something to stop the Government going ahead with these ridiculous changes.

If you haven't heard much about the proposed changes to local laws on the importing of books, I urge you to take a look at Saving Aussie Books to find out more about the devastating impact these new laws will have on the Australian publishing industry.

Despite an outspoken campaign by authors, publishers and even many booksellers, the Productivity Commission last month recommended the Federal Government lift all restrictions on parallel importation of books on the basis that it will result in cheaper books for Australian consumers.

Publishers and authors would retain territorial copyright on works for only the first 12 months of a book's life, after which time booksellers could purchase any edition from any source in the world. Foreign editions characteristically pay a much lower royalty.

The US, Britain and Canada all support territorial copyright for books--so why would we put our own authors and industry at risk?

Writer Sally Rippin told me she was talking to a NZ author recently who said the independent bookselling scene has been annihilated there because of the introduction of these same laws.

One of the other risks of this new globalised market is that publishers will probably prefer bland books that can easily cross borders.

As writer Sheryl Gwyther has said: “Do you want to see Australian children reading books without Australian content and Americanised with Mom instead of Mum or faucets instead of taps, and vacation instead of holiday?”

Children’s writer Mem Fox agrees: “It’s tantamount to firing the entire writing workforce in Australia and outsourcing it to other countries, who will in turn change the vocabulary and cultural references that the outsourcing country finds difficult to grasp.

“This, in its turn, would mean in our case that particularly Australian books would not be published. … No go for a book like Possum Magic, then, with a huge loss to readers and local cultural capital.”

Fox earns 5% for each book sold — 64¢ on a $12.95 paperback of Possum Magic. Losing territorial copyright would reduce her royalty to 29¢. “It makes my old WorkChoices contract look like a gift from a fairy godmother,” she says.

Australian publishers including Text’s Michael Heyward, Scribe’s Harry Rosenbloom and Hardie Grant’s Sandy Grant have all defended the current system, crediting it with creating the “energy” in the nation’s most successful cultural industry and encouraging publishers to nurture their writers.

The changes would transform Australia from a publishing centre to a marketplace, Grant has warned.

Gwyther is leading the Saving Aussie Books campaign to increase the pressure on the Federal Government to reject the commission's report. “This corporate campaign to do in Australian authors and small independent publishers and bookshops is being ably run and organised by the giant corporations,” she says.

“Are we prepared to let Coles and K-Mart monopolise the economic, political and cultural agendas?”

Please get involved. This issue is too important to ignore.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Counting our Blessings

Ana Kokkinos’s upcoming new feature, Blessed, is a film that gets under your skin. In fact, it is easily one of the most powerful documents on motherhood that I have witnessed, and for days afterwards I was sucking in my breath and fighting back tears each time it came to mind (which was often).

Adapted from the award-winning stage play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class?, the film tracks seven children from five different families over 24 hours as they roam the suburbs and backstreets of Melbourne. The film then switches to the mothers' stories, following them across the same day as they work to keep their families intact and their children safe. All these characters are disempowered in some way, but universal is that each is bound by the force that connects mothers and their children.

Each young person is in some form of danger or distress due in part to their mothers’ distraction as she struggles with her own issues. As for the children, there can be no real understanding of the impact of their actions on their families. The storylines intersect tenuously but with powerful results.

While some will experience this as a film about poverty, or about racism, or the perils and confusion of adolescence — all of which are true — to me, this film is ultimately one about motherhood — in all its overwhelming pain, tenderness, ambivalence, fear. And profound love.

Writers Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Patricia Cornelius and Christos Tsiolkas have adapted the play for the big screen, and while its history is at times detectable, it did not take away from the compellingly gritty cinematic experience. The film replaces some of the more overt polemics of the play with deeper psychological portraits of the characters, with Frances O’Connor, Miranda Otto, Deborra-lee Furness and Victoria Haralabidou leading an exceptional ensemble cast.

Be warned: Blessed is a film which will make you feel like someone’s cracked open your ribcage, taken hold of your heart and tried to wrench it from your chest (or at least given it one almighty twist). There are moments I found literally painful to watch. But like all good art, it leaves you with a profound sense of what it is to be human.

