Like many female artists I'm told I 'work too hard', the reasons are complex

Recently I’ve been going through a break-up, sort of. It’s complicated. And as part of the romantic unentanglement process, I’ve been getting a lot of feedback about myself and the ways in which I can be an absolute pain to be around. 

The feedback has really come down to one thing – I work too hard.

My initial reaction was a pretty severe case of “f— you”. That self-defensive, potent response then fermented, rambled around in my mind, till it morphed into a question. Why do I work this hard?

For many of my friends, I am one of those frustrating people they used to know well, who now seems to “always be busy” or posting photos of themselves on Instagram being stressed. Suffice to say, I can be kind of a nightmare.

And while I’ve always been driven, and often a little chaotic, I wasn’t always this busy. 

A couple of years ago though, a new thought appeared, something that completely changed the way I thought about My Future, and the things I’d need to do to get there. 

It began with a conversation with my twin sister, who doesn’t work herself to the edge of insanity. I remember it well, I was sitting in my car outside my house, asking her about whether she wanted to have children in a tone dripping with expectation that she’d say no.

But she said yes. She thought she would like to do that. She said it with sincerity, and thoughtfulness. She said it in a way that I’d never heard before.

Most of my friends were artists or activists, and I’d not yet felt that fear, that existential rift of social groups being split up by the existence of children. I’d not yet come to realise the ways in which people having or not having children might separate us, and I’d not really known anyone who had said “yeah, I’d like to do that” without the addition of “but I’m an artist and I have no idea how the hell that would work”.

Up until that point, I’d had an intensely cerebral relationship with this fundamental question. At that stage, I had decided that I didn’t want children. 

Slowly but surely I began to open to the idea of having children, and since then, I’ve basically been crushing myself with work, always aware of my ever-present biological clock, constantly ticking itself into oblivion.

And it makes sense. I’m 27 now, I was 25 then. It was the same time that people I went to high school with were posting photos of themselves being admitted to the bar, or becoming real, proper doctors or teachers, or buying houses and popping out tiny humans. 

I, meanwhile, was in a psych hospital, with a Bachelor of Fine Art to my name, a sense that I was not really employable in the non-art marketplace, and absolutely no idea what “my plan” was. 

Creative careers take time. And money. But for now let’s just talk about time. In many ways the art world is a stayers game, and this To Be Or Not To Be A Parent conundrum is at least a partial contributor to why so much of the established creative careers are dominated by men; they have more time to make a career before they reach that crossroads.

This week I have discovered a new love in my life: my bike. I’ve been riding up and down my street each day, lazily rolling through golden sun and rain and strange looks from my increasingly interested neighbors. It’s made me realize that I almost never ride just for the sake of it. I am always going somewhere, running late for something, watching out for death traps and waiting for the ride to be over so I can move on to The Important Thing That Is Happening. But riding up and down my street, there is this quiet grace that allows me enough freedom to simply enjoy falling sideways through space. Each time I reach the end of my street I try to perfect my u-turn, trying always to see exactly how perfectly circular I can make it, then asking myself “do I go home now?” and being surprised by how often the answer is “no”. It reminds me of my olden young drawings days. When I was taken by the action of it, and there wasn’t a whisper in my mind of things like audience or genre or market or strategy. As more of my life gets turned into art, I realize there is very few moments like this. Moments that aren’t heavily combed through with analysis and self-critique. It seems I cannot make something into an artwork without fundamentally changing the thing itself, and when my life is that artwork, well, life can start to feel a little too much like a game at times. But there is no market for my bike riding (I hope), and so it can serve as a momentary break, an elusive other reality. It can exist as an exercise to be enjoyed and never to be asked “how will I make money out of you?”

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So it also makes sense that my amazing artist friends who are women and considering having children are some of the hardest working people I know.

But they aren’t just hard working. For the most part, they are actively drilling themselves to the ground, and by “they”, I also most definitely mean “me”.

Since the process of actively considering having children has opened up, I’ve been obsessed with this question of how to make a living creatively. It’s the main reason I started my latest project, Starving Artist. It’s a podcast about art, money, and how to make it work; each episode I interview a different artist to ask them “how does money work for you?”, but what I’m really asking is much bigger questions that I want answers to: “How do you live? How do you deal? What makes a good life?”

Reflecting on this connection between child-bearing, creative careers, and my own expertise at crushing myself with work, I was initially pissed off at the feedback I’d been receiving mid break-up. 

A man – a lover – telling me I should “calm down” about the amount of work I take on felt completely lacking in empathy toward the context of my fervour, the core of my crisis. 

Yet of course it’s more complicated than this, and there is always a more nuanced, empathic side. In the words of writer and activist Laurie Penny, “sometimes you have to decide between doing what you love and being loveable, and the decision is always painful”, and there is pain on both sides of that cruel coin.

My partner’s feedback that I work too hard comes from having spent years watching me drill myself into the ground, and wanting desperately, out of love, to see an end to my suffering, but not having an answer, because there isn’t one.

I am pushing against a structural problem. Art careers take a long time to establish, yet my uterus is on a very specific schedule.

Of course, a simple gendered assessment of this conundrum does not cover the whole story; the make of this maze is much more intersectional. I know that for me, this rock and hard place which I’m seemingly hell bent on crushing myself between is really a culmination of a bunch of different ideas around money and what makes a good life. 

It’s a story that I’ve been taught through my white, middle-class background, and the subsequent ideas of adultness and responsibility and fears of failure and destitution. It’s informed by exposure to a culture that values financial security more than communal security. It’s a Western, individualistic, capitalist puzzle. 

But it’s also a biological one. And because of this, women bear the weight of this industry in a different way to men. They are forced into submission to their career, or chased out of it.

I have no answer here. I have no solution. All I can really offer is the opportunity for empathy. 

Recently, I spent a Saturday at 2am sitting in a car with one of my powerful, creative woman friends. We were connecting over the feedback we’d received by the men we’d dated that we were too hard-working. I had felt like I had never quite found space to articulate the core of my crisis up until that point: the bind I felt like I was in, the ways in which it felt just exasperatingly unfair to be given this burden of biology. 

Gloria Steinhem once said “the truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off”. For me acknowledging this bind does instil a rage, but understanding the bind allows me space to be able to connect with others. Ultimately, it gives me some room for maitri; the development of a loving and kind relationship with myself. 

Instead of being another factor in my own life pointing me towards my desk to sit under a sign that says “work or you will die alone”, I can try at least to hold myself lightly, to give myself a break, a rest. I can try to be a good boss to me, even if the world isn’t set up to allow it.

Honor Eastly is a writer, podcaster and professional feeler of feelings. Her new podcast, Starving Artist, is an excuse to ask some of Australia’s most incisive artists nosy questions about their financial situation, and living creatively.

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