Love talk: Clementine Ford may be known as an "angry feminist", but she's not afraid to show her softer side

Clementine Ford - an
Clementine Ford - an "angry feminist" who's also an optimist. Picture: Getty Images

Clementine Ford has written a book about love. For some, this fact alone is something that needs to sink in, somehow.

The public feminist - seen as a loudmouth polemicist by some, and a leading light of the feminist cause by others - has made a career out of controversy. Her first two books, Fight Like a Girl, and Boys Will Be Boys, are both manifestos, born of frustration and an ingrained sense of injustice. Both have been controversial.

But, according to Ford, it's not all clear, for anyone who's followed her work closely over the years, that she is a woman without a softer side. She has written before about grief, motherhood, relationships and families - so why not the type of love that spans all these things?

Still, here it is, between the pages of this pastel-covered book: an ode to love, in all its forms.

Losing her mother at an early age, she explores her own grief, details the pain of first love, of teenaged lust, of unrequited adoration, and adult heartbreak. She discusses the heart-stopping love of parenthood, and the journey to self-acceptance and self-forgiveness, another form of love.

And it's done with all the uncompromising, take-no-prisoners openness that has often characterised her work.

We're talking over the phone, with her young son playing with Lego in the background - life melding into work in a way so familiar to working mothers throughout the country. And, in the midst of washing dishes and soothing over fallen toys, Ford is openly bemused by some of the reactions to How We Love: Notes On A Life.

After all, she says, the idea of love - parental, familial, romantic, or the love we feel for our friends - is all part and parcel of the space she inhabits in the public discourse.

"It is quite frustrating to hear constantly that you are just this one thing," she says.

"But people get this idea of you in their mind and they decide that that's who you are. I've never said I am just one person - I've never claimed any title for myself ... and I also feel like, if people really critically honestly looked at my entire body of work, they would see that a lot of my feminist work is not angry, either."

And even anger, she says, can come from a place of love, of concern, of wishing something better for people.

"Like the things that I've written about men needing to be more in touch with themselves, and men needing to understand the ways the patriarchy has hurt them too, that comes from a place of love," she says.

Like many women in their 40s - divisive, prominent, loud or otherwise - Ford has a wealth of experience and life lessons to draw from, and it helps that, being a writer, she's perhaps more self-aware than most.

One of the foundations of her life - and the focus of the opening chapter of this book - is her mother, who died of cancer when Ford was 25.

"Writing the book helped me realise obviously what I've learned about love over the years and one of the most important things that we need to understand about love is that it walks hand-in-hand with grief, and that both of those things are as powerful as each other," she says.

"Grief is such an incredible form of love, and choosing to love someone or being in a position where you just love them automatically, like the love you hopefully have for a mother or a parent, has to come with the knowledge that one day you might have to let it go. That was a really hard lesson to learn at 25, but I feel like it was incredibly powerful."

This opening sequence is a way of contextualising Ford's attitude to the many relationships she forges over the years, and especially her feelings about motherhood.

"As a mother myself now, it's knowing that so much of my job is to prepare my son to leave me, or to be okay if I need to leave him," she says.

It's a way, too, of looking back more fondly on her younger self - the one who did all the stupid things, made silly mistakes and embarrassing decisions - and forgiving her a bit. She was young, after all, and foolish, and living in a different time.

"It can be helpful to imagine our life as being lived by a million different versions of us, and each of them is different, and yet the same," she says

"I think now when I reflect on my 20-year-old self, my 25-year-old self, or even my 13-year-old self, being able to separate her from me allows me to be kinder to her and to love her.

"I like to think of time less as linear and more as circular and spiral. So I can exist in the same time now as maybe 13-year-old me existing, and I can offer that love in a way that almost alleviates some of the pain that you experienced when you were a child."

But she's adamant that this isn't a book written for any one group in particular.

"I'm writing it for everyone," she says. "I feel like even that last chapter as a mother talking about her son, and what she needs to be for him, I think that will resonate with men as much as it will resonate with women."

And then there's the daily reality of being in the present - of living in Melbourne, of all places, during a pandemic, of all things. Of parenting a five-year-old boy, and all the things he has to teach her.

Space, for one thing - the sizes of the planets, the vastness of the universe, our own insignificance in the cosmos - "just wild, mind-blowing stuff"

"Sometimes it can be helpful, to see we're experiencing all of wildness, of love and pain and grief and growth and having children or not having children and falling in and out of love," she says.

"And being afraid of dying and wrestling with our childhood selves, and all of that beautiful, blissful kind of tornado of life and what it all means. And then on Jupiter, there's been a f**king storm going for 350 years... all of this keeps happening regardless of what's going on with us."

  • How We Love: Notes on a Life, by Clementine Ford. Allen & Unwin, $29.99.
This story What Clementine Ford has learned about love first appeared on The Canberra Times.