Recently, I saw Helen Garner speak at The Melbourne Town Hall, presented as the opening discussion to a weekend of events declaring itself to be ‘unabashedly feminist.’ I love it, I thought, as I looked around the audience of mostly women, some visibly emulating the Helen Garner of a previous decade; a self-confessed overall-wearing feminist.
When I was in grade five, I ran into my grandmother’s old glass door. Running feet first, the glass shattered into my leg, and I fell back into a confetti of glass shards. My dad was in the car, waiting for my mum, who was hanging out washing on the line. Excited by the prospect of a play at the park, I ran through the house, past my grandmother in the kitchen, straight into the door; so clear it appeared open.
From then on, every time we visited my grandmother, I noticed the white pattern dotted along the new safety glass, painted on like continuous double white lines, there as a warning, ‘Do Not Cross.’ Though the scars do not bother me, tiny splinters of glass still remain, and it is still tender if I experience a hard knock to my leg. I remember laying on the white sheets of the hospital bed, my leg being tended to, people gathered around me. To sooth my pain, I remember my mother promising me – probably because it was the only thing she could do at that moment to feel less helpless – that when my leg was better, she would take me to buy a pair of overalls. The ones I had been asking for, hoping for, ever since grade five camp. Even at the age of eleven, I was a feminist in the making.
When I think of my mother at the clothes line, my father in the car. I am reminded of the virtue of patience – very much a learned behaviour – and the many ways in which women are forever squeezing just another thing in to their day, be it a load of washing, dishes, making of lunches; one more thing to fulfil their domestic duties.
Another layer of complexity is added when mothers seek to engage in something for themselves. Sometimes the window of opportunity is so small, that we create a circumstance that is less than ideal, just to feel that some part of the day is for us. For me, it was breastfeeding while writing, supporting my baby with one hand, typing with the other. For other mums, it might be exercising while their little one climbs all over them. Whatever the case, perhaps, strange to observe, it is these moments that keep us sane.
In response to questions about her writing routine, Helen Garner spoke of herself as a mother. As a mother, she wrote when she could. When the baby slept. Between school drop-off and pick-up. She wrote out of necessity because her time was precious. She spoke of how there was a feeling of something like resentment when her child was sick because she could not write. And she is right. Nothing, I believe, gives you greater focus than being a mother.