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The Atlantic Monthly on A Life's Work
A wonder. Cusk has written something fine and beautiful...I can't imagine that anyone who is both a reader and a mother will be unmoved by it.
In 2003, Rachel Cusk published A Life's Work, a provocative and often startlingly funny memoir about the cataclysm of motherhood. Widely acclaimed, the book started hundreds of arguments that continue to this day. Now, in her most personal and relevant book to date, Cusk explores divorce's tremendous impact on the lives of women.
An unflinching chronicle of Cusk's own recent separation and the upheaval that followed--"a jigsaw dismantled"--it is also a vivid study of divorce's ...
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In 2003, Rachel Cusk published A Life's Work, a provocative and often startlingly funny memoir about the cataclysm of motherhood. Widely acclaimed, the book started hundreds of arguments that continue to this day. Now, in her most personal and relevant book to date, Cusk explores divorce's tremendous impact on the lives of women.
An unflinching chronicle of Cusk's own recent separation and the upheaval that followed--"a jigsaw dismantled"--it is also a vivid study of divorce's complex place in our society. "Aftermath" originally signified a second harvest, and in this book, unlike any other written on the subject, Cusk discovers opportunity as well as pain. With candor as fearless as it is affecting, Rachel Cusk maps a transformative chapter of her life with an acuity and wit that will help us understand our own.
“Brilliant...as slim and revealing as a microscope slide...over eight echo-laden chapters, Cusk moves through her period of aftermath, from agitation to recrimination, to numbness, to new stirrings.—Lisa Shea, Elle
“Like Virginia Woolf, Cusk is a digressive but strategic essayist....This book is a solace to anybody who has dwelt in post-familial wastes.”—Liza Mundy, San Francisco Chronicle
“Thrilling...There are riches buried like gold in the bitter picture Cusk describes...An enormously talented writer.”—Nan Goldberg, The Boston Globe
“Engaging...[and] full of feeling...Cusk is a great observer of the roles people—and especially women—play, studying not only the garbs they put on for tradition and ideology but also how this action affects their understanding of themselves.”—Ashley Nelson, The Washington Post
“Compelling...Strikingly beautiful...Meticulously crafted...[Cusk] is a keen, even brilliant, observer of her own behavior.”—Margaret Eby, The Christian Science Monitor
“Striking...Startling...Unflinching...Bold, gripping, original and occasionally darkly funny.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“I read A Life’s Work shortly after I, too, had had a child, and doing so was like finally letting go of a breath I had held for a year. Ostentatiously smart, fearless, the author displayed what almost seemed a compulsion to yank the threads of that impossibly pretty doily tatted by convention around motherhood...Her memoir of divorce displays the same ferocity of intellect, humor, and occasional bad mood...It is a testament to Cusk’s talent that she was able to make something of [divorce] that would not set fire to the reader, only raise the occasional blister; it was she, the newly divorced, who was rendered ash. That is how it always is. But sometimes a phoenix rises. Sometimes the bird takes the shape of a book.”—Melissa Holbrook Pierson, The Daily Beast
“In this thought-provoking memoir, Cusk musters her considerable literary powers to mine a complex terrain filled with heartbreak and doubt...Interspersed within the narrative are stories within stories, vivid scenes, and piercing observations.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Compelling and assured...[Cusk is an] exacting, formidable talent.”—Alison Pick, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“A penetrating exploration of gender roles in the context of marriage and family and how the dissolution of a marriage changes a person’s relationship with others.”—Vanessa Bush, Booklist
“A well-wrought treatise on the stark reality of divorce. Cusk fearlessly cultivates her own aftermath, or ‘second sowing,’ and chooses to live ‘the disorganized life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilized unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.’”—Meganne Fabrega, Star-Tribune (Minneapolis)
“Artful and nuanced...[Cusk] has the novelist’s saving graces—honesty, courage, and the ability to depict her experiences in exquisitely crafted language...Her exacting, cerebral treatment of such a highly-charged subject is what makes it of literary value.”—Amanda Craig, The Independent
“Brilliant...Rachel Cusk’s books are like pop-up volumes for grown-ups, the prose springing out of the page to bop you neatly between the eyes with its insights.”—Julie Burchill, The Observer (London)
“Unflinching and beautifully wrought...Cusk uses the [memoir] form with great tact and writerly panache. She is at once probing and reticent, mustering her scenes and images to convey the truth of enmeshed lives and loves...[Aftermath is] full of beauty—the beauty of language struggling to reveal an experience which is complex and scored with doubts and pain.”—Lisa Appignanesi, The Daily Telegraph
“Startlingly insightful...Rachel Cusk’s writing has quietly thrilled me for years with its intelligence, perception and understated power: ordinary people’s flaws are depicted vividly yet without fanfare in brittle, brilliant prose...As always with Cusk, it’s exhilarating to feel stimulated, to have fabulous phrases and similes cause pulses of pleasure.”—Leyla Sanai, The Independent on Sunday
“Readers who admire the difficult discipline of self-scrutiny will find precision, beauty and a complicated truth in Cusk’s narrative.”—Jane Shilling, New Statesman
Praise for A Life’s Work
“Funny and smart and refreshingly akin to a war diary—sort of Apocalypse Baby Now...A Life’s Work is wholly original and unabashedly true.”— Elissa Schappell, The New York Times Book Review
“[Cusk] writes with the intelligence, wit, and keen eye for detail demanded by any kind of reporting, and the result is a book on the subject curiously unlike any other.”—The New Yorker
“Pity the writer who has the misfortune to produce a book at the same time and on the same subject as the ridiculously gifted Rachel Cusk. The author of three novels, Cusk brings her clear-eyed wit to the subject of motherhood...You get the sense of a superior mind that can’t stop itself from whirring away.”—Newsday
“Hauntingly beautiful...[Cusk] succeeds in finding an original, literary language to express the journey to motherhood.”—The Christian Science Monitor
“A wonder. Cusk has written something fine and beautiful...I can’t imagine that anyone who is both a reader and a mother will be unmoved by it.”—The Atlantic Monthly
“She captures the absolute shock of suddenly finding yourself responsible for another person—with no training, no guidance, and, indeed, no one coming from their planet to take them back. A brilliant book—and so funny too.”—Kate Atkinson
“I loved reading it, and found it fascinating, but I also found it dangerous. An incitement to riot...It’s an extraordinary piece of work and the writing is utterly beautiful...I laughed out loud, often, in painful recognition.”—Esther Freud
Recently my husband and I separated, and over the course of a few weeks the life that we'd made broke apart, like a jigsaw dismantled into a heap of broken-edged pieces.
