In this extract from Rachel Power’s new book, Motherhood & Creativity: The Divided Heart, she speaks with author Cate Kennedy about her love for her daughter and her writing.
As someone who writes such piercing and sensitive stories about domestic life, Cate Kennedy seemed an obvious choice when I was planning the first edition of this book. So it was a great surprise, at that time, to discover that she didn’t have children – and also sad to learn what a painful and complicated fact this was for Cate, who had suffered multiple miscarriages.
Happily, she wrote to me some time later to share a poem called ‘The Zen Master’, which opens with the lines: I have written this / with a body stretched and sore, / stitches swollen, torn by a crowning head … In that message, Cate also told me, ‘Working away at the computer with a child on your lap who is pressing keys and asking what you’re doing, leaning on your arm, wriggling … that’s now my life!’ So it seems fitting – and a great joy – to include Cate following the arrival of her ‘miracle child’, and with it the ‘helpless state’ of motherhood she so exquisitely portrays in many of her award-winning short stories.
I ask her whether, before trying to become pregnant, she’d ever considered putting her art first and not having children.
‘I don’t think I ever thought about the choice so consciously – at least in terms of “art”. I didn’t – and still don’t – see it as “my art”, something that demanded some massive sacrifice. It was something I pursued for pleasure, not as a sacred calling, if you see what I mean.
‘The decision to have a child was a bit different: I’d consciously enjoyed lots of years in my thirties without being a parent, so I was aware I’d be curtailing lots of choices and freedoms. I was never under any illusion that if I were to have a child, everything else would be taking second place in terms of priority.’
‘Did writing help you in those difficult years when you were trying for a baby?’ I ask.
‘It did and it didn’t. We suffered through several miscarriages and there seemed to be a big unspoken vacuum about miscarriage in the general literature about babies, birth and parenting. I remember constantly seeing articles titled “My IVF Story” or “My Journey Through Infertility and Surrogacy” et cetera, but nobody seemed to be writing one called “My Miscarriage Story”. It was something people suffered in silence, and in the grip of that silence I did feel: “Hold on, hold on, one day you are going to get beyond this, maybe even make something out of it.”
‘I think I recognised, at that point in my life, the power of that promise you make to yourself – to undertake the emotional work of trying to craft something vaguely coherent out of the incoherent, random, arbitrary, cruel things that seem to be happening to you. Knowing there’s the possibility of writing about it sometime down the track keeps you that little bit saner, helps you sit with your present powerlessness, or something. Even now, whenever life seems to serve up a particularly awful curve ball, I still find myself saying the same sort of internal mantra.’
When Cate’s daughter was about two years old, she told me: ‘Life is hectic and my writing productivity has sunk drastically, but, boy, am I focused when I get an hour or two to myself.’
I ask her if she has been able to maintain this focus as her child has grown older.
‘Yes. Priorities shift, and something good seems to come of that, in a creative sense. The fervency dissipates, the desire to pour all of your hungry, driven self into every single thing you write. You become more practical, somehow – more workmanlike, less intense.
‘I find myself approaching my writing projects now the way I approach making dinner – I’ve learnt to be good at it, to multi-skill, to bring all these ingredients together to make something for people waiting for it. It’s not always a gourmet feast, but it’s competent, the stakes are lower, and it still gives me pleasure.’
‘So, when the luxuries of time and atmosphere are gone, what comes in their place?’ I ask.
‘Great question. A desire to get them back, mostly!’ Cate laughs. ‘I am slowly being persuaded that the conundrum of no time and millions of ideas when you have a young child is because your conscious mind is diverted from worrying at and analysing and gnawing away at the thing you’re working on, leaving your unconscious free to toy with it in a much less censorious way. I don’t have any other explanation for why, at a time in my life when I can least afford the time or energy, I have enough ideas to literally fill a book.
‘I have a feeling there’s a lot of mental redrafting that goes on while you’re not sitting agonising at the desk, but out and about in the world, busy with prosaic things, stitching something together on an unconscious level.’
‘When your daughter was still very young you wrote The World Beneath, a novel about a teenage girl with separated parents. Why was this the book that you chose to write at this time?’ I ask. ‘And as someone who usually writes poetry and short stories, why a novel when you no doubt had less time than ever?’
‘Ha! If you can believe it, after years of no publishing offers and on the strength of one collection of short stories, it wasn’t until I was a parent of a five-month-old baby that the universe decided that what I really needed to fill my days was a two-book international publishing deal which came out of the blue.
‘I blame lack of sleep for what came out of my mouth when the editor from Grove Books in New York said, “Do you think you could make the second book a novel?” It was “Sure!” Could I send them a couple of novel outlines? “Sure!” Could I do it within the next forty-eight hours? “Why the hell not?” I literally put the baby down and went into the study, bashed out two one-page outlines, and emailed them off.
‘If I hadn’t been so tired, I would have gone off the deep end manically obsessing over this, I’m sure. As it was, I just wanted to get to bed before the midnight feed. No overthinking, just press “send” and crawl off to bed – I promise you that’s exactly what happened.
‘I really didn’t think they would send me a contract based on either of those novel outlines, either. I just had nothing else to pitch and could barely keep my eyes open! But what was I going to say? No? Lucky we weren’t Skyping, since I was in my jim-jams.’
