I should have read Rachel Cusk's "A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother" a long time ago - 10 years ago, perhaps, when I had my first child. It is a raw anatomy of motherhood. A deep incision, revealing the otherworldly gore beneath the veil of muslins and cot sheets: "What to Expect When You're Expecting" it is not. It is a necessarily claustrophobic read, with Cusk’s husband casting only a faint shadow over the pages, friends and visitors stepping into the field of focus only briefly, and even the baby itself appearing merely as an object of contemplation. While children are not usually born into a vacuum, Cusk's writing reflects that the specific transformative event of motherhood is a transaction between mother and child. This literary tunnel vision lends the book such veritas that it prompted visceral flashbacks of my own experiences as a new mother.
I found the literature of pregnancy and early babyhood didactic, chastising and overly concerned with mundanities like nappy changing and bathing. What I really wanted to know (or what I thought I wanted to know) was what it would feel like to be a mother. If I'd read this book, perhaps it would have mitigated the "No one told me..." moment that is universal to new mothers. Certainly it is the book to read when in the throes of the long, dark night of early motherhood, when the unchecked waters of uncivilised love and fear run white and wild. It is an answer (not the answer) to the question of what it is like to have a baby, a portrait of the shape of a mother. Similarly unable to find what she needed from Dr Spock or Penelope Leach, Cusk delved, instead, into the work of Edith Wharton, DH Lawrence, Coleridge and others to get some sense of this period of transition and transformation and extracts of their novels and poems adeptly punctuate this book.
Despite its intensely personal viewpoint, Cusk's reports from the front line are relatable and, by turns, funny and dark, bewildering and enlightening. Not everyone will have had the rug-pull of a premature birth, or had to grapple with incessant, colicky crying. But bringing a baby home is akin to lobbing a grenade at your sense of self and life as you knew it. So much of this book is about this process of disassembly and the reassembling that follows.
The hallmarks of motherhood can all be found within the pages: the dawning of responsibility; a new understanding or admiration of own mothers; the cognitive dissonance embodied in the simultaneous separateness and wholeness of the mother-child unit, or motherbaby as Cusk labels it. She is particularly good at conveying the strangeness and occasional insanity of being a mother to a young baby, and the tedium, physical toll and sensory assault of it.
"Bonnets and booties and mittens on strings fly from agitated limbs. The babies boil like a row of angry kettles."
I breastfed both my boys for a long time, not out of any noble quality on my part but, in the face of their particular difficulties with feeding and sleep and anxiety, because it seemed to be the glue which held us all together. I wanted to stop long before they did, tired of the physical push and pull of it. The sense of being constrained by a high-tensile milky rope, forbidden to wander too far was wearing and I felt the lack of ownership over my own body, acutely. Cusk nails the weird cocktail of emotions that come with drawing a line under that aspect of mothering, and also the relief of feeling physically and mentally your own person again.
The “sleepless nights” are a hackneyed trope of motherhood. In pregnancy, it is one that more experienced parents will allude to with a jaunty injunction to “sleep while you still can!” and an accompanying wry smile. As a newborn, my eldest son quickly settled into a 3 hourly sleep/feed schedule and stuck it for a considerable number of years. Tallying and quantifying the amount of sleep lost or gained was a hot topic amongst the new mothers around me. But long after they had moved on to different conversational pastures - weaning, nursery places, first steps - I was still chronically sleep deprived, tongue and brain thick with fatigue. Cusk describes her altered state, magnificently.
“In the morning I would sit up in bed, the room listing drunkenly about me, and would put a hand to my face, checking for some evidence of disfigurement: an eyebrow, perhaps, slipped down to my cheek, a deranged ear cluttering my forehead, a seam at the back of my skull gaping open.”
Her words bring back a body memory, the feeling of those mornings that followed nights that followed days. I would make a meal of opening the car door, climb clumsily over the threshold and wrestle with my seat belt. I would flip down the sun visor mirror bracing myself for a terrible apparition, only to be stunned by my ordinary, wan reflection. I shouldn’t look this normal. Where were the rivulets of blood running from my eyes? I felt as if the sheer effort of going about my business should be more visible, like the carmine tracery of blood vessels in thin skin. I am glad those days are gone.
And did I mention she is funny, too?
"The mother, meanwhile, has received notice during pregnancy of a Change of Use. Her breasts are requisitioned, deprogrammed: work is carried out on glands, on tissues. By the time the baby comes they are like two warheads on red alert."
On an unsuccessful attempt to have a night out:
"I rush deliriously home in a taxi, having bizarrely gone out for the evening in order to visit phone boxes in the West End. My mother-in-law's lot was no better. She had come all the way to London to sit with my crying, hungry child while I telephoned her incessantly."
Many of us will have an appreciation for the language of war that Cusk often deploys to convey the lived experience of looking after a new baby. Newborns require feeding regimens, tactical withdrawals, and leaving the house necessitates military-grade planning.
"Covertly, I go to the shop and buy bottles, sterilising tablets, tins of powdered formula milk. At home I lay them out like someone preparing to assemble a bomb...When evening comes I prepare the bottle. Her father is to give it to her, for we are advised that this treachery is best committed not by the traitor herself but by a hired assassin."
Before I had children, I had a faint notion that “motherhood” was this universal experience as old as mankind and sure, we all wipe bums and don’t get enough sleep, but the subjective experience of it is so enormously varied. I think if I had read more books like this one, I wouldn’t have felt so isolated when my own experience took a sharp turn off what I naively thought was a beaten track. While Cusk didn’t have unmet milestones and neurological differences to fret about, I empathised with her feelings about being undermined and gaslit over her baby’s protracted crying jags.
Cusk’s take on becoming a mother is honest and unflinching. The book is getting on for twenty years old, now, but at the time of its publication, it created quite a furore. Cusk was accused of being self-centred, child-hating and many other things, besides. I would hope that it might receive a more sympathetic reception, were it to be released today. In even the ten short years since I became a mother social media has, I think, radically changed the narrative on new motherhood. While the typical caution on consuming social media is that it offers a glossy, edited glimpse of other’s lives, it’s also true to say that it has given a platform to those who are prepared to show things as they really are. In the absence of a village to bring up your baby, there are also online support groups and fora that let you know that you are not alone.
"Even as I crossed the line into sleep I felt her cross it too; I felt her go to sleep just as when I was a child I used to feel snow falling outside my window."
Notwithstanding this alteration of the parenting landscape, I still find these old accusations against Cusk bewildering. Because there is so much beauty and love in the book, too. In great part, parenting is hard because of the overwhelming love and concern that assails you when you take charge of a tiny human, and love and concern leak from every page of “A Life’s Work”. In fact, to run with the military metaphors, if forewarned is forearmed, Cusk is a more valuable addition to your arsenal than the Febers, Spocks and Leachs of the world.
Want to read more? Motherhood off the beaten track