Sometimes the matrix of a jigsaw is undetectable in the assembled picture; there are champion jigsaw-makers who pride themselves on such things, but mostly you can tell. The light falls on the surface indentations - it's only from far away that the image seems complete. My younger daughter likes doing jigsaws. The older one does not: she builds card houses in whose environs everyone must remain silent and still. I see in these activities differing attempts to exert control, but I am struck too by the proof they provide that there is more than one way of being patient, and that intolerance can take many forms. My daughters take these variations in temperament a little too seriously. Each resents the opposing tendency in the other: in fact, I would almost say that they pursue their separate activities as a form of argument. An argument is only an emergency of self-definition, after all. And I've wondered from time to time whether it is one of the pitfalls of modern family life, with its relentless jollity, its entirely unfounded optimism, its reliance not on God or economics but on the principle of love, that it failsto recognise - and to take precautions against - the human need for war.
'The new reality' was a phrase that kept coming up in those early weeks: people used it to describe my situation, as though it might represent a kind of progress. But it was in fact a regression: the gears of life had gone into reverse. All at once we were moving not forwards but backwards, back into chaos, into history and prehistory, back to the beginnings of things and then further back to the time before those things began. A plate falls to the floor: the new reality is that it is broken. I had to get used to the new reality. My two young daughters had to get used to the new reality. But the new reality, as far as I could see, was only something broken. It had been created and for years it had served its purpose, but in pieces - unless they could be glued back together - it was good for nothing at all.
My husband believed that I had treated him monstrously. This belief of his couldn't be shaken: his whole world depended on it. It was his story, and lately I have come to hate stories. If someone were to ask me what disaster this was that had befallen my life, I might ask if they wanted the story or the truth. I might say, by way of explanation, that an important vow of obedience was broken. I might explain that when I write a novel wrong, eventually it breaks down and stops and won't be written any more, and I have to go back and look for the flaws in its design. The problem usually lies in the relationship between the story and the truth. The story has to obey the truth, to represent it, like clothes represent the body. The closer the cut, the more pleasing the effect. Unclothed, truth can be vulnerable, ungainly, shocking. Over-dressed it becomes a lie. For me, life's difficulty has generally lain in the attempt to reconcilethese two, like the child of divorce tries to reconcile its parents. My own children do that, forcing my husband's hand into mine when we're all together. They're trying to make the story true again, or to make the truth untrue. I'm happy enough to hold his hand, but my husband doesn't like it. It's bad form - and form is important in stories. Everything that was formless in our life together now belongs to me. So it doesn't trouble me, doesn't bother me to hold his hand.
After a while time stopped going backwards. Even so, we had regressed quite a long way. In those few weeks we had undone everything that led to the moment of our separation; we had undone history itself. There was nothing left to be dismantled, except the children, and that would require the intervention of science. But we were before science: we had gone back to something like seventh-century Britain, before the advent of nationhood. England was in those days a country of compartments: I remember, at school, looking at a map of the early medieval heptarchy and feeling a kind of consternation at its diffusity, its lack of centralised power, its absence of king and capital city and institution. Instead there were merely regions whose names - Mercia, Wessex - fell effeminately on the ears, and whose ceaseless squabblings and small, laborious losses and gains seemed to lack a driving, unifying force that I might, had I cared to think about it, have identified as masculine.