(Sorry, bit of a formal review--but that's one of the things I do in my other life as hack for hire...)

Blessed is on as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival and opens nationally 10 September. Hurrah for the recent/current spate of great Australian films! I will be doing interviews with some of Blessed's cast and crew later in the week and will post links…

Friday, July 10, 2009

Who said 'footy mum'?

I have recently discovered that I've been keeping some of my friends amused by the fact that I can now talk football.

I have to admit, on this matter, I have been a bit surprised by my own capacity to adapt. But what do you do when you have a seven-year-old who is so utterly obsessed with football (in our case, AFL, being Melbourne), your only hope of a decent conversation is to start talking shop?

My son is now a walking encyclopaedia of footy scores. Perhaps he’ll hit 13 and we’ll suddenly be plunged into the ins and outs of his favourite music (bring it on!). But for now, it’s all “So, Mum, who is your fourth favourite footy player?”

May as well have an answer.

Even more amazing (to myself and others), is that I have now completed my first Auskick training certificate. Yes, I actually know how to put spin on the ball. It was that or stand around shivering on a frost-encrusted oval at 9am on Saturday morning. (Goodbye weekends…)

I have to admit, this Auskick set-up is impressive. I understood what one of the other mothers meant when she said: "We could learn something here, Rachel. Us lefties — if we were as well organised as Auskick we'd have kicked out Kennett two years earlier."

When our son first started showing an interest, my partner warned me about mothers like me. "You'll have to hang out with those footy mums...". "Oh, God, you're right," I thought. "Shit, no."

Now look at me. There is that simple thing that, as a mother, I want to be enthusiastic about whatever my kids are enthusiastic about — to genuinely engage with their interests and support their endeavours. It's just that when I thought about having babies, I stupidly envisaged that they'd be a bit like me — bookish and introverted.

Ha, ha, parenthood 101 — your kids will be their own going concern.

At this stage my son is too young too be aware of the suspect culture that exists on (and all too often off) the field. But it doesn’t take much to know that aggression is inherent to the game — exactly the thing that has always made me rail against it.

I can admire the athleticism involved, but what of the masculine (read, sexist) culture so evident in a sport like AFL? How do I counteract this at home when it is so much a part of the scene?

We don’t have a TV, thankfully, so I don’t have to deal with my son coming across programs like the Footy Show (so aptly described by the fabulous Catherine Deveny as hosted by pigs in suits for pigs in suits).

And fortunately my son has chosen to support a team that is on a serious losing streak, which not only makes me a tad more sympathetic but, for him, has enforced some useful lessons in humility.

The other great thing about my son’s age group is that there are still girls doing the Auskick training alongside the boys and this so far goes unquestioned. I am full of admiration for those fearless girls in their pink trackie-pants who can cut it with the best of them. What a shame all their visible role models have to be male.

In Melbourne, being part of the footy culture is like joining a club ('scuse the sort-of pun) — one that almost everyone else has already signed up to but to which I was almost completely oblivious, before now. Everywhere we go, if Griffin has his footy gear on (which is most of the time), people will tussle his hair and mumble: “Go, tiges!” (For those in the know, he is a Richmond Tigers fan, if that wasn’t already clear.) I can find this ridiculously endearing.

Right now I feel torn between wanting to support my son in his genuine love of the sport — which to him is about physical striving and personal achievement — and my concerns that the dominant culture in AFL is one that is in strong part to blame for the conduct of so many of its players. Even if it is working to change its ethos.

Plenty of women do love footy, I know. Funnily enough, on the fan front, AFL seems a pretty egalitarian sport. But just like I think it’s a form of denial to say that women’s magazines are just a bit of fun that don’t impact on women’s self-esteem, I think footy culture has problematic implications for our broader culture.

Anyone else out there confronting how to raise a son who loves footy and respects women? It was not a challenge I was expecting...

Friday, July 3, 2009

Doctor knows best, sweeties

Yesterday I received a text from the darling Clare Bowditch to tell me her blood was boiling.

The source of the heat was this unusually soft interview on Radio National's Life Matters yesterday with the first female president of the National Association of Specialist Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (NASOG), Dr Hilary Joyce.

