A book that changed my life

The Divided Heart by Rachel Power

I don’t get a lot of time to read which is why when I do, it better be worth it. My bedside table heaves under the weight of books I am trying to read by osmosis. I hold great hopes that while I sleep, those words will just, you know, seep into my brain…..

The other problem with reading is that I am always so exhausted by the time I fall into bed, I just fall asleep almost instantly. So there’s that. Anyway, I only have two speeds with books – binge and starve. When I’m into a book and it’s working for me, I have to pretty much just check out of my life until it’s finished. That’s fun for all the family!

I thought I’d open up a discussion about books. I’m going to tell you a little bit about a book that changed my life (there have been several – if you’re into it, I’ll make this a regular post) and invite you to tell me about a book that changed yours. It can be a novel, a self-help book, hell, it can be the phone book.

I first heard about this book – The Divided Heart: Art & Motherhood by Rachel Power – on the Life Matters program on Radio National (9am every morning, love it, and there’s a podcast…woops, this isn’t The Radio Program That Changed My Life…wrong post). The author, Rachel, was being interviewed along with two of the subjects in her books whose names I forget. Basically, the book is a collection of interviews with ‘artists’, a term Rachel uses to describe women who work in creative fields: authors, artists, writers, singers, ballet dancers, composers, illustrators, choreographers, musicians, actors, directors, poets……you get the idea. There are famous women (Rachel Griffiths, Nikki Gemmell, Jocelyn Moorhouse, Clare Bowditch) and women you’ve never heard of.

But they’re all so wonderfully honest about the challenges and rewards of combining motherhood with creativity.

I contacted Rachel this week and asked her a few questions….

Me: What prompted you to write the book?

Rachel: “My misguided belief that someone out there must have the answers! I wanted to be a fly on the wall of every artist with children to see how they managed to keep working amid the overwhelming demands of motherhood.

After having my first baby, I was struggling to reconcile my creative and maternal selves. Writing suddenly seemed so frivolous and indulgent compared to the solid, important work of raising a child. How could I justify time spent away from my baby in order to do something that had no clear outcome or economic rewards?

Basically, it got to the point where I wanted to know if this dilemma was just my stupid problem—or if perhaps it might be a more universal issue for women. In which case, why had I never read anything about it before?

When I approached some artist–mothers with these questions, they responded with great relief and a kind of confessional zeal. They were so grateful that someone was treating this issue—the impact of having children on women artists’ lives—seriously.”

There are so many common threads running through the experiences of the women you interviewed. What were some that kept coming up?

“Psychologically, almost all were dealing with the fear that to succeed at one—art or mothering—would mean to fail at the other.

At a practical level, lack of time was easily the biggest issue—that, and constant disruption. Most were unprepared for the sheer workload that comes with mothering, and also the fatigue. How do you sustain a whole piece of work when you can barely sustain a single cohesive thought?

Also confronting for everyone was how much they had to ask of everyone around them—their kids, partners, family, friends—in order to keep doing something that previously hadn’t needed to involve anyone else. Suddenly, every moment alone was bought, borrowed or stolen. Not surprisingly, all were lugging around bucket loads of guilt.

On the upside, though, mothers learn to do a lot with very little! No more sitting around waiting for the muse to hit around the fifth latte. Mothering gave these women’s work an urgency and a raw intensity most felt it wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

During all the conversations you had, what were your personal a-ha! moments?

“I realised that, growing up, I had swallowed whole so many of the Romantic myths about what it means to be creative. In having a small window on these women’s lives, I came to understand that you don’t have to be a selfish, brooding, narcissistic bastard, with no choice but to damage those you love, in order to be a successful artist.

I loved hearing Nikki Gemmell say that writing her bestselling book, The Bride Stripped Bare, was only made possible by becoming a mother—that the “hormonal swirl” of having babies was her most intensely creative time, and that she wanted to have another one just to get that back. And I hadn’t realised that my dear friend, musician Clare Bowditch, had been desperately expressing into tissues backstage to stop her boobs leaking mid-gig!

It was small confessions like these that made me think, “Wow, the things women go through! There’s got to be a book in this!”

How has it changed the way you juggle the two sides of your life and your heart?

“Ultimately I have learnt that no-one else is going to give you the permission to pursue your passions. As a woman, you have to give that permission to yourself.

Rachel Power and her kids

That might mean circumventing the conditioning that tells women to put the needs of everyone else before their own. The kids will benefit more from having a happy, fulfilled mother who is occasionally a bit distracted than an utterly devoted one who is deeply frustrated.

That said, I also think I’ve become more realistic about what you can expect of yourself as a mother, and that if the creative work has to take a backseat for a time—because someone’s sick, or paid work takes over, or the kids just need you more—then that doesn’t spell the death knell for your art.”

You can read more about Rachel’s book and buy it here. If you are a writer or work in a creative field and you have kids, I suggest you do. Run Don’t Walk.

Now it’s your turn. Tell me about one book that has changed your life and why (you can even upload a picture of the cover if you want).

Just one. We’ll do it again and you can tell me about another one next time….I have a few I’m looking forward to sharing with you in future posts. Oprah’s Book Club? Watch your back, baby.