Our history teacher, Mrs Lewis, was a woman of size and grace, a type of elephant-ballerina in whom the principles of bulk and femininity fought a war of escalation. The early medieval was her period: she had studied at Oxford, and now here she was in the classroom of our mediocre Catholic girls' school, encased in a succession of beige tailored outfits with co-ordinating heels from which it seemed her mighty pink form could one day startlingly emerge,like a statue from its dust sheets. The other thing we knew about her, from her name, was that she was married. But how these different aspects of Mrs Lewis connected we had no idea. She gave great consideration to Offa of Mercia, in whose vision of a unified England the first thrust of male ambition can be detected, and whose massive earthwork, Offa's Dyke, still stands as a reminder that division is also an aspect of unification, that one way of defining what you are is to define what you are not. And indeed historians have never been able to agree on the question of whether the dyke was built to repel the Welsh or merely to mark the boundary. Mrs Lewis took an ambivalent attitude to Offa's power: this was the road to civilisation, sure enough, but its cost was a loss of diversity, of the quiet kind of flourishing that goes on where things are not being built and goals driven towards. She herself relished the early Saxon world, in which concepts of power had not yet been reconfigured; for in a way the Dark Ages were themselves a version of 'the new reality', were the broken pieces of the biggest plate of all, the Roman Empire. Some called it darkness, the aftermath of that megalomaniacal all-conquering unity, but not Mrs Lewis. She liked it, liked the untenanted wastes, liked the monasteries where creativity was quietly nurtured, liked the mystics and the visionaries, the early religious writings, liked the women who accrued stature in those formless inchoate centuries, liked the grassroots - the personal - level on which issues of justice and belief had now to be resolved, in the absence of that great administrator civilisation.
The point was that this darkness - call it what you will - this darkness and disorganisation were not mere negation, mere absence. They were both aftermath and prelude. The etymology of the word 'aftermath' is 'second mowing', a second crop of grass that is sownand reaped after the harvest is in. Civilisation, order, meaning, belief: these were not sunlit peaks to be reached by a steady climb. They were built and then they fell, were built and fell again or were destroyed. The darkness, the disorganisation that succeeded them had their own existence, their own integrity; were betrothed to civilisation, as sleep is betrothed to activity. In the life of compartments lies the possibility of unity, just as unity contains the prospect of atomisation. Better, in Mrs Lewis's view, to live the compartmentalised, the disorganised life and feel the dark stirrings of creativity, than to dwell in civilised unity, racked by the impulse to destroy.
In the mornings I take my daughters to school and at mid-afternoon I pick them up again. I tidy their rooms and do laundry and cook. We spend the evenings mostly alone; I do their homework with them and feed them and put them to bed. Every few days they go to their father's and then the house is empty. At first these interludes were difficult to bear. Now they have a kind of neutrality about them, something firm but blank, something faintly accusatory despite the blankness. It is as though these solitary hours, in which for the first time in many years nothing is expected or required of me, are my spoils of war, are what I have received in exchange for all this conflict. I live them one after another. I swallow them down like hospital food. In this way I am kept alive.
Call yourself a feminist, my husband would say to me, disgustedly, in the raw bitter weeks after we separated. He believed he had taken the part of woman in our marriage, and seemed to expectme to defend him against myself, the male oppressor. He felt it was womanly to shop and cook, to collect the children from school. Yet it was when I myself did those things that I often felt most unsexed. My own mother had not seemed beautiful to me in the exercise of her maternal duties: likewise they seemed to threaten, not enhance, her womanliness. In those days we lived in a village in the flat Suffolk countryside; she seemed to spend a great deal of time on the telephone. The sound of her voice talking as though to itself was mesmerising. To me her phrases sounded scripted, her laughter slightly artificial. I suspected her of using a special voice, like an actress. Who was she, this woman on the telephone? My mother was someone I knew only from the inside; I shared her point of view, seemed to dwell within her boredom or pleasure or irritation. Her persona was where I lived, unseeing. How could I know what my mother was? How could I see her? For her attention felt like the glance of some inner eye that never looked at me straight, that took its knowledge from my own private knowledge of myself.
It was only when she was with other people that, as a child, I was able to notice her objectively. Sometimes she would have a female friend round to lunch and then all at once there it would be, my mother's face. Suddenly I could see her, could compare her to this other woman and find her better or worse, could see her being liked or envied or provoked, could know her particular habits and her atmosphere, which were not those of this other. At such times her persona, my dwelling-place, was inaccessible to me, darkened, like an empty house. If I knocked at the door I was curtly - sometimes roughly - despatched. Her body, usually so extensive, so carelessly ubiquitous, seemed to have been packed up and put away. And she too was locked out, relieved for a while of the business ofbeing herself. Instead she was performing; she was pure story, told badly or well.
Her friends were generally mothers too, women whose geography I recognised, the sense of an enigma that lay all around their masks of make-up and talk like open countryside around a city. You could never get out into that countryside but you knew it was there. She did have one friend, Sally, who was different from the others. At the time I didn't understand why, but now I do: Sally didn't have children. She was a large woman, a wit, though her face was sad. You could walk around in the sadness of her mouth and eyes; it was open to everyone. She came once when my mother had made a chocolate cake, for which she tried to give Sally the recipe. Sally said, 'If I made that cake I'd just eat the whole thing in one sitting.' I had never heard of a woman eating a whole cake. It struck me as a tremendous feat, like weightlifting. But I could tell that my mother didn't like this remark. In some obscure sense Sally had given the game away. Not knowing any better, she had opened up a chink in the tall wall of womanhood, and given me a rare glimpse of what was on the other side.
Of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge - war, for instance. The soldier going to war for the first time does not know how he will behave when confronted by an armed enemy. He does not know this part of himself. Is he killer or coward? When confronted he will respond, yet he doesn't know in advance what his response will be.
