Rachel Power Reflects on Art and/or Motherhood

Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. It has been three weeks since my last blog post. I’ve been busy lying on the floor and squealing and kicking the coffee table. (I like to share Shane’s interests.) This excerpt from Australian writer Rachel Power’s anthology The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood eloquently expresses the conflict that women seem to feel most acutely: What should I do with my scarce time? How do I balance the interiority of creative work with the outer-directed availability of a mother for her child? In the introduction, Power writes:

…While on the surface motherhood triggered in me a frantic need to grasp onto any minute that could be called mine, I was also opening out into a newfound sense of infinity. It was strangely liberating to have my children’s needs overtake my own. My ego shrank back to its near-invisible place in the cosmos and with that came an unexpected relief, a sense that I could die knowing I had done all I needed to do.

In a matter of months, what had been the centre of my world — namely, my passion for art — became so flimsy and irrelevant it seemed close to total collapse. I didn’t know if I had what it took to demand all that I had to demand of myself, and of everyone around me, in order to write. I had to rail against my own instinct to admit defeat.

Sometimes a thrilling sense of lightness washed through me: finally I was being given permission to retreat into a ‘normal’ life, free from the burden of the artistic imperative, of that constant desire to record everything almost before it’s happened. Together my babies and I floated around the house, equally delighted by their small discoveries, me vicariously reliving my own babyhood and feeling humbled by the insight that someone had cared for me with this same constancy and devotion.

As they got older, I became more and more aware that those days when I sank into my children’s routine without resistance — when I spent hours building sandcastles or reading the same book over and over again; when I let them cook with me no matter the mess, or turned off my ‘adult’ radio station in favour of Raffi and Patsy Biscoe — were our happiest. Not just their happiest, but also mine. But it was a state reliant on the denial of that niggling compulsion to always be turning my experiences into something else, something more.

A year after my first child was born, I wrote in my journal (the same ‘writing’ journal that has as its first line on its first page in red texta: ‘Whole house — clean!!’):

It is what is sustained in our life — through hard work — that creates fulfillment. It’s the stuff we don’t give up easily. The stuff we have to fight for. Day-to-day is easy; I can get caught up in all manner of small tasks. And these could make up a life. So why can’t I be happy with that? What is a life worth living but one lived attentively, with a passion for the small things? Some days those things are good. Baking a cake. Planting a herb garden. Making a picture for my son’s room. But they feel like small asides — distractions from the bigger picture, from the things I really want to achieve.

For the first time in my life, I envied women without strong ambitions outside of the home. Art was like a monkey on my back and I resented its skittish hold on me, the way it caused me to strain away from my babies, to live a split life, be a split self. I was burdened by the knowledge of what it would cost my family (financially, but more so emotionally) for me to keep writing — just as I became aware of how much it would cost me not to.

More than anything, I longed to plunge into the job of mothering in all its fullness, to wake up each morning needing nothing more than this daily existence: a life for life’s sake. It felt greedy, selfish, unworkable, to try maintaining an identity which seemed entirely at odds with the characteristics of a devoted — a ‘good’ — mother.

While motherhood was calling on me to find ever-greater resources of patience, empathy and composure, art felt like an opposing force — an uncompromising, masculine domain. By this logic, to be an artist would mean putting my babies at risk, starving them of their foremost source of attention and stimulus…

…To be an artist means a compulsive process of self-realisation, a struggle toward the ideal that lurks at the edges of our vision. In spite, or perhaps because of, my battle to find time for creative work after having a child, I began to value it like never before. More than that, I began to write like my life depended on it. Art was the only way I knew of coming to terms with the psychic shock of becoming a mother — a role that uncovered the angriest, weakest and most self-seeking, and in turn the most tender, gracious and devoted parts of myself.

I knew that if I buried that creative urge in myself, it would only re-emerge in some ugly and distorted form; that it would not, in fact, make me a better mother but one full of bitterness and frustration — a recipe for martyrdom. Or, perhaps worse, turn me into a monster whose own thwarted ambitions have been transferred on to her children. Sometimes I looked at my baby and experienced his gaze as a challenge, as if he more than anyone would recognise all my terrible failings. I did not want his mother to be a woman who gave up, who didn’t strive to become all she might have been.

Numerous feminist texts have examined the long struggle against educational and institutional barriers that, among other things, considered art an unsuitable occupation for a woman. Many of these books have counted marriage and motherhood among those institutions that serve to limit women’s sphere of influence to the private and domestic. It hardly needs repeating that, by and large, women are still given almost total responsibility for the rearing of children without the cultural recognition of the difficulty and importance of this role.

We seem no closer than 30 years ago to creating a system that genuinely enables women and men to share equally in raising their children. Yet, despite all it demands of women and the inequities that remain, motherhood cannot be reduced to a mere institution of control. Mothers and their children are bound together in ways that defy all simplistic definitions.

In a comment that has stayed with me, writer Helen Garner once talked of ‘the terrific struggle for women’ striving to fulfil destinies beyond being wives and mothers. ‘It’s terribly sad, it’s a very sad thing — a woman trying to be an artist and a mother at the same time. It’s a tremendous clash … ’ She trailed off, perhaps aware of having innocently stumbled into one of those quicksand zones, where the implications of what you are saying are so enormous and unwieldy that you risk being swallowed up. ‘Sad’ was the word she used. It’s a terribly sad thing for women trying to be an artist and mother at the same time.