I suppose there was no point expecting that a female gyno would suddenly be transforming the entrenched, male-dominated attitude of the profession. But Dr Joyce may as well be a man, considering the paternalistic attitude she has towards “our women”. So much for the milestone.

Statistics must be maintained at all costs, it seems — after all, women can’t be trusted to make sensible, considered choices about the kind of birth they want to have.

“What is important is that the wonderful obstetric safety record of this country is not undermined by any … alteration in delivery of models of care.”

The fact that we enjoy the safest services in the world is directly attributable to the majority of births being medically led, according to Dr Joyce.

Homebirths are chosen by a “tiny percentage” of the Australian women, she claims, but receive undue attention largely because “of the over-representation of tragedies that occur”.

She has "grave concerns" about those “willing to put themselves and their unborn children at such risk” by avoiding medical intervention.

“We mustn’t be looking at turning the clock back in any way to perhaps more so-called natural childbirth…. It’s essential that there’s a doctor in the loop.”

And then the hypocrisy to complain that the Government is taking away a woman’s right to choice in getting rid of the safety net for private hospital birthing!

Medical intervention is not required in the vast majority of births, and midwives are trained to assess the risks. To imply that a return to “natural births” would be a return to the mortality rates seen at the turn of the century is misleading in the extreme.

While occasionally a baby dies during a homebirth — and this is desperately sad — is this a good argument for ruling out homebirths altogether as an option? Babies also die in hospitals.

I have had one of each — a homebirth and a hospital birth. Both have their place. Surely what’s most important is the right for women to make informed choices about how and where they give birth.

It is taking away this right that will send us back to the turn of the century for women.

You can read Clare's very eloquent open letter to Minister Nicola Roxon here. And if this issue matters to you, please sign Homebirth Australia's petition.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Writing, Shoes and Men Who Get It (not the shoes thing)

Well, writing might not pay the bills, but at least it can win you a new pair of shoes!

Yep, I dashed off one of those “tell us why in 10 words or less…” things, and next thing I know some shiny Oxford ‘brogues’ land on my doorstep (thank you marie claire).

Just when you thought I couldn’t be so frivolous.

I can’t really afford to follow fashion, so it’s lucky I don’t have time to shop, but I have to admit that I’ve been coveting a pair of this style of shoe ever since I saw them on one of The Sartorialist's subjects (a Sydney woman, in fact — see Friday, May 08, 2009). My partner's not so sure about them — says they're a bit sexy/prim, whatever that means — but who cares. You think he'd be grateful I was getting out my uggies occasionally.

I am a bit of a compulsive viewer of the Sart’s site, partly because it is one of the only fashion forums that doesn’t leave me feeling completely inadequate. It’s full of beautiful people, to be sure, but is also as much about character and style as it is about clothes.

So those of you who write — you may as well try using your skills to win free stuff. I know a writer who has had far better success than me, winning holidays and more (admittedly, her husband’s a marketing manager, which must help a bit.)

But last year I did win a weekend in a hotel in the same kind of comp. And for those of you with small children and minimal childcare options, you know how mind-blowing that was! We had no choice but to palm the kids off for the weekend, catch the tram into the city and rediscover what Melbourne has to offer the footloose and fancy-free nowadays.

Once I’d gotten over the fact that a Hairy Canary gin and tonic now costs more than $10 (is that what happened while I was (not) sleeping?), it was a bizarre thrill to be alone together with nowhere in particular to go and no need to wake up before 7am the next morning.

Just quickly on another matter, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Glendyn Ivin, the director of new Australian film Last Ride, for the AFI website (story should be on the site early next week). His spectacular and devastating film about a fraught father–son relationship opens nationally on 2 July and is well worth the price of a babysitter.

To my surprise, he and his wife (a dancer) had actually read The Divided Heart. We had a chat along those lines and because I couldn’t fit his generous and insightful comments in the AFI article, I’ll put them here:

Yes, it’s very interesting making a film about parenting and about a father trying but failing miserably at being a good parent, and then having those same thoughts on a very different scale at home, in that I haven’t been there, and when I am there I’m in an incredibly distracted or stressed state or freaking out or just thinking about other things other than what I should be thinking about.