My husband said that he wanted half of everything, includingthe children. No, I said. What do you mean no, he said. This was on the telephone. I looked out of the window at the garden, a rectangle among other urban rectangles, the boundaries prowled by cats. Lately our garden had become overgrown. The beds were drowning in weeds. The grass was long, like hair. But no matter how disorderly it became the grid would be undisturbed: the other rectangles would hold their shape regardless.
You can't divide people in half, I said.
They should be with me half the time, he said.
They're my children, I said. They belong to me.
In Greek drama, to traduce biological human roles is to court the change that is death, the death that is change. The vengeful mother, the selfish father, the perverted family, the murderous child - these are the bloody roads to democracy, to justice. The children belong to me: once I would have criticised such a sentiment severely, but of certain parts of life there can be no foreknowledge. Where had this heresy gestated? If it was part of me, where had it lived for all those years, in our egalitarian household? Where had it hidden itself? My mother liked to talk about the early English Catholics forced to live and worship in secrecy, sleeping in cupboards or underneath the floorboards. To her it seemed extraordinary that the true beliefs should have to hide themselves. Was this, in fact, a persecuted truth, and our own way of life the heresy?
I said it again: I couldn't help myself. I said it to my friend Eleanor, that the children belonged to me. Eleanor has a job, is often away for weeks at a time; her husband takes over when she's not there, putting their children to bed, handing them over to the nanny in the morning. Eleanor pursed her mouth and disapprovingly shook her head a little. Children belong just as much to theirfathers as their mothers, she said. I said to my friend Anna, who has no job and four children, the children belong to me. Anna's husband works long hours. She manages the children largely alone, as I now do. Yes, she said, they're your children. You're the one they need. They should be your number one priority.
It has existed in a kind of banishment, my flesh history with my daughters. Have I been, as a mother, denied? The long pilgrimage of pregnancy with its wonders and abasements, the apotheosis of childbirth, the sacking and slow rebuilding of every last corner of my private world that motherhood has entailed - all unmentioned, willfully or casually forgotten as time has passed, the dark ages on which I now feel the civilisation of our family has been built. And I was part of that pact of silence, in a way: it was a condition of the treaty that gave me my equality, that I would not invoke the primitivism of the mother, her innate superiority, that voodoo in the face of which the mechanism of equal rights breaks down. My own mother once wept at the supper table, wildly accusing us of never having thanked her for giving birth to us. And we joked about it later, cruel teenaged sophisticates. We felt uneasy, and rightly so: we had been unjustly blamed. Wasn't it my father who should have thanked her, for giving form and substance, continuance, to himself? Instead his own contribution, his work, ran parallel to hers: it was she who had to be grateful to him, superficially at least. For years he had gone to the office and come back again, regular as a Swiss train, as authorised as she was illicit. The rationality of this behaviour was what irrationalised hers, for her womanhood was all imposition and cause, all profligacy, was a kind of problem to which his work was the solution. How could she expect gratitude for what no one seemed to think of as a gift? Through her we all of us servedthe cause of life: she was the exacting representative of our dumb master, nature. She gave, as nature gives, but we were not going to survive in nature on mere gratitude. We had to tame, to cultivate her gifts; and increasingly, we ourselves took all the credit for the results. We were in league with civilisation.
Like God, my father expressed himself through absence: it was easier, perhaps, to be grateful to someone who wasn't there. He too seemed to obey the call of civilisation, to recognise it when it spoke. As rational beings we allied ourselves with him, against the paganism of my mother, her cycles of emotion, her gaze forever dwelling on what was done and past or on the relieving blankness of what was yet to come. These qualities seemed to be without origin: they belonged neither to motherhood nor to herself, but to some eternal fact that arose out of the conjunction of the two. I knew, of course, that once upon a time she had had her own reality, had lived as it were in real time. In the wedding photograph that stood on the mantelpiece, her slenderness was always arresting. There she stood in white, the sacrificial victim: a narrow-waisted smiling beauty, as compact as a seed. The key, the genius of it all, seemed to lie in how little of her there was. In the finely graven lines of her beauty our whole sprawling future was encrypted. That youthful beauty was gone now, all used up, like the oil that is sucked out of the earth for the purpose of combustion. The world has grown hectic, disorganised, wasteful on oil. Sometimes, looking at that photograph, my family seemed like the bloated product of my mother's beauty.
But for me the notion of a woman's beauty had somewhere in the course of things become theoretical, like the immigrant's notion of home. And in the generational transition between my mother and myself a migration of sorts had indeed occurred. My mothermay have been my place of birth, but my adopted nationality was my father's. She had aspired to marriage and motherhood, to being desired and possessed by a man in a way that would legitimise her. I myself was the fruit of those aspirations, but somehow, in the evolution from her to me, it had become my business to legitimise myself. Yet my father's aspirations - to succeed, to win, to provide - did not quite fit me either: they were like a suit of clothes made for someone else, but they were what was available. So I wore them and felt a little uncomfortable, a little unsexed, but clothed all the same. Cross-dressed I met with approval, for a good school report, a high grade. I got into Oxford, my sister to Cambridge, immigrants to the new country of sexual equality achieving assimilation through the second generation.
