by Christie Nieman
A span of six years is a long time between drinks in the publishing industry. Especially when your first novel does quite well, you really want to establish yourself by following it– bam! – with a second. In an ideal world, the first would have been followed swiftly by the second, building words upon words into a straight-forward career progression.
That something was twins.
Twins! And as if that weren’t enough, my mother entered the end stages of her long illness and we had a six-month period of nursing her to her death, right in the middle of all that toddler-mayhem.
I recently did an interview for a writerly podcast and the interviewer asked a question along these lines: So, six years is a long time between books, what were you doing, were you writing shorter things, or were you, you know, busy having babies?
I thought I heard a little hesitation in her voice, and, if I’m right, I understand where it came from. It’s a tricky line of questioning. There are female writers who won’t answer those kinds of questions. They won’t answer questions about balancing art and life because male writers never get asked them. It is the same with female politicians, scientists, sports-people – practically any industry that requires heightened commitment to a job. When men are interviewed, the focus is always on their work, their art, their achievements, not on who is looking after the kids. So women who refuse to engage with the question highlight an unjustly gendered worldview. And I think that’s great. I respect it. It’s important.
But then, in my interviewer’s voice, I thought I heard the decision to push forward with the question: I suspect she correctly divined that it was an open subject because I had brought up the subject of babyus-interruptus earlier in the interview.
I brought it up intentionally because I had decided, before going into any interviews about Where We Begin, that I would answer those questions, if and when they came. I think it’s the feminist thing to do – my kind of feminism, which is all about giving back rightful value to those vital things that we have traditionally deemed feminine, or ‘women’s work’, and subsequently ignored. Caring for others, essentially. But caring for others is the most vital thing I can think of, and the most devalued, unconsidered, ignored, and unaccounted-for work. Women do the bulk of caring work: statistics support this. So the question of how we manage to do all that and have some output of our own is very real to us. I understand the women who refuse to engage with the question because of the implicit sexist expectation that we’ll be doing caring work, as well as public work, simply because we are women. That caring is what we ‘should’ be doing. But I’ve noticed that, more often than not, women ask this question of other women. I don’t think they’re saying ‘should’. I think we ask this question because we know that even a woman who refuses to answer most likely produced her incredible art against much greater challenges than many of the men producing art alongside her. We know that, and we admire her work, so we really want to know how the hell she did it. When women ask of other women, How do you balance life and art? I hear: How have you managed these two full-time jobs at once? I struggle with it, I want to know how you’ve done it.
So I decided to answer the question. How have I managed it? Well, it took me six years – that’s how. Plodding, plodding, stealing time where I could, engaging with it in whatever shallow way I could and trusting that, later, I would be able to engage with it deeply. There wasn’t much choice. The work of care is not optional, it isn’t something I could just decide not to do: babies must be fed, frail old people nursed, children supervised and educated. It’s real work and it takes real time. And even though I was in a situation where the burden of parenthood was shared equally with my husband, even then – what a job!
A mentor once told me, ‘Good art takes time’. I believe that. Even if that time isn’t spent physically clacking away at the keyboard. I also think if my time between books hadn’t been coloured by an intense period of care, perhaps the work, when I finally got to it, wouldn’t have been as good, or as deep. Perhaps I wouldn’t feel so proud of Where We Begin now. There are deep things to be learned in care, however you do it: lessons about yourself and your world, important lessons that can be brought to bear on your art; or on your politics, science, or sport, if those are your bag. Alongside the burden, the work of care is beautiful: it is the work of life, it is the work of being human, it is the work that keeps us all going, and it is the work that can make us better: deeper, more empathetic, more emotionally mature, more successful at relating to the world around us.
If it is our society’s default to assume women will do all of it – and it is – then half the population are carrying too much of the burden, and the other half are missing out on the depth and the joy.
How do we balance care and career? It’s a good question. There’s nothing wrong with the question. In fact, I think there is everything right with the question. The work of care is hard. Rewarding, yes, but also hard. And time-consuming. But it has to be done. How we manage caring for each other should be our number one topic of conversation. For me, the only problem with the question is the implicit ‘should’. That women ‘should’ be doing all of it. And that men can opt out – that’s what we tell men when we fail to ask them about it, when we only ask it of women. That’s not how care works. There is no ‘opting out’. Care is life. It is the work of life. If you’re simply choosing not to do it when you have the means and ability and opportunity-slash-responsibility to do so, then chances are you’re unfairly burdening someone else and you’re not living your full life.
I will answer the question. But I would also like to see every male writer, politician, artist, lawyer, scientist, sportsperson, asked how he balances his work and his caring responsibilities. I want men to have to grapple with the answer to that question too. To have to think more about it, to have to opt in.
And how wonderful will it be, when caring is something shared equitably between us, the burden and the gift. When we can have the time and the energy for whatever we wish to create in our lives, but also to share and enact the deep lessons that caring has taught us – all of us.
Christie Nieman is an author, essayist, editor, parent and librarian, who lives and works on Dja Dja Wurrung country. Where We Begin is her latest novel; her first, As Stars Fall, was a CBCA Notable Book. Her short fiction and essays have been widely published in Australian journals and magazines, including The Big Issue, Meanjin, Overland, and The Sydney Review of Books.
For more, read an FWF Q&A with Christie.