I must say I have an incredibly supportive wife and supermum who has just held the fort, so to speak. I can’t speak highly enough of her. If it wasn’t like that, it would’ve made my job much more stressful and hard to deal with. It’s kind of easier, dumbly, for men to say, ‘This is what I’m doing’, and it must be incredibly hard for a woman who’s being a mum because they have a lot of other baggage that comes along with it.

Good on you, Glendyn.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Babies or brains?

I was on standby last week to speak on Radio National's Life Matters in response to a couple of articles that appeared in the Guardian earlier this year: Rachel Cooke's Dummy Mummies (which was reproduced in the Australian Magazine--you may have noticed it) and Polly Vernon's Why I Don't Want Children.

Unfortunately the producer couldn't get the "key talent" (always nice to know where you stand!) to come to the party, which is a shame, because I had prepared myself for what could have been a really meaty discussion on the children versus no children debate--if such a thing exists, which for these women it clearly does. Both these articles raise loads of questions about what they see as society's current obsession with babies.

I understand that women who do not want to have kids feel that society treats them as abnormal. This word "selfish" gets bandied about--which to me seems as absurd as describing the decision to have babies as a "selfless" one. Of course it's true that once you have kids, your own needs and desires are forced to take a backseat a lot, in fact most, of the time. But to say the urge to have children is a selfless one just seems a ridiculous over-simplification of what is usually more a complex primal and physical urge than a lofty, well thought-out decision to step off centre stage or to give back to society or some such thing.

Similarly, it would be a misguided person who has a baby to make them happy. We all know there are plenty of good reasons not to have kids; all the stats tell us as much. But happiness can have a pretty limited definition, and I suppose a lot of the meaningful things in our lives offer both great joy and big risks and the potential for great despair.

On an issue as big and loaded as having babies, surely we can all respect each others' decisions and be a bit kind to one other? Can't we?

I have to admit, for all the sympathy I have for her frustration, I recoil at the vitriol that Polly, in particular, reserves for modern mothers, as she sees them. In her article, she writes:

I really don't like what parenthood does to grown-ups. This latest generation of parents - oh, it's odd, isn't it? I like the ones I know. Mostly. They're OK, because they're my friends - I chose them, they are by definition better than those parents I don't know. (Even if they aren't - I know for a fact that they were better, once, back before they had children, and I reckon they'll resume something approaching normal service once the buggers have gone to school. Won't they?) But modern parents en masse? That pampering cult of Bugaboo-wielding, Mumsnet-bothering dullness?

Spare me. Spare me the one-track conversations. Spare me the self-righteousness, the sense of entitlement (you, with the toddler-on-wheels: astonishing news just in! You don't have pavement priority over the rest of the world!). Spare me the pretensions of martyrdom and selflessness. (It's my experience that parenthood doesn't make anyone less selfish. Humans simply extend the sphere of their selfishness when they have kids, so that it embraces the kids and dishes out a fierce battering to the rest of the world. Also - no one has a baby out of selflessness. You really want to be selfless? Adopt, lover.)

"...something approaching normal service..." Jeez, I know she's being witty and all, but what a way to think about friendship!

Surely just as bad as thinking that all women who don't have children are selfish, over-ambitious monsters is the assumption that all mothers had a lobotomy in the birthing suite.

Also, isn't it the case--and this is more in response to Cooke's piece--that people who talk of nothing but their kids, and have no way of gauging the interest (or otherwise) of the person they're talking to, is no different to the person who can talk of nothing but their job, with no sensitivity to their audience? In short, boring and insensitive people are boring and insensitive people, aren't they?--no matter what they bang on about; and interesting people are interesting people. Even after they have children! That is my experience, anyway.

I think the issue of childhood and raising children is a fascinating and very significant one, for all of us. We all have to live in this society with other people after all, and all people were once children raised by adults, thinking or otherwise.

Basically, I think it's fucked that a woman can't, in this day and age, choose not to have children without feeling a target for some kind of judgemental attack. But why the need, then, to turn around and pass similarly simplistic, scathing and defensive judgements on those of us who do have kids? I'm all for healthy debate, but I have to admit it also saddens me that women seem to have this infinite capacity for turning on each other.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Will they forgive us?