One is formed by what one's parents say and do; and one is formed by what one's parents are. But what happens when what they say and what they are don't match? My father, a man, advanced male values to us, his daughters. And my mother, a woman, did the same. So it was my mother who didn't match, who didn't make sense. We belong as much to our moment in history as to our parents: I suppose it would have been reprehensible, in Britain in the late twentieth century, for her to have told us not to worry about our maths, that the important thing was to find a nice husband to support us. Yet her own mother had probably told her precisely that. There was nothing, as a woman, she could bequeath us; nothing to pass on from mother to daughter but these adulterated male values. And of that forsaken homeland, beauty, which now lay so despoiled - as the countryside around our Suffolk home was in the years of my growing up despoiled, disfigured by new roads and houses that it pained my oversensitive eyes to look at - of beauty,a woman's beauty, of the place I had come from I knew nothing at all. I didn't know its manners or its customs. I didn't speak its language. In that world of femininity where I had the right to claim citizenship, I was an alien.
Call yourself a feminist, my husband says. And perhaps one of these days I'll say to him, yes, you're right. I shouldn't call myself a feminist. You're right. I'm so terribly sorry.
And in a way, I'll mean it. What is a feminist, anyway? What does it mean, to call yourself one? There are men who call themselves feminists. There are women who are anti-feminist. A feminist man is a bit like a vegetarian: it's the humanitarian principle he's defending, I suppose. Sometimes feminism seems to involve so much criticism of female modes of being that you could be forgiven for thinking that a feminist is a woman who hates women, hates them for being such saps. Then again, the feminist is supposed to hate men. She is said to scorn the physical and emotional servitude they exact. Apparently she calls them the enemy.
In any case, she wouldn't be found haunting the scene of the crime, as it were; loitering in the kitchen, in the maternity ward, at the school gate. She knows that her womanhood is a fraud, manufactured by others for their own convenience; she knows that women are not born but made. So she stays away from it, the kitchen, the maternity ward, like the alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Some alcoholics have a fantasy of modest social drinking: they just haven't been through enough cycles of failure yet. The woman who thinks she can choose femininity, can toy with it like the social drinker toyswith wine - well she's asking for it, asking to be undone, devoured, asking to spend her life perpetrating a new fraud, manufacturing a new fake identity, only this time it's her equality that's fake. Either she's doing twice as much as she did before, or she sacrifices her equality and does less than she should. She's two women, or she's half a woman. And either way she'll have to say, because she chose it, that she's enjoying herself.
So I suppose a feminist shouldn't get married. She shouldn't have a joint bank account or a house in joint names. Perhaps she shouldn't have children either, girl children whose surname is not their mother's but their father's, so that when she travels abroad with them they have to swear to the man at passport control that she is their mother. No, I shouldn't have called myself a feminist, because what I said didn't match with what I was: just like my mother, only the other way around.
What I lived as feminism were in fact the male values my parents, among others, well-meaningly bequeathed me - the cross-dressing values of my father, and the anti-feminine values of my mother. So I am not a feminist. I am a self-hating transvestite.
Like many women I know, I have never been supported financially by a man. This is anecdotal information - women have a weakness for that. And perhaps a feminist is someone who possesses this personalising trait to a larger than average degree: she is an autobiographer, an artist of the self. She acts as an interface between private and public, just as women always have, except that the feminist does it in reverse. She does not propitiate: she objects. She's a woman turned inside out.
If you live long enough, the anecdotal becomes the statistical in any case. You emerge with your cohorts out of the jungle of middle life, each possessing your own private knowledge of courage or cowardice, and do a quick head-count, an inventory of missing limbs. I know women with four children and women with no children, divorced women and married women, successful and compromised women, apologetic, ambitious and contented women, women who are unfulfilled or accepting, selfless and frustrated women. And some of them, it is true, are not financially dependent on men. What can I say about the ones that are? That they're usually full-time mothers. And that they live more through their children. That's how it seems to me. The child goes through the full-time mother like a dye through water: there is no part of her that remains uncoloured. The child's triumphs and losses are her triumphs and losses. The child's beauty is her beauty, as is the child's unacceptability. And because management of the child is her job, her own management of the world is conducted through it. Her subjectivity has more than one source, and only a single outlet. This can result in extreme competence: some of my friends claim to find such women frightening or threatening. These friends are generally women who sustain more than one identity out of a single self, and hence perhaps fear accusations of extreme incompetence. Their power is diffuse: they never feel it collected in one place, and as a result they don't know how much of it there is, whether they have less or more power than that curiously titled creature, the stay-at-home mum, or indeed than their male colleagues at work who must, I suppose, share at least some of their feelings of scatteration.
A few of these working-mother friends of mine have taken the occasional domestic furlough, usually in the early years of parenthood.Like wanted criminals finally run to ground, they surrender with their hands up: yes, it was all too much, too unworkable, the running hither and thither, the guilt, the pressure at work, the pressure at home, the question of why - if you were never going to see them - you went to the trouble of having children in the first place. So they decide to stay at home for a year or two and even things up a bit, like the cake mixture the recipe tells you to divide between two tins, of which there always seems to be more in one than the other. Their husbands also work, live in the same houses and parent the same children, yet don't seem to experience quite the same measure of conflict. In fact, sometimes they actually look like they're better at being working parents than women are - insufferable male superiority!