It is a good word, because sadness is a problem of the heart. And as much as motherhood is a political issue, it can never be only that; the predicament of the artist–mother moves well beyond the boundaries of policy and the expectations of society.

As Susan Rubein Suleiman wrote, perhaps the greatest struggle for a woman artist who has or desires children is the struggle against herself. No amount of money, no amount of structural change, can entirely resolve the fundamental dilemma for the artist–mother: the seeming incompatibility of her two greatest passions. The effect is a divided heart; a split self; the fear that to succeed at one means to fail at the other.

Buy the anthology here.

Thoughts on Baptism: Turning to Jesus

Our son, Shane, will be baptized into the Episcopal Church next month, on All Saints’ Day. As preparation, our rector asked us to read Anne E. Kitch’s Taking the Plunge: Baptism and Parenting. I am enjoying this book’s accessible yet profound presentation of the values that I hope to pass on to our son. In the passage below, Kitch interprets the baptismal vow to accept Jesus as our savior. I couldn’t have written a better description of what I believe about Jesus, and how I’ve relied on his love at a deeper level since becoming a parent.

Not everyone feels the need for a personal God, or is able to believe that God would take on human form. But as for me, I keep turning to Jesus because I want to believe that the fundamental structure of the universe is relational, loving, and good. I’ll be audacious, ungrateful some would say, and insist that it’s not enough that the universe is mysterious, complex, and beautiful. For what is most important in human life? What do I most want to give my son, and hope that he will manifest in the world? Love, justice, and truth. Are these qualities anomalies in an impersonal universe, or do they matter outside our little tribe of monkeys? My hoped-for answer to that question is what keeps me in the church, despite my occasional sighing for the simplicity of a life without theological struggles.

Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?

When we turn our backs on Satan, we turn toward Jesus Christ. After all, being a Christian means being a follower of Christ. Who do you turn to? In times of stress and trouble, who do you turn to? Relationships are what give us life. The parenting relationship is what brings you to this baptismal examination. So as a parent, who do you turn to when times are tough? Someone you know will help you no matter what. Someone who doesn’t judge you when you are at your worst. Someone who won’t make you pay for it later. Someone you can trust to see you at the bottom. Someone who has been to the bottom too and knows the way out.

But it’s not only in times of desperation that we turn to others. We also seek out relationships in times of joy. Who do you turn to in times of joy and celebration? Someone who will delight in your gifts. Someone who isn’t envious or competitive. Someone who knows you well enough to understand your joy. Someone who will rejoice with you. Someone who knows what it is to be joyful. Someone who will laugh with you, dance with you, sing with you with abandon.

The point of being a Christian, of believing in Christ, is trusting that Christ is the someone we can turn to. We can turn to Jesus Christ in times of trouble and in times of joy; Christ is the one who will be with us. Christ is the one who has endured human suffering and who can complete our joy. When Jesus sat with his friends around the dinner table, teaching them about God’s promises and love, he said to them, “I have said these things so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11). Jesus wants us to be filled with joy.

To say, “Yes, I turn to Jesus Christ,” is to say, “Yes, I know that there lies my hope.” We call Jesus our savior. Simply put, a savior is one who saves. Jesus Christ saves us by knowing us better than anyone else. Just as the best of friends saves us in times of trouble by being the person we can turn to, so Christ saves us, in the worst of times and in the best of times. To accept Jesus Christ as our savior is to be willing to believe that Christ knows and loves us and is always standing by us. Whether we know it or not, whether we are willing to accept it or not, Christ holds out loving arms to enfold us in an embrace. To turn to Jesus Christ as our savior is to be willing to consider the possibility that through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are somehow already saved, that nothing the world dishes out can ultimately destroy us. In the here and now, Christ stands with us in the pain and in the joy. Christ is ready for us, waiting for us to turn and say, “Yes!”


Poetry by Mary Elizabeth Parker: “Preservation Hall”

Mary Elizabeth Parker sponsors the Dana Awards, a long-running contest for unpublished poetry and fiction, now accepting entries through October 31. Her poetry collection Cave-Girl will be released this fall by Finishing Line Press. The deadline for the pre-order discount is October 12. Visit their website or email FlpBookstore@aol.com. She kindly shares this sample poem.

Preservation Hall–bodies jockeying for buttock space on cement benches, blood-cramped knees itching to swing, rattling jazz flung in her face, caught in this tiny stewing room which can’t dissipate the force of flesh. Few are pretty here but all can claim a history closing in as they cry out for more musicmusicmusic stuffed like mufaletta in the mouth. The old stumble-tongue beside her knows it knows it all but he can’t resolve the words to tell her, nineteen, her body sweet, who asks what such noise means: It’s everything; why can’t she smell that when she sniffs the breakdown of these bodies (feels entombed)—why can’t she taste the reason the old neighbor back at home she cooks for, cuts his hair (her job because she can’t yet find her purpose) berates her weekly for the few missed hairs; he shrivels to that impuissance. He used to own a wolf-dog, Princess, and her pups (illegal now), and tucked the howls inside him on nights he did the dishes while the sky burned Borealis. He keeps two dog dogs now, who writhe in scat, re-stink themselves with what they are; he would sneeze now at his wife’s White Gardenia. He wants (this girl understands though he does not think she does) skunk stink, owl stink, motor oil and snow in the air stink, to break the head open to what will suppurate then flow.