I have just had a message from author Charlotte Wood, who I was lucky enough to meet at the Sydney Writers Festival last week, and whose powerfully insightful novel, The Children, I have just started reading (more when I've finished).

Charlotte was reading this blog (bless her) and came across the earlier post about the ethics of writing about those we love. Being such a "tricky area", she has just written her MCA thesis on it -- focusing strictly on fiction, and called Forgive Me, Forgive Me: Ethical Anxieties in Fiction Writing.

She says: "The most interesting part of it was interviewing other writers, from Helen Garner to Robert Drewe to Tegan Bennett Daylight about their views on the ethics of writing fiction using real people's lives as material. Meanjin is to publish a 10,000 word essay extracted from my thesis in its December 09 issue."

This is bound to be a fascinating read! And quite a coup to get some of those authors' comments, I would think -- though if you meet Charlotte you'll understand the powers of her charm!

And while we're on the subject of Meanjin, having just spent a heavenly week at Varuna: The Writers' House, I actually had some time to read (and stoke the open fire and cook breakfast for one, i.e. just me -- amazing what a treat that is), I had a chance to read the latest issue of Meanjin, which includes a devastating and exquisitely written piece, "Losing Iris", by Barefoot Magazine editor Rachel Watts about the sudden death of her almost three-year-old daughter. Then, through my tears, I also read the interesting discussion between Sophie Cunningham and Nam Le.

In the meantime, check out Charlotte Wood's fabulous blog.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The most devastating love of all--or love and nits (take your pick, ha ha)

Kate Cole-Adams, whose intoxicating novel Walking to the Moon I have recently finished (and highly recommend), wrote a wonderful piece for The Age on Mothers Day.

I was saying to a group of women the other day that I feel that my children have simultaneously made and destroyed my life. I think I may have shocked a few of them, as I sometimes do with my confessions. But when I say these things it is not a response to the minor irritations or lifestyle inconveniences that come with having kids — which are superficial, if at times very real — but all due to the devastating love I feel for them. Which is, of course, also what's so wonderful about motherhood.

(Though I did love Kate’s daughter’s comment when she found out her mum was penning a story on motherhood: “Say that the worst thing is nits.” It is difficult to explain to non-parents how whole weekends can be lost to the military operation that is nit elimination. But if I say “We’re having a family night in tonight — pizza and a movie”, it’s probably a euphemism for “The kids have got nits (again).” Grrrr. I can become quite obsessed — which my partner loves teasing me about, as he thinks the natural evolution of the nit-picking monkey is probably the modern sub-editor.)

Anyway, more seriously... in reading Kate’s article, I had a realisation — something that I suppose was obvious but that I had not really articulated to myself (as all the best revelations often work). It was that maternal ambivalence is not a state of being torn between love and hate for our children (meaning not them so much as what they've done to our lives) — but is a state entirely borne out of love.

It is precisely this love for my children, being so excruciating, that I can feel has ruined me. This acute tenderness and sense of responsibility is something us mothers are never free of, and almost impossible to imagine until you’re in it (unless you have the brain of Lionel Shriver, in which case you decide definitely not to procreate).

It is this maternal state — the sense of having your chest broken open, leaving you utterly exposed — that Kate describes so brilliantly in her article.

Yesterday I had to meet with my son’s principal to discuss the fact that he’s showing signs of becoming an anxiety-prone perfectionist. Ah, jeez, now where would he have got that from?! It can be so demoralising to realise that you haven’t avoided passing on your own worst traits. I had to use all my strength not to burst into tears in her office.

But, as I also told the same group of women I mentioned above, if I have any philosophy of parenting (I have never been much of a strategic thinker) then it’s to make sure my kids know how much I love them, always and ever, and to keep talking. I figure if we keep loving and keeping talking, we will all be ok (fingers crossed).

P.S. Thank you to Hannah Colman for posting this really fun interview we did a while back on great feminist blog The Dawn Chorus. Rare to get a chance to explore these ideas in so much depth.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Art versus life (have I used this one before?!)

I know there are people out there who live extraordinarily creative lives. Their whole existence is an artistic project. They are their own work of art!