But a man commits no particular heresy against his sex by being a good father, and working is part of what a good father does. The working mother, on the other hand, is traducing her role in the founding myths of civilisation on a daily basis - no wonder she's a little harassed. She's trying to defy her own deep-seated relationship with gravity. I read somewhere that a space station is always slowly falling back to earth, and that every few months or so a rocket has to be sent to push it back out again. In rather the same way, a woman is forever dragged at by an imperceptible force of biological conformism; her life is relentlessly iterative; it requires energy to keep her in orbit. Year after year she'll do it, but if one year the rocket doesn't come then down she'll go.
The stay-at-home mum often describes herself as lucky: that's her pitch, her line, should anyone - a working mother, for instance - care to enquire. We're so lucky that James's salary means I don't have to work, she'll say, as though she took a huge punt on a singlehorse and found that she'd backed a winner. You don't catch a man saying he feels lucky to be able to go to the office every day. Yet the stay-at-home mum often calls it a privilege, to be 'allowed' to do her traditional and entirely unexceptional domestic work. It's a defensive statement, of course - she doesn't want to be thought of as lazy or unambitious - and like much defensiveness it (barely) conceals a core of aggression. Yet presumably she is elated when her daughter comes top in the maths test, gets a place at Cambridge, becomes a nuclear physicist. Does she wish it for her daughter, that privilege, the time-immemorial life at home with children? Or does she think this is a riddle that someone in the future will somehow just solve, like scientists inventing the cure for cancer?
I remember, when my own children were born, when I first held them and fed them and talked to them, feeling a great awareness of this new, foreign aspect of myself that was in me and yet did not seem to be of me. It was as though I had suddenly acquired the ability to speak Russian: what I could do - this women's work - had so much form of its own, yet I didn't know where my knowledge of it had come from. In some ways I wanted to claim the knowledge as mine, as innate, but to do that seemed to involve a strange kind of dishonesty, a pretending. But how could I pretend to be what I already was? I felt inhabited by a second self, a twin whose jest it was - in the way of twins - to appear to be me while doing things that were alien to my own character. Yet this twin was not apparently malign: she was just asking for a degree of freedom, a temporary release from the strict protocol of identity. She wanted to act as a woman, a generic woman, but character is not generic. It is entirely and utterly specific. To act as a mother, I had to suspend my own character, which had evolved on a diet of malevalues. And my habitat, my environment, had evolved that way too. An adaptation would be required. But who was going to do the adapting? I was aware, in those early days, that my behaviour was strange to the people who knew me well. It was as though I had been brainwashed, taken over by a cult religion. I had gone away - I couldn't be reached on the usual number. And yet this cult, motherhood, was not a place where I could actually live. It reflected nothing about me: its literature and practices, its values, its codes of conduct, its aesthetic were not mine. It was generic too: like any cult, it demanded a complete surrender of identity to belong to it. So for a while I didn't belong anywhere. As the mother of young children I was homeless, drifting, itinerant. And I felt an inadmissible pity for myself and for my daughters in those years. It seemed, almost, catastrophic to me, the disenchantment of this contact with womanhood. Like the adopted child who finally locates its parents only to discover that they are loveless strangers, my inability to find a home as a mother impressed me as something not about the world but about my own unwantedness. I seemed, as a woman, to be extraneous.
And so I did two things: I reverted to my old male-inflected identity; and I conscripted my husband into care of the children. He was to take the part of that twin, femininity. He was to offer her a body of her own to shelter in, for she didn't seem able to find peace in me. My notion was that we would live together as two hybrids, each of us half male and half female. That was equality, was it not? He gave up his law job, and I gave up the exclusivity of my primitive maternal right over the children. These were our preparatory sacrifices to the new gods, whose future protection we hoped to live under. Ten years later, sitting in a solicitor's office on anoisy main road in north London, my maternalism did indeed seem primitive to me, almost barbaric. The children belong to me - this was not the kind of rudimentary phrase-making I generally went in for. Yet it was the only thought in my head, there in the chrome and glass office, with the petite solicitor in tailored black sitting opposite. I was thin and gaunt with distress, yet in her presence I felt enormous, rough-hewn, a maternal rock encrusted with ancient ugly emotion. She told me I had no rights of any kind. The law in these cases didn't operate on the basis of rights. What mattered was the precedent, and the precedent could be as unprecedented as you liked. So there was no primitive reality after all, it seemed. There was no such thing as a mother, a father. There was only civilisation. She told me I was obliged to support my husband financially, possibly forever. But he's a qualified lawyer, I said. And I'm just a writer. What I meant was, he's a man. And I'm just a woman. The old voodoo still banging its drum, there in the heart of marital darkness. The solicitor raised her slender eyebrows, gave me a bitter little smile. Well, then he knew exactly what he was doing, she said.
