Selected by The New York Times as one of the 50 Best Memoirs of the Past 50 Years
“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.” —The New York Times Book Review
A Life’s Work: On Becoming a Mother is Rachel Cusk’s funny, moving, brutally honest account of her early experiences of motherhood. When it was published it 2001, it divided critics and readers. One famous columnist wrote a piece demanding that Cusk’s children be taken into care, saying she was unfit to look after them, and Oprah Winfrey invited her on the show to defend herself.
An education in babies, books, breast-feeding, toddler groups, broken nights, bad advice and never being alone, it is a landmark work, which has provoked acclaim and outrage in equal measure.
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A Life's Work
On Becoming a Mother
By Rachel Cusk
PicadorCopyright © 2001 Rachel Cusk
All rights reserved.
In the changing rooms at the swimming pool you can see the bodies of women. Naked, they have a narrative quality, like cave paintings; a quality muted by clothes and context, a quality seen only here, in this damp, municipal place where we are grouped anonymously, by gender. Though I too have the body of a woman, the sight still briefly arouses in me a child's fear, a mixture of revulsion and awe for these breasts and bellies and hips, this unidealised, primitive flesh which, forgetful here of its allure, seems composed purely of reproductive purpose. The hairdryers sing, the locker doors bang open and shut, the tiled floor of the shower room runs with unguents and foam. Veined, muscled legs stalk to and fro; bare arms untangle matted hair and towel skin that quivers with exertion. Breasts and bellies and hips, customised with moles and scars, with skin smocked or smooth, engraved like runes or blank as new-sculpted marble: declarative and material, they exist as objects, communicating by form alone. Sometimes there are children in the changing rooms and I see them stare in the way I used to stare, and half want to still: in illicit wonder and terror at the suggestiveness of the adult physiognomy, its frank protrusions and fur and patina of age or experience bespeaking untold mysteries of pleasure and pain, of copulation, gestation and birth. Like a trailer for a horror film, the adult body hints broadly at what must remain uneasily within the precincts of the imagination until legitimate entrance to its full unfolding is attained.
As a child, from the moment I gained some understanding of what it entailed, I worried about childbirth. My understanding came without footnotes, without clauses stating that you didn't have to have a baby, let alone might not be able to: like all facts of life, it took a non-negotiable form. All I knew, looking at my narrow, recessless body, was that one day another body would come out of it, although it was not clear how or from where. As I understood it I was not to be fitted with some kind of extraction device at a later date. This same body held the promise of a future violence, like a Mexican pinata doll full of sweets. Some people kept those dolls, unable to inflict upon them the tragedy that was their calling, even at the spur of the most urgent, intransigent desire. Most people didn't. At children's parties in California, where I grew up, we used to beat them with a stick until they exploded and gave up their glorious contents. No exceptional understanding of the matter was required to work out that childbirth would be extremely painful. My early experiences of pain were quickly pressed into the service of this understanding. It seemed to me that an ability to tolerate physical discomfort was a necessary adjunct to the fact of my sex, and whenever I cut or bruised myself, or fell over or visited the dentist, I would feel not only pain but terror that I had felt it, that I had registered an injury so small when the fact of this great and mysterious agony lay so immovably in my future.
At school we were shown a film of a woman giving birth. She was naked, with thin, powerful arms and legs that waved out from the vast, afflicted hump of her belly, and her hair was long and tangled. She was not tucked up in bed, ringed with a bright halo of white-coated doctors and nurses. In fact, she didn't appear to be in hospital at all. She stood alone in a small room that was empty but for a low stool placed in the centre. I was disturbed by the sight of this stool. It seemed an inadequate defence against the onslaught that was to come. The camera gave out a dim, nocturnal picture, and the viewer's impression was of watching voyeuristically through a hole in the wall something terrible and secret, something doomed to travel beyond our comprehension and desire to look. The woman paced the room groaning and bellowing, like a lunatic or an animal in a cage. Occasionally she would lean against the wall for some minutes, her head in her hands, before flinging herself away with a cry to the opposite wall. It was as if she were fighting some invisible opponent: her solitude, amidst the noise and force of her responses, seemed strange. Presently I noticed that she was not, in fact, alone; another woman, this one fully clothed, was sitting quietly in a corner. Occasionally she murmured almost inaudibly, sounds which, though unhelpfully faint, were certainly encouraging. Her presence lent a degree of authority to the proceedings, but her failure to help or at least sympathise seemed inexplicably cruel. The naked woman tore at her matted hair and roared. Suddenly she staggered to the centre of the room and placed herself on the stool, one leg bent and the other flung dashingly to the side, hands clasped to her chest as if she were about to sing. Her companion rose and knelt before her. The camera, being stationary, did not offer us a close-up of this turn of events. In fact, the picture seemed to grow premonitorily darker and less distinct. The two women held their penumbral tableaux of communion for a moment; and then suddenly the clothed woman leaned forward, hands extended, and into them fell the small, thrashing body of a baby. The naked woman's final yell of pain fluted upwards into a yodel of delight.
'Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813,' writes Tolstoy of his romantic young heroine at the end of War and Peace, 'and in 1820 already had three daughters, besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognise the slim, lively Natasha of former days in this robust motherly woman. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were often all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all. All that struck the eye was a strong, handsome and fertile woman.'
In pregnancy, the life of the body and the life of the mind abandon the effort of distinctness and become fatally and historically intertwined. As a sequel to youth, beauty or independence, motherhood promises from its first page to be a longer and more difficult volume: the story of how Tolstoy's Natasha turned from trilling, beribboned heartbreaker into inscrutable matriarch, of how daughters become parents and heroines implacable opponents of the romantic plot. Tolstoy did not write this volume. Instead he wrote Anna Karenina, excavating the woman extant in the mother and demonstrating her power to destroy, for motherhood is a career in conformity from which no amount of subterfuge can liberate the soul without violence; and pregnancy is its boot-camp.
My arrival in this camp is meditated but not informed. I know about pregnancy only what everybody knows about it, which is what it looks like from the outside. I have walked past it many times. I have wondered what goes on behind its high walls. Knowing the pain which every inmate must endure as the condition of their release, I have imagined it to be a place in which some secret and specialised process of preparation occurs, in which confidential information is handed out in sealed envelopes that will explain this pain, that will render it painless. I tell my doctor that I am pregnant and he does a sum on a bit of paper involving dates. It is now July. He gives me a date in March of the following year. It takes me some time to realise that this is the day on which he expects my child to be born. He tells me to see the midwife. Close the door on your way out, he says.
The midwife gives me information, but of a particular sort: it concerns the things I can expect to happen to me, but not what she or anybody else intends to do about them. She tells me to come back in a couple of months. I had expected there to be at least some occupational aspect to pregnancy designed to mitigate fear. What am I going to do for all this time? Seeing my stricken face, she recommends one or two books I might read on the subject. I go and buy them and return home. Pregnancy lasts for two hundred and sixty- six days, forty weeks, nine months, or three trimesters, depending on how you choose to count it. The medical profession counts in weeks. The general public, for whom other people's pregnancies pass like life, count in months. I don't know who counts in trimesters, teachers perhaps, or women on their fifth baby. Only those who suffer, people wrongfully imprisoned, people with broken hearts, count days. I veer fretfully from one method to another, but the story of pregnancy is best recounted in trimesters. The first trimester is characterised by nausea and fatigue. The second trimester is characterised by a large stomach and a feeling of well-being. In the third trimester you may experience bloating around the face, swelling of wrists and ankles, varicose veins, piles, chronic heartburn, constipation, clumsiness, forgetfulness, fatigue, feelings of apprehension about the birth and a longing for pregnancy to be over.
Nowhere in these books, I notice, does it mention as a feature of pregnancy the dawning of some sort of understanding of how the baby is supposed to come out. Illustrations of this event are amply supplied: they generally take the form of a series of cross-sections, the first showing the baby in the woman's stomach, the last showing the baby having come out of the woman's stomach. I begin to suspect that the experience is akin to that of being selected from amongst the passengers of an airborne jumbo jet to fly and then land the plane yourself. Occasionally there are photographs, images of women transfixed as if at the moment of death: grimacing, sweating, imploring, eyes screwed shut or turned heavenwards, their bodies drowning in a tangle of sheets and hospital wires or raised up by pain into cruciform postures, arms outstretched. It is as if some secret female history is unfolding in these photographs, a tale of suffering conspiratorially concealed. But even the frankness of its images does not seem to penetrate the mystery of childbirth. Many women find labour easier when they adopt a vertical position, reads the caption; or The baby emerges in an atmosphere of timelessness and peace.
My mother has always been fairly honest about her own experiences of birth. When the time comes, she says, take any drugs they offer you. I have had troubling hints from other women, too, women who bark with jaded laughter at the mention of the word 'pain', or who remark mysteriously that afterwards you're never the same again. Such clues are never explained; indeed, everything suddenly seems to go rather quiet, as if some vow of silence has been unintentionally broken. I myself decide to broadcast my experiences at every opportunity, once I've had them; but the fact that I have never personally encountered such a disciple of truth, have neither heard nor read during the course of my life a straightforward account of this most ubiquitous of happenings, suggests to me the presence of an additional horror surrounding the mystery: that somehow, during those tortured hours, some fundamental component of oneself is removed, so that afterwards although one looks and sounds more or less exactly as one did before, one is in fact a simulacrum, a brainwashed being programmed not to bear witness to the truth. I recall in the film Invasion of the Body Snatchers a moment of similar realisation, when one of only two remaining characters who have not been taken over by aliens reveals that he has, in fact, been taken over by aliens. The film ends with a close-up of the terror-striken face of his girlfriend, as she realises that she is alone now in a world of automatons.
