Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work

You can run, but you can’t hide.  They’re everywhere.  Lurking around every corner and down every dark alley is… a parenting book!  Love them or hate them, parenting books, in all their possibly true but invariably conflicting wisdom, are here to stay.  Even if you avoid them like the plague and have pledged never to read one, you undoubtedly know of a few titles and a few more premises of these tomes.

This week, 4Mothers talk about parenting books that were somehow truly “notable” to us, in one way or another.  No doubt you have your own selection or two… please share with us as we round up on the ubiquitous parenting book.

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Nathalie’s Choice: Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work

I have an entire bookshelf filled with parenting books.  It sits on the landing outside my boys’ bedrooms, and it is stuffed to the gills with advice.  Ferber, Dr. Sears, The Baby Whisperer, the Adlerians, the whole shebang.  I’d trade the lot for Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work.  I don’t think I would ever want to know this woman personally, but I have a dear friend in this book.

Rachel Cusk is an English novelist, and this was her first piece of non-fiction, written in 2001.  (The Last Supper, about her family’s travels through Italy, and Aftermath, about her divorce, have followed.) It is not a parenting book, per se; it is a memoir about becoming a mother.  And it is one of the very best books I have ever read.  Rachel Cusk’s book did not teach me how to do anything as far as child rearing goes, but she articulated perfectly the conflict and confusion of becoming a mother.  For her ability to write with such precision about her ambivalence, I am eternally grateful.  Not every woman mourns the loss of a former self when she has children, but I did, and Rachel Cusk helped me to put into words and make sense of a storm of emotion.

It is not cheerful.  It is not that species of book that engages in boosterism.  It is cranky, sometimes ugly, and sleep-deprived.  Much like a baby with colic, actually.  And, just as when a baby with colic finally drifts into a peaceful sleep after a crying jag, and parent and child can savour the blessed peace, the book arrives, inevitably, at a moments of such piercing clarity that the beauty of those passages are doubly beautiful for the reader who has struggled with Cusk through the narration of ugly truths.

She writes best about the process of losing one self in becoming another self, a mother:

Birth is not merely that which divides women from men: it also divides women from themselves, so that a woman’s understanding of what it is to exist is profoundly changed.  Another person has existed in her, and after their birth they live within the jurisdiction of her consciousness.  When she is with them she is not herself; when she is without them she is not herself; and so it is as difficult to leave your children as it is to stay with them.  To discover this is to feel that your life has become irretrievably mired in conflict, or caught in some mythic snare in which you will perpetually, vainly struggle.

Cusk wrote this memoir about becoming a new mother right after the birth of her second child, and so she has this wonderful double vision of the benefit of hindsight and the immediacy of the presence of a newborn in her life.  It also gives the reader a double perspective: we know that she became a mother twice, so we know that her own storm of emotion did not deter her from having more than one child.

My copy of the book is flagged and annotated and underlined; all manner of evidence exists on its pages that it moved me deeply.  Cusk just writes so eloquently about conflict. Her metaphor of the taxi meter is one I come back to again and again:

It is not love that troubles me when I leave the baby, like a rope and harness paid out behind me wherever I go.  It is rather that when I leave her the world bears the taint of my leaving, so that abandonment must now be subtracted from the sum of whatever I choose to do.  A visit to the cinema is no longer that: it is less, a tarnished thing, an alloyed pleasure.  My presence appears almost overnight to have accrued a material value, as if I had been fitted with a taxi meter, to which the price of experience is inseparably indexed.  When I am out I am distracted by its ticking.  My friends, whilst glad to see me, cannot necessarily afford me.  We meet at the uncrossable border between the free world and the closed regime of motherhood.

When I first read it, that passage took my breath away.  It still does.  How does she do it??  How does she distill conflict into such a perfect vehicle (!) for its expression?

It’s not a book for everyone, but it was the perfect book for me when I needed a beautiful articulation of the rope and harness of maternal love.

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One thought on “Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work

  1. Rachel Cusk’s book brought tears to my eyes as I remembered my own inner battles during the early days of my son’s life, and I thoroughly recommend this book to any new parent who struggles with the personal sacrifices that parenting brings.

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