Summer came, clanging days of glaring sunshine in the seaside town where I live, the gulls screaming in the early dawn, a glittering agitation everywhere, the water a vista of smashed light. I could no longer sleep; my consciousness filled up with the lumber of dreams, of broken-edged sections of the past heaving and stirring in the undertow. At the school gate, collecting my daughters, the other women looked somehow quaint to me, as people look when seen across a distance. I saw them as though from the annihilatedemptiness of the ocean, people inhabiting land, inhabiting a construction. They had not destroyed their homes. Why had I destroyed my home? Visiting my sister, I sat in her kitchen while she folded laundry. I watched her fold her husband's shirts, his trousers. It shocked me to see these male garments, to see her touching them. She seemed to be touching something forbidden. Her right to handle these forbidden items overwhelmed me.
You know the law, my husband said over the phone. He was referring to my obligation to give him money.
I know what's right, I said.
Call yourself a feminist, he said.
What I need is a wife, jokes the stressed-out feminist career woman, and everyone laughs. The joke is that the feminist's pursuit of male values has led her to the threshold of female exploitation. This is irony. Get it? The feminist scorns that silly complicit creature the housewife. Her first feminist act may have been to try to liberate her own housewife mother, only to discover that rescue was neither wanted nor required. I hated my mother's unwaged status, her servitude, her domesticity, undoubtedly more than she herself did, for she never said she disliked them at all. Yet I stood accused of recreating exactly those conditions in my own adult life. I had hated my husband's unwaged domesticity just as much as I had hated my mother's; and he, like her, had claimed to be contented with his lot. Why had I hated it so? Because it represented dependence. But there was more to it than that, for it might be said that dependence is an agreement between two people. My father depended on my mother too: he couldn't cook a meal, or look after children from the office. They were two halves that made up a whole. What, morally speaking, is half a person? Yet the twohalves were not the same: in a sense my parents were a single compartmentalised human being. My father's half was very different from my mother's, but despite the difference neither half made any sense on its own. So it was in the difference that the problem lay.
My notion of half was more like the earthworm's: you cut it in two, but each half remains an earthworm, wriggling and fending for itself. I earned the money in our household, did my share of the cooking and cleaning, paid someone to look after the children while I worked, picked them up from school once they were older. And my husband helped. It was his phrase, and still is: he helped me. I was the compartmentalised modern woman, the woman having it all, and he helped me to be it, to have it. But I didn't want help: I wanted equality. In fact, this idea of help began to annoy me. Why couldn't we be the same? Why couldn't he be compartmentalised too? And why, exactly, was it helpful for a man to look after his own children, or cook the food that he himself would eat? Helpful is what a good child is to its mother. A helpful person is someone who performs duties outside their own sphere of responsibility, out of the kindness of their heart. Help is dangerous because it exists outside the human economy: the only payment for help is gratitude. And did I not have something of the same gratuitous tone where my wage-earning was concerned? Did I not think there was something awfully helpful about me, a woman, supporting my own family?
And so I felt, beneath the reconfigured surface of things, the tension of the old orthodoxies. We were a man and a woman who in our struggle for equality had simply changed clothes. We were two transvestites, a transvestite couple - well, why not? Except that I did both things, was both man and woman, while my husband - meaning well - only did one. Once, a female friend confessed tome that she admired our life but couldn't have lived it herself. She admitted the reason - that she would no longer respect her husband if he became a wife. The admiration interested me. What, precisely, was being admired? And how could what was admirable entail the loss of respect?
Sometimes my awareness of my own competence alarmed me. How would I remain attached to the world if not by need? I didn't appear to need anyone: I could do it all myself. I could do everything. I was both halves: did that mean I was whole? In a sense I was living at the high point of feminist possibility: there was no blueprint beyond 'having it all'. The richness of that phrase, its suggestion of an unabashed splendour, was apposite. To have both motherhood and work was to have two lives instead of one, was a stunning refinement of historical female experience, and to the people who complained that having it all meant doing it all I would have said, yes, of course it does. You don't get 'all' for nothing. 'Having it all', like any form of success, requires hard work. It requires an adoption of the heroic mode of being. But the hero is solitary, forever searching out the holy grail, her belief that she is exceptional perhaps only a disguise for the fact that she is essentially alone.
So I was both man and woman, but over time the woman sickened, for her gratifications were fewer. I had to keep out of the way, keep out of the kitchen, keep a certain distance from my children, not only to define my husband's femininity but to appease my own male values. The oldest trick in the sexist book is the female need for control of children. I perceived in the sentimentality and narcissism of motherhood a threat to the objectivity that as a writer I valued so highly. But it wasn't control of the children I was necessarilysickening for. It was something subtler - prestige, the prestige that is the mother's reward for the work of bearing her offspring. And that prestige was my husband's. I had given it to him or he had taken it - either way, it was what he got out of our arrangement. And the domestic work I did was in a sense at the service of that prestige, for it encompassed the menial, the trivial, the frankly boring, as though I was busily working behind the scenes to ensure the smooth running of the spectacle on stage. I wasn't male after all - men didn't do drudgery. And I wasn't female either: I felt ugly, for the things that were mine - dirty laundry, VAT returns - were not pretty at all. In fact, there was nothing pretty that gave me back a reflection of myself. I went to Paris for two days with my husband, determined while I was there to have my unkempt hair cut in a French salon. Wasn't this what women did? I wanted to be womanised; I wanted someone to restore to me my lost femininity. A male hairdresser cut off all my hair, giggling as he did it, amusing himself during a boring afternoon at the salon by giving a tired blank-faced mother of two something punky and nouvelle vague. Afterwards I wandered in the Paris streets, anxiously catching my reflection in shop windows. Had a transformation occurred, or a defacement? I wasn't sure. My husband wasn't sure either. It seemed terrible that between us we couldn't establish the truth. It seemed terrible, in broad daylight, in those public anonymous streets, not to know.
