Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: on becoming a mother (2001)

I knew Rachel Cusk from Arlington Park, which I at first had rejected for being excessively negative, then came round to see the truth in it, as an aftertaste. I was happy to have this other book under my belt before trying this one, and I was also happy to have had a first baby before reading this at the end of my second pregnancy.

I’m not sure I would have “enjoyed” it if I had read it five years ago, before or after the birth. I probably would have felt a mixture of recognition and a relief that I wasn’t the only one to struggle with this huge event, but my own experience would have been probably too raw and too recent to find the right distance with this book and not to take everything at face value.

It is a candid memoir of the first year of motherhood, so it doesn’t wax lyrical about the joy of motherhood and tiny babies. It is more about the hardships of sleep deprivation, the tiredness and boredom of staying home with a demanding infant, the hypocrisy of overly enthusiastic or overly domineering social groups and organizations aimed at new mothers, the breastfeeding vs bottle-feeding battle etc. It is about women, and changing identities, and changing dynamics in the couple, not about babies.

Candid memoirs and books have become a sub-genre on the maternity bookshelf, which is a good thing given that women should have an alternative to rosy, glowing, everybody’s-smiling-on-the-picture books. Of course, some people are still finding it offensive and controversial, but I don’t. I was happy to find those when I needed them.

But then in the candid genre Cusk is hardly the only one. I should name Anne Lamott’s Operating instructions (a journal), Judith Warner’s Perfect madness (an essay), Kate Figes’ Life after birth (now, if you want whining, Cusk is nothing compared to Figes), only to name the books in English I reviewed here. Even guidebooks are getting into the unpleasant, unglamorous details that only mothers probably want to know (because they are hugely relieved to read on paper that they are not the only ones to not fit into their pre-pregnancy jeans a month later, and to find it all awfully difficult and exhausting), I’m thinking about Vicki Iovine’s Girlfriends’ Guide to Surviving the First Year of Motherhood, which some may find cheesy but that found its way back to my nightstand for the second time around. Candidness and negativity about motherhood is also a French feminist tradition, so I didn’t find it exceptional.

I could relate to many experiences Cusk described, but I still found her tone very biting and bitter, all the while when she didn’t really present a full picture of her situation. The transition into motherhood is in itself very difficult and universal, but it gets harder with some particular circumstances, which I would have liked to learn more about from Cusk herself: a move to suburbia, the presence or not of close friends, a conspicuously absent partner, the relation to one’s own mother, etc. Instead she shrouds herself in distance and wit, which some may find a bit too dry. I know some people have accused her of being snobbish but I didn’t find any of that. What saves the book, I suppose, is that she is as merciless unto herself as she is to others.

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One thought on “Rachel Cusk, A Life’s Work: on becoming a mother (2001)

  1. I read the Cusk before my baby was born in a state of numb disbelief — is it really going to be like this?? — but I also had a suspicion that my experience was not going to be like hers, which it wasn’t. But I did appreciate the honesty, and it was nice to hear someone describe the difficulty of it, just to have a better idea of what I might face. I was also glad, though, that my experiences were not hers!

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