Monday, February 16, 2009

The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood by Rachel Power

I still don't know squat about sleep training, for instance, but ever since I got pregnant, I've been obsessed with books documenting women's ambivalence towards motherhood. Anne Enright's Making Babies and Rachel Cusk's A Life's Work (in addition to the mother who lives on the other side of my garret wall and is screaming at her daughter as I write this) have served to steel my expectations for the imminent adventure ahead. Which is sort of strange because my feelings about motherhood aren't even ambivalent yet, but from the mother on the other side of the wall in particular, I've got a sense of what's coming, and I want to know how my life will change, if there's hope of retaining any of it.

It's a strange, complicated ambivalence (as opposed to, say, the childless Lionel Shriver's) that strikes women about motherhood when they actually happen to be mothers. Which is why I maintain one has to be a brilliant writer to capture it properly-- all the love that's there, even with the reservations, the powerful urge to protect still accompanying any urges to run the other way. Rachel Power's title articulating this ambivalence: The Divided Heart; "a split self; the fear that succeed at one means to fail at the other."

Power's book The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood is a series of conversations with prominent Australian woman artists about the effect of motherhood upon their art. Part of the book's appeal in its homeland, I imagine, perhaps being insight into such notable lives, though I lack that context from where I read, as Power's subjects are unfamiliar to me. But she does such a fine job of depicting their remarkable lives-- the actresses, writers, painters, dancers among them--, as well as their back stories and very own voices that to get to know of these figures was one of the book's decided perqs.

These women's lives are remarkable, as I said, but their experiences are somewhat universal to all mothers, especially all working mothers-- that they're taken less seriously in their fields because they have children, are hindered from progressing as men (even fathers) can, their balancing "the second shift", their guilt about being absent from their children's lives. And yet there is something particular to the experience of the artist-mother, which Power well conveys. That pursuing art is often seen as an indulgence of sorts, and it doesn't bring home much financial benefit. The blurred borders between the studio and the home-front, which bring forth constant interruptions. That to give up art would be to give up a passion, part of one's heart, however divided.

The book's conversational style is delicious, shaped with Rachel Power's eye for fabulous prose, and the different perspectives enthused by her subjects make for a perfect mosaic of ideas and opinions. Which brings forth balance-- none of this is to be taken as dogma, but instead considered, weighed and evaluated. So the bad of artist-mothering-- certainly overwhelming at times-- is also countered with the good. These women's lives, however harried, still inspiring in that they get on at all. That artist-mothering is possible, even at a price.

These engaging interviews are also worthwhile for their range and detail-- for example, the various effects of pregnancy and childbirth upon the body of a ballerina, upon an opera singer's vocal range. That motherhood is not a vacuum and the rest of life creeps in as well-- Power speaks to women who've fought cancer, who are raising children with special needs, caring for elderly parents. Her artists are painters, poets, filmmakers, photographers, writers and and illustrators, and "art" is very much in general, but still such a force in all their lives. Power showing how complicated these lives are, and how various.

The value of book such as this isn't any "self-help" it offers, though I suspect it could reassure most mothers that they aren't alone. Inspiring me also with the many ways in which creative pursuits and motherhood are complementary. Which would not be the point though, the use-value hardly Power's intention, but instead the stories are an end to themselves, just like our lives are. Beautifully told, beautifully set, they deserve to be out in the world-- we're better for them-- and they really seem enough to fly by.