Rachel Cusk – A Life’s Work.

Older Mum rates this …..


In Rachel Cusk’s ‘A Life’s Work On Becoming a Mother’ I found a writer who clearly and elegantly voices a mother’s ambivalence about being a mother.  She bravely names the more unpleasant realities of what it means to look after a baby; the boredom, loneliness and feeling trapped in the web of an infant’s unrelenting demands. She demolishes the myth of the gushing mother so often perpetuated in Western culture.

The story is about Cusk’s pregnancy, birth and first year with her daughter Albertine.  During the early stages of pregnancy she suffers a serious accident on a walking holiday in the Pyrenees; she literally falls down a mountainside and is bed bound for weeks with vertigo.  She then goes on to experience a traumatic birth (cesarean section) at 8 months gestation followed by three months of colic hell and a year of sleepless nights. Now that’s got to be tough.

By her own admission Cusk denied the event of birth and then felt totally unprepared when her baby arrived. Her experience is bleak and this never lets up. She moves about in the shadows of her old life clutching Albertine in a constant state of unknowing. A lost soul, she mourns for her old life. This might all be very depressing if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘A Life’s Work’ is peppered with dark humour – I love her dissection of the NHS annoying Emma’s Diary.

‘A Life’s Work’ is essentially a woman’s mission to rescue some autonomy and sense of self after being overwhelmed by her newborn. Cusk’s many ‘bids for freedom’ often come at an emotional price. On the evening of Albertine’s first bottle feed Cusk writes movingly about her guilty feelings of denying her daughter the expected comfort of her breast.  She purchases Albertine’s silence ‘brutally, illegally’ whilst sleep training her after a year of broken nights.

No matter what she does Cusk feels confined to the role of mother. She hires a number of quite frankly incompetent baby sitters but can barely prise herself away from her daughter; Albertine is quite naturally always at the forefront of her mind. When  the family relocate to a university town she feels imprisoned by her new surroundings, out of place at the mother and baby group and almost outnumbered by the older mothers she passes on the street; ‘I would occasionally find myself staring like a prude at women with grey hair and pregnant bellies’.

Critics of her novel accused Cusk of selfishness and being woefully ill equipped to look after and love her child. This simply isn’t the case.  Cusk undoubtedly loves Albertine. I get the sense she wrote this story to ground the shock of the first year and retain some essence of her adult identity.

‘A Life’s Work’ fills in the cracks of many child care manuals so that all together you have a much more rounded view of what being a mum can be like. Cusk astutely observes that to be a mother is to simply bear witness to the infant’s experience. In caring for her daughter she also touches upon the vulnerability of her own early existence; a fragile, preverbal world of ‘milk, shadows and nothingness.’

If you are looking for something real, something that echoes your experiences of early motherhood then Older Mum highly recommends this book.

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