For me, though, art and life (while obviously reliant upon each other--well, art on life, anyway) can feel in constant competition for my attention. In a recent interview, I found myself saying that I feel like I'm making little choices every day between having a good life or a writing life! Which sounds stupidly dramatic, but unfortunately is the way it can feel to me sometimes. There doesn't seem to be enough time for professional work, creating a beautiful home, cooking good meals, organising activities for the kids, school committee meetings, keeping up with friends, occasionally saying hi to my partner in the hallway, enagaging with world and all its political/environmental/social/financial crises etc etc... and having my own creative life too.

As you can probably tell, I've felt like I've lost my mojo a bit lately on the writing front. Though my garden is looking pretty wonderful. I know it's all so predictable, really, to have these times when the mountains of self-doubt seem too huge to conquer (or bypass) in order to forge ahead. It's a bit like that inevitable moment during childbirth when you hear yourself saying "I can't do this. I don't think I can go on!" and it's almost laughable (if it wasn't so painful), because you've been told there will come a moment when you will feel/say this and that's considered a good sign.

Does the same go for writing? Can it be considered a good sign? Let's hope so.

Happy Mothers Day for Sunday everyone! It'll be hard for my kids to beat last year's handmade papier-mâché soap-dish--stored in my secret box of treasures for fear it will disintegrate upon use. Hope you all receive something equally precious.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The artist I met in Venice

Since writing The Divided Heart, I’ve been surprised (in a very low-key way) that no-one’s ever asked me who is the male European artist I mention in the conclusion to the book. So obviously you’re not all dying to know — but I’m going to tell you anyway, because he is such an important artist for all sorts of other reasons.

When I was 21 I did the backpacking through Europe thing that us Australians do, and while in Venice, my travelling companions and I decided to take a ferry to the island of Giudecca.

There, in a restaurant, we happened to meet New Zealand painter Thomas Lauterbach and Austrian artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000), who’s work you probably recognise, even if you do not know his name. (They helped us to order after catching us struggling to communicate with our Italian waiter.) He is probably most famous for his incredible block of flats in Vienna, known as Hundertwasserhaus.

Here is not the place to write about this encounter in any detail, but it meant my friends and I had the great privilege not only of meeting this phenomenal person but also of visiting Venice’s largest private garden, which Hundertwasser then owned. He took us on a walk amid antique statues, along trellised walkways and veiled nooks, to arrive at an old Istrian stone water gate overlooking the Venetian lagoon.

Once a tame English garden, Hundertwasser had let it run free, its knotted undergrowth a wild mass of nettles and brambles, a site for his ecological experiments, including humus toilets. I have since discovered that Hundertwasser’s decision to let the garden become overgrown was controversial, as you can read here if interested.

The garden has a fascinating history — apparently a place that countless writers (Maeterlinck, Proust, Rilke, James) visited and where ‘Alexandra of Greece’ (otherwise known as the Queen of Yugoslavia) famously went mad. The giardino edino, as the estate is known in Venice, was also the location of a famous quarrel between an unknown American and a young school friend of Cocteau called Raymond Laurent, which climaxed with Laurent committing suicide on the steps of the Salute church.

Hundertwasser, as I mentioned in The Divided Heart, treated his whole life as an artistic project. As an environmentalist he was visionary. Central to his work was his rebellion against “the tyranny of the straight line”, which he saw as inorganic, sterile and Godless. He believed in making the world a more beautiful place, and his architectural designs included rooftop gardens and bottle houses and flush-less toilets.

He spent much of his later life living in New Zealand, on a rural property in the Bay of Islands, where he fought hard for the right to be buried in his garden of the Happy Dead, under a tulip tree.

There is so much I could say about Hundertwasser — more than I can fit into a short post here — but I was and continue to be full of admiration for his determination to use the universal language of art to make political statements, whether it be for peace, ecology, against nuclear power, or for buildings befitting humanity and nature. He was an environmentalist well before such a thing as the environment movement existed.

I think Hundertwasser is constantly underestimated — mostly, it seems, because he was considered an exhibitionist and blatant self-promoter. (He was a nudist for a time a la Lennon, in the name of peace.)

But I, personally, feel blessed to have met him.