Clementine Ford performs at the Auckland Writers Festival.
Ahead of her performance at this month’s Auckland Writers Festival, Australian feminist icon Clementine Ford talks to Naomi Arnold about her new book How We Love.
The birth of a baby is a brutal shock
Body and soul. But one of the hardest things Clementine Ford faced while giving birth to her son was the shame of being trapped in a world she’d spent her career against.
It was 2016 and her son was 7 weeks old. Her debut book, the best-selling feminist manifesto Fight Like A Girl, had just come out. She was a media sensation with a popular newspaper column and a reputation for sending online trolls packing.
But Ford was home with her baby, feeling abandoned by her partner, and desperate for help, support, and rest. How had she ended up in the very kind of domestic bondage that has been the focus of her career?
“For years I’ve been telling women not to tolerate sexism from men,” she writes in an essay titled “Leave Your Husband” in her new book, How We Love.
“How could someone like me fall into the horrific trap of domestic drudgery while a man skated beside her without disrupting his life or realizing the effort that was being expended?
“Not only was I angry and hurt by 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 dropped the nuclear family ideal, packed her things and left. Today she and her ex are real friends and she says she ended up finding the best of both worlds. With regular family holidays and movie nights, they’re raising their 6-year-old boy together and apart, and she couldn’t be happier with how things have turned out.
Ford, 41, has gained a freedom and identity independent of motherhood and heterosexual partnership. She has time to work and who she wants to date, and if there are still shoes lying around in her apartment, they are hers; they do not become the lightning rod of disenchantment.
Another unexpected benefit is that her son’s bond with his father blossomed after she “pulled out of the center of the father-son relationship.” Her ex had to climb the ranks as a single father, becoming “a carer, a teacher, a guide and a protector.”
Now she is allowed to become a mother “untainted by domestic resentment and exhaustion”. And she can be herself.
These are just a few of the messy, real love stories that Ford thoughtfully chronicled in How We Love: motherhood, fatherhood, love of a parent; Her opening essay about the loss of her mother to cancer is a tearful one. She also explores high school puppy love, romantic love, love for an ex-partner, the intensity of platonic intimacy between friends, and also learning to love yourself. And of course her complex love for her child when “motherhood is full of ugly memories”.
“Loving my child means living in a constant state of breakdown and repair,” she writes, “the fibers of my being are being torn apart and woven back together every second.”
When we chat, she’s walking from her home in her beloved Melbourne to the tram stop on her way to the studio to record an episode of her new podcast, Dear Clementine. Her forthcoming event at the Auckland Writers Festival on August 24 will be the first time she has produced her passport since 2019 and it will be her first visit to New Zealand since late 2018.
How We Love came about because she’s been “in a much more reflective space” since the release of her second book, Boys Will Be Boys, in 2018, which examines how the narrow ranks of fraternity and our patriarchal male traditions don’t just affect boys harm, but all.
“I think the experience of writing Boys Will Be Boys was very tiring in a lot of ways — there’s so much in this book that’s really toxic, tiring and challenging,” she says. “It was hard spending hours every day in the library writing about horrific crimes against women. And so I thought a lot more about the good things in my life and in a way I wanted to heal myself from them.
“But I also opened it up after my life changed drastically, leaving my child’s father, standing up and trying to figure out what I wanted out of life and how different it was to what I thought I wanted, when i was younger It 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 drop the husband?
“The dream,” she says to a background of tram things and whirring.
“I will start by saying that this is obviously not the experience of most single mothers because the society we live in makes it so structurally impossible for women to be financially independent, especially when children are involved. It’s really hard for a lot of single mothers to be able to lead this life, I understand that.
“But the thing about having a baby with a male partner is that if you split up, you have to have a conversation about parenting together. We can’t know how our child will change how we feel about each other or how age will change.
“There really isn’t a couple alive who fell in love and decided to start a family and thought, ‘One day we’re going to break up’ … but so many of us do and you need to have a contingency plan for what it looks like when.” we are in this situation.
“How are we going to be parents evenly? How are we going to be financially solvent so neither of us feel like the stress of this breakup is affecting our relationship with this child?”
Since the whirlwind of her breakup and early years as a single mother, she can look back on that time with more insight. Ford was recently diagnosed with both attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and she says the diagnoses have made many things clearer to her, including behaviors and reactions in previous relationships.
She knew about OCD; but the ADHD came as 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 “oversensitive dramatic attention-seeker,” as she was so often labeled in her youth.
She’s recognized how ADHD has made it difficult for her to do her job — “My time management skills aren’t great” — but it’s also benefited her work and pushed it forward, as people with the neurological condition can become hyper-fixated on areas of interest; ideal for authors of research-heavy books.
“I think it helped tremendously, especially the first two books… it’s also a different way of thinking about things. I have the feeling that many people with ADHD have very creative minds. Overall I see it as a positive work for me, just with some practical challenges.”
A few months after her diagnosis, she’s reflected on it and realized how the conditions have manifested in her new book.
“It’s really interesting that this diagnosis is actually being made after I’ve just written this book,” she says. Going back into some of the painful moments she unearthed for the book, she recognized repeating patterns that stemmed from problems or behaviors that she had throughout her life but was unaware of. For example, people with ADHD can have an increased sensitivity to rejection, and she says she saw herself as a person who was inherently unworthy of people’s love. That makes her sad.
“It’s interesting to think about – terrifying fear, feeling like people are going to reject you. It was really clarifying to see all of this on the site.
“And I think most people who have this diagnosis don’t have the luxury of basically having a blueprint of their life, all of which is written out so they can go back and look at how they were, immortalized in print, and start seeing all these hallmarks of ADHD.
“It would be interesting to see me write another book armed with this new information about me, how that actually changes the writing – if it affects it at all – I’m not sure. I don’t want to be too conscious about it yet.”
It’s common for articles about Ford to describe her as “controversial” or “divisive,” a fierce feminist stigma. Since her column began in Adelaide’s Sunday Mail in 2007, she has been deliberately misunderstood by those who have tried to reduce her to a strident harpy to avoid grappling with her demands for equal rights and an end to structural oppression.
Barrages of abuse, many of them nonsensical, are just part of their day. She gives back as well as she gets.
But anyone who actually knows her social media presence, as well as her 15+ years as a writer and public speaker, knows the humor, fairness, and nuance with which she formulates her arguments, and the love of humanity that drives her Striving to build inherently more just world.
If you don’t know these sides of her, you should get to know Clementine Ford. How We Love introduces you to the delicate underbelly of being a mother, writer, activist and lover.
Clementine Ford, in conversation with Madeleine Chapman, Wednesday 24 August, 8.15-9.30pm, Kiri Te Kanawa Theatre, Aotea Centre. Information and booking at authorsfestival.co.nz