In keeping with the subject matter of this post, it is apt that I started it some six months ago and that I’m only just getting around to finishing it. If I’d had a deadline it would be written by now. Deadlines are a good thing for a writer, in that they make one write. Hence for my current novel, I have a self-imposed deadline of the end of January, when the publisher of my previous novel returns from maternity leave and might be interested in reading a draft. For my thesis, I know there is another academic who will shortly be publishing on similar material, so I need to get it into the public domain soon. I also enter literary competitions to force myself to polish my stories and essays. If they don’t get anywhere in the competition, they should then be ready to send to literary journals.
However, there is another deadline altogether which has meant that I cannot slow down in my output any time soon: children.
At the beginning of the year, a friend referred me to The Divided Heart, by Rachel Power, a book of interviews with artists who had become mothers. Power’s cogent introduction confirmed my fears:
The psychic transformation that occurs with motherhood arrives simultaneously with the cruellest of constraints on a woman’s time and freedom to create … Art demands what a mother’s routine does not permit: a concentration of self, the liberty to make use of the artistic impulse when it arrives (p. 1, Red Dog Books, 2008).
In other words, it’s a constant war between being selfish and selfless, between being on your own, thinking, and tending to the needs, thoughts and knowledge of others. Realistically speaking, the children come first, and your time for your art suffers.
As I write this, I hear Andrew Marvell’s classic lines from ‘To his Coy Mistress’: ‘At my back I always hear/Time’s winged chariot hurrying near’. He was talking about getting a woman into bed, but I’m talking about getting my next five works (two novels, two novellas and my thesis) to a publisher before a kid comes along and eats up all my time.
The problem is, as Nikki Gemmell put it in The Bride Stripped Bare, ‘Your heart will now tighten whenever you see the imprint of a friend in her child’s face. It’s something that’s in danger of overtaking your life, the want’ (p. 38). I understood this perfectly when I saw my cousin’s daughter at Christmas. She was so like her mother in appearance and charm that it was impossible not to be moved. Your body begins to clamour, to become insistent; it melts when it holds a friend’s baby. You pay attention to children when before they were just irritants. You begin to conceptualise what it would be like to be pregnant, an idea that had previously been anathema to you.
‘Oh, you’re only 32,’ people say to me, ‘you’ve got plenty of time.’ But I haven’t. A friend with whom I was living in Sydney who, after a struggle, became pregnant at 43 told me, ‘Don’t leave it too late,’ and older women say to me, ‘Get cracking’. Also, I don’t believe in IVF; I think there are enough kiddies out there who need mothers through adoption than trying to make more through such an invasive process.
Needless to say, the problem of how to fit in the kids is one that rarely afflicts male artists, as it has usually been the woman who, cooking, cleaning and child-rearing, allows the man to get on with his work, a situation which I find highly unjust.
The many other difficulties facing the female artist were famously addressed by Linda Nochlin in her 1971 work Why Are There No Women Artists?, while in an Australian context, they are beautifully articulated by Drusilla Modjeska in Stravinsky’s Lunch. I also found a recent expression of it in The Broken Book by Susan Johnson, an Australian writer whom I admire, now living in England. Although it was a novel of broken narrative and broken dreams that never quite came together to deliver a punch, it illuminated well the quandary of the writer who is a mother:
‘You’ll never write anything if you expect perfection,’ he said. ‘Better to have something on the page than nothing at all.’
I lost my temper: David has always written with effortless grace, words flow from him uninterrupted; I have always had to hunt down every word as if armed with a knife. ‘That’s all right for you to say! I can’t hold an uninterrupted conversation, let alone finish a book.’
‘Nothing stops a true artist,’ he said, ‘not war, not poverty, not the state. “The true artist will let his wife starve, his children go barefoot, his mother drudge for his living at seventy, sooner than work at anything other than his art.” George Bernard Shaw.’
I glared at him. ‘What if the artist happens to be the mother?’
He smiled. ‘Darling, wet nurses are thick on the ground if you only care to look.’
I left the room.
(Allen and Unwin, 2004, pp. 144-145).
A nanny is always an option, of course, but only if you have money. The couple in Johnson’s book didn’t, and it was easy for the male writer to make this glib, dismissive comment, because he didn’t have to look after the kids.
What Johnson also expresses here is the difficulty of extracting yourself from your children. They interrupt, they demand attention and, of course, you feel bad for sending them away. Even I feel this when Niece and Nephew come into my room and crawl under the mosquito net, wanting to play.
‘Auntie Jess is working,’ I tell them (it has to be sternly, to make them go) and reluctantly they leave. I have to shrug off the guilt and go back to my neurotic doctor with her brooding love interest.
On that note, a female doctor friend once said to me, ‘It isn’t that I don’t want children, it’s that I have to be careful of wanting them too much, because it might not happen.’ Sadly, I feel the same: there is the danger that you might not meet the right man, or, if you do, you find you’re just too busy to make it work, or your partner isn’t prepared to put in the hard yards and help, so why get your hopes up? Although, being the most organised person on the planet, of course I have a backup plan, and intend to adopt if the first holds true. I also have a sense (possibly superstitious, possibly not) that if you give in to the craving, it takes over your life, which is a dangerous situation for a single woman to be in. As a person who values love so highly, I don’t want my choice in a man to be ruled by my ovaries.
So I find myself pushing the longing to the back of my mind, and as I write I silently beg my body not to pack it in yet, but to hold on and stay healthy for a little while longer.
And if I got up the duff and my carefully laid creative plans were thrown awry? Well, being that master of organisation, and being driven and ambitious, I would find a way to make it work. In addition, as my boss (a hard-working researcher who is not remotely creative) pointed out, the experience of having children is so amazing you would be insane not to do it. This is also what many of the women in The Divided Heart described: that, in terms of material, it changes you, and your art, fundamentally. From a creative point of view, it lends richness, depth and understanding to your craft.
Of course, to hold my own child in my arms would be the most gorgeous reward for so many years of hard work and waiting, but until then, I’m writing as fast as I can.