I remind her that in her poem ‘The Zen Master’, Cate describes her baby beating her thigh: demanding I turn away from this pointless thing / because out there, the whole humming world is waiting. I want to know if she still has to fight the feeling that writing is ‘pointless’, against the very real demands of family life.
‘Yep’ is her firm response. ‘In the sense that the work of writing is very interior; there’s not much to show in terms of productivity. You write for hours, it seems, and when you save that document, you can’t believe it’s only eighteen kilobytes.
What? What a waste of time! In that six hours, you could have done all the washing and a week’s worth of cooking and you’ve actually paid for a day of childcare, and what have you got to show for it?
‘I was constantly seeing how dull and closed-off it was sitting at the desk compared to the visceral, sensory world my toddler was experiencing, and how much I wanted to forget the whole thing as too hard.’
‘What’s this self-criticism about, do you think?’ I ask her.
‘It does seem that you’ve made a bit of a pact with the devil by trying to be both a parent and a fully functional working woman. For a start, nobody else recognises the writing as work – at least, they don’t round my way – and you have to buy your time for yourself when you have a child to look after. You have to justify each minute you’ve organised to do anything other than take care of them. That’s how it can feel to me, anyway, sitting mired in the middle of it, with the end of neither job anywhere in sight.
‘You’ve got to keep pushing the words out, having something to show for it, to keep the guilt at bay. Whenever I’d bought myself that time – when my daughter went to childcare, which wasn’t much: two afternoons a week – I’d be fretting with a feeling akin to trying to write while there was a taxi waiting outside with its meter on.’
‘Yes! So, why is it that women feel that so acutely?’ I ask.
‘I really don’t know. For me, I guess I just didn’t feel like I was a “full-time worker” in the same way other mothers I knew were – drop your child off each morning, go to work, pick them up each afternoon. Why spending the day writing should seem less valid and justifiable than spending the day working at the pharmacy is probably to do with it not being recognised as “work”, because you’re not being paid for it, I guess. Just like the demands of family life in general.
‘This is one of the major ways being a writer and being a parent correlate to me – they are both full of invisible work, which is unacknowledged and unappreciated, which is absorbed without recognition into the fabric of everything you’re trying to create at the same time.’
And yet, I’ve heard Cate say that when it comes to writing, she could ‘take or leave it’. I ask her if this is something that she’s always felt – and if so, did this change when she became a mother?
‘I like writing, but it’s not the be-all and end-all of my existence. I’m not ever going to be a tortured artist. I like making things, and I like having the opportunity to work with other people to make other kinds of things, like a theatre production or a night of music and poems, or something much more grounded in camaraderie – a meal, a garden, a class.
‘Over time I’ve really changed my ideas about creativity – or maybe I mean I’ve been changed. I want to approach it, now, with the right sort of intent. It’s not really to do with becoming a mother so much – although of course that’s been a huge reconnection with the joy and compromise of what you’re being creative for – as with wanting the mysterious flow to be as uncomplicated and normal as breathing.
‘Our creative lives should be the way out of our neuroses, not the other way round. We should be able to attune ourselves to noticing something worth paying attention to and follow its resonance into our lives to make something out of it, to give someone else a jolt of connectedness and recognition. If writing’s not doing that, I think I’d want to do something else – if it’s causing me too much grating existential grief, I’d rather stop and find something else to be inspired by.’
‘Did motherhood mark a shift in the kind of stories or characters that interest you?’ I ask.
‘Domesticity still interests me a lot, as does the pejorative, dismissive reaction to this as valid subject matter from many reviewers and critics. Motherhood – and this isn’t always a good thing, in terms of selfhood – subsumes you; you learn to constantly put yourself second as a matter of course.
‘I find I’m writing more characters struggling with powerlessness, people learning how to come to terms with things they can’t change. This is grounded in the domestic, in the day-to-day, the way you can’t keep stopping and counting the cost of constantly giving. I guess I mean the way parenthood makes an adult out of you, once and for all, or at least shows you the flawed and limited adult you actually are.’
‘So what have been the lessons you’ve gained from your daughter that you bring to your work?’
‘Give it all away now. Don’t hoard. Spend it. There’ll be more, better ideas tomorrow.’
Finally, I want to know what piece of advice Cate would offer other creative mothers.
‘It’s hard to give advice on something you feel you’ve kind of blundered through with no blueprint – and when others confide in you, you see it’s been the same for them. I’ve slowly come to see motherhood as akin to choosing to have a creative life, in some elemental way. You’ve got to work out early why you’re doing it, because it’s not going to reward you the way you think. You can’t resent your child for taking your freedom and selfhood away any more than you can resent your “art” for not paying off for you. You chose it. Now you can choose again – every day, just about – to see it as either the making or the breaking of you. ‘Work out why you’re doing it, and then commit. Nobody’s going to notice all those thousands of invisible hours, and nobody’s going to give you a medal; it’s not always a pleasure and a privilege. But, boy, there are some great days, when your pride and joy becomes, literally, your pride and your joy.’
This is an extract from Motherhood & Creativity by Rachel Power, out now through Affirm Press at $24.99