Ahead of her appearance at the Auckland Writers Festival this month, Australian feminist icon Clementine Ford talks to Naomi Arnold about her new book, How We Love.
Birthing a baby is a brutal shock to body and mind. But one of the hardest things Clementine Ford faced when she gave birth to her son was the shame of being trapped in a world she'd spent her career railing against.
It was 2016, and her son was 7 weeks old. Her debut book, the bestselling feminist manifesto Fight Like A Girl, had just been published. She was a media sensation, with a popular newspaper column and a reputation for sending online trolls packing.
But Ford was at home with her baby, feeling abandoned by her partner, desperate for help, support and respite. How had she ended up in exactly the type of domestic servitude that was the focus of her career?
"For years, I'd been telling women not to tolerate sexism from men," she writes in her new book, How We Love, in an essay titled "Leave Your Husband".
"How could someone like me have been caught in the terrible trap of domestic drudgery, while a man skated alongside her with very little disruption to his life or any awareness of the labour that went into facilitating it?
"I wasn't just angry and hurt about the new reality of my life, I was embarrassed."
She didn't want her son to grow up with parents who fought and hated each other. So she ditched the nuclear family ideal and packed up and left. Today, she and her ex are true friends, and she says she's ended up with the best of both worlds. With regular family holidays and movie nights, they're raising their 6-year-old boy together, apart, and she couldn't be happier with how things have worked out.
Ford, 41, has gained a freedom and identity independent of motherhood and heterosexual partnership. She has time to work and date who she wants and, if there are shoes left lying around in her flat, they're hers; they don't become a lightning rod of disenchantment.
Another unexpected benefit is that having "extracted myself from the centre" of the father-son relationship, her son's connection with his father has blossomed. Her ex had to step up as a single dad, becoming "caregiver, teacher, guide and protector".
Now she gets to be a mother, "untainted by domestic resentments and exhaustion". And she gets to be herself.
These are just some of the messy, real love stories Ford has thoughtfully chronicled in How We Love: motherhood, fatherhood, love for a parent; her opening essay on losing her mother to cancer is a tear-jerker. She also explores high school puppy love, romantic love, the love for an ex-partner, the intensity of platonic intimacy between friends, and learning to love yourself, too. And of course, her complex love for her child, when "motherhood is full of ugly memories".
"To love my child is to live in a constant state of collapse and repair," she writes, "the fibres of my being torn apart every second and woven back together."
When we talk, she's walking to the tram stop from her home in her beloved Melbourne, on the way to the studio to record an episode of her new podcast, Dear Clementine. Her upcoming event at the Auckland Writers Festival on August 24 will be the first time she's dug out her passport since 2019 and it'll be her first visit to New Zealand since the end of 2018.
How We Love came about because she found herself "in a much more reflective space" since the publication of her second book, 2018's Boys Will Be Boys, which investigates how the closed ranks of brotherhood and our patriarchal masculine traditions harm not just boys, but everyone.
"I think the experience of writing Boys Will Be Boys was very draining in lots of ways - there is so much in that book that is really toxic, and exhausting and challenging," she says. "It was hard to go and spend hours at the library every day writing about terrible crimes against women. And so I was thinking a lot more about the good things in my life and wanted to heal from that, in a way.
"But also I pitched it after my life changed drastically when I left the father of my child, setting myself up and trying to figure out what I wanted from life and how different it was from what I thought I wanted when I was younger. That got me thinking about all these different parts of my life and I wanted to understand my world by writing about it."
So women really can have it all if they just ditch the husband?
"The dream," she says, to a backdrop of tram dings and whirs.
"I'll preface it by saying that it's obviously not most single mums' experiences, because the society we live in makes it so structurally impossible for women to live independently, financially, particularly when children are involved. It's really hard for a lot of single mums to be able to live that life, I get that.
"But the thing about having a baby with a male partner is that you have to have a conversation about how you'll parent together when you separate. We can't know how our child will change our feelings towards each other or how age will change.
"There is no couple alive, really, who fell in love and decided to have a family and thought 'One day we'll break up'… but so many of us do and you have to have a contingency plan for what does it look like if we're in this situation.
"How will we parent evenly? How will we be financially solvent so neither of us feels like the stress of that break-up impacts the relationship with that kid?"
Since the whirlwind of her break-up and early years as a single mother, she's able to look back on that time with more insight. Ford was recently diagnosed with both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder, and says the diagnoses have made a lot of things clearer to her, including behaviours and reactions in past relationships.
She knew about the OCD; but the ADHD was a surprise, she says. Like many women her age, she assumed it was "a boy thing". But the diagnosis was a relief. She wasn't just an "over-sensitive dramatic attention-seeker", as she'd so often been labelled when she was younger.
She's realised how ADHD made it hard for her to get work done - "My time management skills are not great" - but it also benefited and drove her work, as people with the neurological condition can hyper-fixate on areas of interest; great for writers of research-heavy books.
"I think that it's helped enormously, particularly the first two books … it's also a different way of thinking about things. I feel like a lot of people with ADHD have very creative brains. On the whole, I see it as a positive for my work, just with some practical challenges."
A couple of months since her diagnosis, she's been pondering and realising how the conditions manifested themselves in her new book.
"It's really interesting actually having that diagnosis happen after I wrote this book in particular," she says. Going back into some of the painful moments she'd excavated for the book, she realised repeating patterns that have stemmed from issues or behaviours she'd had all her life, but of which she'd not been aware. People with ADHD can have heightened sensitivity to rejection, for example, and she says she had come to see herself as a person naturally unworthy of people's love. That saddens her.
"It's interesting to reflect on that - terrible anxiety, the feeling always that that people will reject you. It's been really clarifying to see all of that put down on the page.
"And I guess most people who have that diagnosis don't have the luxury of having a basically a blueprint of their life all written out that they can go back and look at how they were, immortalised in print, and start seeing all those hallmarks of ADHD.
"It would be interesting to see me writing another book armed with this new information about myself, how that actually changes the writing - if it'll impact it at all - I'm not sure. I don't want to be too conscious about it yet."
It is usual for articles about Ford to describe her as "controversial" or "divisive", a fierce feminist firebrand. Since her column in Adelaide's Sunday Mail began in 2007, she's been deliberately misunderstood by those trying to reduce her to a shrill harpy to avoid engaging with her demands for equality and an end to structural oppression.
Torrents of abuse, much of it nonsensical, are just a part of her day. She gives back as good as she gets.
But anyone actually familiar with her social media presence, as well as her 15-plus years in writing and speaking, is aware of the humour, fairness and nuance with which she shapes her arguments and the love for humanity inherent in her drive to build a fairer world.
To those who are not yet acquainted with those sides of her, meet Clementine Ford. How We Love will introduce you to the tender underbelly of a mother, writer, activist and lover.
Clementine Ford, in conversation with Madeleine Chapman, Wednesday, August 24, 8.15pm-9.30pm, Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre. Information and booking at writersfestival.co.nz