The modern, privileged woman is a creature for whom the fact of her sex can remain, indefinitely if she chooses, a superficial characteristic. What do I understand by the term 'female'? A false thing; a repository of the cosmetic, a world of scented boutiques and tissue-wrapped purchases, of fake eyelashes, French unguents, powder and paint, a world in which words such as suffering, self-control and endurance occur, but usually in reference to weight loss; a world steeped in its own mild, voluntary oppression, a world at whose fringes one may find intersections to the real: to particular kinds of unhappiness, or discrimination, or fear, or to a whole realm of existence both past and present that grows more individuated and indeterminate and inarticulable as time goes by. What it once meant to be a woman, if such a meaning can ever be fixed, it no longer means; and yet in one, great sense, the sense of procreation, it means it still. The biological destiny of women remains standing amidst the ruins of their inequality, and in approaching it I have the sense of stepping off the proper path of my life, of travelling forwards but at some unbreachable distance; as if I had boarded a train and could see through the window the road on which I had always been, a road with which for a while my train ran parallel before gaining speed and moving steadily away to east or west, to a vista of unfamiliar hills, leaving everything vanishing behind it.
I go on a walking holiday in the Pyrenees. The only evidence, as yet, of my altered state is the fact that I am followed for the entire week by a swarm of small insects who mill about me like fans, like bodyguards. Towards the end of the week I leave the path to visit a frozen lake at high altitude. I cannot reconnect with my route without going all the way back down the mountain, and I decide to walk through the snow in the right direction in the hope of rejoining it on the other side of the pass. I set off around the lake, a preternatural arctic swirl from which the earth rises steeply like the sides of a bowl. These sides, being covered in snow and ice, are extremely slippery, and after I have crawled some way around the lake it becomes clear that I am in danger of sliding down beneath the ice and sinking to the bottom with the weight of my rucksack. I inch my way back and try going round the other side, where a faint path threads its way jaggedly and near-vertically upwards to the pass. At the top, in the tiny gap of the pass, I find a shrine containing a statue of the Virgin Mary. Superstitiously, I pray. In front of me there lies what appears to be the whole of France, miles below. The mountain sheers steeply downwards at my feet in a narrow snowy gully through which it appears I must descend. The snow looks fluffy and deep, like a cloud, the gully bottom as far away as the earth seen from the sky. A sort of madness seizes me. Like a child who believes she can fly, my sense of the reality of my own body and its limitations disappears. The beautiful and terrible vista seems suddenly tiny and magical, like the world of a doll through which I am convinced I can take giant steps. For days I have inched and trudged and clung to these mountains and now, delightedly, as if I had reached heaven, I jump down into the snow with a shriek of abandon. The snow, of course, is not snow. It is ice. I understand what I have done too late as the sky and mountain fly past me in a blur of speed. The slope is very steep and I plummet down it quickly on my back, frantically trying to dig my feet and elbows into the rough, glass-hard surface, but my rucksack acts as a sort of sledge, making me go faster. In front of me, like a long ski-run, the mountain dips away and then levels out far below before meeting a wall of rock. My skin burns as it speeds over the ice. Like a stone I begin to skip and bounce, cartwheeling in the air. I am, I realise, utterly unprepared to meet pain, even though I know that very soon I will probably break my neck. There is, as far as I can see, nothing that will stop me from falling and falling, and though I try to summon something from myself, some understanding, some ability to prepare, some native acknowledgement or recognition from my body of the prospect of its own demise, I remain the same as I always have been; in a stupor, certainly, of terror and disbelief, but myself all the same. It is this unexpected fact that frightens me more than anything else. I hit a large boulder, and as my body hurtles up and over it I catch frantically at it with my fingernails. They tear off like paper but I cling to the rock with my hands and arms, clasping it in a mortal embrace. Abruptly, I stop. Around the boulder there is a pool of shingle on to which I presently edge myself. My arms are numb and running with blood. My tiny rocky island is about halfway down the slope. I sit on it and cry as evening begins to tint the vast, enamel-bright mountain. I appear to have dispersed any claim I might ever have made to courage or sense or humanity. I have surrendered the pretence of personality, its fraudulent offers of shelter, its nonexistent provision. I can help nobody, can protect nobody, can only sit and cry over the sorry fact of myself, a fact I appear only to have learned in the shadow of its destruction.
Excerpted from A Life's Work by Rachel Cusk. Copyright © 2001 Rachel Cusk. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
Forty Weeks 11
Lily Bart's Baby 45
Colic and Other Stories 59
Loving, Leaving 73
Extra Fox 111
Hell's Kitchen 125
Don't Forget to Scream 159
A Valediction to Sleep 175