Sometimes, in the bath, the children cry. Their nakedness, or the warm water, or the comfort of the old routine - something, anyway,dislodges their sticking-plaster emotions and shows the wound beneath. It is my belief that I gave them that wound, so now I must take all the blame. Another version of the heroic, where the hero and the villain are hard to tell apart.
I wounded them and in this way I learned truly to love them. Or rather, I admitted it, admitted this love, admitted how much of it there was. I externalised it: internalised, it had been an instrument of self-torture. But now it was out in the world, visible, practical. What is a loving mother? It is someone whose self-interest has been displaced into her actual children. Her children's suffering causes her more pain than her own: it is Mary at the foot of the cross. In church, at the Easter service, I used to be struck by the description of Mary's emotional state, for amid that drama of physical torment it was said that she felt as though a sword had been run through her heart. It interested me that such an image was applied to her feelings, an image that came to her from the cold hard outer world, from the physical plane of men. Somehow, in the transition from other to mother, the active becomes passive, the actual theoretical, the physical emotional, the objective subjective. The blow is softened: when my children cry a sword is run through my heart. Yet it is I who am also the cause of their crying. And for a while I am undone by this contradiction, by the difficulty of connecting the person who acted out of self-interest with the heartbroken mother who has succeeded her. It seems to be the fatal and final evolution of the compartmentalised woman, a kind of personality disorder, like schizophrenia.
Winter comes: the days are brief and pale, the sea retracted as though into unconsciousness. The coldly silvered water turns quietly on the shingle. There are long nights of stars and frost, and inthe morning frozen puddles lie like little smashed mirrors in the road. We sleep many hours, like people recovering from an operation. Pain is so vivid, yet the stupor of recovery is such that pain's departure often goes unnoticed. You simply realise, one day, that it has gone, leaving a curious blank in the memory, a feeling of transitive mystery, as though the person who suffered is not - not quite - the same as the person who now walks around well. Another compartment has been created, this one for keeping odds and ends in, stray parts of experience, questions for which the answers were never found.
We rearrange the furniture to cover up the gaps. We economise, take in a lodger, get a fishtank. The fish twirl and pirouette eternally amid the fronds, regardless of what day it is. The children go to their father's and come back again. They no longer cry: they complain heartily about the inconvenience of the new arrangements. They have colour in their faces. A friend comes to stay and remarks on the sound of laughter in the house, like birdsong after the silence of winter. But it is winter still: we go to a Christmas carol service and I watch the other families. I watch mother and father and children. And I see it so clearly, as though I were looking in at them through a brightly lit window from the darkness outside; see the story in which they play their roles, their parts, with the whole world as a backdrop. We're not part of that story any more, my children and I. We belong more to the world, in all its risky disorder, its fragmentation, its freedom. The world is constantly evolving, while the family endeavours to stay the same. Updated, refurbished, modernised, but essentially the same. A house in the landscape, both shelter and prison.
We sing the carols, a band of three. I have sung these songssince my earliest recollection, sung them year after year: first as a tradition-loving child in the six-strong conventional family pew; later as a young woman who most ardently called herself a feminist; later still as a wife and mother in whose life these unreconcilable principles - the traditional and the radical, the story and the truth - had out of their hostility hatched a kind of cancer. Looking at the other families I feel our stigma, our loss of prestige: we are like a gypsy caravan parked up among the houses, itinerant, temporary. I see that we have lost a degree of protection, of certainty. I see that I have exchanged one kind of prestige for another, one set of values for another, one scale for another. I see too that we are more open, more capable of receiving than we were; that should the world prove to be a generous and wondrous place, we will perceive its wonders.
I begin to notice, looking in through those imaginary brightly lit windows, that the people inside are looking out. I see the women, these wives and mothers, looking out. They seem happy enough, contented enough, capable enough: they are well dressed, attractive, standing with their men and their children. Yet they look around, their mouths moving. It is as though they are missing something or wondering about something. I remember it so well, what it was to be one of them. Sometimes one of these glances will pass over me and our eyes will briefly meet. And I realise she can't see me, this woman whose eyes have locked with mine. It isn't that she doesn't want to, or is trying not to. It's just that inside it's so bright and outside it's so dark, and so she can't see out, can't see anything at all.
Copyright © 2012 by Rachel Cusk
Posted August 7, 2012
Amazing prose. This author gives a clear, sharp voice to what is the fundamental conflict within every woman, at least according to my now nonworking psychiatrist wife, who has stayed home to raise our child for the past 9 years or so while I worked 60+ hour weeks and made an excessive amount of money. My wife and I made the opposite choice as the author, and are still married--but perhaps no more happily than she was. Our respective roles in the gender-charade dictate that we stay in place (at least for now). We are inside, where it's bright--and we are looking out, where it's dark. Wondering if THAT's where the fun is...
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