Review: The Divided Heart

Wednesday, 07 March, 2012

So today I want to write something about The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood (Red Dog, Fitzroy, 2008) by Rachel Power. I think of all the books I've read on parenting and motherhood, this one has to be the most useful of them all. I suppose that's partly because of who I am and my natural tendencies (so please don't expect to read it and feel the same way). But I think there are some characteristics of The Divided Heart that make it helpful for everyone.

So here goes. Again, apologies for the unstructured and rambly mind dump; I'm writing fast (thinking of Joanna Murray-Smith—I'll explain further down). And also I'll probably be repeating myself from earlier posts a fair bit, so feel free to skip those bits.


I first heard about The Divided Heart from Loobylu's blog. What she wrote about it sparked enough interest in me that when I saw it in Brisbane when I went to visit Kathleen, I decided to buy it straight away. But like many books that are bought, it stayed on my shelf for several years before I even picked it up and turned to the first page. (Nick Hornby in The Polysyllabic Spree makes no apologies for his book buying habits; when people questioned his ability to get through his purchases in any sort of timely fashion, he responded that the books were investments; he'd get to them one day. [Perhaps he only said that about the poetry books. My memory is faulty and The Polysyllabic Spree is not within reach at present. Never mind.])

(I wrote all that because sometimes it's important to understand the context of one's relationship with a book. It certainly is in this case, I think.)

Anyway, it wasn't until I was pregnant with Astrid that I thought I ought to start the book, given the significance and relevance of its subject matter. The problem was, I don't think I really grasped what Power was talking about until after Astrid was born. I remember reading the first two chapters and getting frustrated by what I perceived to be Power's ultra feminist perspective. She spoke about the driving need to write and her frustration at not being able to because of the duties and cares of motherhood; I thought to myself, “Surely this is just for a season, and aren't your child's needs more important? There will be more time for writing when they're older.” She also talked about the ever shrinking time available in which to practise one's art; I thought to myself, “Why don't you just come to some sort of arrangement with your husband so that he can look after the baby while you go out and write?” She wrote much about the inequality between men and women when it came to societal perceptions and expectations of the vocation of “artist”, and how traditionally men were freed for the task of artistic creation while women kept their households running; I thought, “Surely things have changed!” Clearly I did not understand.

I stopped reading when I had Astrid because (obviously) I had bigger things on my plate. It wasn't until about three or four months after Astrid was born that I took the book up again—only to realise that I had completely forgotten what Power had said in those opening chapters, so I had to go back and re-read them. Interestingly enough, the second time around I identified more strongly with Power's experiences and perspective because I was living it. And I identified not so much with her feminism (as I have a slightly different perspective on that), but with the way she grappled with becoming a mother as well as an artist. Furthermore, the central question of The Divided Heart (which is “How do you continue to practise your art when you are a mother?” [for having children and being an artist seems largely oxymoronic]) has now become my question. So I was extremely grateful to Power for doing the hard yards of trying to answer the question so I wouldn't have to.


Most of the book is comprised of interviews that Power conducted with mothers who are also artists—photographers, musicians, actors, directors, dancers, illustrators, writers and so on. These were women who made a living from their art, which added an extra layer of complexity to the discussion because what they did also encompassed the areas of work and career. Power's interviewees include people like Clare Bowditch, Rachel Griffiths, Nikki Gemmell, Emma Matthews and Joanna Murray-Smith. I liked that not only were they drawn from a wide range of artistic backgrounds, they were also mothers at various stages of life—mothers of infants, mothers of primary schoolers, mothers of teenagers, mothers whose children were now adults and had flown the nest—and therefore their ages spanned late twenties to seniors. The net effect is of a richness of experience encompassing the whole of life—the “career span” of motherhood, if you will, from early and new motherhood to retiree/empty nester. I do admit that the writers interested me more than the others, however it surprised me how much what the non-writers said had an impact on me. (I'd elaborate more here but I mention a few of the things that stuck with me further down in this post.)


Some things I liked about the book:


Here are a few things I had issues with:

Making art

I thought I should finish by talking a bit about my own artistic practices and how The Divided Heart challenged me. Here's some more bullet points (again, because I am writing fast!)

Right. Time to finish. It's been interesting reflecting on all of this today when I'm at a particularly interesting point in my life (possibly on the cusp of major change). I suspect I will return to these themes again and again as the years go by. Certainly I plan to keep re-reading The Divided Heart; there's something about it that feels refreshing to both my parenting and my writing. I hope it's like that for you too.


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